Help Fix My 403(b) | Ep 220

Nancy Bachety

Nancy joins the show to share what she has learned about the confusing world of 403(b)s. Based on her personal experience and hours of research, she shares how to avoid making some of the most common 403(b) mistakes.

  • 403(b)s are often sold as an equivalent product as a 401(k) to public sector employees. However, the two retirement savings options are very different. Although some 403(b)s are protected under the ERISA laws, not all of them are. That leaves room for some inefficient investment products that could delay your path to Financial Independence.
  • When Nancy rejoined the workforce as a teacher, she was happy to sign up for th 403(b) plan that her school offered. However, she discovered that there were many hidden fees eating into her returns for years.
  • If you have a 403(b), then take the time to investigate the details of your plan. Instead of calling the salesperson, call the 1-800 number to find out more about the fees embedded into your plan. A few fees to ask about include the expense ratio, commission fees, and surrender fees.

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Jonathan: Hello everyone, very excited about today's episode. We're getting a chance to speak with Nancy Bachety. And in today's episode, when Brad and I are putting these episodes together, we're trying to think about you, our audience, and how will this episode serve you, and who will it serve?

And I can tell you that to this date, one of our most useful and most sought after episodes is episode 13 of our podcast. And in that episode, we talked with the Millionaire Educator. And in that episode, the title of the episode was actually the unfair FI advantage of teachers.

And we were exploring how you could utilize this vehicle called the 457, and in this case, a 457B, to effectively double your pretax contributions, into a tax advantage vehicle, the 457B. So, anyways, go check out that episode if you haven't, but it's unfair to talk about that without also saying that it isn't all roses.

In fact, the 403(b), which is another vehicle that most public sector employees have access to in many cases is horrible. It's horrible and we're going to get into some of the reasons why, but more than that, instead of just telling you how bad it is, we're going to tell you what you can do about it. And Nancy is here to help us with that.

And just to set the frame, Nancy and her husband, four kids, they were basically paycheck to paycheck, in a high cost of living area, living on a single income, Long Island, New York. And paycheck to paycheck basically until the age of 41, her child's first day of kindergarten was simultaneously her first day back in the workforce as a teacher.

It was the 403(b) and the horrendous fees that were attached to this vehicle that lit the spark on her to do better with their finances, and from there her and her husband as of June, 2019 just reached Financial Independence. I promise you you're going to get value from today's episode and help me with this. I have my cohost Brad here with me today. How you doing buddy?

Brad: Hey Jonathan. I am doing quite well. Yeah, I've been really looking forward to this because this is essential information. It truly, truly is and there is no better person to talk about the 403(b) than Nancy.

And I had the really, really good fortune of meeting Nancy up on Long Island, which is actually where I'm from originally. So, I went to a ChooseFI Long Island local meetup at the DUBCO brewery, which is owned by one of our ChooseFI members. And yeah, just had an amazing conversation with her and her husband, Frank.  And I knew we had to get her on. So, Nancy, with that welcome to the podcast.

Nancy: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Nancy's Money Story

Jonathan: Well, first of all, congratulations on reaching Financial Independence. You and your husband did it. June of this past year, 2019.

Nancy: Right. Yep. We're blessed.

Jonathan: That's wonderful. That is absolutely wonderful. But that wasn't always foretold. It wasn't absolutely destined to be, if you were to go back to your money story, I mean, you described it to us, as starting really at the age of 41.

So, walk us through your money story where are you and your husband were when you found out about this concept of Financial Independence.

Nancy: Okay, sure. Well, I'm naturally frugal, I think, I'm always trying to save money, but when we found ourselves with four kids, one income, I wasn't saving much money. I wasn't saving any money at that time.

And when I started working and found the 403(b) salesman in my school, I was in a rush to track him down and sign up. And I thought that's what I was doing, signing up to save money on taxes, and to save for our future. I didn't realize, a lot of things involved with the 403(b)s, until after too long after.

Jonathan: No, no, I guess we need to start there. What did you find out? I mean, I think, 401(k)s. Let's just frame here, the government provides different tax advantage vehicles that basically before the government taxes you on your income, you can put some portion of your money aside in this tax advantage vehicle, which then lowers your tax liability.

And then what that money that you have invested inside of, in this case, I'm talking about a 401(k), in many cases it's up to a select number of funds that your employer has established. And we always try to advise that you get into a low-cost broad-based index fund if you have that available because you will dramatically reduce your fees, and increase the amount that is in your portfolio as you look back. 403(b)s, tell us about what you found in your plan, and how that compares to what I just described.

Dive Into Your 403(b)

Nancy: Yeah, sure. So, it is a tax-deferred vehicle, and it's meant to do exactly as what you just described. And it's sold as something for public school teachers. It's sold as, like a 401(k), but for teachers.

And the analogy is try to make you understand that it's just as good as the 401(k), when in fact it's not protected by the laws and the regulations governing 401(k)s known as the ERISA laws. And so, it's an open market, and it's not regulated. Lots of choices, lots of annuities, lots of higher price products get put into place, and are allowed, and encouraged by several different parties involved, encouraged to be sold and marketed to teachers.

When somebody is in your workplace, under the premise of you investing in the like 401(k) product, you expect it to be a good product. You expect it to be a product sold, that is vetted.

They're in your school, they're vetted, you assume they are, and you expect it to be a product that the school district, the human resources department, the business department, any administrator in charge of letting them in the door would have vetted properly. And that is not true. That is really the big, huge problem. And the huge difference. And I wouldn't have known that.

Brad: Nancy, do you have any sense historically why the 401(k) is under the umbrella of ERISA but the 403(b) is not?

Nancy: The 403(b) started earlier than the 401(k)s actually, and it started, I can't be quoted on the year, but mid-1950s something, goes back a long time ago. And it was a product that was only tax-sheltered annuities.

The 403(b) started earlier than the 401(k)s actually, and it started, I can't be quoted on the year, but mid-1950s something, goes back a long time ago. And it was a product that was only tax sheltered annuities. It was not only an annuity product, which in itself was wrong, but it started for teachers

It was not only an annuity product, which in itself was wrong, but it started for teachers. And they felt as if the insurance company who created it, I suppose behind it, encouraged, lobbied it, felt as if the teachers are traditionally women who wouldn't understand, and who needed help saving money, and who wanted to profit from it.

And so, it started as a profit-based annuity sales sold to the teachers. And when it became a 401(k) or when it was a new product that was offered, it was offered to private employers, and companies, and employees who were expectedly a little more savvy, and who wouldn't accept the annuities as they were sold. And so, they were a product that was regulated.

Brad: So, you described a couple of minutes ago as the 403(b) salesman, which is always a scary term when you're talking about financial products. And also this ultimately being up to administrators, and maybe district by district.

But what are we looking at as far as the negatives? Are we talking about loads on fees? Are we talking about enormous expense ratios? Like what is the issue ultimately?

Nancy: That's a great question. There are several issues, and I will only probably scratched the surface and invite the listener to dig a little deeper on their own.

But suffice to say that there are fees embedded into the expense ratios of the funds or of the annuity products that are selected. So, for example, an annuity takes up about 70 – 75% of the 403(b)'s funds that participants invest in. And annuity products themselves are expensive because they are commissioned based product.

In contrast, a 401(k) plan, you might have 1% of the participants participating in an annuity. It's just not done because of the expenses.

So, commissions are number one, front-loaded fees, as you mentioned Brad, that's another expense that could be 5% of your money going in. So, for every 100 dollars, five dollars is not going in, it's not being invested. It's not being compounded to return greater yields the road.

The other expense that would be in hidden of course is in the expense ratios of the funds themselves. Your listeners know that index funds could have as low as 0.01 these days, 0.07. Right?

But the expense ratios of other funds in the 403(b)s could be easily 1.5%, 2%, 0.95%, whatever that is. And those are leading to higher expenses as well.

In addition, there are other fees that are hidden and embedded that are built-in much like the fees that are in a CD. In CDs, the banks make their money with embedded fees. So, you are paying or you're getting let's say 3% but you might be actually yielding or netting 2.85% and they're embedded. It's understood. And it's the same way where they're embedded into the expense ratios and other ways in the 403(b) funds.

Brad: Nancy, I'm curious, life is all about incentives, right? People operate based on incentives. And I'm curious who are the bad actors here? Who is getting enriched?

Like why are people making these decisions at the administrator level or the district level to buy these funds or have these as options? Are they somehow enriching the district or themselves in some way? Talk me through the incentives as far as it works with 403(b)s.

Jonathan: Because you really are all in it together.

Brad: Yeah. You would certainly think so.

Nancy: You would think so, together. That's right Jonathan. That's a really good point too. And because you would think so, and I would think so, and the public would think so. You would not think that there was a problem. You would not think there's anything wrong because of exactly what you just said, and the perception is meant to give you that impression.

I reached a wall when I went to my administrators at times because sometimes they just didn't know, or my union rep, my union president didn't know, didn't understand the product.
And so, whether they didn't understand or didn't want to acknowledge that there was a problem or didn't want to admit that they didn't understand because it gets complicated, and it gets tricky, then that's a brick wall.

Many will say that well, the unions endorse particular vendors and that's a potential conflict right there. So, they endorse a vendor who is higher priced. And I mean, I can't say anything else about that. You're endorsing a product and it's costing me 2% more of my lifetime, which could be a $200,000 easily, but they're endorsing it. Now, why are they endorsing it? I'm not going to say that, I am not going to claim that I know why they're endorsing it.

And there's also the case of the third party administrator, third party administrator, also known as a TPA, is the go-between. In certain parts of the states, the state where I live in particular, the districts don't handle 403(b) contributions because that would mean record keeping, and that would mean expense. It's another somebody in the office. And it used to be done that way, but it changed.

And so, now they hire out a third party administrator to handle all of the transactions, to make sure that the contributions don't exceed the limit, to make sure that loans are handled effectively, but they really don't hire out the third party administrator.

The third party administrator chooses to participate with the district at no cost. And when a district hears at no cost, obviously they're looking to save money. They want that option. But at no cost is really no at cost. My father taught me there's no such thing as a free lunch. And I understand it many times over.

The third party administrator chooses to participate with the district at no cost. And when a district hears at no cost, obviously they're looking to save money. They want that option. But at no cost is really no at cost. My father taught me there's no such thing as a free lunch. And I understand it many times over.

Jonathan: It is very, very expensive.

Nancy: Correct. So, the vendors, and when I say vendors, I mean companies like the insurance companies that sell 403(b) products, AXA, Ameriprise, VOYA, I can go on. They will oftentimes contribute or pay money to be able to be included in the vendor list that the third party administrator exposes, and allows teachers to participate in.

So, that's the way around our district having to pay to make sure that they're in compliance with 403(b)s, they have the third party administrators do it instead for free. And the third party administrators turn around and collect fees from those vendors who want to participate in the selling of annuities in my school where I think they're vetted.

Fixing Her 403(b)

Jonathan: So Nancy, you are incredibly knowledgeable about this subject. This is not something that you passively learn. You have to intensely learn this. This takes real focus and understanding the nuance that's involved.

And this wasn't your background. I mean, you're coming back, this is year one back in teaching and suddenly you find out that there's fees, like what even alerted you that there was something out of the norm here? And then once you found that out, what actions did you take?

I mean the good news is your website is called fixmy403(b).com. That implies that there is at least some patchwork solution for this. Like where does the inception of that begin and start for you?

Nancy: Great question. So, again, I didn't know. I was so busy raising four children, and so busy going, earning extra credits. In New York State, you need a Master's degree right away. So, I was so busy doing that. I didn't know, I just was so happy to be putting money aside.

And well, up until about probably four years ago, five years ago. A teacher down the hall from me, the various moments of in passing when you have a second to talk would tell me, he said something like, “The market has been on a tear, and I don't know why my returns aren't great in the 403(b) product. And I found out, I called, and I made some calls, and I did a little research, and I found out that the fees are so high.” And he would say things like, “You're paying an extra point in fees.”

And now here's the clincher. I'm thinking 1% and you're complaining about that? 1%, that's like a penny out of a dollar. And I would just go on my way. I didn't understand the magnitude of it. I won't even say I'm embarrassed by that because I just didn't know. I didn't look into it. I didn't research it. There were people that were vetted … Again, I'm going to say that … That came in and sold the best product to me, right?

So lo and behold! It finally registered when he sent me an article, and it clicked and one thing led to another. And I found out that there was so much to learn about not so much what 1% is and it can mean really literally the tens of thousands of dollars, if not a couple of hundred thousands of dollars. 1% will eat up as you know so much. And then that's compounded. And that's when I understood it. So, that was only four years ago.

Jonathan: So, when you understood it, so the market's on a tear. You're like, “Oh great. Let me go check my account.” And your account is just stagnant. Market, your account, stagnant. And you're like, “Well, something's broken.” Right? “Somebody needs to fix this.” And then what?

Nancy: So I said, “Hey, this is happening in your account. I have the same vendor. Even if I didn't, let me see, I looked on my statements. There are no fees. What are you talking about? I don't understand. I have no fees. You have no fees.”

And he said, “Nancy, they're embedded. They are fixed. Just call your sales rep.” No, he said, “Don't even call the sales rep because if you call the sales rep, they're going to deny it and they're going to pretend they don't know.”

So, I called the 800 number and that's my advice to anybody. If I forget to mention that, don't call the salesperson involved. And I do use that term particularly, they're not financial advisors necessarily, and they're certainly not CFPs.

So, I called the 800 number and that's my advice to anybody. If I forget to mention that, don't call the salesperson involved. And I do use that term particularly, they're not financial advisors necessarily, and they're certainly not CFPs. But in any case, maybe one is or yours is in the school, but for the most part they're salespeople.

So, I didn't call the salesperson who was long gone by the way, you meet them once, and then they leave. I didn't call him, I called the number of the 800 number, and I tried to learn a little and it only got me so far.

And one, like I said, I went down some rabbit holes of research, and one thing led me to another and 403(b)wise.org is where I landed. And Dan Otter is a Ph.D. He was a teacher at the time and public school, and he became 20 years ago this March an advocate, and a poster. And he created 403(b).com at the time to enrich the lives of teachers, to get us to understand the plan.

And 20 years ago, the internet was not like what it is today. And so it was just a slow and steady course. And luckily for people today, for teachers today, and nurses as well, and health care workers, Dan persisted and kept that message going. And other contributors like Steve Chulo, just kept that message alive and kept working at it and not just to talk to enrich teachers, but to lobby against it, and to basically lobby politicians even at that level.

And I'm trying to get people to understand and to do right. And to change the way the law is written, and the regulations to at least get some regulations in place for that protection, so that the teacher doesn't have to do so much leg work as I did. And certainly, I didn't do the leg work, Dan did. But a teacher like me who felt that I was doing the right thing, and saving, and catching up for lost time, and wanting to do right by my family and my future self, so society doesn't have to take care of me, could have lost so much more money.

So, it was just so wrong. And I speak today not so much for me, obviously, I've corrected it, as personal level, but for so many … There's three million teachers in the United States, so many teachers that just haven't gotten that memo, they haven't gotten it. And they shouldn't have to get it. It should be cleaned up for them like it is in the 401(k).

Brad: Now Nancy, the 403(b) is not limited to just teachers. Right? Can you explain who has access to the 403(b)? And I guess we are talking about teachers here because that's your background. Like are the plans especially egregious for teachers or are they just across the board bad? I guess ultimately what I'm asking, are there any good vendors? Are there good options?

Nancy: That's a great question too and I'm so glad you asked. I don't want anybody walking out of here from listening canceling their 403(b), that is not the message at all. 403(b) plans can be fabulous, and are fabulous, and really even if they're not good, they're still a wonderful way of saving. So, that's the first message.

I can't speak for other 403(b) participants' plans, as you mentioned. I am not in healthcare, however, I don't think they are as egregious as in the education world just from a couple of them that I've seen and heard about. But there are some wonderful educational 403(b) plans, and there are some lousy ones, and there are some wonderful ones in healthcare, and nonprofits as well.

In some cases they are vetted and in some places they are actually under the ERISA laws as well. So, it's not a blanket statement, and that's another huge message. It's not a blanket statement that your plan is bad, or your fellow friends who's a teacher's plan is bad. It's just a blanket statement to know your plan. Know to ask questions.

In some cases they are vetted and in some places they are actually under the ERISA laws as well. So, it's not a blanket statement, and that's another huge message. It's not a blanket statement that your plan is bad, or your fellow friends who's a teacher's plan is bad. It's just a blanket statement to know your plan. Know to ask questions.

Jonathan: All right, so let's follow this natural train of thought. So, if someone says, “Oh, I have a 403(b), this episode applies to me. The big takeaway was, you're not talking about canceling your plan right now.

We're just coming up with a plan of action, like action steps this week. And so, if you either have one or you know someone that has a 403, our entire audience could go through this exercise of just confirming that they are on the right track, and that they're optimizing these vehicles that have been set up for them.

So, let's just play this out a little bit further with what we've talked about so far. First is just knowing what funds am I in? And parallel to that, what are the fees that are attached to that?

Now, the problem that I heard is that it's going to be a little bit harder. There's a little more friction to finding the fees in some cases because as opposed to it maybe just being presented as an expense ratio, like I would expect to see, it may not even show that. And in fact to get that information, you might need to call the 1-800 number.

And I think I heard, and I don't know what 1-800 number we're talking about, I guess you'd be able to find that. But what I heard is this is not a conversation that you want to have going through the salesperson that sold you on the plan or sold them. Actually, you need to give somebody a phone call. So, let's confirm that that's right. And then two, once they find out that they are indeed in an atrocious plan, what's next?

Nancy: All right, so a great setup. Yeah. So, call that number and find out, ask, point out, do I have a mortality and expense ratio fees? Are there commission fees?

Is there a fee for me to switch out of this plan called surrender fees? Some plans make you stay in that plan for 12 years or else it costs money to get out of. Many case those fees even to get out of it, the surrender fees is well worth your while in the long run. One reason why they have the surrender fees is because they've paid that salesperson upfront in charge a commission product.

And if that is the case, if you choose to get out of that plan, have another plan set up or choose another option. And in many cases in the 403(b) world, I know in the state of California they have 200 vendors to choose from.

And some people think, well, great, you have better choices, but there might not even be one decent index fund on there to choose from. The good ones that we all know in the working world, and in our world, in the FI world is, of course, Vanguard is out there, and Fidelity, and TIAA, Teachers CREF. There are several vendors that we can have if your school district partakes in them.

We were grandfathered out of Vanguard. Vanguard was a fund that was in my school district, and then they pulled out when we brought in the third party administrator. Go figure. So, you would be grandfathered in if you had Vanguard from the beginning.

So, there are options, what I ended up doing was because we did not have any low cost index funds available to us directly without having a salesperson involved, I did again, learned about a way to do that basically through great people who informed me. And by that I mean advisors, financial advisors who were fiduciaries well as Dan's 403(b)wise site and Dan himself.

And by that I mean, I found out that there was a vendor who would act as if you will a third party within the third party. And Aspire is the name of the company who I was able to get on-boarded on our vendor list so that participants could choose directly and buy the Vanguard funds directly, and only paying an upcharge of 0.15, I believe is what the Aspire's fees were plus a $40 a year. I didn't have to do it this way. Unfortunately, those are people that want to manage or limit their fees have to do it that way.

So, then of course I spread the word in my school. This is how you can get around the salesperson. You can directly invest into Vanguard funds with or without the help of a fiduciary advisor and get in by using Aspire. So, there is a workaround, there is definitely a workaround.

Brad: Yeah, so Nancy, I really need to drill down on this workaround. It sounds like you said a third party within a third party or some such, like you did this personally? Does this mean that any teacher across the country can replicate this? Or did you have to go through your district or administrators or county, whatever it may be? Talk us through how someone would actually do this.

Nancy: Yes, all of the above. Brad. It is certainly a duplicatable and replicable. So, I found out that our third-party administrator, big company called Omni in New York, and in fact probably all 52 States, if not nearly all of them. They're the administrators. They have access to any financial firm basically that wants to participate, and can participate in the 403 the world. And they supposedly vet them to get on their list.

And then there's another form of vetting where they could put you on their preferred vendor list, the P3 list. So, I'm sure that's just another higher level of not being vetted but can maybe pay to play.

And so, Aspire is on that list of vendors. So, little research, I found that Aspire is the platform where participants could directly invest without having to go through the salesperson. Because every other company you're going through a salesperson, and we all know what happens when you go through a sales person.

So, with the Aspire you could choose to participate and contribute yourself or you could meet with a vetted fiduciary advisor that Aspire permits to act as the in between to help you plan your best course of action. For those teachers that might not know which index funds to pick.

How To Improve Your 403(b)

Jonathan: Why in this dark world of chaos would Aspire exist? Like it just seems like it's this tiny little beacon of light in this case, and there's nothing really highlighting it other than you right now, and I guess the other people that are trying to advocate for this as well.

I'm just curious like mechanically, because this sounds like so much friction. My wife, I'm just imagine her, she's working in the school system, and she knows that she's going through HR. She's just in the plan. It's easy. They really encourage it. So, that's done.

But now we're adding a bunch of extra steps. So, mechanically, I'm just trying to place myself really in her shoes to help her think through how she would go through the steps. So, one, like even something simple, like finding that 1-800 number, we're talking about, she goes and she looks at the like, let's say it's, I don't know, Ameritrade, or TIAA-CREF or one of these. She goes, and she finds the number for that platform. She calls them to find the expense ratio. Is that what we're describing first and foremost?

Nancy: Yes. That's the first step.

Jonathan: Okay. And now second step, how does my wife find Aspire? Like how does she track that down? Does she go to HR and say, “Hey, I want to try and find a platform through Aspire? Like how would she even get that information? Did she Google Aspire, and get the phone number, and call? What does it look like?

Nancy: So, what she would do is her district or anybody's district has a list of available vendors that they allow teachers to use, to contribute into. I could choose between AXA, Ameriprise, I hate to keep using those names, but they're on the top of my head.

And I could choose among a list of say 12 vendors, and so could she. She could choose and she could ask her district, the HR department, “What vendors do I have a choice from?” They may not know, or they may hand her a list, or they may direct her to the website that will list them all.

And it's up to her to choose. And one of the reasons why I stress that it's up to her to choose is because school districts are not allowed to even give the perception that they're giving advice to the teacher. They're not allowed to do that.

So, they really go out of their way to avoid doing any recommendations. So, they'll just say, “Here's the list.” And that's it. So, now your wife would be the one to look at the list, and do what most teachers will do. “Who do you use?” They'll say to somebody in the faculty room, “Who do you use? I don't know. These all sound the same to me. Which one do you use?”

And then unfortunately many times they use the one who they signed up with when they came into their school. And that same person is going around selling the high price products will hurt everybody. So, that's the answer, that's something she might do. But your wife is smarter, and she wouldn't do that.

So, she might look at the list and say, “These are all high cost vendors. I don't want any of these.” And she would say to her HR department, “These are all high costs. I don't want any of them.” And they would say, “No, that's all we have to choose from.” And she'll do one of two things. She'll say, “Oh, that really stinks. All right, I'll go with this one.”

Or she'll say, “That really stinks. What can I do about it?” And she'll find friends, and she'll find answers, and she'll find that on 403(b)wise.org or fixmy403(b), or she'll go to 403(b)compare.com, and she'll compare costs between vendors.

And then she'll go back to her district and she'll say, ” you know, I found out that we can have a Aspire added to our vendor lineup, and Aspire, I can directly invest in.” But better than that, your wife will find out.

And I use her as a storyline here because I know her. She'll say, “Vanguard is a very good low cost option, and we're allowed to use Vanguard directly. I'd like to see Vanguard added to our lineup.” Fill in the blank there, Vanguard, Fidelity. “I'd like to see them added to our lineup. And you know that it will benefit you to HR department personnel because you are contributing to this 403(b) plan too. And did you realize that you could save tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your career if you participated in a vendor like Vanguard? Not that I'm suggesting that because I'm not allowed to give you advice.”

Jonathan: So Nancy, when my wife or really in this case you did exactly this, what happened?

Nancy: The first business person, who my colleague I mentioned earlier told him no flat out no. The timing was right. There was a new HR department head in the business department, and I said, “Look, this is better. This is a better option.” And she agreed.

She said, “Oh, you're right. I know that there are such high price vendors annuity product salesmen on your list here.” She was new to the school. She had to get it board approved. That's another layer.

Now, it has to be board approved. “Oh, the board only does these approvals once a year.” Is an answer that I got. Oh, now you have to wait for 12 months. Some other answers that other districts will give out is, “Oh, you have to get the majority of teachers to sign off that they would even be interested in doing this.” Impossible.

Do you know how hard that is? It's hard enough to find time to breathe or say hello to your colleague down the hall, and now you're teaching them about 403(b)s, and to sign off on this list because it's going to be better for them. That's really hard. The layer of difficulty sometimes is unnecessary, but it's out there.

So, perseverance would be necessary for somebody who wants to make that change. And it is so possible. Don't let me discourage you. And today more than ever, there are resources. There's a huge movement behind the 403(b) change in regulations taking place right now. It has gotten national attention. New York Times has published a series of articles starting back in 2016, no starting even way before that, but they just didn't pick up traction.

And now Tara Siegel Bernard, in 2016 wrote a big expose, a five part series. Anne Tergesen from the Wall Street Journal, same thing. These are researchers that they vet, they called me, they called other people, they did the vetting.

They found out the facts, and in my particular case was able to tell them the facts. And of course they luckily do so much legwork, and dig so much deeper, went into the unions, went into the lobbyist, went into the law, the regulations and did a lot of that leg work.

Now, it's up to the public, and it's up to other teachers. It's up to advocates to get that word out because they will keep going and keep going unless there's noise. So, we are here to make the noise so that other teachers can have better retirement plans.

Brad: Nancy, obviously, you've talked about there being a lot of friction, right? And we want to make this as easy, and actionable for a teacher out there who's listening, who wants to undertake this. Right? And I mean it's a big deal. It matters a lot. Like you said, it can be tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Are there presentations that either you or any of your friends and colleagues have put together like a couple of slides or something that shows the power of compounding, how much this can make a difference? You talked about resources, are there those resources for the individual teacher who wants to walk into that HR person's office or the administrator's office and say, “Here's what's going on.” How does someone find something like that?

Nancy: Yeah, so I know I have some resources but Dan Otter on 403(b)wise and the Facebook group, 403wise Facebook group for teachers has presentations available, specifically, to cover exactly what I just said, and what you just said. And it is in fact three slides. And it does depict the effect of fees, and it does have call to action steps on how to proceed with getting a low-cost vendor added in your school district.

So, the resources are definitely out there. And I will come to schools, I will go anywhere. I retired, I am financially independent. I bounce around by choice and I just can't do enough to get that word out. And Dan Otter goes around too, and another wonderful thing is, by good chance Next Generation Personal Finance is a curriculum writer, nonprofit started by a man who did not like bias in the financial literacy world, in the materials that's been out there.

So he created a whole curriculum. Well, he found Dan Otter too a couple of years ago and said, “Come on under our nonprofit wing, and we need to get this word out more about the 403(b) plan.” So, I loved the financial literacy curriculum by Next Gen Personal Finance, and I loved the 403(b)wise movement. And my worlds just collided happily when those two formed an allegiance.

So, the material is better. It is out there now more so than ever. It's streamlined, it's professional. Dan's working full time to teach teachers about it, and to highlight, and to advocate, and to write things like that three slides presentation.

Reaching Financial Independence

Jonathan: Yeah, that's phenomenal. Teachers and the FI community, and really anybody that has to participate in a 403(b) is lucky to have you as an advocate. And I love your enthusiasm, and passion for this movement.

You reached Financial Independence, and you had to go through this friction. This isn't just something that you're suggesting someone else did. This is actually what you did and it clearly had an impact on your path to Financial Independence. In fact, possibly the reason that you're financially independent today is because you had to deal with these atrocious fees in your case.

I'm just curious, how did you go from 41 paycheck to paycheck to reach Financial Independence this past year? What got you there? Walk us through the second half of this money story of yours?

Nancy: Okay, sure. So, yeah, so I was very overzealous, and I was eager, and I was angry and I felt, “Well, now we have to make up for lost time. This was wrong.” And I feel like out of revenge, I did what I could. I honestly, I do.

And I did hear your podcast. I was very familiar with Ed Mills or Gerry Born or Millionaire Educator, and I'd been reading some of his work. And when I found out that he was saving in the 457 and the 403(b) plans, it raised a new challenge in my life. It raised the bar. And I said, “Wow, I am behind now, and I need to catch up and look what we can aspire to.” And so, I made it a challenge to save in both of those vehicles.

After I found out about the fees, then I made those changes. I said, “What else can I do? What else can I do to optimize?” And that was right, I was there beginning of ChooseFI, so you're talking about finding the answers to that, and what can I do to optimize question?

ChooseFI, bingo! And everything that I heard, and everything that I did were things that I (a), knew about but didn't do, or didn't know how to do it, or (b) learned about on ChooseFI's podcast.

And so, I put everything into place. And going back even 2015 or 16 when I first found out and took action on the fees, I was very angry to the point where in the beginning of that calendar year, I stopped my contributions while I was waiting and figuring out how to get Aspire in, and even that there was such a thing as Aspire.

And I withdrew money from there, took out a loan, my husband and I decided, “Okay, let's do something else.” And I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad real estate book because real estate was going to be it if my 403(b) plan wasn't. And so, we learned, and we taught ourselves about that. And I found a house to buy outside of my area for under $50,000. And that was the loan.

That was the loan that I took out. And we turned that loan into an asset. We bought a house, and did some renovations on it, from a thousand miles away. We didn't do it ourselves. We had help. I always find help. And now the tenant was paying back our loan, was paying back my loan.

So, my money was going back to my account in that high fee 403(b), but soon not to be high fee. And I owned an asset. I owned an asset that was not going to be subject to required minimum distributions. And I felt, “Oh, this was great, this was awesome.” And so, we paid that loan back way ahead of schedule anyway, and have that house and we proceeded to buy six, seven more houses.

Jonathan: In the last couple of years?

Nancy: Yes, exactly. We bought three in one year, two in another year, and two in another year. And we just signed the contract on another house for this year.

And I never would have thought that was possible, or plausible, or I don't know that I would have figured it out. I don't know that I would've been motivated to or driven to. I would've been motivated, but I didn't know that I would have been driven to do such things like that.

I'm not recommending or saying that everybody should do it that way. But that's the path that led us down, the high fees made me angry, but I even got a little, cold feet after that.

As I mentioned, it was early in the year when we took the loan out, and bought a house. It was February in this one particular year. By the end of that year, towards the fall I said, “Ah man, but I still don't want to miss out on my deferred tax savings in the 403(b).”

So, by then I think I had gotten that lower cost vendor added to the lineup, and I threw all my money into that. I maxed it out for that calendar year. So, I felt like, “Okay, I won in this game. I maxed out the 403(b), and I bought a house.”

So, that was good. And somebody else was paying back that loan. Of course, I say that, but it was us who was paying it directly, and I was contributing. And then because of people like, Gerry Born and Millionaire Educator, same person, I now reached for something else.

I did not know that our school district had the 457 available to us. And again, I say that to you, I'm not embarrassed to say it, and one reason is because our school district did not tell anybody that we had the 457 available to us.

And the only reason I could come up with is because there is no salesperson involved in the New York state deferred compensation plan. There is nobody that comes in and sells you anything because there's nothing to sell. They're all straightforward, low cost index funds.

And when I questioned the superintendent on that, And the business department person involved with that, I was told, “Well, don't we tell employees about this 457 plan?” And the answer was, “Well, no.” Because the person was new. They said, “Well, I tell the new employees about it, but I never had a method. I never reached out to current employees who were hired before I came here, and I never told them about the 457 plan.”

And I had a problem with that. I said, “They ought to be told, and they don't want to tell anybody because they don't want to give the idea or the illusion that they're making a recommendation.” That's the answer I was told.

Jonathan: Well, for context, I just want to … You're beating your head against the wall, trying to fix the 403(b), many teachers do not feel or may not be able to contribute more than $18,000 a year, and they're picking between the 457 or the 403(b). Except they're not picking, because they don't even know that it exists.

I mean, it's almost like if you re-prioritized them in a vacuum, and it's a little bit of a sidebar here. But if you have both, one with barely any fees, and fantastic funds, and the other that's fee laden, and you only have 18,000 to invest anyways, then just invest in the 457 except you don't know it exists because nobody told you.

Like, I mean, I just want to point out for someone to say, we told you how to go analyze your 403(b), and yes, do this, let's create more of a public outcry. I think anybody politics aside should be able to agree on that, our teachers and public servants should have access to at least as good of a vehicle as civilians have, people outside of that space. Come on.

And too, aside from that though, I mean you may have access to 457, and not have known it this entire time, in which case if you've worked for 10, 12 years you're going to be very upset. But two, get started, get started.

Nancy: Oh, that's true.

Brad: Nancy, just to piggyback on that, you would have had the option to put in either the 457 or 403(b), had you known. Right? Is Johnathan's describing the world accurately as you know it, right?

Nancy: Yes and no. I was not told we had the 457, and I did have and do have the option to save in both of them. So, we can do both at the same time. And like Gerry Born pointed out, Millionaire Educator, you can do both. And it's ironic though, because teachers who generally don't earn as much money are allowed to save in both vehicles.

So, if your max is $19,500 this year in 2020 for the 403(b), well your max for the 457 is also $19,500, so do the math on that. $39,000. And a teacher's starting salary in New York is probably $50,000-$55,000. So, it makes it almost prohibitive. But it is possible to maneuver your monies and your income in such a way perhaps. But it is possible down the road maybe when you earn a little bit more money.

Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And in fact, in Gerry's case, I know we've thrown a couple of names. It actually took me forever to figure it out that he picked the name Ed Mills because it was a play on Millionaire Educator, that was a pseudonym when he was teaching, because he was sharing his net worth and wanted some level of anonymity at the time. But he's going by his public name now.

And anyways, Gerry very much expressed the desire to keep working at this point just so he would have an opportunity to fully fund these each and every year.

So, put this together people, I mean, you go listen to episode 13 for full context here, but if you have 19.5, in one account and you have access to 19.5 in another account. Brad, $39,000 for Gerry.

His wife also worked with the same school system, same deal that's taken us up to $78,000 pretax. Then on top of that he had access to like an HSA, it was the HSA. It was the IRA. Because when you load all of those pretax buckets is lowering your taxable income. Getting down below the threshold, so married and filing jointly, obviously eligible for a traditional IRA for each of them, another $11,000 in the traditional IRA.

They were saving $106,000 in their investment accounts without … I mean, he's like, “Man, I just got to find a way to keep working this, this is incredible.” And that's what you call controlling your tax rate there, but you don't have to start there. And Nancy, I love that you … Out of spite. I love that out of spite. I was like, “I'm going to figure this thing out.”

So, give our audience a sense. Like you guys, you figured out a way, you've cashflowed your life, you figured out you finally were able to get this 403(b) fix, leaving the employees that were in your job a much better situation than when you came into that role, going forward, what are you doing now with your Financial Independence? What are you and your husband have teed up for the next several years?

Nancy: Right. So, great question. So, yeah, so, because of the 457 and the 403(b), I did save like you mentioned just now, and you sum it up beautifully. Also in the Roth IRA as well, I was able to get the money into there, max that out. And because we kept saving and saving, and now where we're building up, we were able to buy those other houses that I mentioned too.

So, now I said, “Okay, great, these investment houses are awesome but we can't use them, so let's do short term rental homes.” So, we invested, we purchased a few short term rental homes, and by that I mean houses in locations where we wanted to travel to. Which happened to be in three different states plus a house we bought for our daughter to live in, in college.

So, we did that college housing hack as well, which was awesome. That's in North Carolina. We bought houses to rent out short term rental in places we want to go. And so, that's where I am now. So, behind me is the tall ceiling room in my living room, in my house in Florida. The house that Frank and I bought, we rent it out when we're not here, and when we're not here, we might go to the house in Tennessee in the smoky mountains, which we rent out when we're not there. And when we're not there, we might be in our house in New York where we rent out a portion of that house. And now coming forward in summer of 2020, we might be in Sag Harbor or the end of Long Island, where we can rent out a cabin or a cottage on that property.

So we've designed our lifestyle despite the high fees in my 403(b) to accommodate our desire to bounce around, and to develop other streams of income. So, I cut my pension short because I've only worked for 16 years in the public school setting. I have what some people will call a penalty. I don't look at it as a penalty. I look at it as a smaller pension, but it's a pension. And I live off some of the cashflow from the real estate. And I will have money when I draw down from my 457, and my 403(b), and the IRAs.

So, we've developed the other income streams and again, it all comes down to opening up my eyes, listening my ears, and forging ahead with other ways of investing because I found out about the fees, and the ways it was inefficient, and the ways other things were inefficient in a way to maximize money.

Brad: Yeah. It's amazing how one thing leads to another. Right? That's so, so cool. I'm curious about this short term rental/living situation you have. This sounds absolutely fascinating. So, as I'm hearing it, you have four different houses essentially, that you live in at some point during the year, and then you-

Jonathan: Chasing 75.

Brad: Yeah. For real. I mean, in your mindset, do you consider them like your houses that you just rent when you're not living there? I know it's a subtle distinction or do you consider them, “Oh, it's just a rental property and hey, if it's empty, we can go live there for a month or two.” Like how do you plan out how you're spending your year? Is it we dictate or we're going to rent these things, and if they're open, and we want to spend a month in North Carolina or in Florida, we can do that.

Nancy: Oh, so great question. So, up until June when I was working full time because I did stop, and I did resign, and retire from my full time teaching job. Up until then, we were just, whenever we were available we could block off some dates, and go where we wanted to go. But my husband was very busy in the summertime with his job that he had. And I as a teacher, I was off in the summertime, so we didn't have that much time to deliberate, to answer that question.

But now that we've bounced around, and we're designing our lifestyle, it's more like totally 100% we own, we love, we look at these homes as our homes, they're our homes. And we rent them when we're not here. Now, obviously we can't be in all the places at one time. So, when we're in one house, it's our house.

When we're not, it's our house that somebody else is using. We are of that mindset. We were like that as individuals. We rented on Airbnb, or VRBO before, and we're perfectly happy doing the same, returning the same to other people. Some people aren't of that mindset, but 100% Frank and I are. And we embrace it, we enjoy it, and we stand to gain a lot from it. And we've met such wonderful, wonderful people. And there's a whole community of hosts that we've met as well as guests that we've sometimes meet and come into, bump into, or vet them. So, it's just been a win-win.

Our children are coming tonight, we're picking them up from the airport. And so, they will now go where we want to go. And that was another thing we wanted to do. We wanted to build relationships, spend some more time together. So, it's a draw for them too. It's a draw for us. It's a win-win.

How To Connect

Jonathan: That's amazing. Okay, so I want to come back to the website that you created, and I think people will understand that you really have become an extreme authority on this just with the level of research that you've put in. It's time put in and it's very valuable. I think a lot of people can benefit from it.

Now the website is fixmy403(b).com. And I'm just curious for someone listening to this, what is … Because I know the website is relatively new and you're still developing it out, what is your hope for the website? How would you like people to interact with it? Like what would you want people to do if they wanted to connect with you?

Nancy: Well first of all, that's my website I started just because I needed to write, I needed to blog about it. And it's a work in progress just like I'm a work in progress. So it'd be the landing page for other groups such as the Facebook group of 403(b) Wise and 403(b)wise.org.

So, my website is full of information, but it is the landing page of extensive resources available to anybody who wants to learn about 403(b) plans, not just in the education world. And I certainly would invite administrators and business staff personnel, those that make the decisions come here. It's a safe place. You don't have to admit that you just don't know enough about investing and fees and index funds. It's a very safe place. And learn about it, and then take action.

I just wish there were more administrators, and those that are in charge communicating and acknowledging that they can be part of the solution so that their teachers can benefit.

The Hot Seat

Jonathan: All right, now Nancy, on most shows that would be the end of the episode, but on this show we would love to give you the chance to tackle the hot seat. Are you ready for this?

Nancy: I'm ready.

Brad: All right, Nancy. Question number one. What is your favorite blog, podcast or book of all time?

Nancy: So, I'm going to go with book. My favorite book has to be Teach and Retire Rich by Dan Otter, Ph.D. And he is updating that book as we speak. The 2020 version is coming out with new limits and up to date information.

Jonathan: You can tell Dan when he's going to release to get in touch with us. We'd love to have him come on the show and talk about it some more.

Nancy: Awesome.

Jonathan: All right. Question number two, an inflection point in your life that was especially memorable or meaningful?

Nancy: So several years ago … So, one thing I didn't mention is my husband and I got involved with businesses too along the lines. So, before I was working and even while I was working, actually, we opened up a cycling studio, indoor cycling. We're both avid cyclists. And that didn't do so well, and we didn't manage our money. We didn't track it. We didn't know that it wasn't doing so well until it didn't.

And so, an inflection point or a point where really stand out to me was we snuck a weekend away while we were still opening. It was probably 12 or 13 months into operation. We were at the beach in Naples, Bonita Springs actually in the West Coast of Florida. And we sat there in the afternoon with our feet in the sand and I said, “If you can picture a clock and picture where in the middle of that clock, picture the one hand in the 10 o'clock position, and the other hand and the two o'clock position.”

I said, “This 10 o'clock hand is the direction that we are going in. We are taking steps in this direction, but look at the two o'clock position. That's where we want to end up. We are going in the opposite direction of where we want to be. We need to make a change because it's only going to get worse.”

And so, at that moment in time when we looked at the sand, both of us, I think, silently in a stupor said, “Yeah, we have to make a change.” And at that moment in time, we decided to close the business. And we decided to sell some possessions we had, and invest in real estate, and take out the loan. We decided at that moment in time. So, that is a very distinct memory for the two of us. And it was from there where the action steps were born.

Brad: Yeah. Nancy, that sounds like a podcast episode and in and of itself, that moment there on the beach. But it's wild that everything after led from that one inflection point. So. Wow. Thank you.

Nancy: Sure.
Brad: All right, Nancy, question number three, your favorite life hack.

Nancy: So, I would have to say my favorite life hack is my inclination to be healthy. I was a dietician by education. My undergrad is in dietetics and nutrition. And my inclination to be … and I've already admitted or acknowledged that I'm frugal too by inclination. But I think that served me really well because I love to move.

My brain works best when my body is moving. And as a result, I find Zen moments when I'm swimming laps. I find Zen moments when I'm cycling, when I'm walking, or when I run. And I find peace. I'm at peace. My brain has greater clarity. I can really think a lot. I can think through things and I could solve problems, problems that I didn't realize that I had or challenges.

And also that inclination to be healthy, it serves me well in the kitchen with the food we eat. I love to cook food from scratch. I love to know what I'm eating. I love a good meal. Don't get me wrong. I love it to be served to me, but I happen to love being creative in the kitchen, and eating raw or re-eating foods that are of earthly origin. And so, that's my biggest life hack.

Jonathan: Awesome. All right. Question number four. And this one I feel like we have covered to some degree, but the biggest financial mistake you've made.

Nancy: Yeah. I wish you had covered that, but it really wasn't, there was certainly more. We had some bad financial decisions along the way too. We've cracked into a couple of CDs, one that was the gifted to me, to us, and invested in the.com era, in tech stocks and totally lost bundles there.

And I mean, we took a lot of risks. My husband and I, we took chances and in the end we won. But certainly it was, the more you overcome, the higher you could reach I suppose. And that was our case. So, the businesses they were all tuition, and some investing in .com stocks I'd say was another one.

Brad: All right, Nancy, question number five, the advice you would give your younger self.

Nancy: Yeah. So, I saved in IRAs when I was like 18, 19, 20 years old. I understood it to be a good thing. However, the advice I would give to my younger self is to keep track of expenses, keep track of your income. Yeah, you can track expenses, but if you don't know how much you're earning or in relation to how much you're earning, what you're spending, you'll never really grow far, get far ahead. So, the investment would be to track your family's income, and expenses without judgment, and to set goals for yourself and map out a plan. I wish I had done that.

Jonathan: I love the fact that you added onto that track your expenses without judgment. I think so many of us think as soon as you start tracking, it's to nail you to the wall, to prove that you're doing something wrong… No, it's the principle. Just know where you are, you can't make any changes unless you know where you are. All right. We do have a bonus question for you. What purchase have you made over the past 12 months that has brought the most value to your life?

Nancy: So, I thought a lot about this too. I don't spend a lot of money these days unless it's related to one of our houses, but I don't. And one thing that my husband and I did was Christmas this year, we had picked out a couple of dates for our children to come and visit the house here in Florida in St. Augustine. And so, today actually is the day where we're all meeting there. We're flying them down, and my son-in-law as well, so the four kids and the son-in-law, and they range in age. I say kids from 21 to 29 years old.

And we're meeting them at the airport. They're going to come, we're going to go do some zip lining, we're going to go to the beach. The girls wanted to get some massages, and things like that, and the men are going to go golfing. Not that I'm being gender specific, that's just the way the cards fell.

Jonathan: It's the way the cards fell, people. The purchase was you bought plane tickets to get your kids to Florida with you guys to spend time?

Nancy: Correct. That's value spending for sure.

Jonathan: Okay. Experiences over stuff. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. This has been a pleasure.

Nancy: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the time.

Jonathan: All right, my friends, if you got value from today's episode, and if you've been getting value from the episodes up to this point, just take one second and press the subscribe button on the platform. You're listening to this on whether it be a podcast player, or YouTube pressing subscribe just lets the provider know you're getting value from the show, and you want to be here when we produce additional content.

If you want to support us in what we're doing here at ChooseFI, here are three easy ways. One, if you want to travel the world with miles and points instead of your hard-earned dollars, then just go to choosefi.com/travel to take our free course on travel rewards.

Two, check out our book ChooseFI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence can be found anywhere that books are found. It is by far the most digestible, and linear way to actually incorporate a comprehensive approach to Financial Independence into your life. If you've already got this locked down, and you don't need one for your own bookshelf, get it for a friend, or request that your local library pick it up so there's a copy for your community.

And three, and really most importantly, find your friends, your coworkers, and your family members that might be open to this message, and tell them about the podcast. Have them start at episode 100, which we consider our gateway episode, or simply go to choosefi.com/start. All right, my friends, so fire is spreading, we'll see you next time as we continue to go down the road less traveled.

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3 thoughts on “Help Fix My 403(b) | Ep 220”

  1. Brad and Jonathan,
    Thanks for bringing Nancy on. I greatly appreciate her efforts to reform the 403b; everyone should know that she is NOT exaggerating how bad 403b plans are. The average 403b plan has fees well in excess of 200 basis points (2%). Investors with a low-cost focus have few options in many districts. For example, currently my 403b contributions are in a large-cap index fund with fees of 1.29% and in Vanguard’s VASGX fund with fees of 1.39% (it’s only .14% / 14 bips at Vanguard). As Nancy said, many 403b plans have load or surrender charges that slowly erode investment return. Simply put, these plans are inferior fee-bloated monstrosities.

    For the record, last year my wife and I had our best hardcore savings year yet, $130k saved. Here’s the breakdown if you’re interested:
    https://www.millionaireeducator.com/2020/03/adios-2019-y-bienvenidos-2020.html
    Because 403b fees are high, we usually park money in the account until we leave our jobs. After leaving our jobs, we usually roll our 403b savings over to more fee-friendly investment companies (Vanguard, Fidelity, or Schwab).

    Should teacher have to quit their jobs to improve their investment options? Should teachers have silent partners in their retirement plans charging annual fees of 200-300 bips? Should teacher have to surrender 5% of their fund balance when they in move “THEIR” to a more cost-effective investment company? The 403b is perfectly designed to slowly shift teacher retirement savings to the coffers of the the financial intermediaries. If only the 403b were designed for the participants. Okay, I’ll stop now because I’m starting to get angry…

    Thanks again for shining light on this outdated and expensive retirement plan.
    GB

  2. Thank you so much for this episode! I’m new to ChooseFI but have learned so much already and am starting my own FI journey. This episode is especially important to me because my sister and brother-in-law are both educators in NY. I have seen them incur years of student loan debt while raising 4 children on their journey to become educators. That alone is a struggle and I am so angry that something like could be in place to unknowingly take away their hard earned investments. All the while they think they are doing right by their future. I had an initial discussion with them and my brother-in-law does invest in a 403b. I sent him this episode and it opened up a conversation for us. Now we can figure out the truth about his investments and hopefully correct it based on the advice given. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for such a relevant topic to teachers. I dove into my 403b about a year ago. As it turns out, I wasn’t in a bad one, but it wasn’t a real good one either. It was in a mutual fund that had solid returns (a tad over 10%), but the fees were almost 1%. I’ve since moved everything to CalSTRS Pension II. I’d recommend looking at 403bcompare.com to get info about different options teachers may have. Also check out the 403bwise group on Facebook.

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