A New Year – A New Opportunity

We’ve completed a second year in this pandemic that upended most of our habits and norms. Before we embrace a quasi-new normal and return to our old ways, we have an opportunity at the start of this year to pause, step back, and review what has and hasn’t worked in our lives.

It’s natural that we should want our financial life to be supportive and in concert with our values and life choices. I encourage you to identify and mobilize behaviors that add energy and positive feelings into your life. This year, prioritize those healthy behaviors and do your best to eliminate or minimize the negative ones.

The Milestones & Impressions notebook can help you create a personal record of what has added value and what makes you feel good each year. Over time, these notebooks will be a source of key events, patterns, and behaviors that mattered in your life. Possibly they will be a resource to help you identify what you wish to include in your ideal life.

Ultimately the process of taking time to reflect provides greater satisfaction and increases financial resiliency (readiness to handle unexpected financial issues in an efficient and streamlined manner). Financially resilient people focus on things they can control, such as meaningful spending, rather than the things that are beyond our control like market behavior. Recent studies suggest that acknowledging the events that bring joy to your life and recognizing from time to time just how fortunate we are will help to increase financial resiliency, and in-turn, well-being.

Be kind to yourself and take the New Year to reimagine yourself and your relationship with your finances.

Here is to a hopeful and happy 2022!

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Retirement Income Planning – Spend early or make it last?

During our working years we plan for retirement or financial independence in part by saving maximally and investing in assets that are likely to appreciate.  While we are working and saving for retirement we are in the accumulation phase. As we approach retirement (within about 5 years) we continue accumulating assets and begin the process of distributing those assets to sustain our chosen lifestyle throughout retirement. When we use an income stream from our assets we have entered the distribution phase.

During the accumulation phase we all focus on portfolio returns and tolerate some volatility. We can weather market fluctuations and lack of liquidity since we are not dependent on the portfolio and have our earnings to support our lifestyle. The main objective is to pay required taxes, support our lifestyle, save, and establish a life that encourages us to flourish.

As we approach the time when our assets alone will be used to support our lives, it becomes essential that we address the nuances of how the assets will be deployed – this is termed Retirement Income Planning.

Retirement Income Planning addresses in a pro-active manner how to create a stream of income for our remaining days (using accumulated assets) once our income from work no longer fully supports our lifestyle. Since the retirement time horizon is unknown, we must marry wishes for early retirement or plans for having larger income distributions with having assets last through an unknowable lifespan.

Running out of money is never an option in retirement but leaving money behind is also not acceptable, if it limits your lifestyle. This balance becomes a challenge as lifespans extend and health preservation becomes more successful and expensive. The latest survey shows that couples aged 65 have more than half probability (56%) of at least one spouse living to age 92. Despite these findings many feel they will not live past 80 and yet, if healthy and productive, they might feel very differently once they reach 90. Planning effectively for longevity is essential and must be weighed against the benefits of early spending.

For Retirement Income Planning, we also need to manage tax liability since we want to be sure that assets last as long as possible, particularly tax-deferred assets that are taxed at ordinary tax rates on withdrawal.

A market downturn can more greatly impact a portfolio early in retirement or just before the distribution phase. In retirement, unlike in the accumulation phase, it is much more difficult for the portfolio to recover from a market downturn. A robust retirement income plan must include ways to deliver the needed income regardless of market behavior.

The new reverse mortgages are income distribution tools that retirees can use to access home equity as part of a retirement income plan. For some, they provide at least three advantages early in retirement: reduced tax liability, longer investment time for the portfolio, and enjoyment of their home until retirees are ready to downsize.

For all retirees preserving their purchasing power (not just preserving the dollar amount) is an essential part of an income plan. Failure to include inflation protection is evident when retirees hold little to no significant equity portfolio and the consequences are dire. Though annuity and pensions are useful income distribution tools they fail unless combined with a strategy that protects against inflation. Sustaining purchasing power is even more significant when considering healthcare expenses. Keep in mind that healthcare costs grow due to inflation and also as a percent of annual spending as we age.

Scenarios that use all available tools to address how to best deploy retirement income will provide each retiring person with confidence to spend early and throughout retirement without fear of outlasting their assets.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Money Battles and the pitfalls of financial infidelity

Let’s face it, making important financial decisions can be stressful at the best of times. When life partners fail to see eye-to-eye on finances it can lead to discord if they don’t have a way of working through their differences. It’s no secret, when compared to other types of marital disagreements, arguments over finance are the strongest predictors of divorce.  Financial decisions get even harder to make as we grow older—the habits of the past increasingly difficult to break. Add a touch of procrastination to the mix and you’ve got the potential for real trouble. It’s no wonder then, how easily decisions affecting retirement can turn into a battle over money, when so much is at stake. The best way to avoid unpleasant (and generally unnecessary) confrontations over money is to have a process in place. Let me explain . . .

Ideally, couples will create a money decision-making process early enough in their relationship that it becomes almost second nature—ensuring financial discussions are honest, frank, frequent and cordial. Both partners must be kept up-to-date on the family’s financial dealings and how those dealings align with understood and accepted goals. From our experience, monthly or at least quarterly meetings to discuss/review finances are invaluable.

This isn’t to say, every penny must be accounted for. Each partner must feel that they have reasonable autonomy and freedom to act within an allotted budget, BUT both must be clear that there are boundaries. Some couples set a specific dollar amount above which they must check with their partner and/or reach out to their financial advisor when especially tough financial decisions arise. For example, couples are well advised to discuss in detail funding a child’s college education, their retirement budget, or when to cease working.

Fights over money can be avoided if both partners have a handle on household finances, and moreover, feel their voice is included in all financial decisions.

If one partner pays all the bills and takes care of all the investments, the other partner over the long-term will begin to feel they are not a full participant in the relationship (or at least, they ought to feel that way). To counter this possibility, some choose to exchange roles for part of the year. Others have a regular monthly meeting to be sure that both are indeed aware of the family’s finances. AT A MINIMUM, all couples should go over how to access the family’s financial information (bank accounts, retirement plans, insurance, and investment accounts, etc.) AT LEAST ONCE PER YEAR.

When one partner takes on the financial responsibility for the family the inequity can (unintendedly or not) lead to “financial infidelity.” Financial infidelity occurs when one partner hides their spending on things they feel strongly about despite a clear agreement to the contrary by the couple. As an example, one partner might secretly fund their child’s business venture. I’m aware of one case where this actually happened. The situation was not revealed until the death of the offending life partner. The surviving partner’s betrayal was made all the worse by the fact that their retirement assets were depleted without his/her knowledge. The child that benefited from the covert funding, moreover, was not in a position to repay the surviving parent.

To avoid or at least reduce the likelihood of conflict over money, here are a few helpful guidelines:

  1. Communicate on expenses early, frankly, openly and honestly
  2. Meet regularly to review finances
  3. Update goals and ensure all parties are on the same page

When speaking of goals, articulate them out loud (i.e., verbally or in writing) and be sure to include your goals for both the present and the future.

The decision-making process itself should be reviewed as part of your conversation. For example, how do you determine your life-style budget, your savings goals, and what happens when you encounter expenses that fall outside of your budget for some reason?

As large financial decisions approach (such as retirement funding), the reality will undoubtedly generate much needed discussion. This conversation can turn into conflict if one side of a partnership is not in touch with family finances and family goals. Those who opt to avoid financial conversations will invariably find themselves in “money battles” that can seriously erode trust and faith in the relationship.

Facing major financial decisions, such as when, how and where to retire, needn’t be a source of discomfort or conflict. Far from it. If there is a reasonable process in place, the experience can be part of a shared life experience, an opportunity for optimism and mutual support.

I should add, in closing, that being single and unattached, doesn’t make you less susceptible to the stress imposed by major financial decisions like those discussed above. In fact, the “internal conflict” may be worse without someone to bounce things off of. If you are on your own, the same guidelines apply, but your “partner” in this is your trusted financial advisor.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Building Wealth: Your Real Estate Asset

Real estate is often purchased as a lifestyle asset (to live in) or as a commercial investment (to generate rental income). It’s also quite common for people to think of their home as both lifestyle and an investment. Certainly, the most common near-term goal for families is home ownership – many think it amounts to a “no brainer” investment (meaning they think their home is a great investment) when it actually costs them much more than they realize.

In our examination of annual return rates on residential and commercial real estate we find that real estate is by no means a no brainer investment. Real estate assets can indeed contribute to wealth creation if the purchaser buys for value, carefully manages maintenance/renovation costs, and the sale is handled with an eye to minimizing taxes on gain from the sale.

Your residence has the potential to be a large part of your wealth, particularly in the Bay Area, but it can also be your largest liability.

Lending institutions have different requirements when lending for an owner occupied residence than for commercial real estate. A primary residence can often be purchased with lower down payments and lower mortgage rates than non-owner occupied real estate. In addition, on the sale of the owner occupied residence the gain will often fall under the capital gain exclusion rules which allow couples to exclude $500K from their income, tax free. This is one of the few opportunities to realize gain completely tax free. Couples who want their residence to be an investment rather than a lifestyle asset should consider selling their home once the gain (market value above basis) in their home approaches the $500K cap gain exclusion. This doesn’t mean you have to buy bigger or smaller or move away from your neighborhood but it does mean that you must sell a property to capture this tax free gain.

If a couple bought a home for $600K, made no renovations and 5-10 years later it is worth $1M they could choose to sell their home and retain the $400K gain tax free. They could repeat this process several times in a couple’s lives and each time a sale is completed the gain can be retained tax free. At the end of 3 rounds (there are residence requirements for each exclusion to be allowed) this couple could have managed to clear (net) well over $1M tax free. Despite this unparalleled opportunity to build tax free wealth, most home owners will buy one home and live in it until retirement. A well purchased property will still yield gain but much of it will be taxed. A home purchased at $600K that sells for $1.8M in retirement will have $500K of the gain tax free but $700K will be taxed at capital gain rates federally and at regular income rates by the state.

A residence can turn into a large liability when the debt burden is too high, when the home renovations do not yield increased value for resale, when the home requires a lot of maintenance, and when the location is no longer appealing (loss of home value appreciation).

Unlike residential home purchases, real estate purchased for investment is first valued on its ability to generate sufficient income and not as much on its appreciation. Before buying an investment property the property is thoroughly analyzed from various perspectives. An APOD (Annual Property Operating Data) is the principal tool to understand the cash flow, return rate, and profitability that can be expected from a prospective property. Once a property passes the APOD test (primarily for risk assessment) then the tax shelter provided by such an investment and the impact of the time value can be used to determine if this is an appropriate investment. Not surprisingly, much of the success of these investments stem from proper usage of tax rules. The value of the annual depreciation (using Schedule E) is well known. An equally important tax tool is a 1031 exchange. In a 1031 exchange the value of the investment property you own can be used to buy a second investment property of the same or greater market value while deferring tax payments on the gain.

In short, both residential and non-owner occupied real estate can be part of your investment plan. Unlike market investments it is more difficult to identify and protect against unexpected events and the illiquid nature of ‘real’ assets. Managing real estate to attain investment value requires thoughtful deliberate actions that may not always be aligned with your personal wishes (far from being a “no brainer”). Investing in real estate can reap big rewards, but entails doing a lot of meticulous research, taking only risks that are necessary, covering for contingencies, working with an experienced team, and then allowing time to do the work.

If you need help deciding whether a real estate purchase fits with your long term goals, give Aikapa a call.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Financial Decisions: Taming unhealthy habits

I’ve always been fascinated by how and why we continue with habits (behaviors) we know to be intrinsically out of line with what we want. There’s plenty of literature to explain the biology, particularly related to marketing and Artificial Intelligence (AI), that illustrate how our brains make decisions. I wrote an article some years ago on the science behind financial decision making (“Taming Our Irrational Brain,” Association for Women in Science Magazine, Summer 2009, Vol 39, No 3). If you’re interested in the science you may find it a good place to start. In summary, I think understanding how to change our decision making process begins with a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Choosing among competing options is a fundamental part of life. Historically cognitive processes or reflexive stimulus-driven automatic reactions. To deal with the massive and complex number of choices we face on an ongoing basis, individuals use multiple “systems” that offer tradeoffs in terms of speed and accuracy, but can optimize behavior and decisions under different situations. We shift quickly from “use your head” to “go with your gut” making daily decisions heart wrenching. This clutters the brain and adds uncertainty to decisions – making decisions stress-filled.

Ideally we would have automatic behaviors that keep us aligned with our planned (cognitive) objectives. I believe that sustainable change has to be linked to a simple consistent and believable process that can support you during stress-filled times. Though there are different approaches to creating these behaviors I will focus on Charles Duhigg’s three-step process for changing habits (he refers to them as CUE-REWARD-ROUTINE) and add my own thoughts as we go along. Obviously, my focus is on developing healthy financial habits.

  1. First, we need to acknowledge what it is that we want to change and what it is that we wish to attain. What financial behavior are we interested in changing? We need to visualize what we’d like to see instead of our current behavior.
  2. We must then identify the triggers for this behavior (or “CUEs”). Duhigg suggests that we ask ourselves what we were doing right at the time, who were we with, where we were, and, what we were doing just before the behavior. One of his best examples is when you get up to get a snack in the middle of your work – what were you doing just before you got up? What was your trigger? Some people have similar triggers for spending beyond their budget and, yes, even for making buy/sell decisions on their portfolio.
  3. Next, we must understand what “reward” we obtain from this particular behavior (habit). This step is essential because we need to find something equally rewarding to successfully implement a change in our reaction when we next experience the same trigger. The new reward must be one that is both doable and strong enough to replace the current reward but also in line with our plan. Was the reward for getting a snack really to satisfy hunger, or were we bored, or in need of social interaction or just anxious? For example, consider the person who checks their portfolio every time they feel the trigger. Their reward may be to talk to people about it (social interaction) or it may be boredom (interacting with a different software) or it may be something else. This individual will first need to identify the trigger that prompts them to check their portfolio often and determine what reward they receive for doing this action.To change a reaction to a particular trigger, the goal is always to identify a substitute reward that is aligned with your well-being and your plan. For example, going for a walk alone or with friends, taking up a mental or physical activity that is positive–anything that will actually yield the change you are hoping to make.
  4. Then lock it in, so to speak, by establishing a “routine” around both the triggers and reactions that will make the new habit permanent. If the reward is strong enough, over time it will seem less and less routine, even enjoyable. In our fast moving world more and more decisions are made quickly, even without thought. It doesn’t help that marketers are out to manipulate our choices at every turn even if it means deviating us from our personal wishes (after all that is their job). This imposes a degree of stress if not countered by healthy habits. Ultimately, a well-lived life is all about making daily choices that enhance our chances of achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

It is evident that establishing any new behavior (habit) needs a belief system and a support system that you can reach out to during stressful times to ensure that you don’t revert to the original behavior. I find that for some clients Aikapa has become this support system as they strive to adjust financial habits and align them with their financial plan. It’s our job to help clients remember the reason(s) why these behaviors are important and to help them visualize their financial rewards on an annual basis. We do this through client meetings and by examining savings, investment portfolio and retirement plans.

In short, attaining financial wealth and peace of mind are indeed possible when you can develop habits that work for you. It is our mission to educate and help you build a stress reduced financial life while maximizing your wealth. If you are working on building a new financial habit to support your dreams, don’t forget to include Aikapa as part of your support team.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Fostering Financial Peace of Mind

According to a study (conducted by the Research Intelligence Group) we struggle with regret over financial decisions, argue over spending, feel pressure to keep up with friends or colleagues, and bend the truth to friends and family about our financial situation in order to save face. In many cases, the primary response of stress is denial. Unfortunately, putting off these financial conversations can affect mental and physical well-being and the quality of our lives. The longer we stay silent about challenging financial situations, the bigger the problem is likely to become. Often this leads to regret for not having created a financial plan (and good financial habits) early in our lives – but is it ever too late?

Without a financial plan in place it is difficult to know if you’re making the most of the resources you have. It is also difficult to establish financial habits that will support you regardless of what life throws your way. Moreover, it is difficult to annually monitor and adjust the various competing demands for your finances in a way that allows you to sleep well at night.

According to many studies women are significantly more likely than men to lose sleep over financial worries. Fifty percent of women admit losing sleep over financial worries and forty percent of men. It is these issues that bring out some of the differences in how women handle financial adversity. For women, financial planning is inclusive, focused on building and maintaining the family, community and even beyond, well into the future. For men (on average) it seems that the focus is less on the relationship and more on the short-term transaction. According to financial author Kelley Keehn, in the face of considerable stress, men release higher doses of adrenaline, activating a “flight or flight” response, while women produce higher levels of oxytocin, activating a “tend and befriend” response.

Keeping in mind how we tend to react to financial stress, a clear well-defined financial path and a trusted financial professional with whom you can maintain a sincere collaborative and communicative relationship can go a long way toward building confidence, and hence, peace of mind.

Here are a few things you can do to ensure that you’re not the one losing sleep over finances:

  1. Do your due diligence. Demand that those giving you advice have your best interest at heart and have the qualifications and experience to provide this advice (especially if you have very specific needs). Moreover, find out if your advisor has any real or potential conflicts of interest.
  2. Understand what fees you pay and what value they add to your ongoing and future financial needs.
  3. Be prepared when you meet with your advisor. Do your part, keeping track of your finances and letting your advisor know in advance of your meeting of any items that you would like clarified as part of the agenda.
  4. Get to know your financial and personal goals intimately and be sure that they are reflected in all your financial decisions.
  5. Seek opportunities to enhance your financial education. Keeping abreast of valuable (not hyped) financial news. Stay away from pundits and financial hype.
  6. Include your partner and your adviser in your process. Don’t try to “go it alone.”

At Aikapa, we choose our clients carefully to be sure that we have the greatest chance to add value to their financial lives and their portfolio. Our clients tend to be high achieving professionals/business owners with an interest in building solid financial habits that will lead them to a life they will enjoy.

Sleeping well is essential to good solid decisions and enjoying life. If you find yourself losing sleep over your finances or getting overly anxious, give us a call or drop us an email. It is our mission to educate and help you build a stress reduced financial life while maximizing your wealth. Let’s continue to remain in touch and let us know if we can help you with any financial issue.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Empowering yourself through financial education

After six years of annual editions, we have decided to retire the Aikapa Financial Planning Calendar. Once this decision was made, it became clear that I needed to find some new way to address financial education since it is a fundamental aspect of our (AIKAPA’s) mission.

But what was it to be?

I explored tools that help build healthier financial habits. I listened to several clients describe how difficult it is to evaluate media stories about the market and investments. This led me to recognize that the financial media and the internet tend to hype products and encourage quick (‘easy’) financial decisions without providing any fundamentals. What was needed, I realized, was a tool to help you educate yourself and build your confidence regarding investments.

In the coming week I’ll be sending our clients a well written book that I feel best describes the fundamental behavior and considerations of a successful long term investor (let me know if you wish me to send it to a different address). To encourage you to read the book and truly absorb the most important principles of investing I’ve taken the liberty of personalizing it–tabbing and annotating the sections that I think will be of most value.

Whether you choose to read the entire book or just the highlighted sections, it is my hope that you will understand why your portfolio is made up of low cost, quality investment funds, why they are diversified, and why we don’t buy the latest gimmick or sell only based on a poor annual performance. I think you will see that the role of a long term investor is to preserve purchasing power while holding on to a margin of safety so that we can build our wealth. Each component in your portfolio has a role. If we want to change them we can, but never as an emotional response (or as the book states – never in response to the bipolar reactions of “Mr Market”). If you do buy and sell based on Mr Market’s reaction then you’ve entered in the realm of speculation.

As markets go up and down there will be times when a diversified portfolio will not perform as well as those focused in one sector. Unlike a single sector portfolio, it is a diversified portfolio that provides a long term margin of safety while allowing for growth opportunities. If you fully understand where you are going and how your portfolio will get you there then you’ll embrace market gyrations.

I hope this book and future discussions will help you filter out the investment media and help you better understand your own portfolio.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Uncloaking Investment Sales Pitches – Dig beyond the pitch

Two weeks ago a client brought promotional material from a stock-picking service and asked if it was “too good to be true”. In October we had a client bring in a booklet titled “Banned in America” providing an opportunity to obtain a “Death of Cash Survival Kit”. These types of sales pitches, along with the advertising practices of some firms, increase anxiety and misunderstanding, contributing little if anything to consumer education. I thought I’d share some of the sales tactics we’ve encountered this year.

Example 1: The Stock Picking Service

Consider this claim “84% of our stock picks are winners … gained more than 300% in less than eight years’ time … An investment of $100,000 in our portfolio recommendations would be worth $389,414 today. In comparison, the same investment in the S&P 500 index would be worth only $149,970 … outperformed the S&P by 165%”.

Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?! So, what’s wrong? There is no portfolio. There are only stock picks at the beginning of the 8 year period and no indication of how you would buy the next picks. Since there is no portfolio, they don’t address buy/sell timing, costs, or performance. Usually they have a large number of purchases (beyond the $100K) that must be made before there is a sell order. If you sold any of the original stocks (to make the recommended buys) you would not have the gains quoted. What about the recommendations that didn’t perform? Any picks that do not work may disappear in future reports. In some cases, they might even be “pump and dump” schemes to raise the price of particular stocks before the owners sell them.

But how can they be allowed to make these claims? Most of these offerings are made through “educational subscriptions” that fall short of the definition of investment advice. In fact, they are not required or accountable to any investment regulatory agency.

Example 2: Selection of “hand-picked” Managers

This year we had a new experience with a prospective client who compared our real portfolio performance with a portfolio of investment managers selected specifically for them by another advisory firm. I found it difficult to explain (without appearing self-serving) that the portfolio of ‘hand-picked’ managers with an impressive portfolio return (well above all averages) was a new creation not a proven selection. There was no evidence to indicate that the advisory firm had any talent for selecting managers in the past or that this outstanding performance was not the result of survivorship bias (that is, ignoring under performers and only reporting returns for well performing advisors).

Sometimes it can be difficult to understand or explain the problem of survivorship bias in a ‘hand-picked’ portfolio. At Aikapa, all positions in our portfolio are publicly reported and there is no survivorship bias.

Example 3: Modeled Mutual Fund Portfolio

Some large investment firms love to create model portfolios that have little relevance to a client’s actual (real) portfolio. By model portfolios we mean portfolios in which the securities aren’t specifically identified. Since the securities included in the portfolio are unidentified, there is no way for an independent evaluator to verify if the calculated return provided by the model has any relevance to attainable returns or past history. There is the potential in model portfolios for survivorship bias (any under performing fund can be eliminated and no one the wiser). In addition, the models do not include front, back and ongoing fees. A model portfolio that doesn’t include real large costs obfuscates the performance that the client can expect from their portfolio now and in retirement.

Example 4: Cumulative Return

Although cumulative return presentations are ubiquitous I have been spared seeing client portfolio reports with only cumulative returns – until this year. Cumulative returns are calculated using total earnings without regard for time. Cumulative returns (on their own) are intrinsically deceptive. For example, a 20% return is a good return over two years but a dismal return over 20. If two cumulative returns start at different times then the returns can’t be compared. It is much more useful to report rolling annualized compounded returns for each year than to show only the cumulative return.

Example 5: Purchase of illiquid assets as core investments

Many investment advertisements show private real estate investments as an excellent way for a small investor to quickly grow their entire retirement asset. The presentations illustrate the very high upside potential but often fail to point out the significant change in liquidity and risks compared to a publicly traded diversified portfolio. Unfortunately, several of our new clients experienced the real impact of the downside when the market took a downturn and their real estate projects couldn’t obtain necessary financing. It is during such a crises that a client learns the real meaning of downside risk and how lack of liquidity prevents them from recovering any of their investment. In addition, these sales pitches often forget to outline the increased costs and administration associated with managing such investments.

In short, a sales pitch should never be the sole basis for evaluating how to invest your hard earned money particularly assets already earmarked for your retirement. Do your homework and explore the strategies behind the sales pitches. In all investment decisions let your goals (not the sales pitch) define your target return.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®