personal finance: compound interest financial planning pensions
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Looking around me, I see quite a few semi-old gits pumping money into their pensions, and lots of it. I’m one of them. We’ve all got it horribly wrong, you should start saving when you’re young.
I was tickled to read in the FT that maybe we’re not so daft after all. Why Starting a Pension Early Could Be a Mistake originally appeared in the Financial Times Merryn Somerset Webb puts far more accurately succinctly what I’ve been driving at with Compound interest is Overrated.
I was probably wrong – compound interest is all very well. Why it doesn’t work as well as people like to make out is that in your twenties you can’t put any decent amount of money into a pension, because of where you are in your financial lifecycle. You’re not earning much, so the basics of life are a higher proportion of your outgoings. And you’re starting out in life, so you aren’t as financially savvy as you may get, plus you have to buy lots of stuff to establish life as an independent adult. Merryn gets to the heart of the matter
We all think that we should start saving into our pensions from the moment our first paycheque hits. But it turns out that if we were “rational life-cycle financial planners”, we would wait until we are into our mid-thirties to save.
Everything we do financially should be to maximise our standard of living over our life cycles. In our early career years, when our earnings are low, we compromise our living standards if we save.
So we should consume our initial incomes and then step up savings as we earn more: with the percentage rising from zero before age 35, to 30-35% as we head towards 60.
Now I haven’t followed that exactly, but there has been a huge increase as I’ve got older. And as Merryn intimated, it gets so much easier to save as you get older, though with the caveat that having children and aspiring to help them with university costs can put the kibosh on that. Previous generations became financially independent of their parents as they came of age, making saving easier for the parents once they got into their 50s.
The takeaway isn’t that you should blow it all in your 20s – you should still be saving or building capital. Either in house equity if that is your bag, and you expect house prices to continue rising (why?) or in financial instruments to give you a passive income, which is equivalent to home ownership reducing your housing costs.
It’s hard to know the benefit of not having housing costs until you experience it. In my twenties I perpetrated the biggest misallocation of financial resources in my whole life by buying a house at the peak of the market, signing a mortgage document that was to be discharged in February 2014.
That screw-up was redeemed by paying down that mortgage about six years early. Not having to pay the mortgage means I can save much faster, for the simple reason that I need access to far less of my salary. Using salary sacrifice I can stop the Government stealing a lot of my pay, allowing me to save two year’s gross salary in three years by booting much of my salary into pension AVCs.
I don’t have to live on thin air I live on an annual expenditure of less than the national minimum wage, but I have a standard of living that is much higher than you’d expect from that because I am using the accumulated capital from earlier years.
That is why compound interest doesn’t benefit me much in investment, I haven’t got the 40 years it takes to do anything useful at a 5% compounding rate – but that doesn’t greatly matter. I focused my investment as a young man in paying down my mortgage debt. That is still working for me – by dramatically lowering my costs so I can save and invest now.
Investing is a dangerous game, particularly for the young-ish and optimistic – I was slaughtered in the dot-com bust, largely from being too hot-headed and not knowing some of the ropes. You can get round some of that as a young investor by using passive investing, provided you start at a good time when equity market valuations are cheap. If you passively invested in the dot-com boom you’d still have been slaughtered in the last ten years, just not as quickly and perhaps not as comprehensively as I was. (edit – no you wouldn’t – see this comment for why)
Am I a better investor now? It’s impossible to know without looking 10 years ahead. I have better guidance, I have the learning from last time, and I am richer, so I won’t become a forced seller because I have more than half my non-pension savings as cash. I diversify by sector and to some extent by geography, though not financial asset-class, I’m either an equities guy or into non-financial assets. Well, apart from cash, I guess.
It surprises me that there’s so little said about life cycle financial planning. If you’re wealthy enough to be doing financial planning, you will probably experience a similar sort of life cycle. Yes, timing will be different for people who have children, but the arc of the life-cycle will still follow similar stages – you’ll probably be skint and capital-poor when young, you’ll be better off though probably with more dependents when middle-aged, then more capital rich but with a lower income when older. Saving 5% of my salary was a much bigger ask in my 20s than saving 70% of it in my 50s.
I was lucky in a lot of aspects, despite being hopelessly incompetent with the housing market. Rolling with my financial life cycle was probably one of those pieces of luck. I didn’t sit down to do it at 30, though some of it was instinctive in following the financial life-cycle of my parents, who discharged their mortgage when my Dad was in his late 40s, earlier than me.
Someone in their early 20s who takes Merryn Somerset Webb’s article and uses the information with self-knowledge, determination and persistence could do well by maximising their life-cycle standard of living. Of course, the need for self-knowledge, determination and persistence at 20 may be the rub. I struggled with the self knowledge, else I would have listened up and not bought a house at a market peak because I wanted out of the endless having to move because of other flatsharers’ life decisions.
Anyway, in one sense I was wrong about compound interest being overrated. It’s great. It’s just not useful to most of us who start out their adult lives skint and with massive claims on our income for the necessities of life. Obviously if you start work at Morgan Stanley in your twenties, fill your boots and all the great stuff about compound interest will come good for you.
For the more analytical, the Pensions Institute papers referenced by the FT are
Age-Dependent Investing: Optimal Funding and Investment Strategies in Defined Contribution Pension Plans when Members are Rational Life Cycle Financial Planners by David Blake, Douglas Wright and Yumeng Zhang (Sept 2011)
Target-Driven Investing: Optimal Investment Strategies in Defined Contribution Pension Plans under Loss Aversion by David Blake, Douglas Wright and Yumeng Zhang (Sept 2011)