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Scott Burns: The Case for a Simple Retirement Plan

The veteran retirement columnist reflects on a two-fund portfolio, safe spending rates, and the role of home equity in retirement cash flows.

The Long View podcast with hosts Christine Benz and Jeff Ptak.

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Our guest on the podcast today is syndicated personal finance columnist and author Scott Burns. Burns began his career as a newspaper columnist in The Boston Herald in 1977, where he was also the financial editor. In 1985, he joined the staff of The Dallas Morning News, where his column became one of the most widely read features in the paper. Along the way, he created what he called Couch Potato Investing, which involves buying and holding a broadly diversified portfolio of low-cost index mutual funds. Burns has authored or co-authored several books, including The Coming Generational Storm and Spend ‘Til the End, both of which he co-authored with Laurence Kotlikoff. He received bachelor’s degrees in humanities and biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Couch Potato Investing

The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns

Spend ‘Til the End: Raising Your Living Standard in Today’s Economy and When You Retire, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns

Bonds and Retirement

Do Bonds Have a Future?” by Scott Burns,, May 14, 2022.

Scott Burns: These Four Pillars of Investing Stand the Test of Time,” by Scott Burns, The Dallas Morning News, July 20, 2023.

Allan Roth

TIPS Ladder Funds Don’t Yet Exist, but They Should,” by John Rekenthaler,, June 16, 2023.

Is America Hitting Peak Consumption?” by Scott Burns,, Oct. 12, 2023.

The Pudding Report, 2022,” by Scott Burns,, Jan. 15, 2023.

Examining the Tax Deferral Gift Horse,” by Scott Burns,, April 8, 2023.

Investing in Retirement

What’s a Safe Withdrawal Rate Today?” by Christine Benz, Jeffrey Ptak, and John Rekenthaler,, Dec. 13, 2022.

The 4 Percent Rule Is Not Safe in a Low-Yield World,” by Michael Finke, Wade Pfau, and David Blanchett, SSRN, Jan. 15, 2013.

The High Cost of Immortality,” by Scott Burns,, Dec. 18, 2022.

Making a Plan to Retire Now, Not Later,” by Scott Burns,, April 25, 2022.

Is Homeownership Bigger Than It Should Be?” by Scott Burns,, Nov. 14, 2020.

Is Downsizing in Retirement Actually Possible?” by Scott Burns,, Nov. 21, 2020.


Portfolio Visualizer

Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Employee Benefit Research Institute

Kaiser Family Foundation


(Please stay tuned for important disclosure information at the conclusion of this episode.)

Christine Benz: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I’m Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.

Jeff Ptak: And I’m Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.

Benz: Our guest on the podcast today is syndicated personal finance columnist and author, Scott Burns. Scott began his career as a newspaper columnist in The Boston Herald in 1977, where he was also the financial editor. In 1985, he joined the staff of The Dallas Morning News, where his column became one of the most widely read features in the paper. Along the way, he created what he called Couch Potato Investing, which involves buying and holding a broadly diversified portfolio of low-cost index mutual funds. Scott has authored or co-authored several books, including The Coming Generational Storm and Spend ‘Til the End, both of which he co-authored with Laurence Kotlikoff. He received bachelor’s degrees in humanities and biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scott, welcome to The Long View.

Scott Burns: Thank you.

Benz: Well, thanks for being here. We wanted to start by discussing your evolution toward what you have called Couch Potato Investing, something that you’ve become kind of famous for. And it’s an ultra-minimalist buy-and-hold index fund strategy. You’ve talked about how earlier in your career watching so many smart, articulate fund managers fail or just sort of flame out and never really deliver on their previous outperformance. That contributed to your change in thinking about how we all ought to be investing. Can you discuss that?

Burns: Happily. I didn’t start out to be a minimalist at all. I started out in Boston. Boston is the major mutual fund headquarters that has Fidelity, Mass Financial Services, and probably a dozen others, plus a whole bunch of insurance entities. I thought at that time that, well, smart people are here, and smart people can probably do well. I was totally impressed over at Fidelity. As soon as the Apple II appeared, all of the offices on Devonshire Street for Fidelity were littered with Apple II computers. People were running the spreadsheets and doing all kinds of very interesting work. They presented well. They were all smart guys or women and yet the results weren’t there. And then, a little later, Morningstar, a company you should be familiar with, introduced through Businessweek—you’re too young to remember this—but the first mutual fund screener was introduced by Morningstar and was distributed through Businessweek. And I treasured those discs because they allowed me to screen and rank and sort and do different studies related to mutual fund performance. And what I started finding again and again and again is that the only major variable on mutual performance that was predictive was the expense ratio. It kind of gives you a message that brains don’t count for that much.

I could have made a very easy living in Boston by ignoring those results and arranging nice lunches with the portfolio manager of my choice. There were plenty of portfolio managers. They were all articulate. They all had good stories. But the statistics were starting to show that it didn’t make much difference how articulate anyone was or whether they’d gone to Harvard Business School or whatever. There was a funny day when a public relations guy from a major insurance company did confess that one of his jobs was to make sure that some of his vice presidents never saw the light of day. So, not all of the investment firms have a brain trust the way Fidelity had or Mass Financial Services.

Ptak: You have a couple of Couch Potato portfolios. One that’s total stock market, total bond market and another one that’s better diversified. It includes non-U.S. stocks and so on. You’ve discussed how the simpler one has outperformed the better-diversified one. Should most investors buy a two-fund portfolio and just call it a day?

Burns: I think so. There are a bunch of reasons for that. For me, I drank the diversification Kool-Aid and tried to do an optimized distribution of asset classes. And it did better than the Couch Potato for maybe 18 months. And then, all of a sudden, it reversed, and it wasn’t producing and has yet to produce. And the longer I’ve been writing, the more I have learned that the number of people who actually want to deal with investments and think about them is really small. And if I wanted to reach a broad audience, I had to find a simple way for people to invest that didn’t involve a whole bunch of numbers and got them away from what I call the numerical precision illusion, which intimidates a lot of people. And the Couch Potato divide by two, with the aid of a calculator, if necessary, is the way to do that. And interestingly, the results were positive both in up markets and down markets. And there was a lot of backup for it, including from the lord of all indexing, John Bogle, but also there were some Nobel laureates that did the same thing.

But this thing about the numerical intimidation, let’s think about that for a minute. Most mutual funds, their returns, whether short-term or long-term, are expressed in two-digit numbers. That return is a hundredth of 1%. That’s a tiny number in a world that has difficulty figuring out whether it’s plus or minus. And yet, the people who are not math-facile, which is the majority of the population, are intimidated. They see those numbers and they think, “Well, boy, if they can calculate in two digits like that in the past, they must know something about the future.” Well, it ain’t so.

Benz: Just to follow up on that ultrasimple portfolio, I think there’s a lot to like about that intuitively. But in a lot of ways, I would say the current environment reminds me a little of the late-1990s period where we had the large technology stocks at the top of the U.S. market and really driving great returns for broad U.S. index funds. And then, we had a lost decade for the U.S. market and value stocks and small caps and international performed better during that period. So, is there a risk there that if investors just hitch their whole future to the U.S. market and tune out, say, non-U.S. stocks especially, do they potentially miss out quite a bit?

Burns: I think the evidence is no, in part because the S&P 500 and smaller companies all derive a significant portion of their earnings from overseas. So, we are earning money and we have capital throughout the world. So, that’s one very big reason. The other reason, if we look around the world as desolate, as people appear to feel about the United States at this moment, we look pretty good compared with others. For instance, if you look at the other wealthy nations in Europe, their demography is terrible. They have declining populations in Italy with very low birthrates throughout the region. And that is a very big headwind to run against. Even in emerging-markets stocks, the demography is not favorable. It’s turned unfavorable in China. It’s been unfavorable in Japan for years. And in other areas, it’s problematic like the Middle East. So, I just don’t feel there’s a compelling reason to do it.

Ptak: Maybe back to the two-fund portfolio. Clearly, you’re predisposed to index. But what about the stock-bond split and how one should go about setting that? How do you think somebody should approach that? They say, “I’m going to pick up my two funds—one is a stock fund, the other a bond fund.” How should they set the mix?

Burns: It all depends on the inclinations of the person. If the person is aware of and considers their human capital, I think that the theory of human capital is very useful. And if you have a secure job, you can invest very aggressively when you’re young and become less aggressive as you get older. If you don’t have a secure job, which is a more common condition, you might just start 50-50. Or you can just pick a number that you feel comfortable with. I like 75-25 for younger workers. But again, it depends on where they’re employed and how it’s going to change. I have a younger brother who’s a university professor and he’s been quite secure. So, his employment is a bond, so he can afford to invest aggressively.

Benz: So, thinking about retirees, and I’m thinking specifically about 2022, it seems like some cash would have really come in handy in a year in which, say, you had total bond market and total stock market. You probably would have liked to pull any withdrawals from something that hadn’t dropped. So, how does cash fit in there and how should retirees especially rightsize their cash holdings to the extent that you think they should have cash in their portfolios?

Burns: Again, it depends on how much work the person is willing to do and how big a bet they’re willing to make. If you listen to the Federal Reserve, they made a commitment and cash, you should have been thinking cash very seriously early in 2022, and it would have served you well. But for most people, making the commitment and holding on to it, the 50-50 is probably a better choice. For myself, I move to cash.

Ptak: Maybe to talk more generally about the bond market, it seems like bonds are deeply unloved among a lot of mainstream investors at the moment due to their dismal performance in 2022 and not great results this year so far. If you were trying to explain to a skeptic the case for investing in fixed income in a portfolio today, what’s the most succinct way you could make that case to them?

Burns: I would say tread with caution. One of the theses that I really like comes from Dimensional Fund Advisors. When they make a choice between bonds and equities, they remind us that longer durations have significantly more risk. And if you have a risk budget, that risk budget is probably better placed in equities. So, I like being on the shorter side of duration. That prejudices me against long-term bonds.

Benz: In a similar vein, would you urge investors to stick with the high-quality stuff versus lower-quality bonds that might tend to behave a little bit more like equities in terms of their volatility profile?

Burns: Absolutely, because the junk bonds that have been issued certainly in the last five years, they have been wildly liberalized and you don’t know what you’re holding. Not as bad as mortgage bonds in 2008. I’m going to knock on wood there.

Benz: Heard it.

Burns: Yeah. It could be. The other thing here is about predictions of when times seem right. So, bonds look better than they did in the past. But I can remember Jack Bogle speaking before SABEW, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, long ago, he opened it up with a great statement. He said, since I spoke with you last, I’ve had a change of heart and that was subsequent to his heart transplant. But he went on to go through an exercise that he does adding dividend yield, assumed growth in retained earnings, and then change in P/E multiple. And twice he went through that on two occasions. And on both occasions, he was wrong. So, predict what you want, but it really doesn’t amount to much.

Ptak: Wanted to stick with bonds for a minute and ask an age-old question is whether rank-and-file investors should own bonds, individual bonds, or bond funds. Bond funds, of course, offer ease of use, but their drawbacks have been on display recently, namely, you won’t necessarily be made whole when you need to sell. How would you suggest investors approach that decision?

Burns: The important words in your question are rank-and-file-investors. In an ideal world, someone would go out and build a ladder of different maturity so that over a longer period of time they’d have the yield, say, of a 10-year bond with a five-year duration or something like that. They’d have more yield than they had risk for that yield. But that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people. They have to buy a fund. The other thing is that when you talk about buying individual bonds, those are one of the major opportunities to get skinned by a brokerage firm. And one of the advantages of a bond fund is that you have a pretty good idea that they are not getting skinned by a brokerage house, unless, of course, the brokerage house is sponsoring the fund.

Benz: Sticking with the individual bond portfolio, one thing we’ve been hearing—Allan Roth, for example, has been out there saying that he thinks that just a laddered Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities portfolio is a really great simple strategy for retirees. What do you think about that approach?

Burns: I think it’s simple for Allan. Allan is absolutely wonderful. He’s a very lucid, clear thinker, and he knows his math. But I think if you ask people to set up a ladder, most of them will head for the door. So, we’re back at funds.

Ptak: I wanted to jump down if I may to retirement, which has been a big focus of your work. You recently wrote that retirees could buy bonds yielding 4% and subsist on that income without touching the principal until age 81. Can you walk us through the basic strategy there? Would the new retirees’ whole portfolio go toward bonds in order to generate that 4% spending rate? And then related, what would happen at age 81?

Burns: This is not about how you construct a portfolio. This is about the difference between income generation and principal. So, there’s nothing about portfolio construction in this. It was merely an observation that the greater the income produced in the portfolio, the longer you could go into retirement without drawing down your principal, which is after all what continues to produce income year after year. The moment we start drawing down principal, we start entering the spiral. I can’t remember what the technical word for it is, but it’s elegant. So, if you just measure it against required minimum distributions, if you had all cash in your portfolio at this very moment, you would be producing enough income to get you through to age 81, assuming the income remained the same, which of course it wouldn’t. But the longer you can go before diminishing your principal, the better off you will be. In an ideal portfolio, say the portfolio of a vampire who’s going to live forever, you would never draw down your principal, you would always just live on your income.

Benz: In a way, it feels back to the future to me, because when yields were higher, you had retirees very focused on just living off of current income. And it got them into some really funny-looking portfolios, in my opinion, that they had constructed all with an eye toward generating whatever stream of income they needed instead of just stepping back and thinking about, OK, what’s a sensible portfolio construction and then, is there anything wrong with periodically selling chunks of appreciated securities? Can you discuss income versus total return and what’s the right approach for retirees?

Burns: Absolutely. All ideas are good until people start putting them into practice, and then they start going to extremes. So, people get enamored of income, and all of a sudden, their portfolio is loaded with, say, REITs, bank stocks, and utilities. And they don’t have any diversification. And one consequence of the income-oriented is that they’ve lost the possibility of growth. And if you’re going to be retired and exist for another 25, 30, or 35 years, you really have to be concerned about some kind of growth. And you only get that by investing in equities that reinvest at a significant level. So, we’re back. Again, the whole idea of spending income, not principal isn’t the guideline portfolio construction so much as it is a recognition of a reality that as long as your portfolio generates some amount of income, you’re not drawing down your principal every year. And the longer you can avoid drawing down significant portions of your principal, the safer you are. After all, if you could live on cash until age 81, your life expectancy at age 81 is a whole lot less than it is at age 65 when you probably started the process.

Ptak: What’s your take on the standard rule of thumb for retiree spending, say, the 4% guideline? Should retirees approach setting their withdrawal systems differently? And if so, how?

Burns: Let’s start with reality first. The vast majority of the money that people are withdrawing in their retirement is from tax-deferred accounts, not taxable accounts. So, you don’t necessarily have the choice of keeping your withdrawal rate to 4% plus the rate of inflation. So, eventually, the required minimum distributions tell you how much you have to withdraw and you either reinvest the aftertax proceeds or not. But Bengen, in his really mind-boggling work, he set a whole thing in motion and his number at 4%, it leaves a portfolio safe the vast majority of the time through hard times, and so on. And it has worked. I do an exercise every year, basically called “show me the money,” where instead of talking about returns, I measure how much of your money is left over different time periods if you’d retired drawing at 4%. And it’s remarkable. So far, every exercise has been quite successful. So, people who are now starving aren’t writing me nasty letters.

Benz: I wanted to follow up on that because Jeff and I have worked on some research related to retirement spending at Morningstar, and we found something similar that using, say, a 4% starting withdrawal percentage does in many, many, many market environments lead to someone ending up with significant amounts of principal left behind at, say, year 30 of their retirement. So, is there a systematic tendency toward encouraging people to actually underspend relative to what they could do if the net effect is that people end up with a lot of funds at the end of their lives and that would, by extension, mean that they underconsumed relative to what they could have spent?

Burns: I think there are two aspects to that. One is if people leave money behind, but they were satisfied with their consumption during their life. Who cares? Must we always think that we have to maximize our consumption? I’m just not sure that that’s a very good idea.

Benz: Well, it doesn’t have to be consumption, I should say. Maybe they could have given the money away to loved ones during their lifetimes, for example, and watched it in action, improve, say, their kids and grandkids and charities that they love and prove the fortunes of those entities.

Burns: That’s a much happier idea and background. I think the first work that looked at that was Michael Finke’s, and I thought that was an enormously pregnant observation when he wrote the paper on how much money you were leaving behind by making those assumptions of the 4% withdrawal. I think there’s a more recent paper that I haven’t had a chance to read that explores that further, but it was a long time coming. The question for me is, where do you go and what tools do you have that will work with the vast majority of people out there? There are some people who go to complete security extremes. One of the things I disagree with Kotlikoff about—Kotlikoff is very insistent that financial planning must assume that you’re going to live to age 100, an event that is maybe 2% of the population will experience living to 100. So, it’s not a premise. He would have you leave money behind rather than take any risk of running out of money. I think that’s unreasonable too. I don’t know that there’s a working formula. I know a lot of work has been put into it. Maybe you make special distributions of principal when you have a big excessive year. My wife and I have been trying to do what you mentioned, Christine, which is, if we can give money in the present, that’s a whole lot better than leaving it until we die. But I think that’s a very personal judgment. I don’t see a mechanism really yet developed to facilitate changing how you spend from your money, except maybe getting the idea, hey, this is way more money than I’m ever going to be able to spend. And there are tools for figuring that out.

Ptak: Maybe sticking with the theme of spending, it does seem that many retirees, especially more affluent ones, have difficulty giving themselves permission to spend in retirement, and I think that we’ve referenced that at different points in our conversation. You have a lot of contact with retirees and preretirees. Is this an issue in your experience based on your interactions with those folks?

Burns: Absolutely. It’s a constant theme because people get more insecure as they get older. I shouldn’t say they, since I’m about to have my 83rd birthday, so it’s definitely we. The question is, how do you change a lifetime habit? It’s not so much about investing as it is about personal predispositions. I see our population as not a normal distribution, but a camel’s back, a bimodal distribution. You’ve got people on one end of the curve who have saved and planned all their lives, and it’s very difficult to get them to say, oh, hey, time for me to become a big spender. At the other end, there are the people who make glib assumptions. I can’t tell you how many readers have sent me notes. They’re 62 years old, they’re retiring, going to take Social Security. They happily assume that they’re going to be dead by the time they’re 72 years old. At the rate they spend, they should be so lucky, but they probably won’t. And that’s the other hump on the camel’s back. I don’t know what you do with those people either, but there’s a significant number.

Benz: You referenced Michael Finke earlier. He and David Blanchett had a paper about this whole permission to spend problem about how wealthier people, especially, have this identity of themselves as savers, and it’s hard to flip that switch where suddenly they’re going to start spending from this portfolio that they’ve been watching grow. Their assertion in this paper was that an annuity could potentially be helpful in this context, a really basic annuity where it’s a sunk cost. There’s no going back once you’ve made the purchase. You’re just getting this stream of income, and it’s yours to deploy as you see fit. Do you think that seems like maybe a solution, or do you think the person who doesn’t want to spend would have a really tough time putting a significant share of their portfolio into an annuity?

Burns: Christine, I love the idea. I just hate the product. I don’t see life annuities as currently offered as being attractive to bring people to that. I love the idea of a fixed income. I have a defined benefit pension, and it is a godsend. Well, I’ll tell you a little story. My best friend is a doctor. He has more in assets than I have, and our prospective retirement incomes are about the same because I have a pension and he doesn’t. All his money is from savings. So, he’s hung up. He’s still working at 77 because he really—A) he can’t give up his identity, and B) he’s really not sure that he has enough money. Maybe he could be talked into an annuity for a portion of his savings. But taking out the pencil and doing the calculations somehow, the numbers don’t work. When the insurance company gives you back your own principal for your normative life expectancy per Social Security, before there’s any return on your money, there are other ways to get there, which takes us back to a ladder of TIPS. It might be a better instrument.

Ptak: It seems that one of the best arguments for buying some type of a very basic annuity product is that you can lock in a paycheck for life and that serves as a safeguard if someone encounters cognitive decline and they’re unable to manage their assets. What do you think, especially for those that don’t maybe have a pension to fall back on, do you think that that sort of argument has merit?

Burns: It does, but the entire argument is about simplification. So, people need to learn to simplify first, then possibly make the annuity choice. Simplicity avoids all kinds of difficulties. This gets into the housing question. A lot of people keep a large house because they have the children’s museum rooms in them, and they never move when it would be a very good choice to do. By keeping the children’s museum rooms and everything else they’ve ever accumulated in the entire 30 years that they’ve owned that house in the closets, all they do is leave a big mess for the people who will have to deal with it. So, I’m in favor of simplification and my wife is an enforcer of that. Very little stays in this house that isn’t used. There’s nothing in long-term storage here.

Benz: I want to follow up on that because I know you’re passionate about this idea of retirees unlocking home equity because many people do die with big shares of their wealth in their homes, especially if they have tighter plans, they may have been able to use that home equity to fund a better lifestyle. So, can you talk about that dimension? First, why people tend to be so allergic to downsizing and how you think it can be such an effective piece of the puzzle for people trying to make a save for their retirement plans?

Burns: Happily. The reality is that home equity for the vast majority of Americans is the largest single component of their wealth, their net worth, and it accumulates over a lifetime. If they have been fortunate in where they live, the equity in their house can be as important to them as Social Security is. So, that makes it pretty important. That’s an area where upper-middle-income families have the most opportunity to make a major change in their lives and in their financial security. The problem is that they have to give up the house and the neighborhood and everything else, all the memories associated with that house—and by the way, all the familiarity that is associated with that house. As we get older, we’re not as amenable to learning new things, meeting new people. It’s more difficult, unless you’re very fortunate. And so, it’s another great idea, but it’s harder to put in practice.

The reason I wrote that piece about taking a friend to Florida was that I find that the way to get people to rethink and about repotting themselves is not to think about downsizing, but to think about creating a new life for themselves. And they can start somewhere where their assumptions about who they are may not be related to their house or anything else in their previous life. They have the opportunity to start with a blank page, and if they’re daring enough, they can say, wow, this is a great opportunity. It’s very difficult to see that opportunity in the context of your ongoing daily life when downsizing may mean moving to a neighborhood you didn’t like, or it may be difficult for other reasons. You go to move to a smaller house, but you say you want a new house, and the new house costs more than your old house. So, there are reasons it may not work, too.

Ptak: Let’s discuss the role of continuing to work, but maybe in a less stressful job that still brings in some income and forestalls or reduces portfolio spending. Should more people be considering that?

Burns: I think more people are. It’s not should they be considering it. They look for and find things to do. In my area, I know a good number of people who are in their late 60s, early 70s, who are doing useful work in large part because they find that they can be more useful doing work they’re paid for than doing volunteer work, which often calls on the lowest level of skills they have. So, I think it’s a great idea. It’s hard to tell. Am I working? I used to write three columns a week. I now write two a month. So, I can’t call that being employed, nor is the income, it doesn’t contribute meaningfully to our lifestyle. So, I don’t know if I’m working. I just know I’m being useful because I’m reaching a fair number of people. And that’s the guide for my other activities. Just keep on being out there, being useful, doing things, but putting a greater emphasis on health. By that, I mean, as a journalist, I spent over 40, or going on 50, years in a chair. And so, I’m now doing a whole lot more exercise. I doubt that I will ever catch up with—I have a brother who’s 12 years younger, who is still doing Ironman’s.

Benz: I want to follow up on that case study that you referenced, the friend who was mulling a relocation to Florida—he, I believe was not yet retired, but really hated his job. And you helped him take a look at his situation and really realize that he had more levers available to him than he had previously thought that he may be in fact could retire earlier, despite having quite tight finances. Can you walk us through that? Because I do think it illustrates some of the incremental changes that people can make in lieu of staying put in a job that maybe they don’t love.

Burns: Happy to do that. This is a good friend, a man that my wife and I have kind of adopted. He was my editor for many years. I won’t go further, or it would disclose who he is. He currently has a job, a government job, that at least a year ago, he hated. And I heard this so often and yet he was determined that he was going to stay at that job until he was 67 and had paid off his mortgage and paid off a car loan and could retire. This is a fellow who both his parents have died, and his only sibling had died a year earlier of brain cancer. And I kept saying to him, you know, why are you committing yourself to being miserable when there are alternatives? And he kept coming back that he needed to pay off his mortgage. I tried verbally to show him how much equity he had and that he could use that equity. And I didn’t get it across to him. He’s not a numbers person, like the vast majority of the population.

So, I decided I would take him to Florida, and we would explore housing opportunities there. Mind you, that was at the peak of the Florida real estate market. And in fact, we did find a resident-owned manufactured home community not too far from Dunedin, which is a really nice community on the water. His community wasn’t on the water, but it was like a 10-minute drive. And we drove through the neighborhood. We saw other places, too. But in this place, we stopped, talked to people, and we were told all about the neighborhood, and it seemed like a very real possibility. And the numbers would all have worked. He could have gone there, sold his house in a climate area he doesn’t like. He could have worked if he wanted or worked if he needed. He had already scoped out—he would really like to work at a Trader Joe’s, and he would like to have a job where he took nothing home with him. And there were Trader Joe’s in the area we looked. So, everything was possible. The result of that trip, ironically, was he stayed in the same place for two reasons. A) He did get it. He knew that if things continued and were intolerable, he was at liberty to quit, sell his home, and repot himself. The better news is that the two superiors that he reported to, who were part of the instruments that made his life miserable, both retired, and he now, as we speak, has a much better job situation and has become a happy camper.

Ptak: The big looming question for so many retirees is fear of having big long-term-care costs late in life. How would you suggest that retirees and especially, preretirees approach that problem?

Burns: The first thing you have to do is to approach it with great skepticism about the institutional remedies offered. One day I’ll write a column that I will title “Acquired Distaste,” and it will primarily be about the insurance industry and in particular, long-term-care insurance, which has been a subject of class action suits, failures, and so on, not for a few years, but for decades. So, I don’t know that long-term-care insurance, although it’s offered as a solution, is a solution.

Aside from that, all you can do is keep a reserve that is your emergency fund that you view as money in case your memory goes, or you become totally incapacitated or partially incapacitated. What the insurance industry doesn’t tell people, they give alarming statistics. By their statistics, we will all be in long-term care interminably. But the real statistics are that A) not that many people wind up in long-term care, and B) of those who do, few of them, their life expectancy is quite short by that time. In any case, the long-term-care policies almost none of them cover the first 180 days. So, you leave at least 180 days of savings before you’d even justify buying a long-term-care policy. I think it’s a major problem as the population as a whole ages, and I don’t know what we’re going to do to solve it. The insurance industry has not. So, there isn’t a happy answer here other than do your best to maintain your health, which a lot of Americans have yet to do. That memo has not been widely read.

Benz: I wanted to ask if you can share a lesson or two that you’ve learned over your career that you wish you had picked up sooner about retirement or investing. It sounds like indexing was one that you warmed up to pretty quickly, but maybe share some other things that you wished you had implemented in your own plan sooner.

Burns: To sum up briefly, I’d say take agency in your life. You are the most important actor in your life. You are not helpless. You have decision power, and you have the capacity to manage your life, and you will manage it better than the vast majority of offers you receive from people whose income will be increased because they made you an offer. It would be nice if it was otherwise, and that the world was full of kindhearted people who would take care of us throughout our lives. But it isn’t, and it never has been. But we have this acquired helplessness that really needs to be overcome. There are things people can do. You can choose an appropriate house, not a grandiose house. You can drive a Honda instead of a Mercedes, if a Mercedes is even an option. There are choices we can make, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, that will allow us to acquire financial security. I would offer my wife and myself as examples of that.

I remarried five years after a divorce that lasted five years, dealing with mental illness and multiple institutionalizations, and I was nearly broke at age 55. My wife had a business and had a husband in it who had embezzled because he was a compulsive gambler. So, on our wedding day, we did not have a lot of money. We made a plan and we stuck to it. We are now in the top 5% of the wealth measures in the United States. I did that working as a journalist and she did it working as an interior designer. So, we were in contact with almost morbidly better-off people than we were, so we were constantly tempted. But we got there by having a plan and sticking to it. I think other people can do that as well. I know from readers that many, many people can and do do that because they send me letters. They say, “This is how things are for me. They’re pretty good. Thank you.”

Benz: It sounds like mindful spending is a big theme, like making sure that the things that you’re spending your money on are things that you actually value versus just doing what photographs well on Instagram or whatever?

Burns: Yeah, we live in just a really ill society. And the images of wealth and the pursuit of ideas of wealth are totally inescapable. When I was a little boy, I had no idea how poor I was while living with my single-parent mother in a rented room—at one time in a house without indoor plumbing. I had no idea that we were poor because I didn’t see it. Today, no matter where you live, you are confronted with unrelenting images of big spending, hyper-spending, and so on. It’s just remarkably sick. I would like to see a revolt against it, but I just write about money and investments. I don’t lead revolts. I think this is just a terrible dilemma that we are exposed to all this junk. Even the personal finance magazines, the Kiplingers, Money, and so on, in between the advertisements for the mutual funds that will help you get rich are all the things that you should treat yourself to because you deserve it today. It’s just sick. Sorry, now I’ll get off my soapbox.

Benz: I wanted to ask, you’re a go-to resource for a lot of people in terms of personal finance wisdom. Who are your go-to resources? Who are the people who you read religiously every week or every month to gain new insights?

Burns: Well, let’s start with Morningstar.

Benz: Thank you.

Burns: And no, for anyone listening, I am not being paid. As I said before, I really miss those early floppy disks that did the mutual fund screening. For some reason, I’ve never been able to master the screening options in the Morningstar website, so I’d love to see the old screening tool back. But what Morningstar has done is by presenting a standardized report is that we’re not always trying to shift vocabularies or shift measures and metrics. You can get an idea of the animals in the zoo very quickly, and that’s a great addition. I like Portfolio Visualizer, a website that is free unless you want to store results, where you can do all kinds of explorations, including Monte Carlo models.

I think as a generally readable source, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, under Alicia Monell’s leadership, has been a wonderful voice and a regular source of good material. In the end, I wind up going to government documents and studies and academic papers. I hate the math in the academic papers because it’s compulsory, but those are useful, they’re just not for everybody.

Other useful stuff comes from EBRI, the Employee Benefit Research Institute. They do regular surveys, and they will disabuse you of ideas that, yes, you’ll be able to retire easily because what they regularly show is, hey, retirement wasn’t a choice. It was forced upon you because that’s what happens with most workers. There are a number of foundations that I like. Kaiser Family Foundation comes to mind first, great statistical research on demography. I could go on, but I think that’s a lot.

Benz: That’s a lot. So, Scott, thank you so much for your time today. We’ve really enjoyed talking with you and hearing your insights. Thanks for making the time to talk to us.

Burns: Well, thank you. It’s been a great time. You take care.

Ptak: Thanks so much.

Benz: Thank you for joining us on The Long View. If you could, please take a moment to subscribe to and rate the podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can follow us on Twitter @Christine_Benz.

Ptak: And @Syouth1, which is S-Y-O-U-T-H and the number 1.

Benz: George Castady is our engineer for the podcast and Kari Greczek produces the show notes each week.

Finally, we’d love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or a guest idea, please email us at Until next time, thanks for joining us.

(Disclaimer: This recording is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Opinions expressed are as of the date of recording. Such opinions are subject to change. The views and opinions of guests on this program are not necessarily those of Morningstar, Inc. and its affiliates. While this guest may license or offer products and services of Morningstar and its affiliates, unless otherwise stated, he/she is not affiliated with Morningstar and its affiliates. Morningstar does not guarantee the accuracy, or the completeness of the data presented herein. Jeff Ptak is an employee of Morningstar Research Services LLC. Morningstar Research Services is a subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. and is registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Morningstar Research Services shall not be responsible for any trading decisions, damages or other losses resulting from or related to the information, data analysis, or opinions, or their use. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. All investments are subject to investment risk, including possible loss of principal. Individuals should seriously consider if an investment is suitable for them by referencing their own financial position, investment objectives and risk profile before making any investment decision.)

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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About the Authors

Christine Benz

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Christine Benz is director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar, Inc. In that role, she focuses on retirement and portfolio planning for individual investors. She also co-hosts a podcast for Morningstar, The Long View, which features in-depth interviews with thought leaders in investing and personal finance.

Benz joined Morningstar in 1993. Before assuming her current role she served as a mutual fund analyst and headed up Morningstar’s team of fund researchers in the U.S. She also served as editor of Morningstar Mutual Funds and Morningstar FundInvestor.

She is a frequent public speaker and is widely quoted in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, CNBC, and PBS. In 2020, Barron’s named her to its inaugural list of the 100 most influential women in finance; she appeared on the 2021 list as well. In 2021, Barron’s named her as one of the 10 most influential women in wealth management.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian language from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jeffrey Ptak, CFA

Chief Ratings Officer, Research
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Jeffrey Ptak, CFA, is chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc.

Before assuming his current role, Ptak was head of global manager research. Previously, he was president and chief investment officer of Morningstar Investment Services, Inc., an investment unit that provides managed portfolio services through fee-based, independent financial advisors, for six years. Ptak joined Morningstar in 2002 as a senior mutual fund analyst and has also served as director of exchange-traded fund analysis, editor of Morningstar ETFInvestor, and an equity analyst. He briefly left Morningstar to become an investment products analyst for William Blair & Company, and earlier in his career, he was a manager for Arthur Andersen.

Ptak also co-hosts The Long View podcast with Morningstar's director of personal finance and retirement planning, Christine Benz. A full episode list is available here: You can find him on social media at syouth1 (X/fka 'Twitter') and he's also active on LinkedIn.

Ptak holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin and the Chartered Financial Analyst® designation.

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