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Most retirement plans in America today are built upon investment portfolios - whether it's a 401K or some other scheme similar to it, they're built upon the idea that stocks will, over time, increase in value.

With the recent enormous crash of the market, that seems like a less than stable plan.

The last thing I would want to do is leave my wife and I in a position where we cannot support ourselves due to a complete lack of funds in our golden years - is there any way for me to prepare for our retirement that doesn't hinge upon the performance of the market?

For further context - I'm about 32 years old and I've been working my current job for 7 years, planning to move to a new job in autumn. So I'm likely at least 25-30 years away from retirement.

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    Calling this crash enormous is very optimistic ..... – xyious Apr 8 at 15:56
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    I don't quite understand your question. Different forms of investment have different inherent risks and inversely corresponding returns. If you find one particular investment (stocks) too risky, choose a less risky one. What is keeping you? Alas, if you mean to ask us to find a less risky investment with the same return you are asking us to square the circle. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 8 at 22:31
  • @xyious can you elaborate? Is enormous not an accurate description? – Bitsplease Apr 10 at 0:44
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    @Bitsplease From the record high to the (so far) bottom has been a loss of 30%. 1929-32 we had a loss of 89%, 1973-74 market was down over 45% 2000-2002 Nasdaq lost 78%, 2008-09 we lost 50%. So as far as crashes go we're not beating literally any of them (yet), which is why "enormous" is optimistic. This could certainly turn out to be an enormous crash, but in that case we're gonna drop another 40% from the current levels (which, again, still wouldn't be the worst of them). – xyious Apr 10 at 15:09
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    @xyious oh ok, I misunderstood and that you were saying that enormous wasn't going far enough, and was confused as to why it was so comparatively dire in your opinion. I agree with you that this isn't quite as bad as its been in the past – Bitsplease Apr 10 at 20:20

12 Answers 12

26

Investment is inherently risky. Other investment options compared to stocks would be:

  • Cash, which is likely to be eaten by inflation over time (100.000 at 2% yearly inflation will be worth ~55.000 in purchasing power in 30 years).
  • Real-Estate, which is extremely location dependent, may necessitate manpower for upkeep and can be just as volatile as stocks. But unlike a diversified stock portfolio, a real estate portfolio likely only holds one to a few units for the average Joe (excluding REITs)
  • Bonds, which, historically, offer a lower overall return than stocks, but also lower volatility.
  • CDs: much lower and safer return compared to stocks
  • Various other investments that I would not recommend like Gold, Bitcoins, Milk caps etc.

Each of these can be part of a healthy portfolio. But as your horizon is 30 years, you should not discard stocks because of their volatility. Because their historical returns will be hard to beat. If their value might temporarily crash by 25% 30 years from now, but their value doubled or even tripled in that timeframe, you are still likely coming out far ahead of other options. But as you are transitioning from your pay-in to your draw-out phase, it might make sense to add more stability into your portfolio. One common advice is to do that by mixing in bonds, e.g. by having a stock to bonds percentage of (100 - your age). So at your age, you could hold 68% of your portfolio (excluding your emergency fund) in stocks and 32% in bonds. This way, you can get rid of some of your bonds in times of crisis to spend/buy more stocks and reduce overall volatility. But again, volatility with high returns is a good thing if you have a long investment horizon.

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    Right now a lot of stocks are selling cheap and are likely to return to full value in a decade. So if you have a safe source of cash (bonds) which you can exchange for cheap shares in a downturn, you end up doubly ahead – Fred Stark Apr 9 at 6:18
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    Is there any solid evidence supporting the "100 - age" rule? – Ian Dunn Apr 9 at 15:18
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    In recent years, many advisers have suggested that due to increased life expectancy as well as the past decade of low rates, the Rule of 100 is outdated. In order to avoid running out of assets in one's lifetime, some are now suggesting 110 or even 120 minus your age. – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 19:53
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    100-(age) seems pretty close to useless. You should be close to 100% stocks (90%, perhaps) at 32, even 40, and not until you're 10 years away from payouts should you really start getting much under 80%. – Joe Apr 9 at 19:56
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    @IanDunn It's a possible portfolio among many. I would personally consider it a very conservative allocation and would advocate near 100% stocks (or eg. 120 - age) for a 32 year old and maybe ~5% extra cash if you know you are changing jobs soon. But everyones risk profile is different and 100 - age is a conventional rule of thumb – R.K. Apr 9 at 19:59
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Adjust your risk tolerance as you get closer to your goals.

For example, most target-date retirement accounts include a mix of stocks and bonds. At the start, with many years to grow, they tend to be very stock heavy. Over time, as you get close to retirement they adjust to having a much larger bond portion.

The funds' managers gradually shift each fund's asset allocation to fewer stocks and more bonds so the fund becomes more conservative the closer you get to retirement.

https://investor.vanguard.com/mutual-funds/target-retirement/#/

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Market crashes are pretty inconvenient when you need a large wad of cash now and all your capital is in stocks. But long-term investors, like those saving for retirement, don't need to worry, because market crashes are a temporary condition. Whenever there is a crash, it doesn't take long until the market goes back to how it was before. Let's take a look at the Dow Jones from the past 30 years:

Dow Jones

As you can see, the effects of each market crash was temporary and the long-term trend was upwards. The current COVID-19 crash isn't even that much of a crash compared to the financial crisis 12 years ago.

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    I share your opinions, but you might want to qualify some of your statements: "isn't even that much of a crash compared to the financial crisis 12 years ago."—so far. Also, "market crashes are a temporary condition"—historically, in the US. The Japanese market never really recovered. – Neil G Apr 9 at 15:30
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    The problem with using a log scale chart it that it makes it appear that the current crash is much smaller than it is. The current market descent was almost 35% which is not that far away from the 50% drop in 2008-2009. Also, the SPY is a better proxy for the market than the DJIA. – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 19:44
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    @NeilG If the US market crashes and doesn't recover, what doesn't also go with it? If that's part of your risk assessment, you need to invest in bunkers, guns and food. – jpaugh Apr 9 at 20:36
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    @BobBaerker No, that's the opposite of what a log scale does. People typically care about the percentage change, not the number of points lost off the index. With a log scale, a 10% decline is the same size whether it occurs at the top or the bottom. With a linear scale as you seem to advocate, a 10% decline looks much smaller when it's at the bottom versus at the top. – Phil Frost Apr 9 at 20:39
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    @Phil Frost - Thanks for the clarification. However, I figured out what the problem is. From eyeballing the Macrotrends graph, it appears that the recent drop is less than half the drop that occurred in 2008-2009. That's clearly not true. The problem is that Macrotrends is graphing the closing price at the end of the month. The DJIA close for the end of March was 21,917 but the low for the month was put in a week earlier at near 18,600. This graph depict bad data. – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 21:32
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Other answer suggested running a business as a way to offset risk. However, running a business is not really a retirement, and also it is not free of risk. In fact, it may be even riskier than stock market - it's not diversified investment, and there are numerous other risks to consider.

Assuming you want to really retire, and not be concerned with running a business, or dealing with tenants, traditional approach is to balance stocks and bonds. While bonds may also lose value, they are generally more stable. In retirement, your bond allocation should cover several years of expenses thus providing some buffer to weather out short term.

Generally, you start with mostly stock portfolio, and re-balance it periodically shifting to bonds as you approach retirement. If you don't want to do that manually, there are target date retirement funds, or asset managers (e.g. roboadvisers like betterment) that do that for you at additional cost

You may also utilize option strategy (e.g. buying puts for your stocks) if you want additional protection during market boom times.

There are additional products e.g. annuities that offer even lower risk, but generally they cost more than benefit they provide

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  • The answer from Czar doesn't say that starting a business is risk-free, though it should probably indicate the risks involved with starting and keeping a business going. This sounds more like options to keep investments balanced - which is good advice, but basically the thing I'm asking for alternatives to. – Zibbobz Apr 8 at 14:26
1

How long you have until retirement could change some of these recommendations but in general...

3 ways for financial stability.

  1. Business
  2. Real Estate
  3. Stocks

First cover the basics. Debt free and plan for future expenditures. Do a full retirement budget and then ask retirees in your area what they didn't consider.

  • Start an income producing business that you can do while retired. Something you make and sell, or services you can offer. Build a small business idea now that can provide some income during retirement. Even better if it's something you can do as a couple and from home.

  • Pay off your home so you don't have a mortgage payment if you are a home owner. Set aside reserve cash for appliance repair/replacement. Budget for A/C Units replacement about every 10 years, and roofs 15 to 30 years. Solar systems can be another beneficial investment in the long term, but you'll want to do lots of research. If you rent look to move to a smaller home to save money and that can help reduce utility cost.

  • Have a good balance of dividend producing stocks. The closer to retirement the safer investment types. Keep cash in CD that mature in a rotating basis and Money Market account.

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  • I think "start a business" is bad advise to give to most people who weren't already considering it anyway. A business is always a risk. An unsuccessful business can be a terrible time-sink and money-sink. Even moreso if it's for retirement. You have no idea if your business plan will still be viable in 40 years from now and if your physical and mental health will allow you to still run it. – Philipp Apr 9 at 12:52
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As a frame challenge: You should absolutely hinge a large part of your retirement upon the performance of the market over the next two decades.

Diversified investment in the stock market is a very good long term plan.

When you get closer to retirement, begin to shift funds you will need within the next 5 years or so into something less volatile.

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Many retirement plans include a "guaranteed income" or "guaranteed growth" fund. They have a yield that is fixed and very low -- much less that the typical yield of the market -- but they are guaranteed not to lose value.

A good strategy is to put 10 to 20% of your contributions into such a fund. (Less if you are far away from retirement, more if you are closer.) Consider it part of being well-diversified.

A downturn could last 3 to 5 years. Think about how much money you would need to cover your expenses for that much time during retirement. Your goal should be to accumulate that much in a guaranteed fund. Once that is done, you can turn down the contributions for the guaranteed fund to 5%.


When you're ready to retire, look at how well the stock market is doing.

  • If the market is low, withdraw your distributions only from the guaranteed fund. Let your other investments (which are based on the stock market) sit for a few years as the market recovers in value.

  • If the market is high, great! Sell your other investments at their high price, and leave your guaranteed fund alone.


There is another way to use this to your advantage. If all of the following are true:

  • You are far enough away from retirement (e.g. 10 or more years)
  • Your guaranteed fund is excess of the goal described above
  • A market downturn happens

then you can sell off the excess amount in your guaranteed fund, and use the money to buy other investments (i.e. a rebalance) on the cheap (because the market is down).

Buy low, sell high!

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    "If the market is low, withdraw your distributions only from the guaranteed fund." This is tantamount to trying to time the market, which is not reasonable to expect people to do well. Of course it's tempting to try to time the market, but the logical strategy is to sell in such a way so as to maintain the desired balance of investments at all times. – Neil G Apr 9 at 13:38
  • @NeilG: There's a big difference. Distributions are periodic withdrawals -- with a minimum amount required by law -- to pay for your retirement expenses; you aren't changing the schedule or amount of these, you are just being smart about which fund you are withdrawing from. You might lag the bottom for one or two distributions, but keep in mind that each distribution is a small fraction of your account. In contrast, timing the market is an elective process done at discrete (i.e. non-periodic) times, often with large amounts, with a large chance of losing a lot of money. – DrSheldon Apr 9 at 15:19
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    "you are just being smart about which fund you are withdrawing from. " — That is still market timing. Your illusion that you're "being smart" is based on the hypothesis that the fundamental value differs from the price. Most people cannot evaluate this difference accurately. Yes, this is less problematic when you do it with smaller amounts, but it's just "eating less poison". Any Boglehead will tell you to just maintain your desired balance without trying to time the market. Just because your withdrawal schedule isn't changing doesn't make it any less market timing. – Neil G Apr 9 at 15:27
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    @NeilG Are you planning to sell tomorrow? If not, then you don't care about tomorrow, you care about whether the market today is well below or well above the trendline relevant to when you plan to ultimately liquidate, e.g. retirement age. Now can you discern that? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 19:47
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica The idea that the difference between the price and the "trendline" is informative about the expected earnings at any time in the future is unfounded. There is no basis for believing that this "trendline" system of investment is predictive of the future value at all. If there were, it would already be exploited by someone. If you still believe it, then please start your market-beating mutual fund today. – Neil G Apr 9 at 19:54
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This might be a bit too active for you, but an option is to hedge.

The idea is this: suppose you decide to buy Microsoft (MSFT) shares. Currently they are $165.13 each. You are worried that a potential market crash will cause MSFT to crater. You hedge against this by purchasing MSFT puts, for example the April 2021 $160 puts. This means that:

  1. If MSFT is above $160 in April 2021, then your options expire worthless. However, the bulk of the value of your investment remains intact (since MSFT is >$160) and there's a good chance you've made money (thanks to dividends & the fact that MSFT being >$160 could also mean it is $170, $200, etc).
  2. If MSFT is below $160 in April 2021, then your options are in the money, and you can exercise them to sell MSFT for $160. You can do this even if MSFT crashes to $100 or lower. Again you've preserved the bulk of the value of your investment.

Buying puts like this is not free since you have to pay for the puts, but it also puts a maximum downside to your investment.

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    If this is a simultaneous purchase of shares and protective puts then be aware that you are effectively buying synthetic calls . Why do two transactions when you can achieve the same in one? If MSFT is at a lower price at a later date. exercising the puts would only make sense if they were trading at parity (no remaining time premium). Otherwise, exit with a combo order. – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 19:49
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    It's not quite a synthetic call. In the case of the stock/put purchase, you will get any dividends of the stock plus voting rights if that's important to you. Also stock doesn't expire, although you'll eventually have to re-purchase puts again when yours expire (or their time value erodes to a point you feel that it makes sense to renew your "insurance policy"). So while the general risk profile is pretty much identical, they are not exactly the same. – JVC Apr 9 at 20:41
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    @JVC - (1) Voting rights has nothing to do with whether the two positions are synthetically equivalent. Synthetic equivalence has to do with the P&L of the respective positions. (2) Options expiring and having to repurchase the puts also has nothing to do with the synthetic equivalence of comparing a put protected stock versus buying a call. In both cases, the option decays. (3) Yes, you get the dividends but dividends are priced into the options. The higher the dividend, the higher the put premium and the lower the call premium. If this were not the case, it would present an arb opportunity – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 21:43
  • You're talking theoreticals, I'm talking practical reality to the person posing the question. Only an options trader is going to understand the nuances of what you're pointing out. You might as well start describing the importance of the greeks to their position and how they will be impacted by interest rates. To the average person, things like voting rights, and having to think about what strike to purchase again at some point in the future, could be enough to make them not want to use the strategy. – JVC Apr 9 at 21:45
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Risk and reward go hand in hand. You can't have the growth potential of an investment portfolio without some degree of risk. You can utilize options to manage that risk but it will come at a cost to the upside. In addition, it takes a fair amount of learning to be able to effectively implement option strategies.

Another possibility is annuities which most people frown on because of the commissions charged. There are different types of annuities.

As an example, there are some no commission structured capital index annuities that currently offer an annual cap gain 7.0% to 10% (depending on the index chosen - SPY, IWM, etc.). They include 10% of downside protection. The construction of these on their side of the fence involves options which I'm not going to explain since that's a bit complex. The no commission thing is deceptive because while true, they're keeping the dividends and not providing the full protection. It's a hidden fee.

Simplified explanation? You invest in the SPY with a 10.50% cap. If SPY rises, you get the first 10.50% of gain but no more than that. In return, the first 10% of SPY loss does not come out of your pocket. You lose dollar for dollar when there's more than a 10% loss. At 25% down, you lose 15% as compared to the guy who bought the SPY at the same time. He's down 25%.

What's interesting about these products is that you can do them yourself with options and have a similar potential upside gain but the downside protection will be anywhere from 15 to 20% better. I'll leave it at that since this is something that's above the Average Joe. The key point is that you can participate in the market's upside without all of the risk.

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  • If you can't explain the financial instrument, then maybe you should not talk about it, advise it... or buy it. There is simply no reason for investments to be complex. If you doubt that, go ask your university's donor relations department how their endowment is invested. A Board made up of the brightest investment bankers that school can train, and how do they invest it? Simply. Incomprehensible products are for suckers. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 20:07
  • @Harper - Reinstate Monica - You should re-read what I wrote. Perhaps then you will glean what I said with "The construction of these on their side of the fence involves options which I'm not going to explain since that's a bit complex. That's a very different statement from I CAN'T EXPLAIN IT. Furthermore, you also missed What's interesting about these products is that you can do them yourself with options and have a similar potential upside gain but the downside protection will be anywhere from 15 to 20% better. Why would I state that if I didn't know how to do it? Try again. – Bob Baerker Apr 9 at 21:56
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With the recent enormous crash of the market, that seems like a less than stable plan.

Only because you are new to investing.

The last thing I would want to do is leave my wife and I in a position where we cannot support ourselves due to a complete lack of funds in our golden years - is there any way for me to prepare for our retirement that doesn't hinge upon the performance of the market?

Most universities feel the same way about their billion dollar endowments. (a "Forever Fund" that is drawn down at a prudent 4-7% a year to fund essential programs). And since university boards of directors include a wildly disproportionate number of investment bankers, you can bet that they make the smartest investments it is humanly possible to make. And your university's donor relations office will cheerfully tell you how they invest.

Retirement investment has two phases.

First, invest like an endowment.

Until about age 50-55, you have the same goals as a university endowment: to achieve maximum growth given an infinity time scale. As such, you want the same strategies as an endowment. A highly diversified mix of investments, that very coarsely looks like this +/- 5%.

  • 65% domestic (e.g. USA) stocks.
  • 15% foreign stocks.
  • 10% high paying bonds.
  • 5% real estate trusts.
  • 5% cash-likes (strictly as a hedge)

Why on earth...? Because when your investment deadline is forever, you think differently about money. The daily ups and downs of the market simply do not matter and stop being Big Scary Risk -- they become a different word, volatility. It's just 'that thing the market does'.

And if volatility is trivial, then what matters? Long-term growth. Or how the market grows over the very long term.

The stocks aren't individually chosen but are the most costs-efficient way to get high diversification. For where to go with that, look at John Bogle's book Common Sense on Mutual Funds. TLDR: use index funds.

So now, this opens up a different question: Is long-term growth worth short-term volatility? Well, go look for yourself. Is it?

  • Ok, ok, wait. There's actually a complication here, and that is dividends. See, in an endowment (or a retirement plan), we don't care whether Ford stock goes up by $1.37 or whether Ford pays a $1.37 dividend, because by law we have to invest all of it back in the endowment. However, the dividend has an effect on Ford stock: it makes it worth $1.37 less. Dividends make the stock look worse than it is. You must give full credit for dividends and treat them as if they're reinvested back into the company. This makes a huge difference over long periods of time, because of compounding. Ford is a glaring example of this!
  • You need to diversify anyway, so the best way to do this comparison is to look at ETF index funds which already do that thing: they reinvest the dividends back into the fund and so dividends show up as share price increase.
  • So when you factor for dividends and their reinvestment, reality is even better than Philipp's chart above.

The biggest threat to an endowment is costs and other fees; Costs/fees are a guaranteed total loss you suffer every year regardless.

Second, walk back out of stocks as you near retirement age.

If you were going to live forever, you'd just draw down 5-7% a year like an endowment, and your retirement would last forever. However most people's drawdowns are driven by need, and being "all-in" makes you vulnerable -- if the market goes off a cliff like it did last month just as you need it, you could be forced to have a fire-sale on stocks just to raise cash! In other words, "volatility" has finally become "risk".

Well before your need, you start walking back out of the stock market. The stock market usually does well in a 20 year window and always does well in a 30 year window, so you start very slowly altering your investment mix. Move a few percent a year out of growth investments (stocks) and into bonds, cash-likes and more sure/stable investments.

So maybe at age 60 you cut it to 70% stocks. At age 65 you're at 55% stocks. It's still ok to be mostly into stocks, because you have quite some time to recover from a downturn. At age 70 you're at 40% stocks. At 75 you're at 25% stocks. Etc. You walk yourself out of stocks. As you do, you sacrifice raw growth potential in favor of less risk of volatility. You won't be destroyed by a sudden market downturn at the worst possible time... but you also enjoy less profits from good market performance. It's a trade-off.

You adjust the asset mix to suit your risk tolerance.

And, if you're in a "Target fund" e.g. a Target 2060 fund, your 401K's fund will do all of this automatically for you.

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  • "university boards of directors include a wildly disproportionate number of investment bankers" is a really sad fact IMHO. – Eric Duminil Apr 9 at 21:09
  • @EricDuminil I make the point because investment bankers are the ones inventing these annuities, whole life and other opaque and mind-numbing products designed to confuse the sheep. Yet, when those same people invest their beloved alma mater's endowment, they do not buy their own products! Hmmmmm! – Harper - Reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 21:12
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    ETF index funds, in the US at least, do not typically reinvest dividends. For example, SCHB currently has a dividend yield of 1.54%. However, I've never used a brokerage that doesn't offer an option to automatically reinvest dividends. This goes for ETF index funds, as well as plain stocks, mutual funds, and any other security. – Phil Frost Apr 9 at 22:41
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Quoting the question, with emphasis added:

With the recent enormous crash of the market

and

The last thing I would want to do is leave my wife and I in a position where we cannot support ourselves due to a complete lack of funds in our golden years

The S&P 500 was at worst down 34% from its peak in February. Lately it's recovered a bit, and right now, the S&P 500 is down about 18% from its peak in February. And that's only if you've invested exclusively in the S&P 500, which is one of the riskier (and thus more volatile) investments you're likely to hold in a retirement portfolio.

Does a 34% reduction in income lead to a complete lack of funds? I hope not! Have you ever lost a job? How did you handle that?

If you made it successfully to retirement, it's likely because whatever your income was, you spent less than that. When something bad happens you were able to draw on those funds until the situation improved. And if things got really bad, you sensibly downsized your expenses until they fit in your budget.

Financially responsible people have some plan for how they will handle these kinds of situations. For example, someone might plan to have six months of living expenses in a savings account. There are a lot of plans that work: the important thing is to have one. This is called risk management.

Retirement is no different. Your first line of defense against going broke before you die is budgeting and living below your means. Fail to do that, and you're likely to run out of money no matter how you invest.

Based on the words you chose in the question, sounds like you are grappling with the fear of losing money. There are many schools of thought on how to invest, but all of them agree that making decisions on emotions is a bad idea: it usually results in buying the bubble and selling in the crash.

My advice would be to spend some time with a tool like https://www.portfoliovisualizer.com/, especially the backtesting and Monte Carlo tools. With this you can experiment with all kinds of different ways to invest and different withdrawal strategies. That will get you more familiar with the dynamics of a portfolio over a lifetime rather than just the current news cycle. Find an investment strategy that you can feel good about, make a plan, and stick to it.

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Typically the stock market will be up 7-7.5 years out of 10. Based on those statistics, over time you're more than likely going to gain than loose. At 25-30 years away, you'll see about 17.5-21 years of gains. It also depends on what you actually invest in. If you're going with a company that has a strong track record and has cash reserves, 1) that company may not dip too much although the over all market does, and 2) it will more than likely rebound faster than others because it has the money to ride out the storm. It's similar to the real estate burst in 2008. The value of houses dropped, but if you were still able to pay your mortgage, your value in 2018 may have been equal to or more than what you paid for the house.

But to answer your question, there is another option that I was introduced to after getting my license. An option that is tax free opposed to tax deferred. Ask yourself...would rather pay taxes on the harvest or on the seed? We all know taxes will increase over time. So although your money typically will grow in a 401k, IRA, 403B, etc...you're going to be paying out a nice chunk to the Government when you withdraw.

An alternative tax FREE option is an IUL....Indexed Universal Life insurance policy. It's basically a whole life policy that is tied to the stock index but NOT the market. It's a product that is designed to go up (to a cap) when the market goes up but you never loose $0.01 when the market goes down. It just flattens out and then picks back up when the market increases. It's really a 2 for 1. You'll have an insurance policy to cover you if you pass before retirement but it will also pay you monthly when you make it to retirement. You can also withdraw lumps sums from it tax FREE. It's definitely worth researching. Most financial planners don't speak highly about it or about it all because it takes money away from their pocket. I'm NOT affiliated with this company but their video does a good job of quickly explaining the product. Hope this helps!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX89Rk5pr6A&t=2s

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