Don’t be in thrall to Total Return

Poor old Greybeard over at Monevator has stuck his head above the parapet again saying he will use actively managed investment trusts to smooth his retirement income and make it easier to manage. Meanwhile Insourcelife has paid down his mortgage in his late 30s, some ten years earlier in his life cycle than I paid down mine in my late forties.[ref]Insourcelife is American so paying off a mortgage may be an easier ask as houses are less expensive relative to wages I believe, certainly from looking at US real estate windows on a business trip in 2007 where I could have easily bought a house cash, but impressively Insourcelife has done this with children which probably more than offsets the difference![/ref]. Paying off a mortgage early is an opportunity costThe Accumulator sensibly decided to invest instead. Here are two people giving up some Total Return, OMG, that’s nuts!!!

The world of personal finance seems to be moving towards an intellectual materialist rationalism that favours Total Return over all else[ref]I’m projecting some of my own prejudice here, but passive investing is still a belief system IMO. Any belief system has axioms, and I am uncomfortable with some of them, in particular the ‘valuations don’t matter’ one. My perspective is different, however – I don’t have 30 years of investing without extracting returns ahead of me like a young Boglehead starting out would have[/ref]. Now if you are a 20-something with 35 plus years before you can get a hold of your pension savings then yes, I agree TR is what it’s all about in those pension savings taken in isolation. If you are a retiree who wants to featherbed your adult children because you think the robots are coming to take way their middle class jobs then TR is important too, because although you can’t take it with you they will and a little bit of you will live on, enabling you to do the whole terror management theory thing of living beyond death. Beats having your head frozen, I guess.

The trouble is that life is a balance, and often maximising one aspect above all else has undesirable consequences. Money is crystallised power, a claim upon future work. You can prioritise one aspect of it like total return, but then you will have to deal with being exposed to massive volatility. It’s easy to sit back at 30 and say I’m cool with that but you need to have gone through a couple of stock market crashes to know if you are cool with that really. Maximising TR means you should run towards that sort of fire 🙂

The Ermine is not a Total-Return maximising rationalist

I have done some dumb things in personal finance. I retired 8 years early – the gross money I would have earned in the remaining eight years probably roughly equals my total networth[ref]the opportunity cost is in fact a fair bit lower, I was a HR taxpayer and couldn’t have extracted anywhere near the gross amount because of limitations on pension contributions introduced since I retired.[/ref]. Oh no – hundreds of thousands of pounds kissed goodbye to-  how crazy is that? Well, I don’t know – the world of work was driving me round the bend with it’s stupid metrics and micromanagement – I am ERE craftsman, not gamesman. The view is a hell of a lot better, too:

giving up a six-figure sum to see this
giving up a six-figure sum to see this
or this
or this
instead of this
instead of this – hell yeah.

I paid my mortgage off early – even at the time I knew this was a teeny bit irrational, and took a whole year with it dropped down to to about £1000[ref]it was a flexible mortgage so I could have ramped it back up at will up to the original repayment track[/ref] mulling over whether I should pay it off. Then I did, and although every so often I observe that I take an income suckout between leaving work and getting hold of my pension savings, faced with the same I’d do it again, because at that time I wanted peace of mind that if I got iced from work I could lock down and make it through.

There’s a time to maximise your total return, and that’s probably when you’re young, because you aren’t usually putting much in. But as you go through life, beware of black-and-white thinking. Sometimes you have to consider throwing some red meat to The System and giving up some total return, particularly after you have retired, because it is about the ride, not just the money. Otherwise we are in the danger of becoming that “man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” Oscar Wilde warned of in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

I’ve given up a very decent six-figure sum, pasting my potential Total Return by about 50 to 25%. I  did it because it is more important to live to see another few decades with health intact, and sometimes you have to take chances in life. It is nearly three years since I left work, and would I do it again if I had my time over? Hell yeah – because the aim of the game is to maximise Total Life Experience, not total return. It’s a balance thing, not a single variable.

For sure, I’m poorer for it in money, but I am richer for it in Life. Money is not the only thing you can run out of…

The Escape Artist put it this way

Why behave as if this one life we get is just a dress rehearsal?  If you are one of those people and you carry on working in your all consuming City or Corporate job, then you are wasting your life.

If maximising total return is stressing you out in retirement as you see your capital eroded which is reminding you of the Grim Reaper’s call then give up some total return. Use investment trusts, have a plan to annuitise at some stage/stages, give up the fight slowly for an easier ride.