Obstacle or Opportunity?

Success stories are regular features of our Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, where we share profiles of people who have become financially independent.

One of the most remarkable stories we've come across is that of Billy and Akaisha Kaderli. At age 38, they left their fast-track lives; for the past 18 years, they've traveled the world instead. We caught up with them in Oaxaca, Mexico, where Billy reflected on the current financial crisis and offered suggestions for how to tune up your portfolio for 2009.

Lately, people have been writing to ask how we managed our investments during this past year. In a nutshell: not very well.

I missed the call on this particular financial mess. I did see problems with housing -- and I still do, based on demographics -- but I never saw the connection with subprime loans and the banking sector until it was too late. I could go into detail about my opinion as to the causes of this debacle, but that won't solve anything.

We're not selling
Essentially, this year we lived our lives no differently than we have for the last 18 years of retirement. We did not sell investments, other than small amounts for living expenses. Though we recently did a couple of sideways trades for tax purposes, we still have 90% of our assets invested in equities. With the S&P 500 currently below 900, I don't think this is the time to be selling or getting out of the market. I know there are others who disagree, and they are entitled to their opinion, but I do not plan on selling out at these levels.

It seems the normal indicators that many have used for years to measure the markets are "broken." We have had two bubbles burst at once, with home values and commodities dragging the stock market down. The Fed is doing what it can to keep liquidity in the market. Undoubtedly, this is a sticky wicket.

I believe we will face a couple of rough quarters. Unemployment will rise to levels not seen for many years. But this is a lagging indicator, and whether this and other bad news is already priced into the markets, I am not sure. The markets could go lower, but so far, the Nov. 20 lows are holding. This is a scary time for investors, and there are no guarantees.

Experience pays off
Akaisha and I have lived through the 1987 crash, where the S&P fell more than 20% in one day, as well as the 2000-2002 bear market. I think it's fair to say that many of us were still recovering from the last bear when this one hit.

We are investors rather than traders, and as in our relationship, we are in it for the long run. If we "traded" each other every time things got rough, both of us would have been gone years ago. However, we have endured the ups and downs through many years, and we have benefited.

Our experiences from traveling have proven to be much more rewarding than any amount of cash. I may not be the best investor in the world, and I have made plenty of mistakes. But from the people we've met to the places we've seen, our lives are richer, no matter what our net worth is.

When the financial world around us crumbles, and we are forced to come face to face with what we call our "monthly nut" -- the expenses we must shell out each month -- we are comforted by the knowledge that our enriched lifestyle isn't really affected that much.

Battening down the financial hatches 
For instance, we have no debt, so there are no credit card charges to hound us. If we can't pay cash for it, we don't buy it. If we do use a credit card, then balances are paid off monthly.

We have no mortgage or car payments. This frees us up mentally, emotionally, and financially to fully enjoy the lifestyle of our choice. The money we dollar-cost average out of the market is spent for living, not for maintaining things.

In times of financial challenge, our years of experience and personal creativity come fully into play. We believe that there are opportunities everywhere, and if one is open to them, the ride through troubled waters like these is much smoother.

On the bright side, there is a ton of cash on the sidelines. When this money is put back into play -- and it will at some point -- the stock market rally will have already started. This is another reason we do not plan on selling. Large gains are made at the beginning of rallies; only when the "coast is clear" do many people jump back in. This is why timing the market is so difficult.

I do not have a crystal ball to predict the future. However, I do have faith in our economy and capital markets; in entrepreneurs' ability to make lemonade out of lemons, and companies' knack for seeking out opportunities. Many corporations have proven in the past that they have the ability to adapt, overcome, and create earnings in difficult financial environments. Their earnings will be reflected in equity values, eventually leading us all to once again enjoy rising stock prices.

Practical considerations:

  • Reassess where you are financially. There is no shame in having lost money in your portfolio; many of the best financial minds missed this crisis. With stock prices slashed from previous levels, now is an excellent time to add to your retirement accounts. If you have cash flow, look for bargains in the market, or dollar-cost average in.
  • Refocus on the priorities of your life. What matters most to you? Are you financially in line with these values? In other words, are you spending your money in a way that matches your values? If not, this is a good time to rearrange some wayward spending.
  • Renew the commitment to your retirement goals. If, indeed, you would like to retire early, or even retire later on, it's crucial not to give up on your dreams. You are more in charge of your life than you might think. You are the "engine" of your life, and who could possibly care more about what you want for your future than you?
  • Rejuvenate your plan, both financially and emotionally. Financially challenging times are the best for getting your creative juices flowing. What could you do differently for fun and entertainment that impacts your wallet less? Where in your lifestyle could you save money or cut expenses? Look for bargains in the market, consider reallocating your investments, and if your employer has matched retirement funding, take advantage of it now.

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Fool contributors Billy and Akaisha Kaderli write regularly for Rule Your Retirement. They retired in 1991 from the brokerage and restaurant businesses to a life of international travel. Visit their website at RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, and check out their new CD book, The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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