A “One Task a Year” New Year Resolution

by J. David Lewis 

The time around each New Year has become very special for me.  Of course, the news media fills its commentary with events of the last twelve months.  We take a longer view; to consider events in each client relationship since we began our journeys together.  I must say the letters we write with this season’s Quarterly Reports are among the most personally rewarding for me.  Several of our clients have been with us more than twenty years.  Even the much shorter relationships have personal stories.  They all provide many memories I savor.  There is more to money than money®.  Life as an adventure is exciting.  A new year is starting, with more in store for all of these relationships.   

We use graphs, with annual columns to represent each client’s history of Total Assets – not just investment accounts.  While increasing investments is important for future security, we also think it is important to have appropriate increases in those things that make life better now.  Adjacent columns represent Total Liabilities.  The distances between the tops of these columns graphically display net worth progress, which is the most comprehensive measure of financial strength.  At a glance this measure of success – or lack thereof – is clear.  These reports are not about how well we managed investments.  They are about how well our clients managed their financial strength with our help.  

The text of these reports compares each client’s financial strength now to several recognized events.  These histories are important tools.  If you cannot compare your current total assets and debts to your past, I encourage you to document them now, so you can make this comparison at the end of 2012 and at least once a year thereafter.  I am finished with mine for 2011.  The “Once a Year Task” doesn’t take that long and the information is amazingly useful.   

Even if progress is less than you intuitively believe, you can actually feel more secure.  Facts, even disappointing facts, help guide confidence in managing resources.  In our experience, the exercise of measuring results regularly reveals that most people are in better shape than they imagined.  Whether you are doing better than you believe or worse, knowing facts is better than not knowing.   

Let’s say your change in net worth is positive.  Was that because you have more assets than a year ago or did you reduced debts?  We like to see net worth increased by both these components.   

What assets increased or decreased?  Do you have more investments, a nicer home or a new car?  We have seen several situations where people displayed great distress over publicized market events, when their net worth was relatively stable.  Investments were just not that big a factor relative to other issues for them.   

The significance of maintaining these annual Net Worth Statements takes on more meaning with just three years of history.  At the end of 2008, markets had been particularly brutal for several months.  At the time, knowing how much that bear market effected net worth could make the events of the time more bearable.  Not all the components of net worth are affected by the ups and downs of stocks.   

Since December 31, 2008, investment returns for those who “weathered that storm” should be a contributor to net worth growth.  The S&P 500 Index return from December 31, 2008 to 2011 was 14.11% per year.  For many people, personal debts have also been reduced significantly in these years.  With records of your historical net worth, you could expect to see encouraging improvement.  Your view can be more comprehensive than just the last twelve months.   

Five years ago, markets were approaching their highest level ever.  The peak was reached in the third calendar quarter of 2007.  Except for rare circumstances, investment performance has probably not contributed a great deal of personal net worth  growth,  with  a  five-year  S&P 500  Index  return  of -0.25%.  However, for those who continued systematic contributions to 401(k)s and other investments, alongside debt reductions, net worth growth should be respectable.   

Ten years ago, December 31, 2001, it was about 3 ½ months after 9/11 and about 15 months before markets reached that low point in the spring of 2003.  In 2001, we did not know when the bottom would come.  It was painful, after two years of decline from the robust 1990’s.  Now, the ten-year S&P 500 Index return is 2.92%, which has increased through 2011.  This ten-year return is very low relative to the vast majority of ten-year S&P returns.  Yet, we know that many people have managed to increase net worth through these years.  Consider how knowing your progress might help you face the future now. 

There is more to money than money®.   Investment performance is only one of many factors that influence growing financial strength.  Investment contributions, withdrawal management and debt management are the keys to building and maintaining resources, whether the markets are performing well or poorly.  Returns cannot come close to these factors – particularly since the year 2000.  Knowing the reasons for your unique results is important.  So, now is the time to start building your documented history.  The knowledge will make a difference in your enjoyment of life.  Start this New Year with at least 2011 data in hand.  This is a core service we provide clients and will be glad to help you.     

Contact J. David Lewis directly with david.lewis@resourceadv.com or share your thoughts on this topic below. He founded Resource Advisory Services in 1985.  National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) was formed only a few years before. Lewis became a NAPFA-Registered Financial Advisor in 1986.  He is a passionate advocate for fiduciary, fee-only financial planning and has been associated with financial services since childhood in a banking family. 56975 

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