Syed, Author at The Broke Professional

3 Easy Steps to Becoming a Travel Hacker

You hear the word “hacking” a lot nowadays.  Traditionally, hacking was thought of as something negative.  Something we would not want our kids to do.

We think of a recluse living in his parents basement trying to break into a federal organization.  Or a group trying to take down a big evil organization’s website (which is pretty cool depending on who the big evil organization is).

But hacking has evolved recently.  Now you see articles about hacking your sleep or hacking your parenting.  You can find hacks to make it easier to cook dinner or decorate your home.  A hack is essentially a quick shortcut to make your life better.

The term travel hacker has also been in the media lately.  You read about people that have taken month long expeditions around the world for free (disclaimer: it’s not really free).  I’ve talked to many people about travel hacking and most shrug their shoulders and adopt a “must be nice” attitude.

As in, “must be nice for them but I would never be able to do something like that.”  While not everyone has the time or resources to travel hack their way to around the world trips, I will show you how pretty much anyone can travel for a lot less money.

Levels of Hacking

I’ve played basketball since I was a little kid.  I still enjoy playing it whenever I can get time.  Technically, I would call myself a basketball player.

You know who else is a basketball player?  Steph Curry.  While he is a (slightly) better basketball player than me, we’re both basketball players.  He is just on a (much) higher level.

The same thing applies to travel hacking.  If you just look at those “Steph Curry’s” of travel hacking who make elaborate trips to every continent with points, you will get disappointed.

But travel hacking, specifically travel hacking with credit cards, is a very accessible endeavor that can be scaled up as much as you wish.  It just depends on how much time you’re willing to put in.

I’ve been doing some low level travel hacking with credit cards for a few years now.  My wife is from the West Coast so we make trips there every so often.  Our goal is to at least make those trips with points along with a couple of vacations per year.  This is very attainable with a few hours of planning per month.

If you want to travel with your family of 5 to fancy European cities in first class, this is attainable as well.  But it’s going to take a lot of work.  It will amount to a full time job between signing up for credit cards, and staying on the phone with airline reps.  But it is possible, if you’re willing to put in the work.

My strategy:  Get the most lucrative credit card offers I can find and use those points to take our eventual West Coast trips.  This is essentially getting the “low hanging fruit” of travel hacking and optimizing it as much as possible.

It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule.  Give 20% effort to get 80% of the results.  That’s good enough for most people.  If I want to get better results, I need to give more effort but the work will be a lot more.  I currently don’t have the inclination to work 20+ hours a week to get better point redemptions, but I can if I choose to.

Anyway, here are the nuts and bolts of my current travel hacking strategy.

3 Steps to Travel Hacking

BIG Disclaimer:  Travel hacking with credit cards should not be an option if you plan to make late payments and not pay your balance off in full.  Any interest or late fees will quickly erase the reward benefit.  You have been warned!!

Without further ado here are the three steps it takes to get started in travel hacking:

1.  Apply and get approved for a credit card with a great sign up bonus.  (See some examples at the end of the post.)

You will need a pretty good credit score to get approved for most reward cards.  While there is no hard and fast rule, a credit score of 700 or above is usually good enough.

2.  Meet the minimum spend to snag the sign up bonus.

If a card offers a bonus of 50,000 points, for example, you will have to meet a minimum amount of spend in a certain amount of time to get those points.  A common one is spend $3,000 in 3 months.

While there are a ton of ways to increase spending artificially (and there are many blogs that will teach you how in depth), start with a bonus offer that is attainable with your regular everyday spending.  You can always scale up to a bigger offer once you feel comfortable.

3.  Repeat with another card.

You should cancel the first card if it has an annual fee and you don’t plan on using it.  If there is no annual fee, just keep the card and stick it in a drawer since having more credit will improve your credit score over time.

Something for Everybody

And that’s all there is to it.  There are so many strategies involving finding the best cards to apply for and when to apply.  Countless methods also exist to “manufacture” spend which will allow you to spend more to meet sign up bonuses without actually spending any of your own money.  So this stuff can get deep.

You can take a deep dive if you wish to find out more about these strategies.  Two sites that will provide you the advanced strategies you need for travel hacking are Million Mile Secrets (where I was featured once here!) and Frequent Miler.

But if you want to just stay on the surface and do one credit card bonus at a time to get easy rewards every few months, that’s okay too.  Travel hacking has a place for everybody.

Here are some good credit card bonuses that are currently available and some brief information about them (I don’t make anything off of these links):

Chase Sapphire Preferred:  Get 50,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $4,000 in 3 months.  This is the go to card for many people including myself.  It gives you double points on travel and dining purchases.  And Ultimate Reward points are very versatile.  You can use them for cash back, flights or transfer to airline or hotel programs.

Chase Freedom:  Get $150 cash back after spending $500 in 3 months.  This is a great cash back card to have since the bonus is easy to get and it features 5% categories each quarter.  So one quarter of the year you will get 5% cash back on dining purchases, for example, and the next month will get 5% on gas purchases.

Chase Southwest:  Get 40,000 Southwest points after spending $1,000 in 3 months.  I fly Southwest a lot and I know a lot of people that do as well.  Southwest points are pretty valuable, and this sign up bonus can easily get you $500 worth of flights.

American Express Premier Rewards Gold:  Get 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in 3 months.  AMEX has many good travel cards and this is one of the best.  Membership Reward points can be used to book flights directly and can be transferred to other programs.  This card also gets you double points at restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.

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Inflation is Not a Big Deal. Here’s Why.

James can trade down to a slightly used BMW and save a ton on insurance and maintenance.

Imagine a reverse savings account.  You put money into it and it will slowly erode over time at a constant rate.  Let’s say that rate is 3%.  So every year the amount you have in the account will decrease by 3%.

So you deposit $100, then at the end of the year, you’re left with $97.  If you don’t add anymore money, the following year you would lose 3% more.  You would have to keep adding money just to keep your original $100 deposit.  Doesn’t sound like a good deal.

This is inflation.  It creates an increase in the price of goods over time which erodes the buying power of your money.  The most quoted inflation rate is around 3%, which is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And many of us have seen this in our lives.  A gallon of milk in 2017 doesn’t cost the same as it did in 1997.  Same goes for a gallon of gas.  I’ve even written before that the only way to beat the inflation monster is to make more money and to do it FAST.

Making more money is a surefire way to beat inflation, but it’s actually a lot easier than that.  Many of you probably have a much lower personal rate of inflation than the 3% figure.

Here’s why the idea of inflation destroying our income and retirement while we stand by helplessly is just not true.

You Are Not an Average

According to the CDC, the average weight of a male in America is 195 pounds.  Besides that being a concerning statistic since that’s already considered overweight for most males, it also doesn’t tell you much about an individual male in America.

Sure, there are males in this country who are exactly 195 pounds, but many are below that weight and many are above.  The 195 pound number is the weight of a fictional “average” right down the middle American male, which most males are not.

And even if you are 195 pounds, there are other factors that make that number even more useless such as height and athleticism.  So that 195 pound number in a vacuum means almost nothing.

I look at inflation in the same way.  While the oft quoted rate of inflation is around 3%, not everyone is affected by that number in the same way.  Prices vary widely in different parts of the country.  Inflation could be at a rate of 5% in New York while it can be 1% in Iowa.  That 3% is a countrywide average.

Inflation also affects good and services in different ways.  Computers cost a lot more 20 years ago than they did now.  Milk costs more now than it did 20 years ago.  Cars cost more now but they last a lot longer than they did before.  That 3% assumes a constant inflation rate among all types of goods, which is just not true.

An average can serve as a good benchmark, but your personal situation can make the number utterly useless.  I never liked the idea of comparing average salaries or savings rates, as everybody’s situation is unique.

You Are Flexible

Now let’s say that you are indeed this average person, and your personal rate of inflation has been increasing at a steady rate of 3%.  It doesn’t mean it has to stay this way!

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from British philosopher Alan Watts:  “You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.”  And this applies directly to the inflation argument.

If the CPI has been showing an average rate of inflation of 3% for the country, there is not much you can do about that.  If your personal spending has been growing at a steady rate of 3% year after year, you can change that right now!  We’re not robots that need to keep spending money on the same things over and over.

There are lots of ways to do this.  We can cut out things we don’t need or just spend less on them.  We can buy less expensive versions of things we usually buy (skip Whole Foods and go to a normal store).  If you take a good look at your personal spending, you can definitely find ways to keep more of your money and reduce that inflation rate.

The fact that we can be flexible and adjust our spending to reduce our inflation rate turns traditional retirement planning on its head.  Most retirement plans and calculators automatically assume that your inflation rate will be 3%.  This can easily be changed so this means that most people can actually retire earlier than they thought.

We also may not need to save as much money as we originally thought.  This can make retirement planning seem a lot less scary and disheartening.  That being said, I’m usually pretty conservative when it comes to saving and investing.  So assuming an inflation rate of 3% is not the worst thing, because it will at least ensure that you will have enough money to reach your goals.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, inflation is definitely real and it has very real effects on people’s lives.  But it’s not as big of a deal as its made out to be.  Capitalism wants people to keep consuming until the end of their days.  If you follow along, then your inflation rate will certainly be 3% or even more.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can adjust your spending so you actually spend less of your money than you did in the past.  Humans are a lot more flexible than they think, and I believe everyone can find ways to make inflation a very minimal factor in their personal economy.

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4 Interest-ing Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund

My first and only job before joining the optical field was as a Starbucks barista.  It was hard work but I enjoyed it and learned a lot.  We had to manually and carefully load espresso into the machines back then.  No push button lattes!

My first year of income led to a nice refund at tax time.  I didn’t know anything about withholding rates.  Someone told me just put 1 on the W9 and you’re good to go.

And I got a bigger and bigger tax refund each year.  It was great!  I thought the government was so nice.

But after learning about the tax code, I realized I was just giving up my present income so the government could have some more money during the year.  I was giving them an interest free loan of a few thousand dollars every single year!

Now, I try to get my refund as close to zero as possible.  At the same time, I accordingly increase my savings and debt payoff contributions.  I’d rather have that money work for me throughout the year.

That being said, if you do receive a refund, you have to do something with the money.

Interesting Ways to Spend Your Refund

Here are 4 very interesting (and slightly questionable) ways to spend your tax refund:

1.  Buy an Apple Watch Space Black Stainless Steel Case with Space Black Link Bracelet.  Why spend hundreds of dollars on a run of the mill Apple Watch that tells the time and answers your phone?  Spend a thousand and now you can do the same with a space black link bracelet. ($1,099)

2.  Reserve the Tesla Model 3.  There is no car more coveted than the Tesla.  The Model 3 is a relatively affordable $35,000.  Put down the $1,000 reservation fee and figure out how to pay for it later when it arrives in 2018.

3.  Stay a few nights at a Trump Hotel.  Stay 3 nights at the Trump Hotel in Central Park.  Your friends will be so jealous.  It is the greatest, I mean absolutely the greatest most incredible hotel out there. ($1,500)

4.  Buy 50 shares of SNAP.  SNAP is the ticker symbol for Snap Inc. (very creative).  Snap is the parent company of Snapchat, which specializes in providing fun filters for our pictures.  It recently became a publicly traded company and is trading at $19.54 a share as of March 17, 2017.  Buy 50 shares and snap a picture of the confirmation email.  ($977)

While those are four pretty interesting ways to spend your tax refund, let me propose an alternative.  How about spend your tax refund on things that let interest work for you?  This will make your money go the extra mile.

Interest-ing Ways to Spend Your Refund

1.  Pay off your credit card debt.  The best thing to do when it comes to credit card debt is to avoid it.  The next best thing to do is to pay it off ASAP.  Credit cards charge extremely high interest rates.  The national average hovers around 15%, which is absurdly high.

This means that unless your investments are rocking and rolling and you’re getting a consistent 20%+ return year after year (which is nigh impossible), you need to get rid of that consumer debt FAST.  This will free up cash flow faster and save you a lot of money on interest payments.

2.  Increase your 401k contribution.  I like this suggestion.  I’m glad I thought of it.  The reason I like it is because it’s the most hands off and effective way to spend your refund.  If you already contribute to your 401k, just sign in to your account and increase your contribution percentage by a point or 2.  You will not miss the money trust me.

Once the tax refund hits your checking account, do nothing!  It’s as easy as that.  Your increased contribution rate will take that extra money throughout the year and get it invested.  You will save money on taxes and increase your retirement savings in one fell swoop.

3.  Fund a Roth IRA.  If you have maxed out your 401k, the next thing to focus on is your Roth IRA.  Combined with a pre tax 401k, the Roth IRA will allow you to withdraw money tax free, providing tax diversification for the future.  Because Donald Trump is the president so who knows what the future will bring?

The max contribution to a Roth IRA is $5,500 per year.  A tax refund of a thousand or so will get you almost 20% of the way there.  If you wish to max it out, you can set up automatic contributions for the rest of the year to get you there.

Another reason I like (love?) Roth IRA’s is that you can withdraw any contributions you’ve made to the account without penalty, as long as you’ve had the account for 5 years.  So it can serve as a quasi emergency fund if needed.

4.  Make an extra student loan or mortgage payment.  Depending on which of these debts has a higher interest rate, you can add rocket fuel to the payoff time with a nice lump sum payment.  Both of these debts can potentially give you some tax savings, so they’re not the WORST type of debt to have (see #1).

But debt is debt, and it should be paid off as soon as possible.  Just make sure to let your lender know that you want the payment to be applied to your principal amount ONLY.  Many lenders will pull a dirty trick of having it applied to interest first, which does nothing for you but everything for them.  Which is why it’s better to be debt free than continuing to do business with greedy banks!

Spend Your Refund Wisely

You can certainly spend your refund on the things on the first list.  It would make for a nice story and talking point.  But with all material things, the glamour fades very quickly.  And you’re right back to where you started financially.

Spend your refund on the second list, however, and you will provide a nice boost towards financial freedom.  In the end, that is truly what we’re all looking for.  Once you reach there, you can spend all the nights you wish at Trump Tower.

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Refinance Sooner Rather Than Later

This post contains affiliate links

Paying off student loans is a battle.  It’s a battle fought against multiple enemies while running a marathon.  Sounds difficult, but it takes consistent work and sacrifice for new professionals to become debt free.

In any battle, you need a good strategy and weapons.  Ideally, Matrix amount of weapons:

One weapon I should have used sooner is student loan refinancing.  In my case, it saved me a lot of money.  And if you have a nice chunk of student debt, it can save you a lot of money too.

How much?  Let’s take a look.

Simple case study

Let’s look at the case of a medical school graduate with a run of the mill $100,000 of student loan debt.  To keep things simple let’s assume this is one giant loan with an interest rate of 7% and a 25 year payoff.

And let’s also assume this particular graduate is a big spender and has no extra money to put towards student loan payments.  (I’m going to have a talk with him later about priorities)

With help from this handy student loan calculator, here’s how much this graduate will owe with these initial terms:

Original loan: $100,000

Interest rate: 7%

Minimum monthly payment: $706.78

Total interest paid: $112,033.35

This doc would have to pay a total of $212,033.35 on a $100,000 loan!  That’s one expensive education.  He would have to shell out over $700 every month for 25 years.  That does not sound like a good time.

Now let’s see how he would have fared if the student loan was refinanced at a lower rate of 4.5%, which is pretty average nowadays for a fixed rate according to SoFi:

Original loan: $100,000

Interest rate: 4.5%

Minimum monthly payment: $555.83

Total interest paid: $66,750.38

Through a simple student loan refinance, our doctor lowered his monthly payment by over $150 and reduced his total interest payments by more than $45,000!

Why in the world would anybody not want to take this deal????!!!!

Even if you’re eligible for a government program like income based repayment, these types of programs will almost always have you paying more in total interest payments.  I would much rather get my student loans refinanced to the lowest interest rate possible and then pay them off quick.

Very Easy Process

I graduated optometry school in 2009.  Doesn’t seem like a long time ago, but when it comes to student loan refinancing, it’s an eternity!  There were very few companies around and the process usually required physical paperwork.  Smartphones were not even a big deal back then so that should tell you something.

Today, there are so many companies that will refinance your student loans.  I continue to get emails and letters from these companies.  And many of these companies are very good.

There are two companies in particular who I feel are the best.  They are SoFi and Earnest.

I have personally refinanced student loans with both of these companies and they are listed #1 and #2 on the popular comparison website Magnify Money.

Refinancing with these companies is done completely online and is very streamlined and simple.  I walk you through the experience in a previous post here.  It’s easy enough to open an account and poke around just to see how easy the process really is.

Honestly, unless you’re getting total student loan forgiveness, there is no reason anyone with student debt should forgo the refinancing option.  It costs nothing to get some quotes and more likely than not, you will find an option to lower your interest rate.

Conclusion

Paying off student loans isn’t complicated.  Consolidate your loans if that makes sense from an interest rate point of view.  If not, pay off your highest interest rate loan with reckless abandon while paying the minimum payments on the rest.  Then move on to the next highest rate loan.  Rinse and repeat.

To make this easy process even more effective, refinance your high rate loans.  This will accelerate your loan payoff process and get you debt free even quicker.

Getting your student loans refinanced early in your career will provide the most bang for your buck.  This is the time your balance will be highest which means higher potential interest payments.

Being debt free requires resilience and consistency.  And a little help from others never hurt:

Check out your rate with SoFi.  You will receive a $100 bonus if approved for a refinance.

Also, check out Earnest.  You will receive a $200 bonus if you are approved for a student loan refinance.

My advice is to get a quote from both companies and see what the best deal would be.  Both companies use different underwriting methods so you don’t know what you can get unless you try!

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3 Things New Professionals Need to Know About Taxes

My note:  The following is a gracious guest post from Kathryn, who has an excellent blog called Making Your Money Matter.  If you want a complete financial lesson on any and every financial topic from an actual financial professional, head on over to her website.  Honestly, this is the type of information that I’ve seen only available in paid courses, but you can get everything on her site free and clear.

Without further ado, here is a fantastic post by Kathryn talking about some essential tax tips for professionals.

Kathryn Hanna is a CPA and specialized in business and personal taxes when she worked in public accounting.  She currently stays home with her 3 children and blogs at www.makingyourmoneymatter.com to help people improve their understanding of personal finance and thereby improve their lives.  She loves all things money and especially spreadsheets.

If the only sure things in life are death and taxes, I’m sure we can all concur that it’s more fun to talk about taxes than death.  The basic formula for taxes is really quite simple, it’s just the fact that there are so many exceptions and rules that make it incredibly complicated.  Fortunately, you don’t have to know all the rules, just the ones that you need for your own personal taxes!

There are 3 things that I believe will be most beneficial for every new (or even not so new!) professional to know related to taxes.  These are things that will help you reduce taxes and build as much wealth as possible.

1. TAXES MAY BE YOUR SINGLE LARGEST EXPENSE

Once you’ve gotten used to the huge chunk of money being taken out of your paycheck for taxes, you might just ignore taxes altogether (at least until April each year!).  However, FICA, federal and state taxes alone will likely be upwards of 15-20% of your pay.  I calculated my total taxes as a percentage of my income for 2016 and found that over 25% of my income goes toward various types of taxes.  This is my largest expense, exceeding my total housing expenses including utilities!  Likely, taxes just might be your largest expense as well!

While I acknowledge the importance of tax funds to keep our country running, I’m all about minimizing my taxes to not have to pay more than my legal share.  By learning more about how taxes impact various decisions, you can minimize your taxes and keep more of your money in your pocket.

The first step is to get a really good understanding of your current tax situation.  Go through your most recent tax return and make sure you understand, line by line, each and every income, deduction, credit, and tax calculation.  If you have any new financial situation come up, research and make sure you understand the tax consequences.

2.  ALL INCOME IS NOT CREATED EQUAL FOR TAX PURPOSES

As a new grad, you were probably super excited about having any sort of income.  A paycheck large enough to cover eating out instead of sitting at home with Ramen noodles or a tuna sandwich is life-changing.  Earning income is great!

However, that salary you are getting is the nearly the most expensive type of income there is.  First, you’ll be paying Social Security and Medicare taxes on it at a rate of 7.65%.  Then, you’ll need to pay federal income taxes on your salary likely in the range of at least 10-15% if you’re a single person just starting out.  Also, your state will want their cut of taxes, which will add another few percent (the tax rate is 4.25% in my home state of Michigan).  That’s a lot of your hard-earned money going to taxes.

The only income that is even more expensive to you than employment income is self-employment income due to having to pay twice the Social Security and Medicare taxes.  However, being self-employed can increase your income at much higher levels than working for someone else, so I’m definitely not discouraging it!

Most types of income are taxed at ordinary tax rates for federal and state purposes but are not subject to FICA taxes.  Examples of these types of income include:

  • interest income
  • short-term capital gains on investment assets held for less than a year
  • rental property income
  • retirement distributions (someday!)

There are also types of income that are not subject to FICA taxes and are also taxed at lower tax rates.  These types of income are actually taxed at a 0% rate for those in the 10-15% tax bracket (single filers up to $37,950 adjusted gross income for 2017).  Then they are taxed at only 15% for most people.  These types of income include:

  • qualified dividends
  • long-term capital gains on investment assets held for at least a year

There are even income streams that are not taxable at all for federal income tax purposes:

  • interest from municipal bonds (although this may be taxable in some states)
  • gifts, bequests, and inheritances

The moral of the story here is to increase your other income streams in addition to increasing your salary.  Taxes make a significant difference in the amount of your income that you actually keep, so increasing your portfolio income will help you get ahead in the long run.  In addition, saving money in retirement accounts will help you to defer your tax on that income for 30+ years or more.  It will make a huge difference in helping those funds grow more quickly for your future retirement.

3.  HOW TO CALCULATE YOUR MARGINAL TAX RATE

Another vital piece of knowledge is understanding your marginal tax rate.  Your marginal tax rate is the percentage of tax you will pay on your next dollar of earned income.  This is not to be confused with your effective tax rate, which is determined by dividing your total federal tax liability by your total income.

The main reason that there is often a large difference in the marginal versus effective tax rate is because the U.S. has a progressive tax system.  A progressive tax system is where the tax rates increase with higher income levels.  Those with high income are still taxed on the lower rates for the lower portion of their income.  This is shown in the tax rate brackets shown in the example below.

In addition, the difference in effective and marginal rates may also be due to a substantial amount of non-taxable income items or tax deductions and credits that decrease income.

An explanation of marginal and effective tax rates is best explained through a simple example.  Assume the following information for 2016:

  • Your annual salary is $55,000
  • You contribute $5,000 to a traditional 401(k) account
  • You have paid $1,000 in student loan interest
  • The standard deduction is $6,300
  • The personal exemption amount is $4,050

This quick tax summary shows your tax liability of $5,435 for 2016:

The effective rate you are paying on your taxes is only 9.9%, which is calculated as $5,435 in total tax divided by $55,000 gross income.

However, your marginal tax rate is 25%.  Your next dollar of income will actually be taxed at a 25% rate, assuming it doesn’t give rise to additional deductions (for example, if you contribute this “extra” money to retirement accounts, it will not be taxed currently).  The marginal tax rate is determined by looking at the highest tax bracket, as determined by your taxable income.

Looking at the tax rate table below, you can see that with a taxable income of $38,650, this would put you in the $37,650-$91,150 bracket, which is taxed at a rate of 25%.

Looking at the tax table, you can also see that you can earn an additional $52,500 in income before increasing your marginal tax rate to 28% ($91,150 less $38,650).

Understanding your marginal tax rate will give you a realistic view of how much that raise or bonus is actually going to be on a cash basis for you.  It also will hopefully encourage you to contribute more to retirement accounts as your marginal tax rate goes up and those tax deductions become worth even more.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Understanding income taxes is key to building your wealth through the years.  Because of the progressive tax structure in the Unites States, it is even more important to understand your taxes as your income grows throughout the years and the value of your tax deductions increases.

Start now by looking at your current tax situation, making a plan to increase your passive income streams and determining your marginal tax rate.  Future you will thank you!

This information is meant for educational purposes and does not represent individual tax advice.  If you have questions about your personal tax situation, it is highly recommended to meet with a tax advisor or attorney.

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What I Would Tell My College Self

If only we could go back in time…

At some point in our lives, we wish we could go back in time and give ourselves some advice.  If we performed better in some key points in life, who knows how different everything could be?

Life’s all about the journey as the saying goes, but it would be nice if I was able to tell my 20 year old self the winning lotto numbers.  Might be a more luxurious journey at least.

But I’ve watched enough movies to know that telling ourselves winning lotto numbers or sporting event results would disrupt the space time continuum.  (Back To the Future 2 anyone??!!)

So I would be content with teaching my college self a few solid life lessons.  College is a critical crossroads for many.  Make the right choices and getting your degree will most likely get you a nice job.  Drop out and start a company and you will become the next Mark Zuckerberg.

If only it were that easy.  There are a few lessons I would like to impart to my college self (geez has it been 15 years???):

Figure Out What You Want Before You Start

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a college freshman.  I started with a general “business” major, then Philosophy and finally settled on Biology after I decided to become an optometrist.  This was a 2 year process that should have been completed before I got into school.

I tell you, my college bound self,  decide what you want to do with your life before you start college.  That way you can have laser like focus on what classes you need to take.  Taking classes you don’t need for your degree is a waste of time and money.

It will also allow you to work on your career outside of the classroom.  You could find a mentor, look at potential graduate schools or find out how you want to live your life in your chosen career.  This is a much better use of your time than eating mediocre nachos on campus while thinking about what the heck you want to do with your life!

So figure out what you want to do early on, and make that the focus of your time at college.

Student Loans are Easy to Acquire, but Hard to be Rid of

Think about how you want to pay for college before you get in.  If student loans will be your primary tool, so be it.  Just remember that you will be able to get a LOT more money than you really need.  And that can get you in a lot of trouble once real life starts.

When you get that sweet looking award letter, don’t be fooled by all the money the school will want to give you.  You don’t need all of it no matter what the projections say.  All you have to do is sign on the dotted line and your school will benevolently give you as much money as you want.

Only it’s not your school that’s giving it.  It’s most likely the government.  And the government always gets its money back.

So make that sacrifice by eating cheap meals at home rather than eating out every day.  Try to walk or bike whenever you can instead of saddling yourself with a car payment in school.  And ask family for help.  There is no shame in using your brother’s old sofa for your living room.

Consider Refinancing As Early As Possible

College self didn’t know too much about personal finance.  During my second year of graduate school, we were informed that the interest rate on student loans will be going up from around 2% to 6%.  I thought nothing of it at the time, but those 6% loans are the ones that seem to keep hanging around after all these years.

Education is key, so learn about how loans and debt repayment work as early as possible.  Preferably before you get into school.  Along the way you will find out about refinancing, and it is a wonderful thing.

Plan to pay off your debt by paying off the highest interest loan and then moving down the list.  This will allow you to pay off your loans in the most efficient manner possible.

Consider refinancing your loans to get that interest rate down lower so you can pay the loans off even faster.  I didn’t even think about refinancing until about 5 years after school.  Dreaming of the money I could have saved makes me hate student loans even more.

Where to refinance?  Earnest is a great company to work with.  I have had a couple of loans refinanced with them and the process has been great.  They were able to cut my interest rate by a couple of points and I saved hundreds of dollars in interest payments by refinancing with them.  If your goal is to pay off your loans as quickly as possible, what’s not to like?

College is a time for discovery and growth.  It’s when students explore new horizons and find themselves.  But it would be nice if future me just found me pulled me aside and gave me the lowdown on how to prepare for life the right way.  I’m sure he would mention the wonders of student loan refinancing.

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Tax Filing Open Season Is ON!

It’s actually tax season!

People love the new year for many boring reasons.  You can lament the past year (2016 wasn’t THAT BAD.  Famous people die every year).

A new year also signifies a fresh start.  That could mean a new healthy diet or starting to break some bad habits.

But most New Years resolutions die fast, so I like the new year for a different reason.  TAX TIME!

And it’s not because I’m getting a big refund.  I try to get as small of a refund as possible.  That’s because getting a large refund means you had the government hold your earned money last year.  But that’s for another post.

I just enjoy getting tax related letters in the mail and having a nice folder at the end of February with all of my financial information from 2016.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

That being said, today is a big day for me.

January 23, 2017 is the first day the IRS will accept tax returns.  This includes paper and e-file.  And why are you still using paper??

Here are some other key dates to remember:

January 31, 2017: Date by which you should have received your W-2 from your employer.

February 16, 2017:  Financial and investment institutions must mail out their various forms, including 1099’s which report any withdrawals from retirement accounts.

April 18, 2017: Tax Day!  Last day to file federal income tax returns and any extension requests.

October 15, 2017:  Last day to file federal taxes for those who had approved extensions.

This post is simply a public service announcement for the start of tax filing.

Next week I will outline where you can get your taxes done, and how it can possibly be FREE!

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The Investing Book That Won My Heart

Reading books will make you a better investor.

This post may contain affiliate links

Life is a journey, but the beginning of that journey can have a profound effect on the rest.  Reading one book in particular completely changed the trajectory of my investing journey.

While you can learn to like new foods as an adult, most of our food preferences are formed when we are young.

Most sports fans, myself included, root for their hometown team.  If you were born anywhere else, you would most likely have rooted for that hometown team.  (Though never the Philadelphia Eagles.  NEVER)

In the same way, while my views on investing have slightly evolved over time, my core investing philosophies came from a book I read years ago and immediately connected with.

That book is The Bogleheads Guide to Investing (hereafter referred to as The Guide).  I’ve read a few investment books before I read The Guide and I just didn’t connect with them.  I’ve read a bunch of investment books after I read The Guide and most of them were not as memorable.

The Guide was a life changing book for me because it presents an investing blueprint that made sense and was easy to implement.  The idea of technical analysis and digging through charts and graphs while following the comings and goings of companies doesn’t appeal to me.

(As a simple introduction, a Boglehead refers to a follower of the philosophy of John Bogle, the founder of The Vanguard Group.  This book as a comprehensive investing guide written by some big time Bogleheads.)

Here are the two reasons why this is my favorite investing book:

Investing Should Be Simple

If you want to make money off of the general public, keep them confused and helpless.  Electricians and plumbers want people to call them anytime they have a problem.  They can charge for materials and whatever they want for labor.  You are dancing to their tune.

They DO NOT want you to go on YouTube and find out the solution to the problem on your own.  Contractors don’t want you to go online and get the materials you need at a cheaper price.  They will go out of business this way.

But the more you do this, the more knowledge you’ll gain and the simpler things will become.  You will also save a lot of money in the process.  And let’s face it, you don’t need to get a PhD in plumbing to become a good plumber.  You need to find solutions to various plumbing issues.  Doing this over time will make you an expert.

The investing industry is very similar.  Investment advisers and brokers have a (wait for it…) VESTED interest in keeping you confused.  They want you to think investing is a very complicated topic that requires decades of expertise to master.  That way, you will be forking over your hard earned money without question.

The Guide says otherwise.  It showed me that as long as you are aware of your financial goals and risk tolerance, knowing what to invest in becomes very simple.  The key is to stick to your plan despite the ups and downs along the way.

And there will be ups and downs.  That’s the nature of investing.  And this is where most investment companies will get you.  They will make you believe that only they know when the markets will go up or down and that’s why you need to keep paying them.

The simplicity of it all will shock you.  But it will also empower you to take control of your investments and focus your time and energy on everything else that matters in your life.

Investing Need Not Be Expensive

The aforementioned investment advisers and brokers who want to keep you confused and take your money?  They don’t come cheap.  Most financial advisers who manage your investments will take a cut of your assets every year, usually 1% or more.

Plus, they can potentially put you into investments that have high expense ratios while not offering you similar ones with lower expense ratios.  (An expense ratio is what you’re charged by the mutual fund company just to be invested in the fund.)  And advisers can receive a kickback from mutual fund companies for putting you in a certain investment.

This goes on top of the fee the adviser takes.  Not good.  The effect of high fees on your investment returns has been well documented.  Most mutual fund managers cannot beat the average market return in one year, let alone for decades.  So there is no way to justify high fees.

The answer according to The Guide is to stick with mutual funds that have rock bottom fees and track the performance of the overall market you are looking to invest in.  In real terms, this means investing with index funds from Vanguard.  This will give you two major benefits:

1.  You will be paying very low fees

2.  Your investment portfolio will be very simple to manage

These two points will put you way ahead of the majority of investors.  Those investors are paying high fees and buy and sell at the whim of the market.  Investing with Vanguard index funds for the long term will allow you to fully take advantage of compound interest.

Conclusion

The Guide has taught me to focus exclusively on index funds from Vanguard, and that’s where the vast majority of my investments are.  The only exception is the 529 college plan for my son, which doesn’t contain any Vanguard funds.

Focusing on Vanguard index funds has provided a great return for my portfolio, but that could be attributed to the bull market that has been chugging along since 2009.  More importantly, The Guide has showed me that investing with Vanguard will give my money the best chance to grow over the long term because of low fees and a simple investing plan.

If you can’t tell by now, I highly recommend this book.  It will set beginning investors on the right path while showing veteran investors that this is ultimately the best way to invest your money.  And it will turn you into a devoted Boglehead like me.

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Are Physician Loans a Good Idea?

doc-house

Recent graduates of professional school are in a unique position.  They usually have high amounts of debt and low savings. Not a good recipe to buy a home.  Almost everybody with high debt and low savings will get denied for a traditional mortgage.

But one thing almost all professional school grads have is high potential income. So a number of banks offer Physician Loans (also called Doctor Loans) geared towards new professionals.  Most of these loans are geared towards MD’s.  But other health professionals, such as optometrists, can take advantage of them also.

Nuts and Bolts

I wrote about Doctor Loans in a previous post, but since I’m now a few years into having one, I wanted to revisit the subject.  Here are the key aspects of a Doctor Loan:

Pros

  • Requires little to no down payment
  • Doesn’t require Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)
  • Doesn’t factor in student loan debt, which is usually high for professionals
  • Will accept a job offer or contract as proof of earnings

Cons

  • Available only to new grads, usually a maximum of 5-10 years out of residency or school
  • Can have higher fees and interest rates than conventional loans
  • Certain types of homes may be restricted
  • Some banks might require the customer open a checking or savings account with the bank

It’s also important to know why banks would offer a Doctor Loan.  Lenders are looking for customers who will make their payments on time and have a good relationship with the bank for years to come.  Professionals usually have high income potential, so banks want them as customers for life.  They will offer premium checking accounts and preferred rates for customers with mortgages.

My Take on Physician Loans

Now that we have the pros and cons out of the way, let me give you my opinion of the Doctor Loan.  I decided to use the Doctor Loan because we wanted a house after renting for a couple of years but didn’t have the 20% down payment needed for a conventional loan.  By not having at least 20% for a down payment I would have to pay Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).  This is just an extra monthly payment to the bank that would not even be tax deductible in our case.

After finally finding a bank that offered Doctor Loans for optometrists, I went thorough the usual ton of paperwork required for a mortgage.  I’ve heard some horror stories from others who went through the mortgage application process, but luckily it went pretty smoothly for us.

I ended up selecting a no down payment Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM).  While this sounds scary on paper, I believe it was the best decision for us.  Doctor Loan interest rates are usually a little higher than conventional loans. Going with an ARM allowed me to get a rate in line with the average 30-year fixed at that time.

The interest rate on my ARM doesn’t increase until after 10 years, which is a few years longer than we plan to live in the house before selling.  Even if we end up living there a little longer than 10 years, we can still handle the maximum possible payments so it shouldn’t be an issue.

Our plan is to build up enough equity in the house to eventually get a conventional loan on our next home.  The Doctor Loan allowed us to take advantage of low current rates and have an affordable payment.  I don’t regret going with the Doctor Loan, but if we had waited a few more years to build up enough of a down payment for a conventional loan, we might have scored a lower interest rate.

No Free Lunch

Not paying PMI and not having to fork over a large down payment sounds like a good deal, but the advantages of that can be erased if you decide to sell too early or you have to settle for a high interest rate.

So are Physician Loans for everyone?  Absolutely not.  Homes are expensive (taxes, maintenance, homeowners association fees etc).  If you rush into a purchase too fast and aren’t ready for the upfront costs, then a Doctor Loan is probably not a good option.  You would be better off learning the basics of home ownership while building up enough of a down payment for a conventional loan.

Mortgage lenders essentially work like see saws.  They can offer low down payment and no PMI, but will have to increase the interest rate.  If you want a lower interest rate, you should be able to offer a good down payment and maybe even pre-pay some of the interest.

There really is no one right answer.  Deciding if a Doctor Loan is right for you depends on your income potential and how long you decide to live in the house, among other things.  Run the numbers and ask those who have been through the mortgage process to see if it would be a good option for you.

If you need some more information, here is a great overview about student loans from Ricardo at Doctor Loan USA.

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The One Service That Finally Let Me Cut Cable

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans

Change is tough.  Changing something I’ve been used to my entire life is especially tough.  For me, that something was cable TV.

Having “background TV” on has always been a normal thing growing up.  Though probably not the best thing to grow up around, it was what we grew up around nonetheless.  After I got married and moved out on my own, it was just assumed we would sign up for a cable package.

After all, how else would I watch basketball and football?  And how else would we be able to DVR our favorite TV shows?

It turns out that there are now tons of ways to do this.  I’ve actually previously written about the benefits of cutting cable a couple of years ago.  Despite the obvious financial and anti-commercialism benefits cutting cable would provide, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

My main hangup was how I was going to watch sports.  If I can’t get NFL network, ESPN or any local channels I would have to invade people’s homes who did have cable.  That’s not a way to live life.

But I’m happy to say that I did finally cut the cord a couple of months ago.  And with great results.  We’re saving money every month and only watching those things we want to.  And it was a specific service that helped me finally take the plunge.

Playstation Vue FTW

There was always a video game system in my house growing up.  It all started with the original 8-bit Nintendo, then Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Gamecube and then the Playstations.

I currently have a Playstation 3 but I honestly haven’t used it to play a video game in years.  Being a full time doctor, husband and father will do that to you.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the PS3 is still being extensively used to watch shows on Netflix and Amazon Video.  We watch almost all of our TV shows on these two services.

And now the PS3 being used a lot more because my 3 year old son ended up downloading a free trial of Playstation Vue.  And it changed everything.

I heard of Vue from ads here and there but never really thought anything of it.  But as I dug into it more I realized it will solve my biggest hurdle in cutting cable: watching sports.  I particularly love watching NFL football and NBA basketball.  The main channels I watched on cable were ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network, TNT, TBS and local channels for live games.

And guess what.  Playstation Vue has them all!  For $35/month I could get all these channels along with a bunch of other great ones (Comedy Central, CNN and MSNBC to name a few) streaming on my PS3.

And that’s exactly what I did.  This made cutting cable really easy and a no brainer.  Even with the Playstation Vue monthly price I’m saving a healthy amount per month from what I was paying before.  And I don’t have to pay for the DVR and the laundry list of TV related taxes.

Not Missing Anything

Between Netflix, Amazon Video and Playstation Vue, we don’t miss our cable package at all.  We get more shows than we could ever watch with Netflix and Amazon, and I get my fill of sports with the Playstation Vue options.

Since the channels are streaming there is the occasional hiccup like with any Internet connection, but that is a once a week occurrence.  The TV watching experience is almost identical as with a traditional cable package, and it will only get better as Internet reliability improves over time.

And because of certain broadcast rules, some channels are not allowed to show commercials during breaks.  This is actually an added blessing since we won’t be influenced by a barrage of ads and it actually forces us to talk to each other during commercial breaks.

In short, we don’t miss our former cable package in the least.

Actual Savings

$150.43= Old monthly cable bill (includes TV, Internet, home phone, DVR rental and various random taxes)

$72.59= New monthly cable bill (includes faster Internet, home phone and no random taxes)

$34.99= Monthly payment for Playstation Vue

$42.85= Money saved per month.  And our lives are actually a little better because of the faster internet and fewer commercials.

I could say I can’t believe we waited this long to cut the cord, but there were not many good options available to watch sports until recently.

But with services like Playstation Vue, Sling TV and even a good old fashioned antenna depending on where you live, you can still get your favorite channels and then some.

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