HERE AT HUMBLEDOLLAR and in many other places, this point has been made: The best investment portfolio isn’t the one that’s theoretically or empirically superior. Rather, it’s the one that lets you sleep at night.
What I’ve found, as far as my portfolio goes, is that the necessary prerequisite for a good night’s sleep is one thing above all else: an oversized cash reserve. By that, I mean a cash hoard that can handle not only the most likely contingencies, but also unexpected ones—and then some. I typically keep enough cash to finance our normal expenditures for at least six years. In fact, with the current bubbly stock market, I’m above that level. To back that up, I also have a decent allocation to bond funds, consisting mostly of an intermediate-term municipal fund in a taxable account and total bond market index funds in retirement accounts.
Back in 2017, author William Bernstein was quoted in HumbleDollar saying, “When you’ve won the game, stop playing with money you really need.” That insight struck a chord with me, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve come to value cash. I’m less interested in getting richer and more interested in guaranteeing that the modest lifestyle that has served my wife and me so well can be maintained for as long as we remain on this planet, regardless of any curveballs thrown our way.
The importance of a good-sized cash reserve was brought home to me over my many years as a criminal defense lawyer. While my early days often involved more dramatic and serious cases, later on my bread-and-butter business was representing basically good, decent people who (or whose kids) made a mistake or two: driving while intoxicated, drug possession and various other weaknesses of the “there but for the grace of God go I” type.
What constantly amazed me was how many of these seemingly middle-class folks, at a time of real urgency, struggled to come up with even a modest down payment for my services. For most garden variety misdemeanors, I had long believed it was reasonable to ask for a $1,000 retainer, with a payment plan for any remaining balance that stretched over several months.
But I was surprised time and again by how many potential clients found it difficult or impossible to come up with even that modest lump sum. I ultimately took a tip from a good friend and colleague, and lowered my retainer to $500, compensated for by a slightly longer payment plan. I was rewarded with a significant increase in new clients.
Of course, my healthy allocation to cash was a lot easier to justify not so long ago when it could garner upward of 2% in interest. Several years ago, dinosaur that I am, I became comfortable opening online savings accounts. I guess my resentment at the infinitesimal interest offered by our brick-and-mortar bank finally got to me, and I decided to explore the wonderful world of online banking. We now have a handful of online savings accounts, along with some no-penalty certificates of deposit, and they’ve proven to be easy to manage. The online transfer process works smoothly. I simply have to do enough planning to request the funds needed a few days in advance and—presto—the money lands in my local checking account ready to be deployed.
Nowadays, even at online banks, you’re lucky to get 0.5% interest. That hurts. But it’s still a multiple of what my local bank pays. If it ever goes below zero, as has happened in some European countries, I’ll have to rethink all of this, as that’s a concept my simple mind just can’t comprehend. But until then, I will stay the course.
So, yes, I’m overweight plain old, boring, nonproductive cash. But you know what? I sleep very well.
Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with four beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. Check out his earlier articles.