Any Business Lately?

Why places close.

Any Business Lately

It happens to all of us. You travel to your favorite place of business and arrive to see the place shuttered. Another shop closed. How did this happen? Sometimes we can see it coming, but other times it comes as a complete shock, tragic and disheartening.  This year alone, two of my favorite products stopped being made. My favorite hot pepper jam, because the company apparently folded. The website says online items are all out of stock, the phone call I made went unanswered to voicemail, and the owner was absent at a local food festival. Just this week, I went online to order a few cases of this awesome specialty iced tea, not sold in stores. I always order six to twelve cases at a time, extra of  the diet blueberry flavor. I was devastated to learn that Two If By Tea  had been discontinued due to rising production costs.

As upsetting as it may be for us, often it is many times worse on the owner of the business because although we were loyal patrons, the business was their brainchild. What do you do when your dream dies?

The reasons why places shut down are as varied as the businesses themselves, but there are often several main reasons business close.

Declining customer base.

The first espresso bar to open in Lancaster PA was The Monk’s Tunic. It made the local newspaper. (That local newspaper has since folded also.) When you are the first business you often inspire imitators.  Competition for customers is often fierce when several shops of the same type open in close proximity. Customers are the life-blood of a business, and losing too many customers will kill a business. Although it is speculation on my part, I blame the press release, because within the first year of business, at least a half dozen similar cafes opened all within two blocks of each other.  That same newspaper article also mentioned a national bookstore chain that was opening at the mall, BORDERS BOOKS which would have a sit down espresso bar.

Why do I blame the newspaper? Think of the California Gold Rush of 1848 which brought over 300,000 prospectors to California when newspapers announced gold had been found at Sutter’s Mill.  Here was the local newspaper proclaiming the discovery of ‘Black Gold’ in the city.

I did manage to visit all of the cafes which opened during the ‘Great Espresso Rush’ to sample their drinks. I’m a coffee snob, so it takes more than just what’s in the cup to leave an impression on me. The ones that offered poetry readings and live music often brought me back rather than the coffee, all of which tasted pretty much the same. They must have all been using the same local roaster. The Monk’s Tunic put up a valiant fight, outlasting all of the newcomers except BORDERS, which in turn folded a decade later. Each of these shops were unique in their own ways, but I really miss both The Monk’s Tunic and BORDERS the most.

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Location, Location, Location.

Where you sell your goods is often as important as what you sell. Unless you sell a highly coveted item and have a rabid fan base clamoring for it, customers will not usually go out of their way to visit your establishment. A highly visible location with vibrant signage and easy access and exit are key. If your customers can’t see you easily, or get to your shop, they won’t stop and just pass on by. And don’t forget about parking, no one wants to fight for a space, or pay to park just to go to your store.

Accessibility.

Most new construction in the USA conforms to Americans with Disabilities Act standards. The ADA sets standards for construction of accessible public facilities.  However, if you buy an older property built prior to the establishment of the ADA to house your business, you may need to make modifications. This can include ADA bathrooms for customers, a designated check-out counter space set lower, designated seating and parking for disabled people, ramps, and even wider doors in some cases to accommodate wheelchairs or motorized carts.  Depending upon the modifications, this can be quite costly.

Staff.

When I was a young boy, I used to walk two extra blocks to a small grocery store to buy Pepsi for my aunt, because it was a nickel cheaper per bottle. The store was run by an old man. Two weeks in a row I went in and he was out of Pepsi, and I had to go back to the bigger grocery.  So I stopped going to his store for a few weeks. Sometime later, I went back to his shop, and there was one six-pack of Pepsi so I brought it. As I was walking out, I heard the old man grumble angrily to himself how ‘the boy doesn’t come in for weeks, then buys his last six-pack’. I NEVER went back to that store again.

You and your employees are the face of your business. A customer should always feel like you appreciate their business, not like you are doing them a favor by being open. Staff should be friendly, courteous, clean, identifiable, competent, and well versed in your product. Your employees may be well extremely versed, but NO ONE should know more about your business, or be more skilled at it than you. You should be easily reachable by both staff and customers to solve problems that your employees may encounter.  Yes, there are SOME high-maintenance customers who think the world revolves around them, but they are the exception, not the rule. I try very hard to be nice to ALL my customers, including the ‘difficult’ customers. IF you have a ‘difficult’ customer, it may be necessary for you or a trusted high-level employee to personally  deal with them. By isolating this E.G.R. (Extra Grace Required) customer, you are protecting your staff from them, and vice-versa.

Word of Mouth.

Do your customers rave about you and your shop? Do they leave positive reviews on social media? Do they even know you exist at all?

Thirty years ago, most people looked up businesses in the Yellow Pages phone book. They saw advertising on TV, in magazines, newspapers, and on bill boards. Reviews were often by word of mouth. Today however, social media is the main go-to.  It is very important to have an online presence. Although I am still in the process of trying to establish That Coffee Place, I do have a Twitter and a Facebook page already established. Both have been dormant for years waiting for my brick-and-mortar location to open someday.  When it does, I’ll probably expand my online presence to Yelp! and Trip Adviser, as well as Google. When that does happen, positive reviews will be very important. One bad experience at your place of business can be all it takes for a disgruntled customer to leave a negative review online which can harm potential sales.

Incompetence and mismanagement.

The saddest reason a business can fail is because the owner failed to do their homework. There is much more to opening a shop than signing a lease and hanging an OPEN sign. As the owner of your shop, you need to know everything there is to know about your business and the location BEFORE you even open the door. I know of a struggling pizza place that is barely keeping its lights on because they opened in the same ‘Turn-Key’ location as FIVE other pizza places before them, all of which folded. In the same little strip mall, there is an empty restaurant which was a ‘Turn-Key’ restaurant that in the last seven years had 3 different Spanish restaurants, 2 African restaurants, and a Jamaican restaurant.  Just because it’s a ‘Turn-Key’ location selling all the necessary equipment and furniture included with the lease does NOT mean it’s a great place for a restaurant.  There often are very good reason these shops closed.

The neighborhood changed.

When you’re surrounded by a large population of very poor people on public assistance, these people do not dine at restaurants often, if ever. When a neighborhood goes into decline, litter, graffiti and crime increase. This alarming trend often discourages patrons from more affluent areas, who tend to avoid such slums and favor more inviting places.

Parking.

Not having a well-lit attached parking lot with adequate spaces will discourage patrons.

Tastes changed.

What you’re selling may no longer be desired.

Staffing issues.

You can’t pay people enough to stay, or find good help.

Money Issues.

You ran out of working capital and are robbing Peter to pay Paul. No Ponzi scheme on Earth will keep your Money Pit open long term.

Health Issues and Retirement.

No avoiding it, we will not be young and healthy forever. Everyone one of us will grow older, feebler, and eventually die.  When this happens, we are often forced to downsize, and this will also include either shutting down, passing on, or outright selling our businesses.

The Pancake Farm in Ephrata PA will be shutting its doors in eight weeks on December 1st, 2018. The owners are retiring. The business has been these since 1960, and owned by them since 1982

The owner of The West Reading Diner sold the business to his son, who re-branded it as The American Diner.

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After decades of business, my guitar teacher Ken Rohrbach shut down Ken’s Music Studio on 10th St several years ago,  and retired. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I may be a coffee expert, but I’m no guitar player. I could probably earn a fortune standing on a corner asking passers-by for tips for me NOT to play my guitar. Just goes to show, pobody’s nerfect. As always, I wish success and happiness!

Sorry, Not a Winner!

Don’t fall victim to ‘Get-Rich-Quick Schemes’.

Back when I was in college, I used to work late nights and weekends at a convenience store. You know the type, a small retail business that stocks a range of everyday items such as groceries, snack foods, coffee, soft drinks, tobacco products, newspapers, and magazines. I’d start at 10 pm and would usually be ending my shifts around 7am. Like most c-stores, we also sold lottery tickets, both the ‘instant win’ scratch-off tickets and the computerized state and national mega-million number games.  Time and again, I would see the same people on their way to and from their places of employment. These regular customers would stop by daily to grab a cup of coffee, a pack of cigs, and usually lottery tickets. This was an everyday occurrence.  Often, they would scratch off the instant lottery tickets at side of the counter while sipping their coffee, and if they won a free ticket, they would redeem it for another chance to win.  I can’t tell you how many of the same people day in and day out spend upwards of $5.00 a day on lottery tickets. It was worse when the mega-million jackpots started growing and lotto-fever hit these would-be millionaires. I never once in all the years I worked there, sold someone a million-dollar winning ticket.        

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The one dollar trap.

Part of the allure of lottery tickets is how inexpensive they are. For only a buck you could be a winner! After all, what could you possibly do with that measly dollar? Because of this, it’s very easy to get caught up in the lottery trap.  My mother, and all of my aunts spent tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes chasing the elusive ‘big win’. Not only did they play the lottery, they also played bingo, went to casinos, and gambled. My late grandmother was a book-maker, taking in illegal spots bets. One of my cousins lost $600 at a casino in a single evening last month. My last surviving aunt, who lives in near poverty,  frequently wastes her precious few dollars on lottery tickets, and betting on horse races.  Not a single member of my family ever became wealthy by gambling, and all died penniless.

But the Apostles cast lots in the Bible, so gambling is ok, right?

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD,” (Prov. 16:33)

In the Bible, the casting of lots is mentioned several times.

  • The eleven apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas (Acts 1:26).
  • The Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments (Matthew 27:35).    
  • God instructed the Israelites to cast lots on several times in the book of Numbers (Numbers 26:55; 33:54; 34:13; 36:2)  
  • The practice of casting lots occurs most often in connection with the division of the land under Joshua (Joshua chapters 14-21)
  • The sailors on Jonah’s ship (Jonah 1:7) also cast lots to determine who had brought God’s wrath upon their ship.

This is NOT the same as gambling. The casting of lots was the ancient equivalent of flipping a coin to make an arbitrary decision.  Another thing you may notice in all of the above references, is that there was no initial up-front investment by the participants to be included.  When you gamble, you have to wager a personal stake of some sort which becomes forfeit if the outcome is not in your favor. I’ve also heard people try to justify gambling by saying that bingo is played in Catholic churches, so it’s okay.  Actually there have been several times over the past seventy years when bingo was banned in churches, and even today it’s rare to see bingo played  outside of a bingo hall or at a private club. It’s not illegal, but that doesn’t make it ‘good’.  Anything which becomes an addiction is bad, and as God has given us free will, we have to decide for ourselves through studying his Word if we are becoming addicted to a particular bad habit.  

All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.   1 Corinthians 6:12 King James Version (KJV)

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.  1 Timothy 6:10 King James Version (KJV)

The easy way

Buying a lottery ticket is not against the law. On very rare occasions even I have been caught up in ‘lotto fever’ when the mega-million jackpot hits record highs, and I feel compelled to contribute to the office lotto pool because I don’t want to be the one guy that got left behind should my co-workers win and split the jackpot.  It’s not wrong to want to have a better life. But if you feel that there only way to improve your lot in life is by gambling, then there is something seriously wrong with your way of thinking. Let’s go back to the guys I mentioned who brought daily lottery tickets on their way to work back when I worked at the c-store.  Let’s say they spent $5 a day, five days a week on lottery tickets on average.  I sold some of these guys tickets for years, and they never hit any big jackpot. So let’s assume that instead of wasting $25 a week on lottery tickets, they just put that money in a jar every week for a year. At the end of the year they would have $1300.00.  Now let’s assume they did this every year for twenty five years, never toughing the money, just putting it in the jar, $25 a week, every week for twenty five years. They would have stashed away $32,500! Now suppose instead of just hiding the money away in a jar, they had placed in a brokerage account and invested it in a index fund tracking the S&P 500, (assuming about a 12% interest rate APR ) that investment would have grown to over $100,000!   

The easy way to became rich is not by gambling. The easy way to achieve wealth is to do it slowly over time, cutting all unnecessary expenses, and by making wise investments.  As always, I wish you happiness and success!  

 

Time is money!

The importance of proper time management.

Every second is precious.

With the two exceptions of the day you are born and the day you die, you and every person who has ever lived has the same amount of time allotted to them daily, twenty four hours. No more, no less. Yet despite having the same amount of time, some people are wealthy while others are poor. In some situations circumstances beyond your control may rob you of your economic opportunities, but how you spend your time is largely up to  you.  All successful people share two traits with regards to proper time management. They have learned to maximize their daily schedule to the height of efficiency, and they have a sense of urgency, never delaying for tomorrow what they can do today.

“Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you’ll never get back. Your time is your life. That is why the greatest gift you can give someone is your time.” – Rick Warren

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The 40-40-40 Trap

Your greatest source of wealth comes from the income generated from your job.  When you retire, you usually have to depend on a combination of your savings (if any), a pension fund (rare or non-existent), your investments or contributions to a 401K plan (if any), and government social security (which may become insolvent by 2034 due to the National Debt crisis). For the average American, this is known as the 40-40-40 Trap. Because of procrastination or indifference during their youth, they never made the proper choices to ensure a worry-free retirement. As a result, they spend their entire working life employed at a job, working FORTY hours a week, for about FORTY years, then retire and discover they only have about FORTY percent of the cash they had while employed, to pay their monthly bills. You can always go back to work part-time to generate more income, but you can never replace the lost time. If a person fails to plan for their future, they have no future!

No time like the present!

If you have no 401k available at your job, it’s time to seek employment elsewhere. The longer you delay investing for the future, the less likely you actually will. Excuses do not pay the bills. Do not allow yourself to become trapped in a dead-end job. I have known many individuals who stay at a low-paying job for a couple of years, only to move on to another low-paying job. Every time I changed jobs with one, or two rare exceptions, I went on to a higher-paying job, with better benefits.  At my previous full-time job, I was about to become an assistant manager, when the opportunity opened up at my present career. My prior company really wanted me to stay, but they could not offer me a matching salary or benefits program. Leaving for greener pastures was in my best interest. Today, I earn far more than they pay their current managers.    

If you take a position that offers a set salary:

  • Do not work more than the hours required for that salaried position. Generally, there is little or no additional pay for the extra hours. You are wasting your time. Doing it once or twice in an emergency situation is one thing, but doing it all the time just makes you a fool.

If you take a job where you swipe or punch a time-clock:

  • Always work on the clock. If you aren’t logged in, you’re not getting paid. If you are scheduled to start and end at a pre-determined time, start and end at those times. Playing ‘The Time Clock Game’ where you clock in a wee bit early, and clock out a tad late each day to earn a few extra minutes of pay is not only a bad idea, it’s like stealing from the company and could cost you your job.
  • Always show up when you are scheduled to work.
  • If overtime is available at your job, it will generally be paid at your normal rate, plus half. Working overtime is an excellent way to generate extra income, while at the same time impressing your supervisor by your diligence. Diligent behavior is indicative of a work ethic and can open doors for advancement to a higher paying position.
  • Do not become dependent on the overtime income. Overtime is never a guarantee, and should always be considered extra money. Your base salary should be enough to cover your monthly spending needs and still allow you to save for your future.
  • Do not become obsessed by the overtime. The love of money is the root of all evil. I know many individuals who work sixty hours a week or more chasing every overtime-penny they can get.  I’m amazed at their end-of-the-year totals. When the work level reaches that point, it causes home and social problems. It’s one thing if you live alone, but if you have a family, family comes first! The time you spend with your loved ones can never be measured or replaced. It’s priceless. Don’t waste it. Nobody ever had an  epigraph on their tombstone expressing their desire to have spent more time at their job.

Take time to play!

A balanced schedule should always allow ‘breather room’, ‘personal time’ and still allow for work and play. If you over-schedule, you run the risk of causing a cascade of lateness and cancellations. It also causes stress as you race from one meeting or destination to your next scheduled appointment or location. Keeping a tight schedule can be done as long as everything goes according to plan, but if things start to unexpectedly go south, you may not have the wiggle-room needed to stick to the items on your list.

Always be productive

I try to get as much done on my day off as humanly possible. With my work schedule, I don’t have a lot of extra time during the work week. I find as many time saving tricks as I can to avoid wasting any down-time I may find myself with.  I’ve been working overtime this quarter, and I need all the sleep I can get to recover from the physical and mental stress of the added work load.  I always eat a PB&J sandwich for lunch. It’s filling without making me feel bloated or sluggish after lunch, and it satisfies my hunger. The beauty of the PB&J is that all of the ingredients freeze well. Now my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are healthier because I use the best peanut butter, the best jelly, and use sprouted grain Ezekiel bread. So I Sundays I’ll make a half-dozen PB&J’s, bag each one in a ziploc bag and put them in the freezer.  In the morning packing my lunch takes seconds.   

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Another change I’ve made is having my dinners shipped to my home  from a meal-kit service. I use Hello Fresh. The meals are quick to cook, and it saves me time stopping for groceries or takeout food. Also, as the three meals they send are meant for two people, I only have to cook three nights a week, and just heat up the leftover portions the other three nights.

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When I run errands, I try to make a large circle of destinations to save travel time from point -to-point.

Keep life balanced!

When was the last time you spent time with your friends?  When was the last time you spoke to distant relations or acquaintances on the phone? No man is an island. We are all social beings interconnected by a network of friends and family. When a spider builds a web, it is building a net to catch food to keep itself alive. If one strand of the web brakes, it immediately repairs it. Neglecting to repair the broken strand can weaken the entire structure and cause it to collapse. As we get older and older, we need to strengthen our social network. No I’m not talking about Facebook or Twitter, I’m talking about real life. Go where the people are, out in the real world and spend time with the people you care about. As Always, I wish you happiness and success!

What if you died today?

The importance of planning your estate.

“Live life like you’re gonna die, because you’re gonna.” – William Shartner  (from his song You’ll Have Time)

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Last week, I posted a blog entry asking if you’d outlive your retirement savings, if any. Ironically, this week’s post deals with the opposite situation. What if you suddenly died before retirement age?  Honestly, I never thought I’d be writing on this topic, but a couple of days ago, ‘C.Z.’ a long term co-worker and friend suddenly died. This is not the first time this has happened to me at my job. 4 years ago the same thing happened to another friend and co-worker, Harvey. I work in a very high-stress career which is not ideal for anyone, and in the years I have been employed there, I have had 4 co-workers die from fatal heath-attacks, all under the age of 60, and one, ‘Joe’ who committed suicide.

My father was another person in my life who died six weeks shy of his 58th birthday, never living long enough to retire.  He left no will, a small bank account, and my mother had to handle financial matters as best she could, which is why she eventually died penniless, depending upon me to pick up the pieces.

Retirement is the cherry on the ice cream sundae. It’s the boon at the end of a long career where you get to enjoy your twilight years. Reaching retirement age dead broke with a meager government SSA check is horrible. Never living long enough to retire is tragic. Long ago, I vowed to never live in poverty, and to take care of my health so that I lived long enough to actually retire, physically and financially fit.

Those we leave behind

Discussing dying and death is very hard, but death is a part of life. No buts about it, we are all going to die someday, and we need to have our affairs in order. Funerals are expensive. How do you determine the last wishes of the departed? Who gets their possessions, if any? There are all important questions which need to be addressed and it’s not fair to dump them in the lap of someone else, be they spouse, child, relation, or friend. 

When a person dies:

  • You should immediately contact any surviving family or friends. No one wants to find out from an obituary in the newspaper, or discover long after the fact that their loved one has passed. These are ‘hard’ calls to make. Trust me, I’ve been on both sides as the caller, and the called. As the informed, and as the clueless  person who discovered a death months after the fact. It’s not fun. It’s best to find out ASAP, especially if you have a desire to attend a memorial service and make peace with the situation. Life is for the living, so be mindful of those who will be left behind.
  • Contact their place of employment if they are still employed.
  • Contact their union rep if they are part of a union.
  • Contact any life insurance companies they may have had.
  • Contact their personal lawyer (if known).
  • Contact  Social Security.  SSA can pay a one-time payment of $255 to the surviving spouse if they were living with the deceased. If living apart and eligible for certain Social Security benefits on the deceased’s record, the surviving spouse may still be able to get this one-time payment. If there’s no surviving spouse, a child who’s eligible for benefits on the deceased’s record in the month of death can get this payment.  Certain family members may be eligible to receive monthly benefits, including: — A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled); — A widow or widower any age caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled; — An unmarried child of the deceased who is: o Younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they’re a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school); or o Age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22; — A stepchild, grandchild, stepgrandchild, or adopted child under certain circumstances; — Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support; and — A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.

It doesn’t matter if you are single or married, you need to prepare as much as possible for the executor of your estate including:

  • A designated executor for your estate.
  • A contact list containing phone numbers and address of people to be informed of your passing.
  •  A written will designating how your effects should be dispersed.
  • A list of insurance policies.
  •  Desires for funeral arrangements.  
  • Lists of assets such as bank accounts, stock accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, deposit boxes, real estate, vehicles, businesses,  etc.
  • Computer social media platforms and relevant  passwords.* (Passwords and pin numbers should always be hidden, and secured when you are alive. You don’t want identity theft to occur and ruin your life.   Designate one person, but not more than two to know where these secured and hidden codes are in your home. This MUST be someone you trust with your life. )  

A company called Intentional Retirement sells an “If Something Happens to Me Kit”. It’s about $50, but contains everything you’d need to help you  set up your estate.

http://intentionalretirement.com/ishtm-kit

Also, consider pre-planning your own funeral. You can pre-fund and set up all the arrangements years in advance with most reputable funeral homes, sparing your loved ones the pressure, duress, and expense of making your final arrangements. Think about them, you’ll be in a better place, but do you want to cause them undue suffering while they are morning your loss?   When my mother died, I had literately hours to arrange her burial and needed to pay 1/3 of the bill in advance. It cost me over $10,000 for her funeral and took years to pay off the balance.  

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.–

H. Jackson Brown, Jr

GOOD NEWS! If you’re reading this blog, you’re still alive! As I said discussing death and dying is not fun, but living is! So while you are still able, go out and enjoy life! Prepare for the inevitable to make your passing easier for those you leave behind, but above all remember that your life is YOUR LIFE. Only you can live it. You can be frugal with your finances while still enjoying all that life has to offer. The best things in life are free, and God is good, always! Celebrate your life by living it! As always I wish you happiness and success!

Will You Outlive Your Money?

Exactly how much money will you really need by retirement? The Million Dollar Answer!

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There are two inescapable facts of life: death, and taxes.

When I was a young boy, it seemed like the number of people who lived to the century mark was so small, the average person only heard about someone achieving about it in the news. If you were lucky you might reach the 80’s but living past that was extremely rare.  In most cases, you were going to die sometime in your late 60’s to mid 70’s, and that was that. No one lives forever. We may not like it, but we do have to accept it. None of us are making it out of this world alive.

No one in my family has ever reached 80 , although my aunt has outlived everyone in the family thus far, and will be 77 in November 2018. That’s eleven years longer than my mother, her oldest sister who died at 66, and two decades longer than my father who died at 57, less than 2 months shy of his 58th birthday.   

I’m no fool, no siree I want to live to be 103

Unlike my late father who never lived long enough to retire, I do NOT plan to work until the day I die. Accidents do happen, but failing that I’m in far better health than my late parents due to changes in diet and medical advances that keep extending life expectancy in the USA.

Growing up, one of the things I remember is Jiminy Cricket singing the song  I’m No Fool for a series of educational safety cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. He sings the chorus four times, staring with “I’m no fool, no siree I want to live to be 23, I play safe for you and me ’cause I’m no fool!” The age changes as the song goes on, changing to 33, then 53, and ultimately, 103! I always remember thinking to myself that no one lives THAT long.   Now, I’m encountering many people in my day job who are well into their 80’s and 90’s and more and more people are closing in on that mythical 103 from that song. With advances in health science, medicine, and technology progressing at its current rate, I could possibly even live to be 123! Who knows?

That being said, will you have enough money saved for retirement to cover you and your spouse and bridge the span from your last day at the job to your last day on Earth? For most people in the USA, the answer seems to be no. A deafeningly loud, resounding, emphatic NO! According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the  average retirement savings of all working-age families, which the EPI defines as those between 32 and 61 years old, is $95,776. So that’s about less than 2 years salary for the average American worker.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

If you’re not saving for retirement in a combination of 401k type plans or IRAs, you’re a fool who’s depending on a government ‘safety  net’ which will not allow you enough money to live on comfortably, and probably won’t even exist several decades from now. This past Friday April 6th 2018, I got into an argument at work with a social justice warrior who basically said moving away from Social Security into the stock market was ‘madness’ because the Dow closed down almost 600 points and he was citing everything from the 1929 Stock Market Crash to a total economic hypothetical meltdown where the market hit ZERO and starving people are wandering the countryside to find blades of grass to eat.  There was no reaching the poor fool. Every explanation I offered was met with another wacko hypothetical theory. He even brought up concentration camps!  It is NOT my job to give history, economic, or civics lessons to people who have the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips, yet prefer the mindless indoctrination that they have willingly subscribed too. All I can do is worry about myself and watch the tragedy unfold around me by all those fools living in a Utopian dream world.  

 I am the RICHEST man in my family. I attained my WEALTH not by theft, or deception. I EARNED MY MONEY. I did not inherit it, win it in a lottery, or receive it through a fictitious privilege. I worked for DECADES and invested 10% of my income from DAY ONE! No one held a gun to my head and forced me to do this, I did it. ME, MYSELF, I! Just as I took responsibility for MY choices, you must be accountable for your own decisions. Sitting around waiting for someday and spouting what-if scenarios are what fools do.

Social security is NOT the answer. Everyone in my family who depended on social security, (or still does as is the case of my last living aunt) has lived and ultimately died in poverty.  According to Social security, based on my current contributions at my full retirement age (67 years), my payment would be about $ 2,342 a month. If I wait until 70 I’ll get about $ 2,906 a month, but if I jump the gun and snag early retirement at age 62, it would ONLY be $ 1,641 a month. But here’s the real kicker: My estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2034, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 79 percent of scheduled benefits.  79% of $1,641 is about $1300 rounded up.  I’m certain my rent will be more than that in 2034. If I rely on social security I’ll be the starving man roaming the countryside eating grass.

The Millionaire at large.

The Millionaire Next Door is a 1996 book by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. It details the financial habits of wealth Americans. These are people who did their ‘homework’ and don’t have money troubles. Although it is over two decades old at this point, the basic wisdom has not changed. Live within your means, don’t spend all your income, don’t waste your money, and invest! Fascinating as the Millionaire next door may be, he or she does not interest me. I’m concerned with the Millionaire under my roof. The Millionaire at large, A.K.A.  Michael James Oetting. At current projections, my 401k type retirement account balance should exceed a million dollars by the time I retire. I plan to retire LONG BEFORE 62, so I’m not even considering Social Security. I’m also probably going to retire before 59½ the minimum age you can make withdrawals from a 401k or regular IRA without incurring a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Now with a million dollars, if I maintain an average annual interest rate of 5% or greater, while making withdrawals of 4% annually, that would come to $40,000 per year without diminishing the million dollar balance which would still be increasing at 1%. This could continue up until the year I turn 70½ at which point I would be required by law to take the RMD or face the 50% penalty imposed by the IRS  on what I fail to take. That’s because, upon reaching this age, the IRS requires you to withdraw at least a minimum amount each year from all your IRAs and retirement plans—except Roth IRAs—and pay ordinary income taxes on the taxable portion of your withdrawal. If you don’t take withdrawals, or you take less than you should, you’ll owe a 50% federal penalty tax on the difference between the amount you withdrew and the amount you should have withdrawn. And you’ll still have to withdraw the required amount and pay any income tax due on the taxable amount. IF you ‘forget’ to do this, you can extend it to the following April 1 of the year after your turn 70½ as a ONE TIME late disbursement, but you’ll have to take out double that year, and pay double taxes should you do that because you would have to account for both the prior (late) year and the current year RMD. Failing that if you STILL missed your RMD, the IRS can waive the 50% penalty for good cause. To have the 50% penalty waived by the IRS you must correct your error. You must take the RMD amount that was not taken and file the IRS Form 5329, Additional Taxes on Qualified Plans (Including IRAs) and Other Tax-Favored Accounts. When you file this form, you do not have to prepay the penalty, but if the form is filed without payment of the 50% penalty and IRS determines that the penalty is owed, you could owe interest on the penalty payment. Form 5329 must be filed to start the statute of limitations clock. Attach a letter of explanation to Form 5329. The letter should include why the RMD was missed, the fact that it has now been taken, and that you have taken steps to be sure that future RMDs will be taken as required. This is also a onetime thing.  Do not make a habit of accidentally ‘forgetting’ either on purpose or by accident, because the IRS does not play games, and you will get financially burnt if you play with fire.

Just because you have to take the RMD doesn’t mean you have to spend it, you just can’t keep it in your retirement account. You can buy investment properties, put it in bonds or stocks in a brokerage account, donate it to charity for a tax-write-off, etc. Just don’t let the IRS take half of it away because you ‘forgot’. You can set up most plans to automatically issue the RMD and I would encourage you to also have them withhold the taxes on each disbursement so you don’t  end up owing the government taxes you don’t have the cash to cover. If you follow all these suggestions, your money should last as long as you do!    As always, I wish you happiness and success!

Are we BEAR yet?

Keeping your cool while others lose their minds over their investment losses.

Since 2009,  US investors have been enjoying the second longest running Bull market since WWII. But after closing once again at record highs on January 26th, 2018, the market started slipping into a correction. The two week period ending Friday February 9th 2018 saw a river of red on Wall Street. Historic losses occurred almost every other day, and the Dow closed down 1175.12 on Monday Feb 5th.  Less than a week later there was a second four-digit drop. In spite of all the excitement we are still ‘technically’ riding the Bull, despite the specter of the Bear periodically swiping at the markets and making the red ink spatter everywhere. So far it’s only a correction, and not yet a crash.  If you’re not sure of the difference:

  • A stock market correction is when the market falls 10 percent from its 52-week high.
  • A bear market occurs when the market falls 20 percent.
  • If the market falls 40 percent it’s considered a crash.  

So what makes the markets suddenly drop? The reasons are many, but usually it starts when large numbers of investors decide to ‘cash in their chips’ so to speak and lock in their gains. Perhaps companies didn’t make their earnings projections,  or investors are afraid that changes in legislation will affect profits. It does not matter but once enough people are selling instead of buying, stock prices start dropping. This spooks the second group of investors who now sell because the price is dropping, and they want to stop losses. This leads to a panic. Once a cascade sell-off effect begins, the only way to stop it is if enough potential investors decided to buy the dips, thus raising the price of stocks and ending the sell-off. Or possibly not. Prices of the shares may recover enough that a third group of investors decide that now they should sell and lock in the partial recovery of lost potential gains, starting a brand new sell-off. That’s why you start seeing these roller-coaster swings of market volatility.

 The key take away from all of this is that middle group of investors who sold out as the stocks plunged ended up losing their money.  It is impossible to time the market.  They were not in the market once it rebounded, which time has shown it will. The group who locked in at the market peak made money, and if they returned to buy the dips, they made even move money. When investing in stocks, you need to keep your head and make informed, intellectual trades. Emotional, panic sell-offs will hurt you financially.

Overtime, the stock market will continue to grow at an average return at about 12%. Crashes, corrections and Bear markets always lead to new Bull runs.  These market fluctuations are a normal part of the way the stock market grows and are not to be feared.  In September of 2017, stock guru Warren Buffet was widely quoted for stating that he believed that in one hundred years, the Dow would hit  one million points. When one of the eight richest men in the world tells you stock tips, you listen! Buffet didn’t get rich by luck. He recommends buying stocks when everyone else is liquidating their assets because you pick up bargains that given time, will more than likely rebound. He also recommends staying in the market and investing in passive, low fee index mutual funds and ETFs that track the markets. In many cases these index funds outperform the majority of actively managed mutual funds and offer a low-cost way for investors to track popular stock and bond market indexes while providing a diversified portfolio at the same time.

I’m getting too old for this excitement.

Although index funds and ETFs offer diversification they are still tied to the market. This is great news if you are young, because you can weather any storm clouds that the market may encounter. On the other hand, if you are nearing retirement and counting on your retirement nest egg being a certain amount, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re weeks away from punching the time clock for the final time only to have a sudden market crash wipe out 40% of your investments.  This is where a higher level of asset diversification towards less volatile investments will protect you.  Bond funds, precious metals and even real estate can provide a much more stable investment, just with comparably lower returns on investment. Only you can determine your individual retirement needs.

Two general rules of thumb based on age.

1) Take the number 100, and subtract your age. The remaining number is how much money you should invest in stocks.

2) Take the number 125, and subtract your age.  This number is the percentage of your investments which should be in higher risk stocks.

Some stocks are more volatile than others. This is reflected in a stocks beta number. The lower the number the more stable the stock. A beta number of 2.0 would fall twice as fast as the market, while a share with a beta of 0.5 would drop half as fast. Also you should research the 52 week highs and lows, as well as the P/E ratio and if the stock pays a dividend, how often it’s paid, and the what the ex-dividend date is. Bottom line, DO YOUR RESEARCH!  Financial matters are nothing to joke about. The wrong decisions early on will greatly impact you in your retirement years. 

Now I’m still south of 50, I’m unmarried,  I have no children, plus I’m debt free. In my individual circumstance, knowing what I know and being willing to accept the risks, I  tend to have ALL of my investments in higher risk assets. Thus far, it’s made me the richest man in my family, although it does get unnerving at times when you watch your portfolio take a big hit during a correction. In the past two weeks, my net worth decreased by more money than some people earn working a full time job for an entire year. It will come back given time, but a  financial loss like that would have killed my mother.

TheCrash

True story

My father, George Henry Lawrence Oetting Jr. was an intelligent business man. He went to St. John’s University, was a CPA, and was the editor of a local Queens newspaper. He understood how money and finances worked. That’s him in the photo above. I used to think that the screaming woman in the picture was my very melodramatic mother, but I’ve since learned it was a just a family friend. But I do remember that look. Everything was a tragedy for my mother when things didn’t go her way.  Now my father was a newspaper editor, so he was always on top of trends in business and investing opportunities.  He owned 50 shares of stock in a growing company called McDonald’s.  I’m sure that this is why my mother grew obsessed with the cheap burger brand. My father was great with finances. My mother? Not so much. That woman couldn’t handle money to save her life. If you gave her a dollar, she’d spend two! Anyway my father died suddenly when I was young, so he never saw the grand openings of the first NYC McDonald’s in Manhattan. My mother got re-married to her boss a year after my father died. About that time, the first McDonald’s in Queens opened at  13832 Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, NY 11435. My mother still owned the stocks at the time, and she was there with my stepfather acting like she owned the place because she was a share-holder! I remember there was a guy dressed like Ronald McDonald and he was signing these stuffed Ronald dolls and my mother was buying them for all my cousins. She probably blew $100 that day on food and memorabilia which says a lot considering at the time the burgers were ONLY 30¢ each. Anyhow, a year after that, my step father also died. A year later, my mother was dead broke.  Between 1971 and 1975 she’d lost 2 husbands, 2 houses, the lifetime savings of two men, and those 50 shares of McDonald’s stock, which if I still had them today would be valued at three-to-five million dollars. A fool and their money are soon parted. My mother may have cost me a fortune because of her foolish spending habits, but at least I managed to inherit my father’s good looks and intelligence, and those pay their own unique dividends.  I’d like to believe he’d be impressed and proud of the man I grew up to be. As always I wish you  happiness and success!

A Wall Street Fairy Tale

Is the sky really falling?

chicken

Chicken Little lived in Storybook Land. He had a nice government job working for the King, Mr. T. Chicken Little wasn’t born rich, but he was smart and read a lot. He wanted to be rich someday like his cousin Goose Golden-Eggs. Money just seemed to drop out of Goose. She left a pile of wealth everywhere she sat. It didn’t seem fair that some people were  born rich and had more money than brains, but no one ever said life was fair. Chicken had feathered his nest with Index Funds from the Stock Market. He hoped to have a very nice nest egg when he retired. He always paid attention to what was happening with The Stock Market.

The Stock Market was co-owned  by Mr. Bull and Mr. Bear. No one had seen Mr. Bear in years, not since 2009. No one liked it when Mr. Bear ran the market, but thankfully he only did so about once every seven years, and he never ran it for very long. Mr. Bull did a much better job running the Stock Market and always managed to clean up the mess left by Mr. Bear. He even had a new friend keeping him company on Wall Street,  Fearless Girl who just showed up one day and has hung around with Mr. Bull ever since.

Now Chicken Little was always running home from work each day, because he always wanted to see what the Talking Heads on TV had to say. Everyone in Storybook land watched different Talking Heads. There were many of them and you could always find one you liked. The problem was that they all said something different, so you had to be really careful which ones you listened to. Some of them said some very bad and dumb things, and if you listened to them too much, you grew very sad and jaded, like The Old Witch.

The Old Witch liked to tell everyone how  smart she was because she was very old, and she watched the Talking Heads all day long, so she knew everything. As Chicken Little was passing her home, she waved him over.

“Hi Chicken, did  you hear what my favorite Talking Heads said today?”

“No Witch, I was busy working all day so I could have more money to feather my nest.”

“They said Mr. T the King is an idiot, his son is retarded, and he’s going to destroy the world.”

Chicken Little was aghast! He couldn’t believe anyone would say such terrible things, much less listen to them, so he decided to quickly change the subject.

“Say Witch, you’re old and know everything. What’s the best thing to do with your money? I leave ten percent of  my money in  The Stock Market with Mr. Bull and he takes great care of it.”

“The Stock Market?!” she yelled. “You’d have to be crazy to leave money in the Stock Market. Do you remember the big crash of 1929? Humpty Dumpty lost everything  in the Market and leapt to his death because he was so depressed. Only idiots put their money in the Stock Market. I hide all my extra cash in my mattress,  it’s safer than a bank, and I own a nice house, it’s made of Candy and Chocolate.”

Chicken Little didn’t own a house, he rented a nice apartment with a great view. He eyed her home skeptically. “Isn’t candy bad for you? I heard it makes you fat and gives you diabetes.”

 The Old Witch scowled and gave him an angry look.

“What do you know? You’re not as old as I am, and you’re not as smart. I watch the Talking Heads all day. Chocolate comes from cocoa, which is a bean.  Candy is made with sugar which come from sugarcane. So both come from plants and therefore they are both vegetables and vegetables are good for you. Now scat! I’m busy, my favorite TV show is about to start.”

Chicken Little walked away shaking his head. Next he came to the house of the Pigs.

Practical Pig owned a house made of Gold Bricks. He and his brother Fifer were in the yard gardening as Chicken walked past. He called to them.

“Hey Pigs! I was talking with the Old Witch about money, what do you do with yours?”

“All my money is invested in real estate and precious metals.” replied Practical Pig pointing at his house made of gold bricks. Fifer said nothing, he just smiled. 

Practical was older and smarter than his brother Fifer. Fifer lived with his brother and slept on his couch. Fifer  used to own a house made of sticks. It was built on a foundation of sand, and financed with a ‘Ninja’ loan. It was a variable rate mortgage which inflated quickly. Fifer eventually lost his house of sticks when the housing bubble bust, so now he had to live with his brother.

“Isn’t gold and real estate expensive?” asked Chicken.

“It can be, but everyone has to live somewhere, and gold had never been worthless so both are great investments.”  Practical replied.

Chicken alternated looks between Practical Pig and his homeless brother Fifer.

“Say Practical, do you ever hear from your other brother Fiddler?”

“Oh yeah. I spoke to him on the phone this morning. He just moved into a huge expensive mansion financed by BitCoin and Ethereum. It’s totally built out of Ones and Zeros. I worry about him, some day he’ll be sleeping on my couch too.”

Chicken waved goodbye at the brothers and hurried home to his maintenance-free apartment.

The first thing he did when he got home was to turn on the News to listen to what the Talking Heads were saying about the day’s business news. They were all screaming that the sky was falling because the market plunged nearly 666 points and that it was probably the end of the world.

Chicken Little was so shocked by the news that he passed out!

After he recovered from the shock, he reviewed the various news clips to see why the market fell.

Some of the Talking Heads blamed Mr. T the King  for constantly letting his pet blue birds The Tweets fly free,  and said that he didn’t play well with others. Some of the Talking Heads said the Market Fell because The Wicked Witch of the West was the rightful ruler of Storybook Land and the throne had been stolen from her. A few others blamed it on The Man in the Moon and yelled at the sky. A few blamed the Russians. A few said they had ‘no idea why, it was a mystery.’ A few said it fell because the market fluctuates and it’ll bounce back. Uncle Warren the Wise Wizard of Wall Street said he was going to buy lots of cheap stocks first thing in the morning.  Little Jack Horner  sat in the corner eating his pie. The Cheshire Cat smiled until he faded away,  leaving only his grin. Everyone seemed to react to the news differently.

In the end, Chicken Little checked that his nest was still intact, saw that his index stocks were still up for the year, and discovered that despite what some of the Talking Heads claimed, everything was going to be just fine. He decided to listen to Uncle Warren and pick up a few bargains at the Stock Market, and knew that one day, he too would grow up to be a Wizard of Wall Street.

The End

Fairy Tales were a traditional way to entertain young impressionable minds while at the same time conveying a moral lesson. Even Jesus Christ occasionally turned to parables when trying to covey complex ideas to the crowd. There are lots of individuals who have difficulty understanding  how the economy, the stock market, and even personal finances work.  Throw in politics and religion and people get real confused quite fast.

February 2nd, 2018 marked one of the largest drops of the Dow Jones Industrial Average  since 2009. The thousand point plunge from the prior week’s high probably scared the novice investor to death. It’s not as bad as some of the ‘experts’ are claiming. Investing in stocks still results in far greater returns on investment than real estate, precious metals, or even the dangerous new gimmick, crypto-currencies like BitCoin. I’d stay far away from that last one, when that bubble pops, it’s going to burst loud and hard!

The bottom line is that there are many factors which impact our day to day lives, and just as many pundits, cynics, and fools with opinions. Everyone has an opinion.  It can become quite the task to filter out the many voices and distill all the information to refine a pure source.  What do singers , athletes, and movie stars really know when they speak on a topic? For every one celebrity with an actual college degree, there are at least a hundred who barely even graduated  high school.  Check your sources, check your information, and review your facts before making a decision which could potentially ruin your future happiness. Just because everyone around you is telling you what you want to hear doesn’t mean it’s the truth. You just might be in an echo chamber surrounded by sycophants.   Tread carefully.  As always, I wish you happiness and success!