Monday, January 01, 2007


No, not me. One of my friends is planning to retire in the next year or so, and recently went to chat with the campus retirement planning person. My friend has worked in the system for enough years to get full benefits and has a spouse who's made a good income and is well covered by another system.

I need to go meet with the retirement planning person. This is one of those uncomfortable things for me, but I need to do it, I think.

I look at my retirement planning, and it's sort of a shambles. I started late. I finished my phud in my mid-30s, and then spent a couple years putting in minimums and paying off loans. Then I put in the minimums and saved for a down payment for a house (because I'm so middle class that owning a house seems like the best idea without a second glance. Maybe it's not?).

Then I changed jobs. So, logically, unless I retire into my 70s, I'll never have enough years in the system to get full benefits.

Some academics may make a lot of money. I don't. I'm a bad negotiator, as I learned in a community reading group. To be totally honest, I had no clue I COULD or should negotiate really, and less clue how. When I got both of my tenure track jobs, I was desperate. I was less desperate looking for the second job, but still pretty desperate. I did better last year, actually, and got a better raise. But unless I'm willing to leave academics, I can't really expect to make lots more money, and I'd have to be willing to totally leave because it's not like IBM hires staff Shakespeare people.

I can only guess, but I think academics (other, perhaps than those in business related fields) are reticent to talk about money openly (even this little anonymous blogging makes me uncomfortable) because we're all assumed to be gentleman scholars or something. We're not supposed to be in it for the money. I don't know about other academics, but no one in my graduate department ever talked about the economic side of what we were doing, about negotiating, tax issues or anything else.

And, of course, if we academics mention money, the world basically shrugs and says to get a job where there's less supply and more demand. There's something to that logic. After all, there's no guarantees in this world that any of us gets to be paid for doing what we like. If there were, a LOT more of us would be beer tasters or something.

So unless I really do want to look for a totally different kind of job, I keep quiet about the salary thing. Only in the past year or two have I even considered that I COULD get another job. I mean, if our English majors can get good jobs in various business and industrial fields because of their critical thinking, analytical and communications skills, surely I could, too? (There's probably some age discrimination around, sure, but I actually think I could get a job that pays better; I'm NOT sure that job would make me happy, or that making more money would make me happier.)

So when I hear the advice to put a full $15,500 into my 403b to max it out yearly, I just shake my head.

Along with the general reticence about money issues is my stupidity about investment options. Yes, I have a basic general knowledge about what a mutual fund is and such. But I haven't done the math to figure out if I should continue funding a yearly Roth IRA or should instead increase my 403b investment for the year. The Roth money is post-tax, and supposed to be tax free when I take it out (unless the law gets changed). The 403b is pre-tax, but taxed when I take it out. At what tax and income level(s) does the tax thing balance out (because I'd have to figure out my probable income tax rates at retirement)? I've invested in the Roth because I perceive a potential flexibility advantage when I retire, but I don't do the math to make sure my perception is valid. And deciding which mutual fund to invest what amount in is incredibly difficult. At times, I've deluded myself into thinking I had a clue, but the market proves otherwise.

I don't think my retirement planning is a total disaster. Partly this is accidental, a result of my cocaine habit (remember Robin Williams' old joke about cocaine being God's way of saying you have too much money?). I spend money on some things (read: books!) stupidly, but I don't have some really expensive habits. (I have plenty of bad habits, but so long as they're relatively cheap, they don't hurt my retirement planning too much.)

I should learn whether it really makes sense to pay extra on my mortgage, as I do every month. Heck, is my house even a logically good investment? I also have a feeling I should rebalance the mutual fund investments I have toward a more conservative blend at this point, but other than the varying sorts of rules one reads about percentages and age, I don't know what balance I should aim for.

So three big questions:
Roth or more to 403b?
Extra on the mortgage, or more to 403b, or?
And rebalancing?

We academics need to talk to grad students and potential grad students about the opportunity costs of getting phuds in fields where there's such an overabundance of phuds and relatively few jobs.

It's the new year, and I am going to make that appointment. I have some other things I really need to do this year, too, but this one will be a start.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Talk about introspective and thought-provoking! Lots of good questions for a financial planner -- and if you don't have one, time to find one. Regarding paying extra on your house -- some consider this a good thing, as you're able to build up equity, and when it comes time to sell, that's more cash for you. Even if you stay where you are forever, owning your house "free and clear" opens the way for reverse mortgages, another way to help finance retirement.
    I think that too many of us working females are caught in the "how much is enough" bind -- and there really aren't a lot of great answers (even being married doesn't help, according to an article in the newspaper this morning, as women outlive men by an average of 7 years and need to make sure those years are funded!). Make that appointment!
    PS That's my deleted comment -- stupid blogger....

  3. Congrats on dealing with actual reality! I'm constantly amazed at how rarely academics do that.

    I'd vote for the 403(b) over the Roth. My logic is that your income is likely to be lower in retirement, so your tax bracket would be lower. Better to pay lower taxes later than higher taxes now. Add to that the miracle of compound interest, and the 403(b) is the winner.

    In terms of choosing funds, just look at expense ratios (fees) and go with the lowest. The rest is guesswork.

    The rule of thumb I've heard for asset allocation is that the percentage you have in stocks should be 100 minus your age. Strikes me as a decent ballpark.

    Prepaying the mortgage is probably a good idea. You can think of it as 'earning' the interest you would otherwise have paid. What's nice about it is that the 'return' is guaranteed. And artemis is right that it opens up options like reverse mortgages and home equity loans for emergencies.

    I definitely hear ya on the salary issue. There's a breathtaking double standard out there that says that certain industries are supposed to pay well and others aren't. We actually internalize the damn things, so we feel guilty about trying to make enough to live in safe neighborhoods. Very annoying.

    Good luck!