Q. Is it possible to estimate how much money a single woman, living in the NY metropolitan area, would need to have saved in order to retire comfortably at age 55? Assume that Social Security, when it kicks in, will be at the upper end. —M.G., by email
A. Like the rest of life, it all depends on the choices you make. If you check the broke and beautiful life website, for instance, Stefanie O’Connell estimates living costs at about $2,500 a month for a young single woman. That estimate is for having a room in a shared apartment, an unlimited Metro card for transportation and groceries of $300 a month. Clothing is absent but the budget includes savings of $350 a month and health insurance of $328 a month. Since her budget is for a young person who is not retired, you’ll need to make some adjustments so the budget will reflect age and personal choices. It would probably work best if you could do a replay of “Golden Girls,” but in a New York apartment.
One thing you can bear in mind is that you’ll have plenty of places to “fall back” to if the budget doesn’t work out. Every issue of “Where To Retire” magazine, for instance, has a chart comparing the cost of living between 100 different cities. If you live in NYC, Manhattan or Brooklyn, you can move just about anywhere in the country and cut your cost of living substantially.
The hardest part of this idea isn’t living in New York. It is retiring at 55 and waiting at least seven years for reduced Social Security benefits. That takes real money.
Q. Is there a guideline for what a "reasonable" fee for management of an investment account should be? I am not displeased with the service I receive, but I just have a "feeling" that the quarterly fees I'm paying are a bit excessive. If I determine that they are what recourse do I have —other than moving my account to another managing firm? Are these fees negotiable? —B.L., by email
A. Yes, management fees are negotiable. How much you can negotiate depends on how much you are investing. Large accounts can negotiate quite a bit. Small accounts can’t. Brokers at major firms, for instance, sometimes complain that they are discouraged from even opening an account if it has less than $250,000.
“Reasonable” depends on who is doing the observing. All-in fees for insurance products run 2 to 3 percent a year. Wrap accounts at brokerage firms run less, but 2 percent is viewed as reasonable by those who make their living managing such accounts. Many traditional Registered Investment Advisory firms have charged 1 percent of assets for creating and managing portfolios of stocks and bonds.
In the end, “reasonable” is defined by the cost (and income expectations) of the distribution system that is delivering the services. The hands-on, meeting-with-you- at-home, services are priced accordingly.
Another view of “reasonable” begins with the impact fees will have on your actual investment. If the fees are likely to reduce your return compared to simple alternatives, it’s hard to argue that they are reasonable. Unfortunately, most of the financial services industry is structured so that fees aren’t reasonable under the impact-on-your-return standard. Odds are that your long-term results will be lower than using a low-cost alternative. That’s why you don’t see managed mutual funds mentioned very often in this column.
Today, it is easily possible to have your investments managed for well under 1 percent a year. Somewhere between 1 percent and half of one percent is a reasonable target. The immediate alternative is to invest in a broadly diversified low-cost index fund. Over the last 10 years, for instance, Vanguard Balanced Index Fund Admiral shares have provided a higher return than 88 percent of the competing managed funds. The fund has done this at a cost of 0.09 percent for investments of at least $10,000.
That’s hard to beat, but many investors would not have stayed in this fund or any other fund over the last 10 years if they had not had a real person to reassure them in the tough times. But if you pay too much for reassurance, you’re back where you started.