Q: I was looking over my statements recently, and I am pretty disappointed with the return I have been getting on my money. What can I do to increase my investing return?
A: Most physician investors need their portfolio to do at least some of the heavy lifting in creating the nest egg they will live off in retirement. Unrealistically high expectations for investment return often cause physicians to save inadequately, leading to a need to work longer than they wish or spend less in retirement than they had hoped. However, sometimes their expectations are fine; they simply made mistakes that lowered their investment return.
A general rule of thumb is that a physician needs to save about 20 percent of gross income each year for retirement, more if hoping for an early retirement or with a particularly late start. If you failed to do that, there are only three possible solutions: work longer, spend less in retirement, or earn more on your money. Often a combination of the three can do wonders in just a few years. Here, I’m going to discuss several ways to earn more on your investments.
1. Decrease Fees
Perhaps the most significant drag on investment return is the impact of the financial services industry. It is not unusual for physicians to be paying 2 to 3 percent of their assets in advisory and management fees. Eliminating those fees can boost the investment return by 2 to 3 percent. If you have a $500,000 portfolio now and save $50,000 per year over the next decade, earning 8 percent instead of 5 percent on that portfolio results in a 25 percent larger nest egg.
How is it possible to cut fees that much? One of the largest fees is an adviser fee, such as the “industry standard” 1 percent of assets under management. Learning to be your own financial planner and investment manager saves that fee right off the top. That could be worth $10,000 a year on a $1 million portfolio. Many doctors are surprised to learn their financial adviser’s hourly rate is a multiple of their own. In addition, many investors have mutual funds with expense ratios of 1 percent or more, 20 times what you could be paying with the least expensive index funds at Vanguard, Charles Schwab, iShares, or Fidelity, where the expense ratios are generally less than 0.10 percent. As you pay more attention to fees, you may also find others you can reduce or eliminate altogether.
2. Use Retirement Accounts
If there is any drag on return larger than that of investment fees, it would be the effect of taxes. The best way to reduce the tax drag is to invest inside tax-protected retirement accounts such as a 401(k), a Roth IRA, a defined benefit/cash balance plan, and even a health savings account. In these accounts, your money is protected from taxation as it grows. This can result in an increase in return of at least 0.3 percent and perhaps as much as 4 percent per year. In a typical scenario, using a retirement account instead of investing outside of one over a 20-year period results in a nest egg that is at least 20 percent larger.
3. Invest More Tax Efficiently
Even if you must invest outside of retirement accounts, there are methods to decrease tax drag. Broadly diversified index funds and municipal bond funds are very tax-efficient holdings. Some types of real estate investments can shelter income from taxes through depreciation or section 199A deductions. Avoiding turnover reduces capital gains taxes, especially short-term capital gains taxes. Qualified dividends are eligible for a lower tax rate as well. More advanced “tricks,” such as using appreciated shares for charitable donations and tax loss harvesting, can further reduce your tax bill. The only return that counts is your after-fee, after-tax return. Reducing taxes and fees as much as possible could be the difference between having to ask your adult children to pay for your plane ticket to visit the grandkids and being able to spring for an all-expenses-paid cruise for the entire clan.
4. Avoid Losing Strategies
Some investing strategies just don’t work well in the long run and should be avoided. A complete list of these is beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few common ones that are worthy of mention. Investing in whole life insurance is usually regretted by physician investors (75 percent of the time in the surveys I have conducted). The return is too low on a well-designed policy, and most are not well-designed. Speculating in precious metals, cryptocurrencies, and penny stocks is also unlikely to treat you well in the long run. Even investing in individual stocks of good companies introduces uncompensated risk to the portfolio. If a risk can be diversified away, don’t expect to be paid for it. Actively managed mutual funds also have a terrible track record when compared with index funds over the long run.
5. Invest More Aggressively
Finally, one way to increase the return, at least the expected long-term return, of your portfolio is to take on more risk. That generally means placing less of the portfolio in safe but low-returning investments like cash, CDs, or bonds and more of the portfolio into riskier but higher-returning assets like stocks and real estate. Changing a portfolio from 50 percent stocks/50 percent bonds to 80 percent stocks/20 percent bonds has historically increased return by approximately 1.2 percent per year. Bear in mind that change also increases the frequency and magnitude of portfolio losses, so don’t take on more risk than you can practically and emotionally handle.
If your investment return is too low to reach your financial goals, consider these steps to increase your return. If you combine them with a higher savings rate, you may be surprised just how quickly you can build wealth.