Thinking Like a Couple
These newlyweds made smart decisions while single. Now they need to plan for their future as a team.
NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - When René Rosendahl and Susan Chang married last October, the Irvine, Calif. couple were way ahead of most newlyweds when it came to saving and investing. But that has made the merging of their financial lives a complicated affair.
Rosendahl, 35, an IT project manager, and Chang, 34, a benefits analyst, have 15 different savings, retirement and brokerage accounts holding a combined $355,000. Each also owns real estate, and they hope to soon move into a larger home and start a family.
"We're at the fork in the road," says Rosendahl. "With all of these changes, it's time to start thinking ahead."
Where they are now
The couple live in a two-bedroom condo that Rosendahl bought for $200,000 four years ago and rent out a Huntington Beach house that Chang picked up in 1998 for $150,000. Both properties have more than doubled in value in the hot Southern California market.
Rosendahl and Chang make a combined $144,000 a year, and their rental property nets another $4,000. They would like to trade up in the next year or so and keep one of their current properties as an investment.
Both are diligent contributors to retirement accounts, and they have amassed $192,000 in Roth and regular IRAs and work-sponsored plans. They've put away an additional $163,000, but more than half is sitting in savings accounts.
All told, they have about 40 percent of their money in bonds and cash. That's much too conservative a strategy for a young couple with a lot of earning power, especially since they want to retire in 20 years.
What they should do
The Rosendahl-Changs need a new, combined portfolio that's based on their joint goals and risk tolerance, says San Diego financial planner Susan A. Schreiner.
Their individual stock portfolios are well balanced between expensive and cheap stocks and small and large companies, she says, "but like most new couples, they need to simplify their holdings."
The first thing they should do, says Schreiner, is strip down to single savings, checking and brokerage accounts.
Next up: Bulk up on stocks
"But they have way too much cash," says Schreiner. At least 80 percent of their money should be in stocks, whose superior growth rate can give them a shot at retiring in their mid-fifties. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is to move money from their savings. For starters, they should each fund Roth IRAs for 2005 and 2006. (The 2005 deadline is April 17.)
Their current stock mix is tilted too much toward the U.S. market. By doubling their allocation of foreign stocks (which don't move in perfect harmony with U.S. equities), they could smooth out their portfolio's returns and probably earn more too.
Schreiner suggests two MONEY 65 funds: Artisan International (Research) and Vanguard Total International Stock (Research). Plus, they should allocate up to 5 percent of their money to a commodity fund like Pimco Commodity Real Return (Research). Commodities also tend to veer from the path taken by U.S. stocks, and they're a good hedge against inflation.
"Because they are young and already good savers," says Schreiner, "this strategy isn't overly risky."
Chill on bonds for now
Since it's not clear how much further interest rates have to rise, Schreiner recommends an unconventional strategy: For the moment, the couple should keep out of bond funds, which could see steep declines as rates increase.
"Right now, given the risk, longer-term bonds don't have the payoff to make it worth it," says Schreiner.
Instead, Rosendahl and Chang should keep $50,000 -- about four months' salary -- in a high-yield savings account. This would serve as an emergency fund and return about the same amount of interest income as a short-term bond fund.
"That's at no risk," Schreiner notes, "and it's FDIC insured." (Other planners would argue that since no one knows the market's next move, it makes sense to own bonds.)
Go ahead, trade up
Rosendahl and Chang can easily afford a bigger house. "No matter which of their current homes they choose to sell, they should have a fairly large deposit just with the equity," Schreiner says.
She suggests that they put no more than 20 percent down on a new home, investing the rest of their sale profits in stocks.
Her only caution: In a real estate market that looks primed to drop, the couple should avoid getting in over their heads. They should buy only if they can make the monthly payments without dipping into their savings or resorting to such mortgage exotica as interest-only loans.
As for which of their properties to sell, Schreiner says, "They could put up both of them and let the market decide."
The plan in three simple steps: