Five Gas Saving Travel Tips for the Holidays

It’s that time of year again- entertaining, eating too much, and lots of travel.  Marshall Doney, AAA president and CEO, stated in a recent press release that over 46 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from their home this Thanksgiving.  The chart below shows that gas prices are actually in our favor for traveling this Thanksgiving.

Here are five easy ways to save on fuel prices – not just for the holidays, but all the time!


    1. Drive the more fuel efficient car.  Many people jump to taking the family car with the most leg room and luggage space.  Perhaps take this opportunity to assess your packing and squeeze into the smaller more fuel efficient car.
    2. Lighten the load.  Take an inventory of what’s in your car.  By having a heavier car you use more fuel.  Take off the roof rack that you don’t plan on using this winter and empty out the trunk, leaving only the necessities.
    3. Get a tune up.  Consider getting your car serviced before taking off this holiday season.  The better shape your car is in, the more fuel you will save.
    4. Go back to driver’s ed.  Take this time to remember the basics of driving.  Accelerate slowly, eliminate aggressive braking and speeding.  All of these things lead to increased fuel cost.
    5. Find cheaper gas prices.  GasBuddy is my favorite app for this purpose.  You can use this to find the cheapest prices on your route.

Every penny counts when trying to stick to a budget to meet your long-term goals!

Ashley Gragtmans, CFP®
Financial Advisor



The Power of Spending Choices

While it’s still well ahead of the official holiday season, a recent email got me thinking about what really drives my spending habits. My sister messaged our family a week ago asking if we were planning to buy presents for the kids this Christmas. I love my nieces and nephews but they are eight in number with at least one more on the way. Buying each one of them a birthday present reflective of their unique personalities is a delight, but as their numbers have grown, holiday shopping has become a little less joyful (‘tis the season) and definitely more stressful.

After the email arrived I knew immediately what I wanted to do – not buy Christmas presents. Only it wasn’t so easy to type those words back. So I waited. Everyone else had responded in the affirmative, but I held back. I felt torn between what I thought I should do and what I knew I wanted to do: enjoy the holiday season with family, minus the gift-giving.

After a little inner conflict and a healthy dose of anxiety, I realized that my desire to not offend, to maintain a magnanimous image, and to avoid the dreaded Scrooge moniker, prevented me from telling my financial truth. I saw that it wasn’t the criticism or praise from others that I was trying to avoid or earn; it was my own inner critic that I was trying to please.

With this newfound awareness, I discovered that not only does this happen at the holidays, but throughout the year! My misguided sense of propriety often influences my spending habits, in a way that is not always aligned with what I really value. Instead, when I notice and promptly ignore my inner critic’s arbitrary rules and demands, it frees me up to spend in a way that’s more aligned with what I really value — like retirement and that future trip to Paris I’ve been planning.

I bit the bullet and told my sisters that I would no longer buy Christmas presents for the kids. It turns out that none of my family criticized me for my decision. This non-reaction was even more proof that my own thoughts and fears – not other people – were behind my financial misalignment.

While some people may not react as well as my family did, when we stop worrying about other peoples’ reactions to our spending choices, they will have less of an impact. We’ll see them for what they are – simply other peoples’ reactions. In the meantime, giving ourselves a break, internally, frees up a lot more clarity to spend in alignment with what feels right. And I can’t think of a better holiday gift!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research


NPR Report on Excessive Fees

Investors have a strong desire to be good stewards of their retirement funds. This often includes seeking out professionals for financial advice.  For the retirement plan sponsor, the Department of Labor (DOL) is helping by creating fee disclosure rules and requirements.  A few years ago, the DOL mandated fee disclosure rule (404(a)5) in an effort to ensure plan sponsors are able to determine if the fees for services rendered are “reasonable.”

NPR ran a story this morning about excessive 401k fees.  See link here.  If I could add to this article, I would suggest plan sponsors review their plan fees and services at least every couple of years, if not more often through a fee benchmarking process.  The generated report should give plan sponsors a general idea of how their plan compares to others of similar size.  Benchmarking has other benefits as well.  Not only will this help to uncover fees and what services are being provided, but also some service providers are willing to re-price their services to lower fees.

While many thought the disclosure rules were a bright spot in a dark corner, we feel that further disclosure and transparency is warranted in this industry.  Since not all advisors are the same, we are thankful that the DOL has re-proposed a Fiduciary Rule which seeks to make anyone giving investment advice to 401k/retirement plans (and also IRAs) to act in the account holder’s best interest.  For RIAs like Parsec, it is business as usual.  However, broker-dealers may have a bit more difficulty with this rule, as they operate under something called a suitability standard.  While not to debate the virtues of the fiduciary standard versus the suitability standard, we do feel that greater disclosure is a good thing and will ultimately drive costs down even further.

Neal Nolan, CFP®
Director of ERISA, Financial Advisor


Time for an Economic Sabbath?

After feeling somewhat exasperated while watching a reputable financial news program last week, an idea occurred to me: we need to re-introduce the Sabbath. Not in the religious sense of the word, but as a general day of rest from financial or economic progress. The notion struck me after hearing a reporter express dismay over a softer-than-expected read on some monthly economic data point. While I realize the media is paid based on viewer ratings and that doom-and-gloom stories attracts more attention than upbeat forecasts, it would still be nice to acknowledge what’s going right every now and then. And I think it would also be beneficial.

As everyone knows, our market system is based on capitalism. Lesser known is that we’re in a period of what’s called “growth capitalism.” But this hasn’t always been the case. Merchants only started tracking growth metrics during the Industrial Revolution, according to the book, “The Economics of Good and Evil.” Capitalism, as defined by my Google search, is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.   Notice that there’s no mention of the word “growth”. Now, I’m all in favor of growth, but with purpose and ideally, some periods of rest. Because growing all the time without set-backs, pauses, and most importantly, reflection, is unsustainable at best and dangerous at worst.

Dangerous because if growth must be achieved at all costs, debt often results as an unintended consequence. When nations and even individuals feel the need to grow for the sake of growth, they often go to extreme measures, often taking out more debt to meet unrealistic targets. For nations who have an independent Treasury, they are able to manufacture more paper money and at least temporarily out-run mounting debt levels. Individuals aren’t so fortunate – or are we? Knowing we can’t manufacture our own currency out of thin air, most individuals curb spending and debt issuance and work to live within their means. We ideally accumulate rainy-day savings funds for when growth naturally slows down or declines, i.e. a job loss or unexpected expense comes up.

But back to a financial or economic Sabbath. It seems in our modern-day society where growth is the undisputed law of the land we frequently fail to appreciate what is going right. We’re so afraid of not hitting the mark that we neglect to notice job growth is on the rise, unemployment is pretty darn low, and the housing market is on the mend. Sure there are plenty of problems that need attention, but acknowledging and even appreciating our relatively healthy economy in no way negates the problems. I would argue that focusing on what’s working and improving actually gives us more energy and capacity to better work with prevailing problems.

Finally, instituting a financial or economic Sabbath, if even on an individual level, allows us to shift from a deficit mentality to one of “enough.” As I reflected on the financial news program that got me thinking about a Sabbath, I realized that having to always meet certain growth targets implies a belief that our current situation is not okay, i.e. a deficit mentality. And interestingly, this mentality is prevalent at a time when debt as a percent of GDP has never been higher. It seems we’re creating what we fear the most – a big ole’ deficit.

Fortunately, things aren’t as bad as the media would have us believe and it’s not too late to stop and smell the flowers. Individually taking stock of what is working and how much we do have (we live during the wealthiest period in the history of the world) can start to reverse our collective deficit mentality and maybe turn the tide towards sustainable, purpose-driven growth.



Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

Medicare Jump

As a result of low inflation during the past year, it appears that there will not be a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) applied to 2015 Social Security Benefits for the 2016 year. This is only the 3rd time in the past 40 years this has occurred. Because there will be no 2016 COLA, it enacts an obscure provision in the Medicare laws which prevents Medicare premium increases in a year in which there is no COLA. However, Medicare is required to pay for a part of its funding through beneficiary premiums. This means that approximately 70% of Medicare beneficiaries will be “held harmless” and will not experience a premium increase. However, the other 30% made up of non-exempt beneficiaries and new enrollees will endure all of the premium increases.

For tax year 2014, those whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is greater than $85,000 filing as individuals or $170,000 filing as couples do not fall in the “hold harmless category” and are subject to premium surcharges on a graduated scale from 42 percent to more than 200 percent (see below chart). Others not protected by the hold-harmless rule include those who do not have Medicare Part B premiums deducted from their Social Security benefits. This includes individuals who are delaying Social Security benefits even if they are enrolled in Part B — e.g., many who elect to delay or “file and suspend” their Social Security benefits. Those individual’s Medicare Part B premiums may increase regardless of family income.

Medicare Jump-table

These are huge premium increases, and we recognize that this will have a major impact on many of our client’s annual medical spending. The good news is that the Medicare Trustees anticipate this increase to be a one-year phenomenon with premiums returning to a normalized level in 2017. However, we anticipate that increases in Medicare premiums will rise faster than COLA increases provided by the Social Security Administration over the coming years. For this reason, we plan with our clients for medical costs rising faster than broad market inflation to ensure that they will have adequate spending power necessary to maintain a high level of medical care. If you have questions about your own Medicare coverage, let your advisor know. Medicare is an important part of every retirees financial plan.

Daniel Johnson III, CFP®
Financial Advisor

What’s Up (or down) with Commodities?

While stocks have been front-and-center lately given sharp price swings, fewer media outlets are focusing on commodities despite the critical role they play in global markets. They too have experienced wild price swings, although mostly to the downside. Year-to-date, the widely held S&P GSCI (Goldman Sachs Commodity Index) has fallen 20% and declined 41% over the last twelve months. What’s driving these big declines and why do they matter to your portfolio?

Commodities are defined as a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold. This includes everything from aluminum to zinc, but also oil, natural gas, coffee, beef, and corn, among others. A key differentiator between commodities and other assets are that commodities are valuable only as an input of the production process. They’re not a store of value or wealth, like a stock, bond, or work of art. Because of their utilitarian purpose (with a few exceptions like gold), commodity prices are closely linked to global supply and demand. Simply put, when demand is strong for a commodity and supply is tight, prices go up. Likewise, when demand is falling and/or supply is abundant, commodity prices tend to fall. This causes prices to be very cyclical and closely tied to the health of the overall economy. In an increasingly globalized world, that means all economies affect commodity prices to varying degrees.

While stocks have surged over the past six years, commodities have languished. The widely-held commodity index, the S&P GSCI, has fallen 35% from 2009 to 2014 while the S&P 500 Index rose 131%. As U.S. stocks benefited from improving economic growth at home, commodities never saw a similar bounce-back given their exposure to the broader global backdrop. Lackluster global demand and excess supply of many commodities weighed on commodity prices. The supply/demand imbalance has worsened recently as China, the world’s largest consumer of commodities, has seen economic conditions deteriorate and is curbing its appetite for input products. Likewise, it continues to produce too much supply and is dumping some commodities, like steel, onto global markets, further pressuring prices. It’s a vicious cycle, one that usually reverses when excess supply is finally worked-off and most investors have given up on the asset class.

As an investor, where does this leave you? Should you include commodities in your portfolio? Is now a good time to buy? According to Dr. Rouwenhorst, a leading expert on commodities, research suggests that commodities do outpace inflation over the long-term. And he’s looked at data going back to the 1800’s. At the same time, commodity prices tend to have low correlations with other asset classes like stocks and bonds; meaning that when stocks go down, commodities tend to go up. Thus, adding commodities to a portfolio can help improve your overall volatility and gives you a good chance of out-pacing inflation.   But…we’ve also learned that during massive global crises, like the one in 2008, commodities tend to move in lock-step with other asset classes. People panic and tend to sell everything. We’ve also seen substantial price declines in most commodities over the last six years, and if you’ve owned these assets you know your portfolio has suffered as a result. What to do?

During most periods, a small position in a diversified basket of commodities such as the S&P GSCI or the Dow Jones Commodity Index can help insulate investors from wild swings in traditional asset classes like stocks and bonds. And commodities can experience periods of strong price appreciation. However, it’s difficult to identify those periods and at the same time, avoid sharp declines like we’ve seen in recent years. If you have a long enough time horizon, of twenty years or more, a small allocation to commodities can make sense, but another option is to own high-quality stocks that derive their revenue from commodities. While these companies are also subject to the cyclical nature of commodities, they often have diversified revenue streams and strong balance sheets that can help provide some insulation during cyclical downturns.

Overall, commodities are important to understand in order to gauge the health of the global economy. Although they tend to be a volatile asset class, owning a small amount can provide diversification benefits in your portfolio. Another and perhaps less volatile option is to own high-quality blue chip companies that deal in commodities and have the resources to weather cyclical downturns. This approach also provides the diversification benefits associated with commodities but often with smaller price swings then owning a basket of commodities directly.

The “What” of Retirement Planning

Most working-age Americans focus on the “how” of retiring: how to maintain a decent standard of living today while saving enough money for retirement tomorrow, or how to play catch-up and cover their retirement savings shortfall. Sadly, another group of Americans wonder “if” they’ll be able to retire at all. The sobering statistics tell a bleak tale. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average 50-year old has just $42,797 in retirement savings while 38% of Americans have no savings at all. This is scary stuff considering that average medical costs alone for an individual over 65 years old are north of $100,000. Clearly we’re not as prepared for retirement as we could be. Despite lots of media doom-and-gloom about the pending retirement crisis, it hasn’t improved retirement savings trends. Thus, I’d like to propose a new approach, one that focuses on the “what” of retirement planning instead of the “how.”

The “what” of retirement planning involves an intentional mental shift, one that approaches the retirement conundrum from a new angle. Instead of focusing on how much more you need to save or how far behind you are versus your peers, try imaging what you want your years in retirement to look like. What new hobbies would you like to explore in retirement? Or what countries do you want to visit? Etc… This approach, coupled with an honest assessment of your current situation, is more likely to help you reach your goals than beating yourself over the head.

Focusing on the problem or what’s missing can increase stress levels and sap your energy – because you need more energy to help manage those higher stress levels. It can also lead to financial paralysis, which only exacerbates the problem and reinforces our old, unhelpful patterns – ensuring we get what we fear the most: not enough retirement savings. In contrast, anchoring your goal to the positive end result – your vision of a relaxing, meaningful retirement – can increase the odds of realizing that reality. Either way, you’ll feel a whole lot better on your journey there.

The point is to look carefully at the way in which you approach your retirement goals, because the methods you use will help determine your success rate. It all starts with taking an honest and sometimes difficult look at your current situation and determining what your goals are. Once you know where you are and where you’d like to be in the future, crafting a plan of action that will reinforce helpful, constructive habits is key. This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from St. Teresa of Avila, “The whole way to heaven is heaven itself.” A lifetime of berating ourselves is unlikely to lead to financial bliss in our twilight years. It will probably just lead to more stress and anxiety. Instead, it seems we’re better off focusing on “heaven” in the here and now. We can do that with a proactive, realistic plan that’s anchored on the positive feelings we’d like to experience in our retirement years. And who knows, we might even start to feel better today.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research