WE GO THROUGH phases in our financial life, just as we do in our biological life. There seem to be a least five financial phases that adults pass through, each with their own priorities, risks, opportunities and tradeoffs.
Here’s how I would think about those five phases:
1. Party Time (ages 25 to 30)
Yes, you’re starting a career, and you want to get ahead and make money. But in all likelihood, your focus is your social life—and so it should be.
Still, amid all the fun, throw in some sober financial management. Avoid digging a hole for yourself with high-cost consumer debt, notably credit card debt and car loans. Participate in your employer 401(k) plan at least up to the minimum required to get the full amount of any matching employer contribution. Finally, in your taxable account, try to save for the down payment on your first house using moderate-risk investments, such as investment grade bonds.
2. Early Career (ages 30 to 45)
Often, this is a time of rapid career advancement, plus you may be starting a family, with all the costs that that entails. Along with these comes the temptation of what I call classflation—borrowing to acquire large homes, expensive cars and other status symbols, so you appear a social class above what you can truly afford. A prudent goal in this phase is to have no debt other than a home mortgage, and then pay off that mortgage as soon as feasible. I’d advise doing so even if it means you invest less in stocks.
Understand that two huge industries disagree with this advice: the lending and investment industries. One wants you to borrow, so it can collect interest. The other wants you to carry that debt, while putting new savings into investments, so it can collect fees. Get ready for the mantra, “You’ll make more money in stocks.”
Why pay off your mortgage so fast? Think of paying off that loan as similar to buying a low-risk bond. Some 90% of taxpayers now take the standard deduction, which means the mortgage rate they pay is an after-tax cost. If you convert today’s low mortgage rates to a pre-tax level, that brings them close to the interest rate on a high-yield corporate bond.
But there’s a huge difference between the two. Paying off a mortgage gives you a guaranteed return, while buying a high-yield corporate bond involves significant default risk. Indeed, adjusted for risk, paying off a mortgage can be like buying a super-high-yielding Treasury bond. That’s hard to pass up. If you’re worried about a lack of liquidity, you can set up a home equity line of credit—and then hope never to use it.
Phase No. 2 is a complex, challenging financial period calling for many tradeoffs. But exercising some personal discipline here can make life far easier during the next three phases.
3. Late Career (ages 45 to 60)
If all goes well in this phase, you enjoy “peak earnings” at work. Meanwhile, at home, some parents offload college expenses onto their kids, by having their children take on student loans. In this phase, there’s little reason to carry debt of any kind. Now, thanks to those peak earnings, you can finally afford all that stuff you were tempted to buy with borrowed money when you were younger.
By largely or entirely getting rid of debt and debt service payments in phase No. 2, you potentially lower your monthly living expenses and hence have a stronger “free cash flow” to invest for the future. At last, you can indulge is that strategic long-term investment called stocks.
And, yes, you still have a long term—up to 35 years in phases three and four combined—to earn the higher expected return on stocks, while weathering the periodic 50% crashes along the way. You can also hedge against stock crash risk with some high-grade bonds. In short, the “late career” phase is an opportunity to migrate from eliminating debt to building a balanced portfolio.
4. Early Retirement (ages 60 to 80)
You stop working at some point during this phase. Gone is “layoff risk.” Now, you face a new, seldom discussed risk. Call it “prosperity risk.” Throughout our working careers, we like prosperity, with the rising paychecks it brings to many of us. But prosperity can be a double-edge sword.
When we stop working, we’re exposed to the backside of prosperity, which includes ever-rising consumer prices (as well as more traffic on the road). That’s why it helps to hold a significant amount of prosperity-loving stocks during this phase. Think of stocks as a way to hedge the threat that inflation poses to the fixed payments from your pension and bond portfolio. Review any “target date” investment products to see if they dump stocks too quickly. Beware of prosperity risk—because you may live a long time without a paycheck.
5. Late Retirement (age 80-plus)
Your priority has shifted from wealth to health. This is a time for most people to reduce their stock holdings, as their crash recovery time window is closing. For security, you want to hold low-to-moderate risk assets to cover basic living expenses through until age 95 or 100. Some are fortunate and may have stock assets beyond what’s needed for remaining living costs. In that case, you may choose to hold onto appreciated stocks, so future beneficiaries inherit them at a stepped-up cost basis, thus eliminating the embedded capital gains tax bill.
With any luck, successful management of the previous four phases has reduced money stress and now lets you enjoy family, friends, hobbies and fond memories—including memories of all those crazy things you did during phase No. 1.
Tom Welsh is a certified management accountant in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has been the chief financial officer at several manufacturing companies and is founder of Value Point Accounting, where he helps businesses manage product and customer profitability. His previous article was Pay to Play. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.
As someone approaching late retirement I must disagree with the categories. I think late retirement begins much earlier than age 80. And for many people early retirement begins before age 60. I’m thinking that lowering the stock exposure should begin before the age of 80. You are right about the advantages of the step up, but I would worry about the market risk and fluctuations. Steady income at that age seems more important. I’m age 77 and still have about 60% stock exposure, but I don’t live off them in any way.
Not sure if I agree with the recommendation to prioritize paying off the mortgage over investing in stocks during phase 2. I get the rationale behind doing so, but the opportunity cost (particularly with mortgage rates at historic lows right now) is potentially massive. For the time being, my plan is to rent small apartments as long as I can so that I have enough cash flow left over to invest. But what do I know, I’m still in phase 1.
Also, Wade Pfau and Michael Kitces argue that you should actually increase your stock allocation in old age (the rising equity glide path). See this blog post for details: https://www.kitces.com/blog/managing-portfolio-size-effect-with-bond-tent-in-retirement-red-zone/ This depends on the size of your nest egg, but with a suitably large portfolio, you can actually afford to take on more equity risk because longevity risk becomes less of a factor as you approach your inevitable demise, and because you’ve avoided sequence-of-return risk by the time you’re in your 80s.
Could not disagree more with the advice to pay off your mortgage early on. You are then stuck with an asset that is hard to convert to income should you need it, historically only keeps pace with inflation, and costs practically nothing in interest at today’s rates. In contrast, you could put it in a balanced fund, where the yield alone could be 1.75%, the 1 year return is 11.99%, 3 year 9.41%, 15 yr. 8.08%. At retirement, yes, but only if there are sufficient investment assets to allow you to withdraw sufficient income. It confines some costs to have a paid-off mortgage (and I do have a free-and-clear house), but you still have to pay property taxes, maintenance, and updating. I view a house as a “use asset” meaning it has worth, but produces no income and costs money to keep.
Same advice for student loans below about 5%–save the money instead rather than strive for early payoff. Sure, it feels better to be debt free, but is it worth the 5% return, compounded? Honestly, you can always default on a loan, but you have to pay the grocery store.
This is terrible advice. Index funds are a screw job. Out in the real world, no one ever regrets paying down their debts as quickly as possible. A good rule of thumb is focus on making enough money that you can easily save 50% of your net pay. That may mean you have to study hard and get an actual degree (STEM, not STEAM), you don’t get to drive a fancy car until you’re old, and you cannot send your kids to private schools, but financial freedom isn’t easy. If it were everyone would be free. Instead most people are slaves.
I’m a financial planner. I hear from people in the real world every day. People who haven’t accumulated any savings most definitely regret giving all their money to support rich lenders, especially now. You are out of touch with most of the country if you think a couple with kids making, say, $75k could save half of it. Know what else? The rich don’t push their kids to get a STEM degree. They know that’s for the worker bee drones to become cannon fodder for the corporate overlords.
I have a issue with something written in pretty much every age group. I think the most glaring issue for me is the average lifespan for an American in 2019 was 78.87 years. The average never makes it to the “Late Retirement” phase. “Party time” is 25-30? No, its more like 21-25….
Perhaps this article would make more sense to me if it wasn’t tied to ages, but more to phases of life.
You may be right about phase one (though recent generations seem to be slower to launch themselves into adult life). Meanwhile, keep in mind that life expectancy at birth is different from life expectancy as of age 65. For those who reach retirement age, life expectancy is 84 for men and 87 for women.
Take Dilbert’s advice: buy a house if you want to live in a house and can afford it. Don’t be fooled into thinking that owning a home and paying a mortgage is an “investment”. It’s just one choice in how you provide yourself the basic need of shelter. But it is a cost of living, not an investment!
I too believe that paying off a mortgage early at the cost of putting dollars to work in the stock market is a significant mistake. Especially in an era of abnormally low mortgage interest rates (2.75-4.0%). Maxing out your 401k, or at minimum investing as much as you can (and/or securing any company match) is extremely advantageous given the “power of compounding.” Delaying investing undermines this very, very powerful wealth accelerator.