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Five Big Investments You Don’t Know You Have
For Most Households, They Matter More Than Stocks, Bonds or Mutual Funds
By Jack Hough | WSJ | May 11, 2014
When you hear the word investment, you probably think of your home, stocks and mutual funds, your retirement account, maybe your baseball-card collection. But how often do you think of your job?
You should, because for all but the wealthiest, your job is probably your No. 1 investment. Just think of your wages as the equivalent of a portfolio’s income stream. The median household income in the U.S., about $51,000, equals the income of a stock-and-bond portfolio worth more than $1.2 million—assuming sustainable withdrawals of 4% a year.
Most U.S. households don’t have anything close to $1.2 million saved. Among households with financial assets like stocks and bank certificates of deposit, the median portfolio was barely $30,000 as of 2010, according to Federal Reserve data. Or, to put it in corporate accounting terms, most Americans are all income statement and no balance sheet.
So while everyone should learn the basics of investing, most workers should treat their ability to earn and save as their biggest asset. With that in mind, here are some hot investments that you probably don’t think of as investments. But for most households, they matter more for growing wealth than the fine details of portfolio management.
1. Your benefits.
There are many ways to save, but for typical families, one seems to be working better than others. Between 1989 and 2010, the share of household financial assets held in retirement accounts nearly doubled to 38%, according to the Federal Reserve.
Not coincidentally, the number of active 401(k) participants has also ballooned, from 7.5 million in 1984 to 73.7 million last year. Few savings vehicles can match the 401(k) on features that promote long-term success. Workers typically add money automatically from their pay and get a tax break on their contribution, plus, more often than not, a matching contribution from their employer.
Even a middling 401(k) experience can pay off handsomely. A Congressional Research Service study in 2007 projected that a median-income household could stash away $468,000 after inflation in a retirement account by age 65 simply by starting at age 35, contributing 8% of pay and earning typical stock and bond returns. . .
Group life insurance can be a money saver too. . . Also, don’t forget health insurance, tuition reimbursement, corporate travel discounts and credit unions.
Then there’s Social Security, which is basically like a lifetime annuity from an insurance company. Some couples retire with Social Security income equivalent to that generated by investments worth over $1 million.
2. Your body.
Workers who exercise regularly earn 9% higher pay, on average, than those who don’t, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Labor Research.
By scoring subjects on their propensity to exercise, based on factors like age, education level and school sports involvement, the study showed a cause-and-effect relationship between working out and earning more. Other studies have documented an obesity penalty to earnings, which seems to hit women hardest.
The financial benefits of fitness extend well beyond earnings. The fit pay less for life insurance than the fat, and spend less on health care.
Plus, the benefits to employers of worker fitness—fewer sick days, higher productivity and so on—are enough to make companies want to chip in.
Put it all together, and for a typical household the return on investment for getting in shape over the next year dwarfs the likely gains from financial assets
3. Your marriage.
Married couples gain financial leverage by sharing things like expenses, assets and health-care coverage. As a result, they increase wealth by 4% a year simply as a result of being married, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Human Resource Research at Ohio State University.
For couples who divorce, the same study found, wealth a decade later is three-quarters lower than for couples that remain married.
Considering the stakes, unhappy couples should view $100 a pop for weekly visits to a marriage counselor as a wise investment.
4. Your spending.
Small savings here and there can add up to meaningful wealth come retirement, for those who start early. For each $5 trimmed from daily expenses and invested at 6% yearly returns, the result after 40 years is nearly $300,000.
Discovering that $5 starts with tracking expenses, but fewer than one in three Americans prepares a detailed budget, in writing or on a computer that tracks income and expenses each month, according to a Gallup poll last year.
For the other two thirds, creating a budget can generate an extraordinarily high return on investment. Some personal-finance sites, such as Mint.com, are free and automatically download information from financial institutions. . .
5. Your community.
Homes are the biggest nonfinancial asset for most households, and 70% of home-owning households have a mortgage. The median amount was $112,000 in 2010. That means that, since location is a key determinant of home values over time, many households are making a leveraged bet on the health of their communities.
Unlike with stocks, a little market manipulation here is encouraged. Show up for the Saturday school cleaning. Press the town to fill in nearby potholes. Help a sick neighbor mow her lawn.
Worst case, your efforts bring only personal satisfaction. Best case, others follow your lead and gradually increase neighborhood home values.
Write to Jack Hough at firstname.lastname@example.org