The Cost of Biases

Behavioral finance—the interaction between human psychology and money—has become a major component of current economic theory. Experts on behavioral finance love to study how greed and fear cause massive swings in the markets.

But behavioral finance doesn’t just exist in academic theory and panicked stock crashes—it’s part of everyday life. The human brain isn’t a calculator and struggles to separate money from emotion. Every time we open our wallets, our financial biases and blind spots threaten to disrupt good decision-making.

Fortunately, biases become much easier fight once we learn to recognize them. Here are a few of the most common financial biases people face:

Bandwagon Effect

One of the strongest biases, the bandwagon effect is the tendency for people to change their opinion or behavior to match that of those around them. Bandwagons often create social pressures and can push people to spend far too much “keeping up with the Joneses.” Always evaluate your financial decisions on what works best for you, not what works best for others.

Familiarity Bias

Familiarity bias is when people show an irrational preference for something that they’ve used in the past. One common effect of this is default brand loyalty, which can hurt the efficiency of a budget or draw you into extra spending.  How many times have you bought a familiar product brand even when there is evidence another option might be better or cheaper? Give something new a try.

Ego Depletion

This bias is a kind of mental lapse. Self-discipline is difficult, and our brains can only do so much of it before taking a break. If we push ourselves too much, we often react strongly in the opposite direction. Ego depletion is what leads to shopping binges after you cut too much discretionary spending from your budget. Remember: rewarding yourself for progress is an investment in your goals.

Recent/Available Information Bias

When it comes to information, people are quick to embrace the new and forget the old. Information biases are responsible for many fads and false fears. For example, if you have two coworkers who were robbed in the past year, you may want to buy an expensive security system. Even if the thieves were caught and local crime rates are extremely low, your judgement is disproportionally affected by the information that is most recent and most available to you.

Survivorship Bias

This bias is the tendency to misinterpret a situation by focusing on the quality examples. It can be paraphrased as, “you only hear about the ones that make it big.” This bias is most dangerous to entrepreneurs or investors because it causes them to underestimate difficulties overestimate success. People should be brutally honest with themselves and consider the possibility of failure before investing their life savings in a business.

Zero-risk Bias

Humans love certainty; it eliminates risks and makes planning for the future much easier. We love it so much we’re often willing to pay more for extra peace of mind, even if it doesn’t make complete sense. For instance, people happily pay a lot of money for the reliability of a new car and then also buy the dealership’s short-term warranty to protect it against a breakdown. We know a new car is highly unlikely to have problems for a few years, but we still feel the need for added certainty.

Fighting for Financial Independence

In America, the idea of “independence” is almost sacred. Every July 4th, we celebrate the start of the United States’ long road towards independence and control of its own interests.

When people make plans for the future, many put “financial independence” as their ultimate goal. But much like national independence, financial independence— living without the need to work for someone else—takes years of struggle against huge challenges.

Here are some of the essential concepts to help you win your war for financial independence. Each one battletested and proven effective by that other great struggle for independence: the American Revolution.

Coordinate your attack – Winning a war takes success on all fronts. If you neglect a certain area of your finances, all your progress could be completely undermined. For instance, going to great lengths to secure higher income for yourself becomes pointless if it forces your expenses to grow even faster. Even though you are worth more, your net worth will decrease and it will take more time to reach your goal. Every part of your financial plan needs to work together to secure victory in the shortest amount of time. (Siege of Yorktown, 1781)

Seize opportunities to advance – Sometimes a great financial opportunity appears, but we are too nervous to take advantage of the situation. Although caution is useful, having the courage to commit to a solid investment can pay huge dividends in the future. Watch for financial opportunities, judge them rationally and make a bold move if everything looks good. (Battle of Saratoga, 1777)

You can lose a battle and still win the war – Both financial plans and military strategies must survive
setbacks and short-term problems on their way to a longterm goal. If generals completely changed their campaigns every time something went wrong, no army would ever accomplish its objectives. Don’t let temporary market downturns or sudden expenses cause you to panic or abandon your goals. Expect difficulties and learn to push through, even when things are disrupted. (Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775)

Keep your morale up – Staying disciplined with saving, planning and investing is difficult in even the best of times. But if your attitude turns negative, you’ll never be able to reach the level of independence you desire. When things get tough, try to focus on the future and how great things will be when you reach your goals. Don’t forget to regularly reward your efforts; it’s better to occasionally deviate from your plans than to get worn out and give up entirely. (Winter at Valley Forge, 1777-8)

Drill your actions – As with all things, practice makes permanent. Habits take time to develop, so keep trying to put your financial plans into practice. If you continually allow or encourage yourself to break your rules, you’ll be creating bad habits that could end up being costly. Training is about getting so comfortable with an action that you can perform it in the middle of chaos. (Baron von Steuben, 1730-1794)

Get creative – The most impressive victories are the ones that an enemy never saw coming. Traditional tactics can work well in most situations, but taking time to find an original approach to your goals can get you to financial independence faster and more efficiently than anyone expected. (Battle of Cowpens, 1781)

The fight for financial freedom takes hard work, discipline and sacrifice. It’s a war unlike anything else, but its values are nothing new. By understanding the challenge and adapting the lessons of the past, we can learn how to keep winning independence for the future.

Lifetime Debt

Debt is not a bad thing. Credit is not a bad thing. Mortgages are not bad things. Student loans are not bad things.

But they sure can cost you a lot of money, both now and in the future.

Paying to Pay
Debt, in whichever form, means paying extra for immediate access to money. Debt is said to be “efficient” if the benefit the money provides is greater than the extra cost of borrowing it.

In the United States, we love debt. At the end of 2014, America’s total household indebtedness was $11.83 trillion. Major sections of consumer debt include:

• $8.68 trillion in housing loans
• $1.16 trillion in student debt
• $950 billion in auto loans
• $700 billion in credit card debt

(Figures taken from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s “Household Debt and Credit Report” Q4-2014)

While using debt is routine for most people who need to buy homes and cars, go to college and cover major expenses, it is still extremely important to consider its cost. The website www.credit.com estimates that the average American surrenders $279,000 in debt interest over the course of his or her lifetime (not including student loan interest). What’s more, household debt is trending up; it has risen 43 percent since 2004. Student loans have grown particularly fast, climbing over 300 percent over that same time.

This is cause for concern among some economists and financial news pundits. The fear is that loans (particularly student loans) are siphoning off wealth people traditionally would have saved. Though broad loan usage helps stimulate the economy, high debt among individuals could stunt their financial growth.

A major part of the problem is that debt is self-sustaining. It not only grows on its own, but also puts people in a position to need more debt. A single event (e.g. medical cost) can trigger interest payments that ruin a family’s cash flow and send them into a debt spiral.

To the Limit
But does debt need to cost us anything? Many people successfully avoid, or even invert, debt costs by being careful. The classic example of this is using a credit card to accumulate rewards while religiously paying off the monthly balance. Unfortunately, this may still lead to losses; your spending habits are much harder to outwit than a credit card company.

As it turns out, debt causes us to spend more money—even if interest is avoided. Debt psychologically enables extra spending, giving us immediate gratification while delaying the pain of cost. The result is a mental lapse in valuation that makes us comfortable with paying higher prices or buying on impulse.

This distortion of debt value is particularly bad when buying high-priced items. We may labor over spending an extra $20 at a grocery store, but when buying a car or house, our reasoning is skewed by big numbers and long timeframes. Hundreds or thousands of dollars seem trivial when we already have to take out a huge loan with decades on the term.

What Can You Do?
Although it comes at a price, debt is still an important tool that can give people amazing opportunities. The good news is that you can do several things to reduce the cost of debt in your life:

• Improve your credit score – The difference between a “Fair” and a “Good” credit score can easily translate into tens of thousands of dollars in interest payments over your life.

• Pay with cash when possible – This might seem like an unrealistic or outdated idea, but it limits your ability to buy impulsively and reduces bloated credit spending.

• Fight for each dollar – Remember that $100 saved when buying a car is worth the same as $100 saved while shopping. Don’t let a loan inflate your target price for a big purchase.

• Consolidate – If you have numerous debts, consolidate them under a single bank loan. Interest rates are very low right now and a consolidation can save you thousands.

Simple Fitness Truths

-By Mark Olson-

Why is it that most of us have a sincere desire to manage our health and finances to their highest potential but few have effectively cared for those critical aspects of life over the long haul?

Most of us will acknowledge the primary cause is that life is complex, and the urgent tends to crowd out the important.  Another contributing factor is that we are surrounded by, and vulnerable to, varieties of myths and traps that keep us from taking, and then staying on, that higher road.

One dominant health myth is that there is a magic diet or product that will allow us to be fit and maintain our target weight with a minimum amount of time or effort.  Six-pack abs in six weeks anyone?

The financial arena is loaded with illusions that financial security is an end-all or that a guru or scheme exists that can magically turn $100 into $1,000 virtually overnight.  The untimely death of a loved one can be a sobering reminder that financial security and blazing returns may not be so important after all.

So what is it that can help us rise above the complexities of life and do what is most important?

The missing link, that can make all the difference, is a goal-focused plan that flows out of our deepest convictions overseen by someone who can hold us accountable.  One of the first steps of getting there is to be quiet enough, long enough, to define those elements in life that matter most.  Spouses, coaches, pastors, advisers and friends can be invaluable along that path.

If your conviction is that you are a steward of the physical aspects of your life, your goal-focused health plan may be to maintain a target weight and exercise some minimum amount per week.  If so, your long-term success could be assured by simply eating less calories than your body expends, finding ways to exercise consistently with activities that bring you joy and engaging people to hold you accountable.

If your conviction is that you are a steward of the financial aspects of your life, your goal-focused financial plan may be to maintain giving and saving at some target level and living on the rest.  If so, your long-term success could be assured by giving to the people and causes you care about most, investing in a globally diversified portfolio with a target return that flows out of your plan and engaging with some type of coach to help you adhere to your plan until your needs change.

In health, as well as finance, I have found that the differentiating keys to success over the long haul are defining reasonable goals and maintaining consistency through an appropriately balanced pace.  It’s all about average speed over a lifespan; not maximum speed at any emotionally charged point in time.

See you on the journey.

“There is no shortcut to anywhere worth going.”  Beverly Sills

“Slow and steady wins the race.”  Robert Lloyd

“The glory of God is man fully functioning.  Find your place to do that, and you will find the peace that passes all understanding.”  Irenius

Know Your Financial Math

Please keep in mind that these are simple estimations and are not to be treated as precise technical calculations. They can be influenced by a number of factors and don’t take any personal information into account. The formulas help call attention to parts of your budget, but do not calculate exactly what you should expect.

The easiest and best place to start. Your cash flow is the total surplus or deficit you have each month after paying your expenses. If you find you are running a deficit most months, you need to cut your expenses down or find a way to boost your income.

Another easy formula, calculating how much a monthly (or weekly) expense will cost you over a whole year is an important insight for a budget. Paying $8 a month for a subscription may seem cheap, but you should realize it’s costing you $96 over the course of a year.

The EPA estimates that the average car owner uses about 500 gallons of gas a year (almost 700 if you drive a truck or SUV). While volatile gas prices make it impossible to project your exact gas expenses for a year, this formula makes it easy to understand how much a change in gas prices is worth: for every $0.01 gas drops, you could expect to save $5 annually.

Have you ever wanted a quick estimate of how long it takes for money to double? Try the “Rule of 72.” Just divide 72 by the annual growth rate of your account and you get an approximation of how many years it takes to double. (Example: 6 percent growth would be 72/6 = 12 years to double). If using this formula for investment account, remember that the market is unpredictable and average market performance does not guarantee future returns. Investments can be subject to losses, which will greatly change their nominal rate of return.

Although there are some major outliers, most new cars depreciate around 10% when driven off the lot and another 10% each year they are driven (for the first 5 years). So when looking at new cars, remember that most lose their value fast. Without a down payment, you’ll likely be underwater on the loan for the first year or two.

This equation is a bit more complex, but it’s pretty handy for people wondering how their rent cost compares to a 30‐year mortgage. Take 75 percent of the expected mortgage interest rate and add 3 percent to get the annualized rate of repayment. If you multiply this number by the initial mortgage amount, you get the annual cost. (Example: A 30‐year mortgage issued at 4 percent would have an annual repayment rate of (3+4×.75) = 6%. If the mortgage was for $200,000, you’d pay ($200,000×6%) = $12,000 a year ($1,000 a month) to stay on the 30 year schedule.) Keep in mind that this is an estimation of the mortgage costs only and does not include home insurance, mortgage insurance, property expenses or any of the other various costs of owning a home.

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Remember that past performance may not indicate future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, strategy, or product referenced directly or indirectly in this newsletter will be profitable, equal any corresponding historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. You should not assume that any information contained in this newsletter serves as the receipt of personalized investment advice. If a reader has questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed to their individual situation, they are encouraged to consult with a professional adviser. 

This article was written by Advicent Solutions, an entity unrelated to Guidestream Financial, Inc.. The information contained in this article is not intended to be tax, investment, or legal advice, and it may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any tax penalties. Guidestream Financial, Inc. does not provide tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your tax advisor or attorney regarding specific tax issues. © 2014 Advicent Solutions. All rights reserved.

For Today’s Children, Retirement Planning Starts Young

We all hope for a long, healthy life, but—from a financial standpoint—the length of our lives may be starting to get out of hand. One projection from the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics estimates that more than 30 percent of the nation’s children born after 2011 will reach age 100. That means that for every couple that reaches age 65, more than half will have least one partner live another 35 years.

If today’s children continue to retire at what we currently consider a “normal” age, many could spend almost as much of their life in retirement as they spend working. Since a majority of U.S. citizens already face insecure retirements with current financial planning norms, extended longevity may become an overwhelming monetary challenge.

One solution to the problem may lie in changing when people begin to plan for retirement. A few extra years of growth can have a massive impact on the value of a retirement account. If we can train today’s children to make good financial decisions earlier in life than most adults do now, they’ll be better able to handle the cost of an extremely long retirement.

But it’s today’s adults who will need to teach them.

In general, adults usually impart their financial habits to children—whether they mean to or not. Kids are observant, and adults’ financial decisions can imprint upon them easily. However, retirement planning, though essential, is an obscure subject. Children get to see how adults spend their money, but they don’t often see how they save it.

Obviously, trying to lecture a young child about 401(k)s and investment strategies won’t be helpful to anyone, so adults will need to take a more basic approach. By teaching children the underlying principles of saving, planning and money growth, you can turn their future financial decisions into a matter of obvious choices.

Getting Kids to Learn
Though teaching financial habits takes more than a piggybank, it’s still a great place to start. Providing a younger child with both an allowance and savings goals is a great way for them to practice budgeting. Help the child set goals that are simple and attainable; if they set an ambitious goal, offer to help them by covering the difference if they reach a significant percentage of the total value.

But saving alone isn’t enough: children need to understand that value can grow over time. This can be taught by providing them with interest: offer a small amount of money for each dollar they saved from their last allowance. They’ll quickly learn that by forgoing some immediate gratification, they can reach their savings goals even faster.

Later on, you can reverse this process to teach a child about debt. Allow them to borrow money from you for a small purchase, but plainly explain that they’ll have to pay the money back with interest. When they hand their money over to you later, it becomes a golden opportunity to explain how debt means paying extra.

If you prefer a more direct route of education, there are numerous online resources to help teach kids about money and smart planning—one of the most interesting examples being Warren Buffett’s own online cartoon series “Secret Millionaires Club” (www.smckids.org).
As a child grows, help them get the ball rolling on retirement planning. Our team at GuideStream Financial would be glad to help them take some first steps. We can help you explain the importance of planning ahead for retirement and avoiding heavy credit debt (especially during college). Financial maturity doesn’t happen overnight, so stay patient and don’t try to cover everything all at once.
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Remember that past performance may not indicate future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, strategy, or product referenced directly or indirectly in this newsletter will be profitable, equal any corresponding historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. You should not assume that any information contained in this newsletter serves as the receipt of personalized investment advice. If a reader has questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed to their individual situation, they are encouraged to consult with a professional adviser. 

This article was written by Advicent Solutions, an entity unrelated to Guidestream Financial, Inc.. The information contained in this article is not intended to be tax, investment, or legal advice, and it may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any tax penalties. Guidestream Financial, Inc. does not provide tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to consult with your tax advisor or attorney regarding specific tax issues. © 2014 Advicent Solutions. All rights reserved.

Financial Planning – 30 & Under

-By Caitlin Koppelman
While I was in college, people told me I had fewer obligations and more financial flexibility than I’d have in my entire life. I could not comprehend that at the time. In retrospect, I can see it now:  No mortgage, no kids, and those blessed student loans were still in deferment!  Life was so simple: almost no liabilities and a high percentage of discretionary income. Now, I have to remind myself that I’m in the “accumulation phase” of life. I’m accumulating valuable assets for the future: an education, our first home and starting a retirement savings plan. Those assets aren’t cheap, but I’m making an investment for the future. Every mortgage payment and every retirement contribution is like money in a future bank account.

Even though it’s natural to want to pay more attention to your present bank account, now is the time to make deposits for that far off phase of life. Do it now, while it’s easier than ever. Notice I said, “easier” not “easy”. It is never easy to delay gratification, but if we want to reap the benefits at harvest time, we have to sow and tend the garden along the way. With 35+ years on your side, a little bit now can multiply if handled wisely.

Who has time to tend that financial garden? There are only so many hours in the week and who wants to spend their down time planning a future retirement that they can barely imagine?  As a 28-year-old, I can’t blame you for being skeptical. You’re probably a little jaded by the whole idea of savings, debt, and retirement. It comes down to risk and reward. If a Traverse City cherry farmer is hopeful for a good crop, he faces the risk of frost, pests and drought, head on. It’s worth the risk for him because of the potential reward. His potential reward is higher because he took the risk and planted the trees. For me, I’m not willing to live a life of limited influence in the future because of financial constraints. So, I plant now and plan for a harvest.

Here are a few simple steps to get you started:

  1. Many employers offer 401(k) matching programs. Take full advantage of that by deferring at least the percentage at which the company will match your contribution. That’s free money! If your employer doesn’t offer a match, at least do your own contributing.
  2. Connect with a financial adviser you trust. Be brave and share your goals. Take advantage of their expertise. You’re a professional with your own expertise in a specific area. Let them use their wisdom and experience to set you free to focus on the things you care about.
  3. After you’ve made a trustworthy connection, make a plan and stick to it! Come flood or draught; keep your eye on the prize!

Remember, delayed gratification is not natural. When something threatens your cherry trees, you’ll be tempted to give up. Stay the course! The harvest is coming!

Financial Planning

-By Scott Blakemore
What comes to mind when you think of “Financial Planning”? 

When asked what I do for a living, my response, “I’m a financial planner” is usually met with blank stares and the sound of crickets.  Now and then I get a response, “Oh, I’ve done that”, “I have an annuity,” or “I have an IRA”.  If only that was all it takes.

In the next few paragraphs, we’ll address three common perspectives regarding “Financial Planning” that many people share and how it affects their planning decisions.

I don’t understand enough to know where to begin.  We hear this one often (both from clients and potential clients).  They apologize for not knowing enough about their investments, pension plans, social security, health or insurance benefits. 

Here is the good news: planners realize you have likely never been taught, nor do you probably want to learn about all the components of your financial situation.  I don’t want to be a nurse or doctor, and when I go to the doctor, I don’t apologize for not knowing how to take my blood pressure.  I am not trained in this, and they don’t expect me to know.  I just want to know if my blood pressure is good or bad, and what to do to correct the problem.  The same is true for a financial planner – you don’t have to know it all, but you do need to know who can help.

Financial planning is inflexible and limiting.  Rarely does someone verbalize this concern, but when asked if they perceive this to be true, their eyes get wide and they nod their head in agreement.

How many Fortune 500 companies have business or marketing plans, sales forecasts, or budgets?  Probably all of them.  How many change their plans the following year?  Probably all of them.  Maybe they aren’t big wholesale changes, but as information comes in and circumstances change, they change.  The same is true for your financial plan – a good plan is flexible and changes over time as you do.

I have a 401k, IRA or Roth IRA.  I own an annuity, stock or bond.  I’m all set.  While various products and retirement plans are definitely components to be used appropriately when constructing a plan, they are not a financial plan in and of themselves.  Does owning a bat make you a baseball player or owning golf clubs make you a golfer?  Having the right equipment is important, but if you want to be successful, you need a coach – someone to teach you and help develop your skills.  The same is true for a financial planner, we will help you learn the game, coach you and use the appropriate tools.

At its root, financial planning is mostly about trust in the person helping you.  Remember, you aren’t required to understand everything, your plan can flex with you, and there’s much more to a financial plan than the components you use.  Find someone who will listen to you and help you ask the right questions … that is the best, first step toward a more solid financial future.

How much money should I save for retirement?

The obvious answer is, as much as you can. You’ll probably need to build a fund that you can draw on for much of your retirement income. This may be possible to do if you start early and make smart choices.

Contribute as much as you can to tax-advantaged savings vehicles (e.g., 401(k)s, IRAs, annuities). Make sure to contribute as much as necessary to get any employer matching contribution–it’s essentially free money. Then round out your retirement portfolio with other taxable investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, mutual funds*). As you’re planning and saving, keep in mind that you may have 30 or more years of retirement to fund. So, you may need an even bigger nest egg than you think.

*Note:   All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Before investing in a mutual fund, carefully consider its investment objectives, risks, fees, and expenses, which can be found in the prospectus available from the fund. Read it carefully before investing.

Your particular circumstances will determine how much money you should save for retirement. Maybe you have a pension plan, or your Social Security benefits will be large enough to tide you over. If so, you may not need to save as much as other people. But other personal factors will enter the picture, too. If you plan to retire early (e.g., age 50 or 55), you’ll have even more retirement years to fund and may need more retirement assets than someone who plans to work until age 65 or 70. Conversely, you may need fewer assets if you plan on working part-time during retirement.

Your projected expenses during retirement will also help determine how much money you’ll need and how much you need to save to get there. Certain costs (e.g., food, utilities, insurance) will be shared by almost all retirees. But you may still be saddled with retirement expenses that many retirees no longer have (e.g., mortgage payments or a child’s tuition).

Expenses will also depend on the type of retirement lifestyle you want. How many nights a week will you dine out? How much traveling will you do? These kinds of questions will give you a better idea of how much money you’ll be spending once you retire. In general, the greater your anticipated retirement expenses, the more you need to save each year to meet those expenses.

Content prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2014

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