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Money Vigilant

Greg Spears

Greg is HumbleDollar's deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder.

Money Vigilant

Greg Spears  |  May 28, 2022

I BELIEVE THAT OUR earliest financial experiences set lifelong patterns. It’s certainly been true for me, though I didn’t recognize it until recently.
My father was an Episcopal priest. When I was born in 1956, our family lived in a big stone parish house located in a large graveyard in Harlem. It was the overflow burial ground for Wall Street’s historic Trinity Church, whose churchyard was all filled up. Dad never voiced concerns about money and,

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The Accidental 401(k)

Greg Spears  |  Apr 29, 2022

WHEN I GOT MY FIRST job in 1976, my employer didn’t offer a 401(k) for one simple reason—the plans didn’t exist. By 1985, a new employer did offer one, so I signed on.
Where had the 401(k) come from? Well, I met the man who put the K into the tax code, and he was beyond humble about it. In fact, he’d forgotten all about it.
Barber Conable Jr. graduated at age 19 from Cornell University to join the Marines Corps in World War II.

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Wait Till Next Year

Greg Spears  |  Mar 31, 2022

EVERY YEAR, I READ somewhere that it’s going to be a stock picker’s market. These stories suggest I need an active manager to nimbly skip down Wall Street, picking the daisies and avoiding the weeds.
Then the annual results roll in. That unmoving and unmanaged S&P 500 Index fund has somehow, unaccountably, beaten those deft active managers at their game.
The S&P 500’s return of 28.7% in 2021 beat 85% of actively managed large-cap U.S.

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A Costly Choice

Greg Spears  |  Mar 22, 2022

I RECEIVED A GREAT education at Northwestern University in the 1980s. But the school’s commitment to excellence seems to have fallen short when it comes to the 403(b) retirement savings plan for teachers and staff.
Northwestern’s plan offers a generous 5% match and more than 400 investment choices, according to court filings. The lengthy list contained some clunkers, though, such as retail-class mutual funds when the plan could have offered lower-cost institutional shares instead.

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Inertia’s Rewards

Greg Spears  |  Jan 26, 2022

I ONCE JOINED a book club led by an amazingly smart guy. We were reading a challenging book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the philosopher, investor and probabilities expert. Our discussion leader was a Chartered Financial Analyst who had solved one of the most enduring riddles at Vanguard Group, where I worked at the time.
For many years—decades, really—Vanguard hadn’t offered an international bond fund. Our founder, Jack Bogle, wasn’t a fan of international investing in general.

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Fire the 4% Rule

Greg Spears  |  Jan 25, 2022

I DID ACHIEVE financial independence and retire early—if you count age 64 as early. My friend Jose, a true believer in FIRE, or financial independence-retire early, celebrated his retirement at 44. That took a steely nerve that I lacked, plus I had big college bills to pay before retiring.
One big challenge of FIRE, of course, is that your savings might need to last 40 or even 50 years. Vanguard Group recently published a research paper to help FIRE followers go the distance.

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A 529 for Sophia

Greg Spears  |  Jan 18, 2022

OVER CHRISTMAS, I got the sort of question I love to answer. My daughter’s thoughtful boyfriend had set aside some money for his niece’s college education. What was the best way to invest it?
I said that we’d paid for much of our children’s education with money invested in 529 college savings plans. The investment gains went untaxed because we’d spent the money on tuition, room and board. On top of that, our 529 contributions were deductible against our state-income tax in Pennsylvania,

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Name That Bias

Greg Spears  |  Jan 6, 2022

THE FOUNDERS of economics were prodigious thinkers. They tended to believe that others shared their brainpower and so would do as they did—wrinkle their brow, think deeply and make the best choices with their scarce resources.
Problem is, this isn’t how most of us operate. Instead, we take mental shortcuts. This is understandable: We’d never rise from the breakfast table to begin our day if we rigorously analyzed the health effects of eggs, orange juice and coffee.

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New Year’s Tweaks

Greg Spears  |  Jan 1, 2022

LET’S NOT CALL THEM resolutions because that imposes a sense of obligation. Rather, think of these as adjustments that could give you—and maybe your kids—a smoother ride in 2022:

Check the beneficiaries on your employer’s retirement plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. Sometimes money winds up with an ex-spouse or maybe a younger child gets left off the list. This is an easy fix—while you’re alive. After that, it’s a mess.
How much do you pay for your investments—in dollars,

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The Future Seen

Greg Spears  |  Dec 18, 2021

I WAS WRITING magazine stories back in 1996, recommending stocks and mutual funds. Privately, I worried that readers might think I had some genuine insight—and they might even invest in the ways I suggested.
Propelled by that fear, I favored safe stories, like the best electric utility stocks or the outlook for U.S. savings bonds. I ransacked the library, looking for sure-fire, can’t miss investments. Surprisingly, I found one—something called an index fund.
Twenty-five years ago,

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Poverty Halved

Greg Spears  |  Dec 9, 2021

IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you almost dread looking at the morning newsfeed. This is why I’m happy to share some good news: The U.S. poverty rate has been cut nearly in half. What’s more, it was accomplished while the economy was practically flat on its back, with tens of millions out of work.
When I was a Washington, D.C., reporter in the mid-1990s, I reported from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, Camden and Washington.

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Off Target

Greg Spears  |  Nov 26, 2021

NEW RESEARCH suggests that target-date retirement funds—which currently receive a majority of contributions to 401(k) plans—are missing the mark.
Target funds’ returns, in aggregate, lagged those of replica portfolios built with exchange-traded funds (ETFs) by one percentage point a year, according to University of Arizona finance professor David C. Brown, one of the study’s authors.
The majority of the underperformance was due to higher fees, Brown said. Target-date funds are funds-of-funds. Most fund families charge investors layers of management fees—both on the target-date fund itself and on the underlying funds.

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Coloring the Results

Greg Spears  |  Nov 10, 2021

GREEN INVESTORS TRY to manage their portfolios in ways that are good for the Earth. But are they rewarded with good investment returns? Researchers believe the answer is a qualified “yes,” according to a new paper titled “Dissecting Green Returns.”
The paper found that, between 2012 and 2020, U.S. green stocks delivered higher returns than environmentally unfriendly “brown” companies. But the paper argues this outperformance—which averaged about 0.65% a month—is unlikely to persist.
“Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance,

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A Real Saint

Greg Spears  |  Nov 6, 2021

I’D ALWAYS THOUGHT that saints were long-ago martyrs, those people shown in paintings in the Louvre or the Prado.
That’s why I was surprised to find a plaque honoring a 20th century saint at the church I attend in Newcastle, Maine. The saint, Frances Perkins, had worshipped at that very church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, until her death in 1965.
Who was Frances Perkins? My friends often draw a blank at the name, although she helped shape our lives.

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Sludge vs. Nudge

Greg Spears  |  Nov 5, 2021

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE to do something, make it easy. That’s the big idea behind a nudge, which helps people do the right thing for themselves. It turns out that nudge has an evil twin, called sludge. Sludge makes the right thing harder to do. If you look around, sludge is everywhere.
“If you cannot get financial aid without filling out a twenty-page form, then you have been subjected to sludge,” behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in the new “final” edition of their bestselling book Nudge.

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