Saving for Retirement

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Financial wisdom from a couple of "late bloomers"

June 10, 2013

The investing mistakes Steve Schullo and Dan Robertson made could fill a book. Then again, so could the things they did right. That's the idea behind Late Bloomer Millionaires, a newly published account of their journey into retirement. We sat down with Mr. Schullo and Mr. Robertson for a conversation on the lessons they've learned from a lifetime of investing.

You write that it's possible to invest enough money to enjoy a financially comfortable retirement even if you get a late start. What's your advice to someone who's started saving late?

Steve Schullo: Well, we not only started saving late, we learned how to invest even later. We think ours is a powerful story with an encouraging ending for everybody, not just late starters.

Steve Schullo and Dan Robertson

We think that learning how to invest would help plenty of folks save money throughout their lives and then help protect it from melting away in a bear market just when they're on the verge of retirement. Dan and I went through that when the dot-com bubble burst in the '90s, but we learned enough from that financial fiasco to weather the massive 2008 market crash.

Let's also acknowledge that it's always preferable to get an early start, no matter what you're saving for—retirement, college, a new house, a vacation, whatever. The sooner you begin, the more time your money has to grow and compound in order to take advantage of all the things the financial markets have to offer.

Dan Robertson: Having more time makes it easier to learn from mistakes—spending too much on silly things, listening to self-titled experts who don't really know what they're talking about, not keeping track of expenses—all of which we both did to one degree or another. Our turnaround helped us ride out the market downturn that came along in 2008. And those downturns do come along, as we've all learned in the last 10 or 20 years.

Steve Schullo: One of the things we learned from personal experience is that a late start isn't the end of the world. If you're in your 40s or 50s and you haven't put much aside, we believe you still have time to build a substantial portfolio, even when you factor in those dramatic corrections that Wall Street inevitably goes through, along with life's unpredictable emergencies. Maybe not enough time to become a millionaire, necessarily, but enough to make a real difference in your quality of life in retirement.

Dan Robertson: It really helps to start the day optimistic, followed up by action. I assume that I'm going to live a long time too. Since we both retired five years ago, our portfolio has continued to grow even with our distributions for things such as a new car, remodeling our home, and going on trips. Our portfolio balance is higher than it was in July 2008.

Steve Schullo: Right, and during your retirement, potentially decades and decades, you're going to stick with your plan—a plan that you understand—so that your assets have the opportunity to continue growing, even as you're starting to tap into your savings to fund your retirement activities. A lot of people who are about to retire overlook the powerful wealth-building potential that's available during retirement.

You devote much of your book to the importance of investment costs. What have you learned about costs during your investing careers?

Steve Schullo: There are very few things that matter more. If there's one thing every investor needs to take to heart, it's that we must pay close attention to what our investment provider is charging for the privilege of managing our money. We got burnt by salespeople, and that was the primary motivating factor to get us to warn others by sharing our story.

Even if you're just talking about a fraction of a percent here and there for fund expense ratios, commissions, maintenance fees, and all the rest of it, those expenses compound over time. They're not one-time things. They eat away at your earnings year after year, and you have to watch them carefully. From our perspective, Vanguard offers investors a real service by emphasizing the need to keep costs low. I'm a great admirer of [Vanguard founder] Jack Bogle, and I have enormous respect for what he and his successors have built. We both do.

Dan Robertson: We're true believers when it comes to indexing, which is just about the simplest approach to investing there is. And based on our own experience, it's effective in terms of performance. Before my conversion, I thought indexing implied mediocre performance, whereas the track record [for indexing] is actually very compelling.

Steve Schullo: There's an old joke—"passive investors don't get bragging rights at parties." Maybe that's true, but study after study show the advantages of investing in index funds as opposed to actively managed funds. That's not to say that active management doesn't have a place in some portfolios, as long as it's low-cost, such as Vanguard Wellington™ and Wellesley® [Funds]. Dan and I are definitely "Bogleheads" in the sense of being devotees of low-cost indexing that offers broad, worldwide diversification.

Having a well-diversified portfolio is what helped us escape much of the carnage that so many of our friends went through in 2008. A well-constructed portfolio has an age-related balance of stocks and bonds (older folks should generally have a more conservative allocation), a mix of different market capitalizations, and a good amount of international exposure. Index funds can give you all of that—in fact, some index funds offer all of those things in a single package.

As a married same-sex couple, do you face unique financial challenges?

Dan Robertson: Many years ago we chose a welcoming profession for gays—education. As a young couple, we had to be frugal because we were not making much money to spend on expensive hobbies or new cars. In many cases, gay men don't make as much as married straight men even though some gay couples earn more than straight couples—this is consistent with current research. Fortunately, over the long term, the habit of living within our means helped us tremendously with our savings and investments later on when we advanced in our professions. We learned early that we had to take care of ourselves financially and that wealth building comes from investing over the long term, regardless of income.

When it comes to financial matters, a gay couple worries about the same things straight couples worry about. In addition, same-sex couples have varied inheritance challenges, protecting the estate for the partner, as well as establishing hospital visitation rights, power of attorney, etc. Gay couples with children have their own hurdles, particularly because they are socially visible and often in a legal limbo.

Steve Schullo: The positive traits that help all couples succeed—good communication, shared values and goals, and being on the same page when it comes to saving for the future—are the same traits that have helped Dan and me succeed together. The LGBT community can be role models through service and donations, including anticipated college expenses for nieces and nephews and, of course, their own children.

You're a couple of "late bloomers." What do you tell young people—people in their 20s or even younger—whose financial lives are just getting started?

Steve Schullo: Saving isn't exciting at first. When starting from nothing, as we did, it took "forever" to get to $10,000, saving $100 per month. Take heart! Don't be discouraged. Setting aside money you never touch gradually becomes fun if your account balance goes up and up. This reinforced us to increase our contributions as we got pay raises—it became a positive habit with a life of its own. We believe the reward is ultimately worth the effort. How can it be anything else? Have you ever heard a 50-something person lament that he or she should have spent more or saved less when in his or her 20s? Just ask. We don't think so!

Dan Robertson: Couldn't have said it better myself. I would just add, don't wait for the right time to fund your plan—start now!

Notes:

  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
  • Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.
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