Collateral damage can assume many forms—and though some may be more newsworthy than others, the latter are no less real, nor any less frightening.
On Tuesday, controversial radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called Monica Lewinsky “collateral damage in Hillary Clinton’s war on women,” saying that President Bill Clinton and his wife destroyed the former White House intern “after he got his jollies, after he got his consensual whatevers.”
Last month, Jeremy Grantham, cofounder of GMO, a Boston-based asset management firm that oversees $112 billion in client funds, dubbed savers “collateral damage” of quantitative easing and the Federal Reserve’s continued commitment to low interest rates.
Would it be worse to be known as the “president’s mistress” for more than a decade and, as Lewinsky claims, to be unable to find a normal job? Maybe. But it’s no laughing matter either to find yourself penniless in your “golden years.”Signs of Monetary Collateral Damage Among Seniors
The 55-plus crowd accounts for 22% of all bankruptcy filings in the US—up 12% from just 13 years ago—and seniors age 65 and up are the fastest-growing population segment seeking bankruptcy protection. Given the wounds bankruptcy inflicts on your credit, reputation, and pride, it’s safe to assume those filing have exhausted all feasible alternatives.
But even seniors in less dire straits are finding it difficult to navigate low-interest rate waters. Thirty-seven percent of 65- to 74-year-olds still had a mortgage or home equity line of credit in 2010, up from 21% in 1989. For those 75 and older, that number jumped from 2% to 21% during the same timeframe—another mark of a debt-filled retirement becoming the norm. With an average balance of $9,300 as of 2012, the 65-plus cohort is also carrying more credit card debt than any other age group.
While climbing out of a $9,300 hole isn’t impossible, the national average credit card APR of 15% sure makes it difficult. For those with bad credit, that rate jumps to 22.73%—not quite the same as debtor’s prison, but close.
None of this points to an aging population adjusting its money habits to thrive under the Fed’s low-interest-rate regime.Minimize Your Part of Comparative Negligence
A quick side note on tort law. Most states have some breed of the comparative-negligence rule on the books. This means a jury can reduce the monetary award it awards a tort plaintiff by the percentage of the plaintiff’s fault. Bob’s Pontiac hits Mildred’s Honda, causing Mildred to break her leg. Mildred sues Bob and the jury awards her $100,000, but also finds she was 7% at fault for the accident. Mildred walks with $93,000. (Actually, Mildred walks with $62,000 and her lawyer with $31,000, but I digress.)
Comparative-negligence rules exist because when a bad thing happens, the injured party may be partly responsible. For someone planning for retirement, the bad thing at issue is too much debt and too little savings. Through low interest rates, the Federal Reserve is responsible for X% of the problem.
Though ex-Fed chief Bernanke doesn’t seem to see it that way—in a dinner conversation with hedge fund manager David Einhorn, he asserted that raising interest rates to benefit savers wouldn’t be the right move for the economy because it would require borrowers to pay more for capital. Well, there you have it. And there’s nothing you can do about that X%. You can, however, reduce or eliminate your contribution.
In other words, you don’t have to be collateral damage; you can affect how your life plays out.Money Lessons from Zen Buddhism
This might sound like a “duh” statement, but it bears repeating from time to time. Inheritance windfall from that great-aunt in Des Moines you’d forgotten about aside, there are two ways to eliminate debt and retire well: spend less or make more.
Rising healthcare costs, emergency car repairs, and the like are real impediments to reducing your bills. Costs rooted in attempts to “keep up with the Joneses,” however, are avoidable. Those attempts are also futile. A new, even richer Mr. Jones is always around the bend.
Instead of overspending for show, make like a Buddhist and let go of your attachment to things and your ego about owning them. Spring for that Zen rock garden if you must and start raking.
One of the wealthier men I know drove around for years with a gardening glove as a makeshift cover for his Peugeot’s worn-out stick-shift knob. It looked shabby, but this man wasn’t a car guy and had no need to impress. As far as I know, the gardening glove worked just fine until he finally donated the car to charity and happily took his tax deduction. Maintaining your car isn’t overspending, but you catch my drift. Dropping efforts to show off can benefit us all.
That said, keeping up isn’t always about show. You may feel pressure to overspend just to be able to enjoy time with your friends and family. Maybe you can no longer afford the annual Vail ski week with your in-laws or the flight to Hawaii for your nephew’s bar mitzvah. Maybe your friends are hosting caviar dinners, but you’re now on a McDonald’s budget and can no longer participate.
Spending less in order to stay within your budget can mean missing out on experiences, not just stuff. If you’re in this camp, there’s no reason to hang your head. As I mentioned above, you can spend less or you can make more. The latter is far more fun.An Investment Strategy to Prevent You from Becoming Collateral Damage
While it’s tempting to start speculating with your retirement money, resist. If you have non-retirement dollars to play with and the constitution to handle it, carefully curated speculative investments can give you a welcome boost. However, if all of your savings is allocated for retirement, just don’t do it.
Unless you’re still working, how, then, can you make more money in a low-interest-rate world? At present, my team of analysts and I recommend investing your retirement dollars via the 50-20-30 approach:50%: Sector-diversified equities providing growth and income and a high margin of safety. 20%: Investments made for higher yield coupled with appropriate stop losses. 30%: Conservative, stable income vehicles.
No single investment should make up more than 5% of your retirement portfolio.
Whether you’re designing your retirement blueprint from scratch or want to apply our 50-20-30 strategy to your existing plan, the Miller’s Money team can help. Each Thursday enjoy exclusive updates on unique investing and retirement topics by signing up for my free weekly newsletter. Don’t let the Fed’s anti-senior and anti-saver policies unravel your retirement. Click here to start receiving Miller’s Money Weekly today.