Detroit's Bankruptcy: It Should Affect How You Manage Your Money - Jacquette M. Timmons

As soon as I learned of the city of Detroit’s filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, I posted the following across my social media platforms:

JmT-DetroitBankruptcyPost

 

Today, I want to add a few more reasons why this historic event should really – and, I mean REALLY – matter to you and serve as a wake-up call for how to best manager your money.

The city’s bankruptcy has at least five (5) clues and cues for you. In no particular order, here’s why I believe you shouldn’t dismiss this as a “that’s their problem” scenario: 

  • 401(k)

To elaborate on what I said on the interwebs last week, if you participate (and I hope you do) in your company’s 401(k) plan and the company’s stock is one of the investment options, be sure to minimize your exposure to said stock. As so many people (re)learned on September 15, 2008, your company’s value can evaporate – go poof! – in a single business day. You’ll need to work with your financial advisor to determine the specific percentage as it is situation dependent, but as a conservative general rule of thumb, I’d aim for 5-10%.

Here’s why this is relevant to you: You don’t want your retirement savings tied to a single security, especially if your earnings are tied to the company of that security. Make sense?

  • Municipal bonds

You shouldn’t have municipal bonds in your 401(k) plan anyway (there’s no added value), but just in case you do…check your investment allocation to municipal bonds. You should do the same for your taxable brokerage accounts, too. Make sure you know how financially healthy the municipality whose bond you hold is. And, you’ll want to do this for you and your parents! (One of the sad side-effects of Detroit’s bankruptcy is the number of retirees whose retirement lifestyle (and dreams) will be financially interrupted.)

Here’s why this is relevant to you: Typically in a bankruptcy proceeding, creditors are the first in line to get paid. But it looks like Detroit is taking another route. So, as of this writing the city’s municipal bondholders will likely have to wait their turn.

  • Have savings beyond retirement-related accounts

To some extent, my industry is to blame for the emphasis on ‘save for retirement’ – whether on your own via a defined-contribution plan (like a 401(k)) or a defined-benefit plan (like a pension). Yes, you should save for retirement, but not just for retirement as a life-style, but because of the associated tax advantages from tax-deferred instruments.

But far too many people save for retirement almost at the exclusion of saving OUTSIDE these options. They may have an emergency fund and retirement savings, but nothing in between. This is a costly mistake I see people making all the time; I call them lop-sided savers because all their savings are tied up in retirement-related accounts. Are you making a similar mistake?

Here’s why this is relevant to you: The employees and retirees are likely to be in for a rude awakening, and will now have to scramble to figure out how to address a financial shortfall they didn’t anticipate and therefore didn’t prepare for. Balance out your savings strategy!

  • Heed the warning signs…early

You don’t have to be a Detroit resident to know the city has been financially challenged for a very long time. Besides, $19 billion in debt didn’t just pop up overnight! It took 60 years; a population decline of about 800,000 people; and a combination of financial imprudence and ignorance.

I don’t know what measures were (or were not) taken to avert the bankruptcy, but the signs were clearly there for a loooong time.

Here’s why this is relevant to you: Since things simmer before they reach a boiling point, what is simmering in your life right now? What is quietly tapping you on your shoulder begging for your attention? Start to address whatever just popped to mind – even if it is nothing more than writing it down on paper and getting it out of your head.

  • Make the tough choices sooner rather than later (it’s less painful!)

Sometimes, reality sucks. Sometimes, you have to choose between hard and harder. This is particularly evident when it comes to dealing with overwhelming debt and/or having to renegotiate a promise.

Sounds like this is the position in which the city of Detroit’s fiduciaries found themselves. The city’s debt escalated far beyond its means to meet its obligation, and the ripple effect will likely impact their ability to meet pension commitments. (Newsflash: there are a number of cities and states dealing with a significant deficit and under-funded pensions and could easily find themselves in a similar situation as Detroit.)

From what I can gather, it also sounds like the city officials were trying to satisfy everyone 100% and wound up not satisfying anyone in the process!

Truth is, there are times when in order to give everyone some of what they want everyone needs to leave something on the table…

You can’t always get everything you want, when you want it, and how you want. Yes, I know, this is no surprise to you. But I think this truth often gets lost when the stakes being negotiated are high and people feel taken advantage of during the negotiation proceedings.

Here’s why this is relevant to you: When you have to make a tough choice, make it, make it as soon as you feel you’re about to enter a danger zone, and map out a plan to include several scenarios! And, remember to negotiate and operate from a space of abundance. People may not like the outcome, but if they respect the experience of the process, they are more likely to work with you…rather than against you.

Even if Detroit’s bankruptcy wasn’t too much of a surprise to the residents of the city, I’m sure it’s still a rude awakening to its citizens, especially its affected employees and retirees. It is a potent reminder that at all times YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE for your financial health and well-being. That should never be abdicated. ‘Can’t think of a better case for financial intimacy as a concept to embrace and a practice to follow!

 

 

p.s. want my virtual help with making sure you’re managing your 401(k) well? Check out the training, “What the Hell Should I Do with My 401(k)?” (Content is relevant for 403(b) plans, as well.)

 

 

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