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That Time I Ran Out of Money: Liquidity

Early in 2018 while on vacation we nearly out of money.    By money, in this case, I mean cash.  This wouldn’t have been such a big deal except we were in Honduras.  Essentially none of the shops took credit cards.  It was a great reminder of the importance of liquidity.

A Liquidity Event in Honduras

I did not mention this on my post about the Cruise way back in May.  Honestly, as an experienced traveler, I was a bit embarrassed.  I know better as I had this same experience in Europe nearly 20 years ago.  That being said I was lured into a bit of security.  These days nearly anywhere you go accepts cards.   In Iceland, even the bathrooms accepted cards.  Cashless transactions seem to be everywhere, except I guess in some less financially well off nations.

Liquidity Is a Priority

In this particular case I was not cashless, but I under calculated my needs for taking off the boat.  We had to limit our purchases of Cervesa on the beach in order to afford the taxi back to the boat.  No harm no foul.  But it was a great reminder, liquidity is something you should keep in mind no matter how high your net worth.

My liquidity event was relatively minor.  Compared to some of the large banks where liquidity precipitated their collapse during the great recession, one more beer was minor.  Yes, that’s right.  Bear Sterns and others were not brought down so much by the amount of debt they held, but rather their lack of liquidity. This week I have been reading about their collapse in the book “Too Big to Fail“. On an aside, another good book I can highly recommend. But I digress…

Defining Liquidity

So what is liquidity?  At its essence it is the ability to have cash on hand, or assets that can be easily converted to cash, to handle short term costs.  If you can’t pay your short term debts it does not matter how many assets you have, you will end up in default to your debtors.  At moderate levels that can mean massive fees and interest, say from not being able to pay your credit card bills.  At slightly higher levels it can mean liquidating medium and long term assets at firesale prices.  Finally, at extreme levels that can mean bankruptcy court.

Short Term Surprise Costs are Ever Present

As an individual we are constantly at risk of surprise short term costs.  From home repairs to medical bills, and even car accidents.  They happen all the time.  In order for them to not have a negative long term impact on your financial well being you need to have liquid assets to cover these potential costs.  This is what we talked about in the past by finding the optimal emergency fund.  The whole point of an emergency fund is to allow you to have liquid assets to pay bills in an emergency.  Well duh…

Liquidity Needs Beyond An Emergency Fund

But liquidity needs don’t begin and end with an emergency fund.  Not all short term cash needs are defined by a surprise short term cost.  Sometimes they are known.    Even though I underestimated, I knew I needed cash on my trip to Honduras.  It was a foreseeable need for cash.  The same thing happens in our everyday lives.

Know Costs and Liquidity

If you are saving for a down payment on a house, a purchase of a car,  a college tuition payment, or even in our case a travel trailer, then it is best to have at least some cash on hand towards that purchase.  So how do you manage that and invest money too?  

Stock Market Liquidity

The most common investment are stocks, but that is also the most volatile and sometimes the least liquid.  You don’t want your savings cut in half by a stock market downturn when you need it.  That volatility makes stocks a poor parking place for liquid money, especially those needed soon.  On the other extreme is a savings account.  An online savings account can provide a decent return for really short periods but it still might not be the best option.  Especially for longer-term planned purchases (say a few years) an online savings account might not provide enough return.

The Best Option for Liquidity Depends on Timing

My comment on savings accounts really hints at the best option for investing for a short term need.  The best option depends on the time period until you need the money.  I sometimes refer to this as liability matching.  Essentially the best way to park money you absolutely need for a short term expense is to invest it in an instrument of the same period as your expense.    

Liability Matching

So say you are investing beside a mortgage or car payment.  You know they will have payments over a defined period and have decided to invest instead of paying more towards your debt.    If you found a risk free investment like a bond or CD which comes due in the same period as the debt you have effectively liability matched.    Then your return in excess of paying the debt is the difference in interest between your bond/CD and the mortgage rate.  

Future Payment Matching

In the same way, if you are saving for a future purchase rather then matching to a debt you can match the timeline.  The only difference is you have no debt payment to execute against so your return is simply your total return.    The return is risk-free as long as you stick to Government bonds and FDIC insured CDs.  If you want a little more risk you can shift to Municipals or AAA corporate bonds.  I would not recommend going any riskier with money you need for a near term purchase.

Saving for Our Own Upcoming Purchases

For our future travel trailer purchase we are beginning to park money.  For the deposit we are using a savings account since the down payment is less than a year away.  Finally, for the bulk of the payment due at delivery, we are utilizing a 1 year CD.  There is a six-month waiting list on travel trailer delivery so we feel comfortable parking the rest in a 1 year CD.  I am getting 2.7% on the CD as opposed to ~2% on the savings account.  I’ll take an additional half a percent no risk return any day.

Have you ever used liability matched investing to save for a future expenditure or debt payment?

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  1. Joe
    Joe February 7, 2019

    We spent 20 hours in Hong Kong on the way back from Thailand last month. I took out $100 because I don’t want to run out of cash. I wasn’t sure how much we’d need. It turned out we need to use about half of that. I exchanged the rest back to USD when we got back. We lost a good amount to the exchange service, but I’d rather have extra cash when we’re in a different country. Older and more conservative now.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 7, 2019

      It’s very embarrassing when you get it wrong. Since that trip I’ve found I went back to being conservative. Then again I got $200 out in Iceland as a starting point, and returned it all back to USD after 11 days. Go figure.

  2. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn February 7, 2019

    That is a great point about liability matching and nice takeaway from the Honduras trip.

    I too rely on credit card use when traveling because it is convenient and I don’t have to worry about losing cash or off chance of getting pick pocketed with cash which is gone forever. But it is nice to sometimes have cash on hand just for back up emergencies.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 7, 2019

      Even at home I very rarely actually carry cash. I usually have a small amount accessible somewhere in case of emergencies, but most times I don’t use it.

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