The 401(k): A failed experiment?



Ever wonder how the people who give us our financial news actually invest? Do you assume they have a secret sauce that propels their 401(k) balance to the top? Today’s article, written by Weston Wellington, a Vice President with Dimensional Fund Advisors,  contains an insider’s admission of folly, and points out (again) the glaring problem even the most prudent of investors face: the need for expert advice when it comes to picking your 401(k) investments.


Joe Nocera is a bright guy. Over the course of a lengthy career, the former Fortune executive editor has won numerous awards for excellence in business journalism and recently co-authored a penetrating analysis of the financial crisis (All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis). He now hangs his hat at the New York Times, covering a wide range of business-related topics.

Mr. Nocera also stands out for his willingness to discuss the sorry state of his personal finances, a startling admission for a world-class financial journalist. With his sixtieth birthday approaching, he recently revealed to readers that his 401(k) is “in tatters.”

Some of the culprits are familiar: A concentrated strategy during the technology boom put a big dent in his portfolio, and a divorce several years later inflicted similar damage. A third source of difficulty is harder to fathom—the decision to raid his 401(k) to fund a home remodeling project. Such behavior strikes us as the sort of short-term thinking journalists are so quick to condemn in the executive suite.

Mr. Nocera acknowledges that good financial advisors provide sound advice regarding discipline and diversification, but he doesn’t appear to have consulted one.

Mr. Nocera found a sympathetic ear in Teresa Ghilarducci, a behavioral economist at The New School. She was not the least bit surprised by his experience—most humans, in her view, have neither the skill nor the emotional stability to be successful investors. She finds the entire concept of a participant-driven 401(k) a “failed experiment.”

Prompted by this tale of woe, I dug out twenty-three years’ worth of 401(k) statements and surveyed the results for the first time. When I opened my first 401(k) statement in March 1990, it showed a whopping balance of $195.26 from investments in three Putnam Equity mutual funds—two US and one global. (Mr. Nocera says he began putting retirement money away in the late 1970s, so he had at least a ten-year head start.)

After joining Dimensional in early 1995, I liquidated the Putnam funds and placed the rollover balance in Dimensional’s 401(k). I don’t recall what my thinking was at the time, but with seven equity funds in my account rather than three, it seems plausible that I devoted more than three minutes to the portfolio construction decision. Maybe six.

Over the last twenty-three years, I have occasionally been tempted to fiddle with the allocation scheme, usually after some big move in the markets up or down. But I am skeptical of my capacity for self-discipline. What if a tactical decision to underweight small stocks or overweight emerging markets turned out to be right? Would I be tempted to make an even bigger bet the next time? I could find myself on a slippery slope leading to a one-fund portfolio.

My preferred strategy, as a result, is to do nothing. Some might argue I have taken this slothful approach to an extreme, having never added a new fund to the lineup (no Emerging Markets Value?!), never tweaked the portfolio weights, and never rebalanced. Call it the Rip Van Winkle strategy—when you get the urge to do something, take a nap.

From a humble beginning, my account has grown to a generous sum over the past twenty-three years, although it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. It took a bruising during the technology stock meltdown (March 31, 2000—September 30, 2002) and suffered a thumping loss during the financial crisis (September 30, 2007—March 31, 2009) despite a stream of fresh contributions.

But the subsequent recovery was dramatic as well, and the current balance exceeds the 2007 high water mark by a comfortable margin. This is not an exercise in self-congratulation, just an example of what anyone could have done by harnessing the forces of competitive markets to work on their behalf.

Perhaps the 401(k), in its current form, is indeed a “failed experiment” for a substantial fraction of the workforce. Another interpretation is that the 401(k) was never intended as a centerpiece for retirement funding, and the enrollment process cries out for improvement. Participant outcomes might be greatly enhanced if choices were presented in a way that acknowledges persistent behavioral traits leading to poor decisions.

And when it comes to charting one’s financial future, it appears even journalists skillful enough to unravel complicated financial puzzles can benefit from an objective second opinion.


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Life Insurance: Give the Gift of Care and Love to Your Family

By Peggy D. Martin, MSFS, ChFC, CASL, CLU


My financial services and life insurance career began 43 years ago at age 13 when my father was hired by Equitable Life to be on their sales team.  I assisted in mailings and obtaining contact information for possible prospects.

I don’t remember the exact year in the mid-seventies when this event occurred, but I do remember the day.  It was December 23rd—my sister’s birthday.  Later there would be a party.

My dad was excited.  He was about to close one of his big cases.  He had received underwriting approval from Equitable to issue $200,000 of whole life insurance coverage on a prospective client.  The purpose of the insurance was to provide income replacement for heirs, and then later to provide estate plan funding.

The paperwork was ready for signature and an initial premium required.  My dad was on his way to place the policy inforce.  Upon arriving at his client’s home, holiday festivities were taking place.  The client, with his spouse present, requested that my dad come back right after Christmas.  The paperwork would be signed, the client said, the check would be written.

Reluctantly, my dad agreed to come back.  Before leaving he stressed the fact that coverage would be in place today if the paperwork were signed and the initial premium payment provided.  The client insisted, after Christmas.

A day later, on Christmas Eve, my dad received a phone call from his client’s spouse; his client had been killed in a motorcycle accident.  The paperwork was still on the desk with a note to sign and write out the check. She lamented to my dad, “Why didn’t we take your advice?  My life and my children’s lives will not be the same.”  She was emotionally and financially devastated.

I still get a chill when I think about this family.

All these years later, I have seen the power of life insurance.  Today, over $25,000,000 of death benefit has been paid out to beneficiaries because of the income replacement, business continuity, and estate planning my partners and I have implemented.

Families have been able to grieve and move forward, businesses have been able to replace that very key person and continue to employ and produce their product or service.

Life Insurance is the gift of care and love.

I close with:  “The economic value of a human life arises out of its relations to other lives.  Whenever continuance of a life is financially valuable to others, either to family dependents, business associates, or educational and philanthropic situations, the necessity for life insurance is present.”  Solomon S. Huebner, Founder and first President of The American College, 1927.

*Note from the HWF Team:

Today’s post is part of a national Life Insurance Awareness Movement. More than 115 bloggers and financial advisors are collaborating TODAY to flood the Internet with good information about a subject that can be tough to think about—nobody likes to think about their mortality—but is really a financial necessity for any responsible person with financial dependents.

Also, as Peggy mentions in the article, life insurance can be used to plan for estate liquidity (to pay for the estate tax so your heirs don’t have to sell your assets).

Previously, you may recall, Healthy Wealthy Families participated in a national Roth IRA Awareness Movement. To find more articles related to the Life Insurance Movement, search for the hashtag #LifeAware on Twitter. A special thanks to Jeff Rose at for organizing the movement.

From our family to yours, we wish you health and wealth.

Want a copy of my FREE eBook 10 Steps to Ensure You Won’t Outlive Your Money which teaches you the secrets of wealthy investors? Sign up here to get your complimentary copy!

Top Financial Mistakes Families Make When Applying for Financial Aid


Hello from your Healthy Wealthy Families Team!

This is us last weekend at the UC Santa Cruz campus where we attended a financial planning industry Mastermind event. From left to right, Alyssa Hause (we’re a true family business—Hilary’s sister, Alyssa [Martin] Hause has joined the team as a Paraplanner and is studying for the CFP® exam!), Craig Martin, Hilary Martin and Peggy Martin!

From our family to yours, we wish you abundance in health and wealth.

Top Financial Mistakes Families Make When Applying for Financial Aid

Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your family’s only ticket to federal, state and institutional aid, student loans and also merit-based and athletic scholarships, yet many make the mistake of not applying for financial aid correctly or not filing correctly.

In this article, we’re going to help you avoid some of the most common financially disastrous mistakes families make when applying for financial aid. This is in no way a complete review of the topic of strategically planning for college funding, however, so you’ll need to do your research. Also, if you’d like a referral to a college funding expert who can add customized expert advice through the application process, please shoot us an email and we’ll be happy to make an introduction.

The gist of the FAFSA college cost calculation is this:

Cost of Attendance (COA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Need

*Need is the number schools pay attention to, and will attempt to fund either with loans, grants or scholarships). So you can see that it behooves you to minimize your EFC strategically, if you can.

Top Mistakes Families Make on the FAFSA:

  • Aggregating savings in the parents’ names
    Grandparents and other family members who want to contribute to a child’s 529 account can be a blessing to their family; however, when a 529 account is in the parent’s name, its balance is added to the EFC calculation. 529 plans owned by other family members, with the student as beneficiary, will not be included in the financial aid process and will not reduce the amount of financial aid available. Also, UGMA and UTMA accounts in the child’s name will be added to the EFC. Add to this the fact that in the vast majority of cases it’s very inappropriate to save large amounts of money in a minor’s name, and you probably shouldn’t be leaning on the UGMA or UTMA account for savings very heavily at all.
  • Providing too much information
    When information is not asked for, don’t offer it up! For example, the FAFSA form does not ask for retirement account balances, so don’t include them in your assets. Small mistakes can mean big dollars.
  • Missing a deadline
    In California, the priority deadline is March 2, but aid awards begin January. Fill out and return the forms as close to the beginning of January as possible. You can estimate prior year income and tax information, and then file an amended application when you file your tax returns.
  • Providing the wrong parents’ financials
    For divorced or separated families, the FAFSA form only requires income and asset information for the parent who the student has lived with most of the year. Don’t make the mistake of including the other parent’s income or assets as this will change the expected family contribution.
  • Not filing the FAFSA form
    Many families assume that they won’t get financial aid because they have income and assets, but your student will not be eligible for merit or academic scholarships without filing the FAFSA. Every family needs to complete the FAFSA.
  • Assuming private schools are more expensive than state colleges
    Sure, the posted tuition may be higher at private schools, but your key consideration should be how the school helps families with unfunded need. The vast majority of state schools will require families to take out private loans or just leave the need unfunded. Well-endowed private schools will often fund need with grants, vastly decreasing the total cost of attendance to your family.In many cases, the cost of attending a private school is actually lower than the cost of attending a state school.  Do the research on colleges, understand how much of their financial aid is met with scholarships, grants and work study. A great site for researching colleges and financial aid is

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We Got a Brand New Look!

We’ve been hard at work behind the scenes designing a new integrated website and blog, along with a whole new look & feel. Please, let us know what you think! We’ll be adding lots more resources to our site in the coming weeks and months. Healthy Wealthy Families is your best source for investing best practices and behavioral finance content to help you improve your financial future. With Healthy Wealthy Practices, live a fulfilled financial life and achieve the things that are most important to you!

Check out the new blog HERE.

And check out our homepage HERE.






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What Every Investor Ought to Know about Greece and the Eurozone Crisis

The Eurozone’s ongoing drama, especially the possibility that Greece might begin the end of the European currency union, is top of mind for many. In this post, I will describe our professional assessment of the situation, the protections we have in place in your portfolio if you are a client of our firm, and the actions we will take to protect you if the situation further deteriorates.

If you are not a client of our firm, this professional summary is still very relevant to you. It is unbiased, and should help you assess the size of the risk you are now facing. It also describes the way a globally diversified portfolio protects you from depending on guesses about the future.

Summary of the Situation

The European situation is very complex and has added volatility to the global market, which always causes concern.

The crisis has three main elements.

First, some European governments, especially Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, are close to being unable or unwilling to keep up with their promised debt payments.

Second, one way to default is to leave the currency union and print a new, but less valuable, currency to pay off their existing debts. This kind of backdoor default would likely create spill-over effects—contagion—that could sink other, weaker EU member countries.

Third, European banks are large holders of sovereign debt so if there are government defaults, there will be a banking crisis.  The European Central Bank has been providing short-term relief for banks, but many of those financial institutions’ long-term solvency is in question.

In some ways, what European nations are facing is similar to what we dealt with in the US just a few years ago. Taxpayers (and fiscally solvent nations like Germany) are being put upon to bailout failing institutions, and given the interlinked financial system, risks are huge. Additionally, similar to what we faced here, the situation has become as much political as economic.

Greece – the Canary in the Currency Union’s coal mine

Greece’s current ratio of gross debt to GDP is around 160%. Spain’s debt ratio is 60% and Norway’s is more like 25%.

In March, in order to avoid a default, Greece conducted a bond swap with private creditors and its bond values fell precipitously. To date, the Greek government has done little more than take more than US$300 billion in bailouts from the IMF and the EU combined, and promise to reduce debt to 120.5% of GDP by 2020.

A run-off poll on June 17th of this year elected enough members of the pro-bailout parties to form a parliamentary majority, but it’s unclear whether the new government will be able to earn back the credibility necessary to lower borrowing costs.

Assessing the Risk & Taking Action

Your mutual fund manager, Dimensional Fund Advisors, has determined that Greece may lose its status as a developed market, and has suspended all equity purchases in Greece.

However, in global terms, Greece’s economy is very small. According to the IMF, it ranks 42nd, below Chile and above the Czech Republic.

Even during the good times Greece’s publicly traded companies represented roughly 0.25% of your globally diversified equity portfolio.

Greek bonds have never qualified for Dimensional’s bond strategies, so you don’t own any.  Nor do you own debt issued by the other EU members. 

One way to measure the actual uncertainty in the markets is the Volatility Index, or VIX, sometimes known as the “fear index”. The VIX shows the market’s current estimate of the near-term future volatility of the US equity market. As you can see, European uncertainty has elevated volatility at times during the past year, but it has been nowhere near its peak reached around Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008.









Dimensional is closely watching the European situation and continues to review the status of Greece and other EU countries and make appropriate adjustments to your portfolio.


The European situation is very complex and continuously evolving. While it may seem headed towards an obvious outcome, it is a bad idea to base your investment strategy on recent headlines, because everything known publicly has already been priced into the market.

Basing investment choices on speculative forecasts has been shown, time and again, to be a faulty strategy.

We understand that you might be anxious or concerned about future events. It challenges confidence to see countries like Greece face financial uncertainty. And in a global economy Europe’s problems are, to a lesser extent, our problems.

However, change is constant, and we, just like you, cannot possibly know what the eventual outcome will be. We are also confident that your financial plans are still on track.

Rather than invest and act based on what you see in the media, we encourage you to stay the course of your own financial plan, which was developed with your goals and needs in mind.

Our steadfast investment philosophy allows for market ups and downs, and no corrective action is called for at this time.

Remember that the U.S. survived its financial crisis and although there was a chilling bear market in late 2008 and early 2009, investors who stayed the course recovered along with the market.  And investors who continued to save and invest ended up having the opportunity to buys stocks at great prices.

We cannot predict the future any better than the next Nostradamus wannabe except to say based on two centuries of experience, the creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial energy of seven billion people makes the global equity market the best place to seek long-term returns.

We’re always happy to hear from you, so if you have further questions or just want to check in, give us a call!

Want a copy of my FREE eBook “10 Steps to Ensure You Won’t Outlive Your Money” which teaches you the secrets of wealthy investors? Sign up here to get your complimentary copy!”

Happy Father’s Day from Healthy Wealthy Families!

Today’s post is dedicated to all of our Healthy Wealthy Dads!

The challenges of parenthood are immense, but rewarding. Today, you get to celebrate your accomplishments, feel appreciated, set new goals, and have some fun in the sun!

Happy June, and we’d love to know how you’re celebrating Father’s Day. Continue Reading…

The Predictive Value of Morningstar Ratings

Have you ever wondered what to make of the Morningstar ratings? These one-to-five star ratings are attached to nearly every retail mutual fund available, and are published on all of the major information outlets. Mutual fund managers love to highlight four- and five-star ratings in their marketing materials, so they must be worth something, right? Continue Reading…

We Need Your Help

As you know, this space is usually dedicated to furthering you along the path to financial freedom. We make an effort not to burden you with the maze of regulatory issues we comply with, because our focus is on your financial well-being.
But recently, something has come up that could directly impact your financial well-being–and not in a good way.

House Finance Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus, who has been under ethics investigation for insider trading, and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy have sponsored a piece of legislation called The Investment Oversight Act of 2012. It is being described as a way to protect consumers. In fact, it is designed to put all independent Registered Investment Advisors, like us, who fee-only financial advisors and are required to put the interests of our clients first when we give financial advice and are currently governed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, under a regulatory authority led by the investment brokerage industry.To understand the difference between what we do and what brokers do, click here. Investment professionals in the brokerage industry do not hold themselves to the same fiduciary standard with their clients, and because they are not independent like us, they represent immense financial interests in Washington.

This, of course, is the same regulatory organization–the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)–that failed to prevent Wall Street from selling toxic mortgage pools and derivatives into the financial system, leading up to the near-collapse of the economy in 2008. Bernie Madoff was regulated by FINRA from the day he opened his Ponzi scheme for business. Mr. Madoff actually served on the board of governors of this organization back when it was called the National Association of Securities Dealers. We knew something was very wrong back in 2007 when the National Association of Securities Dealers, which was a voluntary brokerage industry group, changed its name to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority when it was nothing of the sort. We felt at that time that FINRA was readying itself for this kind of power grab.

The innocent-looking piece of legislation would actually give us a world where companies like ours would have a hard time existing. It would be a world where all financial advice would be given by brokers, or people forced to act like brokers.

Under normal circumstances, we might have confidence that our Congressional representatives will see through this ruse and do the right thing for their constituents. Unfortunately, a lot of lobbying money is being spent to brokerize the financial world. Among the top ten contributors to the lead sponsor of the bill–Rep. Bachus–are commercial banks (a total of $213,650 in 2011-12), insurance companies ($191,010), securities and investment firms ($184,277), finance/credit companies ($90,438) and “miscellaneous finance” companies ($89,250).

In the 2011-2012 election cycle, Rep. Bachus was the number one fundraiser from commercial banks, from finance/credit companies and from mortgage bankers and brokers. It is incredibly clear that his best efforts are not directed at protecting American investors (you) from the people who are paying for his re-election.

Please view this article as a heads-up that the entire structure of our financial system may be about to change–we believe for the worse. If you are anywhere near as concerned (and angry) as we are about this naked effort to brokerize our financial system, then you might want to contact your elected officials, as we have.

Our message is very simple, and I have included it here to make it easier for you to cut and paste and add your own thoughts. Below are links to help you find your elected officials:

I want to express my strong opposition to the recently proposed Bachus-McCarthy bill, also known as the Investment Oversight Act of 2012.

This piece of legislation has the potential to do significant harm to your small business constituents by subjecting them to yet another layer of bureaucratic regulation. Worse, it would hand off regulation to an entity–FINRA–that has proven to be extremely ineffective at protecting consumers. FINRA is the organization that regulates Wall Street, which failed to prevent the 2008 scandals, including the sale of toxic investment products. Bernie Madoff was under FINRA regulatory jurisdiction for his entire career.

Please, if and when you have an opportunity to vote on this measure, vigorously oppose this effort to build yet another bloated regulatory bureaucracy in Washington. There are far better alternatives to enhancing consumer protection than allowing Wall Street’s regulator to expand its authority over the many small businesses that provide fair and transparent advice to consumers.

For California residents:

Barbara Boxer:

Dianne Feinstein:

And for all Americans:

Here is a link to figure out who is your representative in the House: (upper right-hand corner)

You are important to us, as is your financial well-being. Whenever we see it threatened, we feel the need to take action, and please know that we are monitoring this situation with the full attention that it deserves.

By Bob Veres

Want a copy of my FREE eBook “10 Steps to Ensure You Won’t Outlive Your Money” which teaches you the secrets of wealthy investors? Sign up here to get your complimentary copy!”

How to Break the Cookie Habit – VIDEO


This video is a great follow up to last week’s The Elephant and The Rider post, also on the subject of changing habits.

There was a time in my life I wanted to feel rich, and to me, feeling rich meant spending money. And spend, I did! So the trigger was wanting to feel rich, and the habit was spending on stuff I didn’t really want or need. I felt a little silly when I realized what was going on: I was resentful that I hadn’t been born rich, which explained all the wanting to feel rich. Continue Reading…

Brokers vs. Fiduciaries : A Whiteboard Animation


As part of the community of fee-only financial advisors, we have struggled for years to help the public understand the difference between what we do and what brokerage house employees do (UBS, LPL Financial, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, bank employees, etc.). Those folks call themselves “Financial Advisor” and “Financial Planner”, too, so there is almost no distinction in title.

The only difference is who employs them. We fee-only financial advisors are held to a fiduciary standard, which is the highest standard of duty and care. We put the client’s needs before our own. We work for ourselves, are registered directly with the SEC (or state organizations), and have no product to sell. So what does that mean to the client? Continue Reading…

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