Q. I am 54. My husband is 52. We have a combined income of $147,000 and fund our Roth and my 401(a) plans. We have two school age children. We have funded their basic college tuition. We used our state 529-guaranteed educational tuition plan (GET). We also have $250,000 in savings. Our mortgage is $465,000 at 3.5 percent, with 26 years left. We are not saving much outside of our retirement accounts. I have been making one extra mortgage payment each year to chip away at the balance. Should we work harder to pay off the mortgage? If so, at what rate? —C.K., Seattle, WA
A. Your basic choices are between three different investment vehicles. You can put more money in your retirement plans, in mortgage reduction, or in taxable savings. If you save in guaranteed investments such as certificates of deposit, the yield will be low and taxable. So that’s not a good option. Paying down the mortgage gets you an effective return of 3.5 percent. Each payment will reduce the interest cost of the mortgage in the future. The effective rate will be lower because you enjoy some tax benefits from the interest deduction.
That leaves putting extra money, if possible, into your Roth. Many upper-middle income workers make contributions to a Roth plan. It will give them more tax and spending flexibility in the future. It also may help them avoid some of the taxation of Social Security benefits.
If you haven’t already, you should also check on the status of your GET contributions. The plan changed last year.
Q. I am 70-years old, retired, single, and in good health. I do not own a home. I rent. I have no debt. My assets are my IRA and $20,000 in my rainy-day fund. Family history says I may live into my mid-90's, with a good quality of life.
I currently have about $600,000 invested in Vanguard funds in my IRA portfolios (10 of them). I have a 60/40 ratio of stocks-to-bonds. Except for $30,000 in the Windsor II fund, my savings are in index funds.
I recently talked to a Vanguard money adviser. She suggested a 50/50 stock-to-bond ratio for my age. She said that I could do this by investing this way. Put half of my assets in the Life-Strategy Moderate Growth Fund (60/40 ratio). Put the remaining half in the Life-Strategy Conservative Growth Fund (40/60 ratio). This would give me an average 50/50 ratio of stocks to bonds.
I follow the 4 percent withdrawal method for my yearly withdrawals. Coupled with my Social Security benefits of $26,000 this gives me $50,000 a year. This is adequate to maintain my current lifestyle.
Does the Vanguard recommendation sound good to you? Do the two funds recommended by Vanguard have a good history of returns?—C.C., by email
A. The Morningstar website suggests Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth fund has a middling track record. It ranked in the 48th percentile over the last ten years. Vanguard LifeStrategy Conservative Growth Fund has done better. It placed at the 25th percentile over the same period.
These are “funds of funds.” This means they consist of low-cost index funds in a variety of asset classes. Vanguard averages the expense ratios of the included funds. It doesn't add another fee. So the “all-in” expense ratios for the funds are 0.16 percent and 0.15 percent, respectively.
The Vanguard adviser made an entirely reasonable suggestion, but you might consider some Vanguard managed-fund options with superior track records and similar expenses. Vanguard Wellington is a managed 60/40 fund and Vanguard Wellesley is a managed 40/60 fund. Mix them half and half and your portfolio mix would be the same as that recommended by the Vanguard representative. The expense ratios would be 0.18 percent and 0.16 percent.
But the performance is a world apart. Wellesley and Wellington, over the last 10 years, placed in the top 1 percent and top 4 percent. They returned an average annualized 6.67 percent versus 4.39 percent for the Life Strategy funds. More than 2 percent a year, compounded over 10 years, is a big difference.
Will they continue to provide such superior results? The odds are against it. That said, I’ve been mentioning these two funds for many years. In spite of the odds, and in spite of my preference for index-based investments.
Why? They have demonstrated superior performance for long periods of time.