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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Managing Editor

Matt joined SMI in 2012. He leads SMI’s content strategy — managing the company’s monthly editorial calendar, writing many of the articles, sourcing content from outside the company, and either writing or overseeing much of what appears on our website. He also represents SMI in various radio guest appearances.

Prior to joining SMI, Matt was an independent biblical money management writer and speaker. He is the author of four personal finance books that were published by NavPress, including Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples and The Grad’s Guide to Money (written for high school seniors and college freshmen). He does some outside speaking as well at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats throughout the country. Matt has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990 when he began serving in the Good $ense ministry at Willowcreek Community Church.

Matt earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University and a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from DePaul University, where he wrote a thesis about the history and influence of our consumer culture.

Matt and his wife Jude have three children at home. 

Most Recent Articles

Money Roundup: Financial Planning in the Time of Covid-19, Change is the Only Constant, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Financial Goals and Systems: Can One Exist Without the Other?

A number of years ago, Dilbert cartoon strip creator Scott Adams penned a Wall Street Journal article that sparked some debate about the value of goal-setting. He didn’t pull any punches, telling readers, “Goals are for losers.”

Instead of goals, Adams recommended focusing on systems:

Writing a best-selling book is a goal, whereas practicing your writing every day for an hour is a system. Getting your boss's job is a goal, whereas continuously improving your skills and knowledge is a system. The problem with goals, in my opinion, is that they can be demotivating because progress is often imperceptibly slow. But if you employ a system, you'll have a sense of achievement every day.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear agrees with Adams. As a long-time goal-setter, he said:

I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed…. Now for the interesting question: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your systems, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would…. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your systems instead.

No question that by focusing only on systems you would still get results. However, with all due respect to Adams and Clear, maybe this isn’t an either/or scenario. Maybe the best way to think about this is that goals are helpful in identifying what you want to accomplish and systems are what’s needed to get there. Importantly, goals also give you the motivation to stick with the system.

When I teach biblical money management classes and encourage people to use a budget, I use a simple graphic to emphasize the importance of both goals and plans (systems).

The ideal is to be in the top left quadrant where you have goals and a plan. That's when you're truly managing money.

If you’re in the lower left quadrant, you have a money management plan or system but no goals, you may be obsessing. You’re sweating the details of hitting all of the numbers in your plan, and you’re probably getting good results, such as living within your income. For some, that may be reward enough. But for me, and I suspect at least a few others, we need a reason to do the work. We need to know that if we hit the numbers, we’ll be able to take a vacation, help our kids pay for college, or give generously to a ministry God has put on our heart.

Plus, goals tend to change over time, and different goals require different systems. Right now, we have a goal of being able to provide a certain amount of money toward each of our children’s college expenses and we’re using a system of making monthly contributions to 529 plan accounts to pursue those goals. But once they complete college, we’ll have different goals for that money and we’ll use a different system to pursue them.

The same is true of our retirement. We have a target nest egg amount we’re aiming for by a certain age and we’re following a system of automatically contributing a portion of every paycheck to a 401(k) plan. We also have a goal of generating a certain average annual return and are using a system (multiple SMI strategies) to pursue that goal. But once I’m no longer working full-time, we’ll choose different goals and different systems.

So, goals aren’t for losers. They work hand-in-hand with systems to help us manage money well.

How do you see the interplay between financial goals and systems? And what are some examples from your own life?

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Money Roundup: The Head of the Fed Matters More, What Half of Retirees Wish They Had Done, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Where to Keep Your Savings: The Time/Money Tradeoff

Money-market funds aren’t what they used to be. Not that long ago, they were paying about 2.5%. I should know. Because of that great rate, and in the interest of simplifying our household’s financial life, in the spring of 2019 I closed our beloved Capital One savings account and moved our savings to Vanguard, where we already had an IRA.

A better rate, plus

I describe our former savings account as “beloved” because I really liked the fact that at Capital One you can open multiple savings accounts and name them for specific purposes. I find it helpful to think of three types of savings accounts: An emergency fund, a periodic bills and expenses fund (for bills and expenses you incur sometime each year but not every month), and a big-ticket item replacement fund.

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What if Money Isn’t for Our Happiness?

One of the best marriage books I’ve read is Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. In it, he asks, What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” What a good and challenging question. Even as one who is happily married, I can see the wisdom behind the question. (I’m sure my wife can, too!)

As Thomas explains, This isn’t a book that seeks to tell you how to have a happier marriage. This is a book that looks at how we can use the challenges, joys, struggles, and celebrations of marriage to draw closer to God and to grow in Christian character.”

Re-reading the book recently, I was struck by the many parallels with money. In fact, wouldn’t it be helpful to live with this question in mind: What if God designed money to make us holy more than to make us happy?

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Dynamic Asset Allocation Was Made for Years Like This

The stock market’s long-term average annual return masks a hard reality: Returns can vary widely from one year to the next. Even one year’s return can be misleading, with intra-year moves hitting more extreme highs and lows than an unsuspecting investor might imagine.

That’s why it’s so important to follow a strategy that not only has the potential to deliver the returns you need, but that comes with an expected level of volatility you can live with. Formula One champion Niki Lauda’s advice about racing applies just as well to investing:The secret is to win going as slowly as possible.” And that’s a good description of what investors following SMI’s Dynamic Asset Allocation strategy have experienced this year.

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Your Annual Medicare-Coverage Checkup

If you have coverage under Medicare, the health insurance program for older Americans, a time of decision is at hand: Do you want to choose different — or perhaps additional — Medicare coverage for 2021? Medicare’s “Annual Coordinated Election” (open enrollment) period is from October 15 through December 7.

During open enrollment, you can:

  • switch from “Original” Medicare to a market-oriented Medicare Advantage plan or vice versa;
     
  • move from one Medicare Advantage plan to another;
     
  • enroll in Part D (prescription coverage) for the first time;
     
  • switch from one Part D plan to another, or drop Part D.

If you like your current arrangement, you don’t need to do anything. You’ll be automatically re-enrolled for 2021.

A Medicare refresher

Original Medicare, launched in 1965 — and little changed since — consists of hospital insurance (Part A) and medical insurance (Part B). Many users also opt for Medicare-approved prescription coverage (Part D), available via private insurance carriers.

Further, about a third of participants enrolled in Original Medicare supplement the program’s hospital and medical coverage via private “Medigap” policies that cover deductibles, co-payments, and certain other expenses not covered by Medicare. If you want to add a Medigap supplement plan, you must contact a company that issues such policies. (Be aware that supplement plans are identified by letters too, such as “Plan A” and “Plan B.” Don’t confuse them with Parts A and B of Medicare.)

Finally, an increasing percentage of Medicare users are moving to Medicare Advantage plans (also known as Part C), created by Congress in 2003 as an alternative to Original Medicare. Such plans, offered by private insurance companies, are all-in-one offerings that mirror the benefits of Parts A and B, while also (in most cases) including prescription coverage. Some Medicare Advantage plans add dental, vision, hearing, and fitness benefits as well. Nearly 40% of Medicare’s 62 million participants now choose an Advantage plan.

Satisfied? Shop anyway

Even if you’re happy with your current coverage, it may be worth the effort to take a second look. You might save money, and get more benefits to boot, by switching from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan. Or, if you have an Advantage plan already, you may find out that another plan has “in-network” doctors and facilities that are more convenient to where you live or work.

It’s especially important to compare plans if your health has changed. Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with a health condition, and your doctor has prescribed a new medication. Ensuring that you have the right prescription-drug coverage (via a Part D policy or an Advantage plan) could save you money.

The Medicare website has a plan-comparison section (www.medicare.gov/plan-compare) that can help you find a prescription-drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan that meets your needs. You also can use the site to shop for supplemental (Medigap) policies available in your area. A popular privately run site for comparing various Medicare options is www.PlanPrescriber.com. To speak with someone about choosing a plan, contact your state’s health insurance assistance program (SHIP).

You can make changes to your coverage via www.Medicare.gov or by calling 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE). To contact the Medicare Advantage plan of your choice, use the contact information found on the comparison sites mentioned above.

If you miss the October 15-December 7 open-enrollment season and you’re dissatisfied with your Medicare Advantage plan, you’ll have another opportunity to make changes early in 2021. The annual Medicare Advantage Open Enrollment Period period runs from January 1 to March 31. During those months, you can switch from one Advantage plan to another (even if you just signed up for an Advantage plan during the October-December enrollment period). You also can switch from an Advantage plan back to original Medicare, while also picking up a Part D prescription-drug plan if desired.

A final word of advice. Be on guard against scam artists. In one common scam, someone claiming to represent Medicare will call stating that they are updating your coverage details and need your Social Security number to finish processing your file. Don’t fall for it!

Learn more

For more details about Medicare, including a summary of benefits, coverage options, and answers to the most frequently asked questions about the program, download the 2021 edition of the Medicare & You handbook at www.Medicare.gov/publications.

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October 2020 Sightings

Sighting: People, Get Ready

Retirement can sometimes feel like this amorphous concept, but just because we can’t touch it or see it, doesn’t mean we can pretend it’s not real. We should have a sense of urgency about retirement because it’s coming, and there are no do-overs.

The best time to start saving was as soon as you got your first paycheck. The second best time is now.

– Michael Batnick writing at his Irrelevant Investor blog on 9/19/20. Read more at bit.ly/3iZuFe5.

Sighting: Negativity Is Not an Investment Strategy

I understand why people are negative about, well, everything. 2020 hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park. There’s plenty to worry about these days.

You could argue that the investing landscape has never been harder than it is today considering the level of interest rates around the globe.

But you still have to invest. You can’t bury your money in your backyard or keep it all in cash when there is no such thing as a risk-free rate of return.

Complaining about the Fed is not going to help fund your retirement. Making fun of Robinhood speculators does not in fact create alpha. Being mad at the stock market for not dropping further during a pandemic doesn’t help fund your child’s 529 plan.

Any position you take in regards to your portfolio involves risk. Investing in stocks is risky. Bonds are also risky. Crypto, private equity, hedge funds, real estate and every other financial asset involve risk-taking to make (or lose) money.

But guess what else involves risk — doing nothing! In fact, doing nothing with your money is the biggest risk of all.

There are no guarantees when investing your money in risk assets. Maybe you’ll lose a boatload of money investing in risk assets. In fact, you almost certainly will at times. There is no way to completely hedge risk out of the equation when trying to grow your capital.

There is a way to guarantee awful outcomes with your savings — complain about the markets and don’t do anything with your money. If you never take any risk, you will never have enough saved for retirement. Being pessimistic and sitting on the sidelines at all times guarantees you will lose money to inflation over the long-term.

Complaining can be cathartic at times but it’s not an investment strategy. You still have to invest in something if you wish to grow your capital.

– From a 9/20/20 post by Ben Carlson on his A Wealth of Common Sense blog. Read more at bit.ly/3kGwk8P.

Sighting: How to Think Long Term With Near-Zero Interest Rates

A long-term environment with superlow interest rates can mean different things to different people — sometimes multiple things to the same person.

With the Federal Reserve signaling that benchmark, short-term interest rates would likely be held near zero until 2023, many may be reminded of the period following the last recession, when superlow rates lasted for seven years.

Now America’s savers and borrowers face new, possibly more difficult choices. Over the previous decade, for example, the yield on safe 10-year U.S. government debt averaged about 2.4%, according to FactSet; today it is hovering around 0.7%.

Low rates may encourage some people to buy homes or refinance them, even as others consider delaying retirement or postponing other money milestones. Whether superlow rates present opportunity or peril depends on where you fall on the borrowing-saving spectrum. Here’s how to think about near-zero rates for the next few years.

Mortgage rates are likely to stay low. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is 2.87%, near its lowest level in about half a century.

That is likely to spur more home buying, though caution is warranted. I would never encourage someone to rush out and buy a home just because rates are low,” said Mike Fratantoni, chief economist and senior vice president of research at the Mortgage Bankers Association....

Borrowers with good credit scores will benefit most from superlow rates. Meanwhile, those who save, invest or lend may suffer in this rate environment.

This is especially true when it comes to cash. Those with so-called high-yield savings accounts already saw rates drop when the Fed started cutting.

Another group that gets hit: those who are approaching a life event that requires holdings that produce a steady income stream. Examples are people with target-date savings vehicles, such as retirement or 529 education savings accounts. These typically shift more money into bonds and cash as retirement or college approaches. But those assets are now likely to yield far less and so will produce less income.

Diminished income streams may lead some people to delay retirement, or college....

While low rates may tempt some people to take on more risk, don’t forget: We’re still in a pandemic.... Don’t chase yield without being mindful of the risk,” [certified financial planner Malik] Lee said. We’re still not out of the water with Covid. I’d caution people: Don’t get greedy.”

– From a 9/19/20 article in The Wall Street Journal. Read more at on.wsj.com/3mFfIjA.

Sighting: Too Much Stuff

As a kid, I used to collect stuff — Lego, vacation souvenirs, stamps. That urge to collect has never completely left me. Over the years, I’ve amassed limited edition prints, old economics books, presidential campaign posters and more. At one time, I even had a copy of every article I’d ever written, as well as a binder filled with all the student newspapers I edited while at Cambridge.

When I die, my children aren’t going to want this stuff. In fact, much of it I don’t want. Whenever I can unload some of these things without triggering too many regrets over the time and money wasted, I grab it. All this is a reminder of why money spent on experiences, rather than possessions, is so much better for happiness. Possessions may deliver an initial thrill when they’re first acquired, but all too quickly they can become a burden.

– Jonathan Clements, former personal finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal, reflecting on his biggest financial regrets in a 9/19/20 post at HumbleDollar.com. Read more at bit.ly/3coIPD6.

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Steady Plodding Brings Prosperity and Other Points To Ponder

The Fed calls for reinforcements

“Although Powell said the initial monetary and fiscal response was rapid and ‘effective,’ his ‘sense is that more fiscal support is likely to be needed.’ Without that support, ‘there’s certainly a risk…that will start to show up in economic activity.’ It was a clear message to Congress.”

– Schwab chief investment strategist Liz Ann Sonders, highlighting Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s latest comments about the economic recovery. Read more at
bit.ly/2ZWgMGi.

Managing expectations

“Needless to say, investors were not very optimistic about the future in 2010, and valuations were reflective of that. No one was expecting anywhere near 20% returns per year going forward. After what they went through, they probably would’ve been happy with a few percent per year. Today we have the opposite situation, where recessions are deemed to be a good thing (because it means more government stimulus and an easier Fed), IPOs [Initial Public Offerings] are doubling on their opening day, and SPACs [Special Purpose Acquisition Companies] are all the rage. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the future looks any different.”

– Charlie Bilello in a 9/17/20 post on his Compound Advisors blog in which he cautioned investors about unrealistic expectations. Read more at
bit.ly/2H5FMnE.

A game that can’t be won

“It is impossible to feel wealthy if your expectations grow faster than your income.”

– Morgan Housel, in a 9/16/20 Collaborative Fund post. Come for the insights into “obvious things that are easy to ignore” — about investing and more — and stay for the Sherlock Holmes quotes at
bit.ly/35UkV1f.

“Steady plodding brings prosperity”

“For most investors, the ability to exploit near-term opportunities or react rapidly to changing market dynamics is a danger not an advantage.”

– Joe Wiggins, in a 9/2/20 post on his
Behavioral Investment blog, in which he highlighted the benefits of adding some “friction” to investment decision-making. Read more at bit.ly/3mEWgUb.

Permabear perils

“You should not invest as if anything is guaranteed, including higher stock prices. But if you’re consumed by negativity and always worried about what could go wrong, you’re going to have a really hard time growing your portfolio.”

– Michael Batnick, in a 9/21 post on his blog,
The Irrelevant Investor, pointing out that it’s easy to be a pessimist, but it’s not very profitable. Read more at bit.ly/345rvPZ.

They don’t only go up

“If you want to earn big returns in the stock market, expect to live with big losses to get there.”

– Ben Carlson, in a 9/7/20 post on his blog,
A Wealth of Common Sense. He pointed out that most of today’s highest-flying stocks have suffered some breathtaking plunges as well. Read more at bit.ly/32NjIXw.

What could go wrong?

“This is not about civil liberties or voting rights; rather, these are expensive, opaque, and often underperforming assets that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to select. Equal access sounds good in theory but in actual practice it is a disaster.”

– Barry Ritholtz, weighing in on his blog,
The Big Picture, on 9/18/20 in a debate about whether it’s a good idea to allow retirement savers to invest in private equity. For other opinions on the topic, read the whole post at bit.ly/2ZKAtkb.

A long obedience in the same direction

“I will do what I’ve encouraged all of you to do. I’m going to obey God, and leave all the consequences to him.”

– The Rev. Charles Stanley, telling his congregation about his future plans in announcing his transition from pastor to pastor emeritus. The 87-year-old has pastored Atlanta’s First Baptist Church for more than 50 years. Read more in this 9/13/20
Christianity Today article: bit.ly/3mxAeTe.

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Money Roundup: The Fed May Have Hit Its Limit, The Strange Math of Investing, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

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