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A Challenging Year

Mike Zaccardi

DO YOU THINK differently about money today compared to a year ago?

Cast your mind back 12 months. Interest rates were near record lows, cryptocurrencies were surging and stocks were hitting new highs day after day. Checking your investment account balance was an instant dopamine hit. Ditto for homeowners, who could get a sense for their home’s skyrocketing value by perusing the local listings.

Last year was also a time when many Americans called it quits from the nine-to-five grind. In fact, so many folks retired during the pandemic that it was dubbed the “Great Resignation,” with 2.6 million more people retiring than expected. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reports that some 5.4 million new business applications were filed in 2021, up from the previous year’s record of 4.4 million.

The upshot: Entering 2022, many folks didn’t have the safety net offered by traditional fulltime employment, with its predictable salary and array of employee benefits. And I was among them.

I parted ways with my employer in early 2021, instead turning my focus to freelance investment writing. One reason I could take that risk: At age 33, I’d amassed enough money to be what many personal finance gurus would deem financially independent.

Through 2021, I hunted for the right fulltime job, and I even had a couple of decent offers. But the numbers didn’t match what I wanted, so I continued to build my freelance writing business. All the while, my portfolio crept higher, though perhaps not at the pace of other investors because my stock portfolio was globally diversified, plus I held some bonds and cash.

Then came 2022. Nonstop market volatility, coupled with four-decade-high inflation, has made for a nerve-racking year. My portfolio’s value has slumped, but my freelance income has continued to grow, allowing me to save a healthy sum. The good news: My net worth today is pretty much where it stood a year ago—if I ignore inflation.

Overall, it’s been a year that’s reaffirmed some of my prudent financial habits, while also highlighting some of my mistakes. Here are my five takeaways from 2022:

1. Keep buying. It’s easy to be a saver and investor if you have a fulltime job that offers a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. Your regular savings get silently subtracted from your paycheck and dumped into the funds you choose.

But now that I’m self-employed, I need to be more conscientious, stashing dollars in my solo 401(k) plan. Still, it’s been a great time to be a stock market buyer. Global stock valuations are attractive, with a price-earnings multiple of 15 based on forecasted corporate profits, and yields on Treasurys are comfortably above expected inflation rates.

2. Have a plan for my cash. Today, letting money sit in a short-term government bond fund seems like a decent deal, with yields on offer above 4%. That’s good news for someone like me, who needs to carry a fair amount of cash, given my unpredictable income.

By contrast, last year, when bond and cash yields were tiny, I got a little too wild. I invested modest amounts in a few speculative areas, including stablecoins, a form of cryptocurrency. Luckily, I withdrew my stablecoins before this year’s cryptocurrency storm hit. But I still hold some of my other speculative investments, including fractional ownership of high-end wine and art. I suspect these modest bets will prove to be more of a nuisance than a big help to my portfolio’s performance.

3. Simplify, consolidate, protect. By dipping my toes into somewhat opaque investments, I set myself up for time hassles—not just tracking these investments, but also reporting gains and losses for tax purposes. To be sure, buying new investments and opening new accounts is fun, because they offer the chance to daydream about the gains we might score. But whenever we buy, we should also think about the ongoing headaches and about what will be involved in selling.

Eventually, I should consolidate my various accounts, so my estate is as simple as possible and I have fewer tax complications. My goal: Have investment accounts at only the most established firms. That way, I’ll reduce the risk that some niche company gets into financial trouble and freezes my account.

4. Set work boundaries. My biggest regret this year isn’t my asset allocation. Instead, what needs correcting are my work boundaries. Maintaining a roster of a dozen clients, while also keeping my finger on the pulse of the financial markets, takes its toll. Whenever I check out from work—let alone take a vacation—I forgo income, which is hard to stomach. That reality has prompted me to look around occasionally for a fulltime job with benefits and regular hours. The bottom line: Work-life balance is a lesson I’m still trying to learn, and I need regular reminders that it’s okay to step away from my desk to clear my head.

5. Get my own taxman. My inclination is always to do things myself, rather than pay someone else. That’s potentially dangerous and costly when it comes to taxes. A few early missteps, coupled with my higher income in 2022, has me pondering whether to hire a CPA to help me manage my taxes.

While the stock and bond markets have been crazy this year, that hasn’t been the biggest source of financial stress for me. Sometimes, I miss the good old days, when I felt my employer was taking care of me. While the numbers say I’m financially independent, I now feel more anxiety about money—because of all that’s involved in managing my own business.

Mike Zaccardi is a freelance writer for financial advisors and investment firms. He’s a CFA® charterholder and Chartered Market Technician®, and has passed the coursework for the Certified Financial Planner program. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeZaccardi, connect with him via LinkedIn, email him at MikeCZaccardi@gmail.com and check out his earlier articles.

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