Daring to save helped reader build margin of safety

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2010 - 7:10 PM

Today, I'm turning over much of the column to a thoughtful reader, David in Falcon Heights. He sent me an e-mail the other day, and his experience reinforces a constant theme of the column: the value of saving and the importance of putting some savings into taxable accounts.

Of course, this isn't to say don't take advantage of a 401(k), 403(b) and Roth accounts as well as 529 college savings plans and some other types of tax-sheltered accounts. But stashing money into taxable accounts greatly adds to your financial flexibility, especially during tough times. Here's David:

"I totally agree with your suggestion that not all savings be directed to retirement accounts. Fortunately we started years ago to put some assets into non-retirement accounts.  When times have been good, my wife and I were able to take an expensive Mediterranean cruise with money from these accounts.  But the biggest benefit has been when times have not gone well.

"We were able to finance a substantial cost for chemical dependency treatment and education for our younger son.  We are now paying for his college education at a public university out of state, which charges us tuition similar to many private schools.  And now that I have been recently laid off, these funds will allow us to cushion the impact and hopefully take a rational, longer-term perspective to regaining a position in my field of expertise.

"Even before the Great Recession, the economy had turned far more volatile and uncertain than in previous times. Employers have been less inclined to keep workers through the type of traditional 'career' experienced by our parents. We have had previous short-and long-term periods of uncertainty if not declines in our income. Our keys to not only surviving but emerging in decent economic shape have been our willingness to live a little beneath our means, and our corresponding savings and investments, some of which has been in taxable accounts.  These savings might also allow me to launch a business and develop ...[a] second career.''

The word risk comes from an old Italian word meaning to dare.

In his book "Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk,'' the late Peter Bernstein writes: "To dare reminds us that the essence of risk is about making decisions or choices with unknown outcomes. At its heart, risk management means considering the consequences of each choice we face."

We all make mistakes with our money. Life sometimes hits us with unexpected setbacks. One way to prevent the consequences of a bad decision or twist of fate from becoming financially catastrophic is by building up a margin of safety. That's what David did.

And I wish him luck with his new endeavor.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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