Investing Archives - The Broke Professional

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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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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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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Investing Lessons Learned from Fantasy Football

 

football-stock

Fantasy football is one of the most polarizing things on Earth.  One on end you have people who are deeply embedded in the culture.  They have been playing in multiple leagues for years and have parties commemorating the start and end of the seasons.  It’s a way of life.

On the other end, you have those who think that those who participate in fantasy football are delusional and wish they were real athletes.  I’m somewhere in the middle, as I like playing but don’t do it with a lot of fanfare.  And I do wish I was a real athlete.

For those readers who are uninitiated in the ways of fantasy football, it is a game for football enthusiasts in which you select a team from the pool of current NFL players.  Based on how well the players do throughout the season, the team with the most points at the end of the season is the winner.  You have to keep track of player performance, injuries and other  league events to make sure you are fielding the best team possible.

This is usually played online nowadays and some league winners get cash prizes while others just get bragging rights.  It’s all in good fun, but there are some hurt egos along the way.

I bring this up because football season has just started, and I have noticed a bunch of similarities between fantasy football and investing.  In essence, they are very similar because you have to actively track how your players (investments) are performing and make adjustments along the way to win the league (reach your investment goals).

Here are some other startling similarities between fantasy football and investing:

Past Performance Does Not Predict Future Results

This is an SEC mandated statement that all mutual fund companies must put in their ads.  It’s a warning to investors that just because a company has done well in the past, it does not mean they will do well in the future.  If investors actually heeded this advice instead of listening to the latest stock tip, then we would have a lot more wealthy people in this country.

After looking at the top fantasy players from year to year, I realized fantasy football leagues should also mandate this statement.  Besides the many off the field issues that can affect a players performance (such as injuries, suspension, personal problems etc), even the top players in the league can have unpredictable results.

If a player has a tougher than normal schedule for the year or just a handful of poor performances, it can affect their results for the entire season.  Just picking the best performing players from the previous year is not a terrible strategy, but it probably won’t get you very far.  Many of those players may not do well this year and you will miss out on those players that have drastically improved their play.

Lesson Learned:  Don’t pick investments based on how they performed last year.  And don’t pick players thinking they will replicate their production from last year.  Look at the whole picture.

Everyone Has an Opinion

I enjoy watching Sportscenter and listening to NFL podcasts, so I hear lots of different views about who the best players are.  Everyone has an opinion on who they feel will be “dud” or “stud” in fantasy football.  And if you listen to more than one person, you will probably get more than one answer.

All sports writers and pontificators believe they “know” who will play great and who won’t.  But as history shows, no one really knows.  If they do get it right, it’s mainly because of the broken clock theory.  Even a clock that doesn’t work is right twice a day.

Sure, there are players like Tom Brady, Antonio Brown and my man Odell Beckham who will likely light up the scoreboard year after year.  But it’s extremely difficult to spot those players that come out of nowhere or to guess who will have a big drop off this season.

It’s difficult, but people will still try to guess.  And the same goes for investing.

Watch MSNBC or any other financial reality show for long enough and you will think the entire stock market is going through the roof.  Or that you should stockpile gold bars since the world is coming to an end.  Or that the latest election will produce disastrous results in the market.  Depends on what will drive ratings that day.

There will be so many passionate opinions that the average person won’t know what to think.  Mutual fund managers will urge you to sign up for their funds, but that may or may not be the right strategy for you.

Do your own research depending on your risk tolerance and investing timeline.  There is no one size fits all answer and that applies to fantasy football and investing.

Lesson Learned:  Tune out the noise.  Everyone thinks they found the winners but most of the time your guess is just as good as theirs.

Don’t Follow the Herd

Every fantasy league has “that guy” who is always wheeling and dealing.  His transaction history is super long and he’s always looking to trade away his players.  He loves being plugged into the latest news and is scouring the waiver wire to find the next big thing.

“That guy” usually doesn’t win the league.  More than likely the owner who picks solid and dependable players who perform consistently will win the league.  There is definitely a little luck involved to do well in fantasy football.  But picking solid players on great teams and staying the course is usually the way to go.

You will have the random backup wide receiver who has a great game and then is picked up that same hour.  He will be the “hot” player that everyone is clamoring after.  But then he might not do much the rest of the season.  All the while you’re consistent player will be racking up points riding the bench.

This lemming mentality plays itself out in the investing world as well.  As soon as some type of international incident happens, the knee jerk reaction is to sell sell sell!  So many people sell that the market takes a sharp dip, and this causes even more people to panic and sell.

Nothing good can come from following the investing herd.  Nearly all hugely successful investors got their money by not following the herd at the right time.  As Warren Buffet (one of those hugely successful investors) says, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

Lesson learned:  Don’t pick up a player just because everyone is talking about him.  And don’t invest in a stock just because it is the latest “hot” pick.  Do your research.  There’s a reason the herd doesn’t get great returns.

I love football and I love investing, so I’m probably going to find similarities between them.  But the similarities between fantasy football and investing are so clear.  Now someone should do a study comparing fantasy football performance with investment returns!

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Dancing is Not a Good Investment Strategy

If your investment strategy was a dancer

Investing is a patient man’s game.  This applies to almost any type of investing including real estate and stocks.  In general, if you’re investing for the long term (more than 10 years), the best strategy is to have a great plan and stick to it.

Unfortunately, many impatient men (and women) are investors.  This means many plans never make it past the first big market drop.  That’s usually when panic sets in and investors do something short sighted.

A 2015 study proves exactly this.  The study shows that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to investing.  And no other reason even comes close.

Let me set the stage by showing you the study results and what we can learn from them.

People are Not Good at Investing

I recently wrote why many investors are their own worst enemy when it comes to their investment performance.  While the subject of this post is similar, after reading the results of the aforementioned study I felt a separate post was needed.

The study was conducted in 2015, and at the time the S&P 500 Index had a 30-year annualized gain of 10.53%.  That means that every year for the last 30 years, the S&P gained an average of 10.53% per year.  Some years were way more and some years were way less (think 2008).  But on average, a nice 10% return every year.

What this means is that an investor who simply held an S&P 500 index fund for the last 30 years should have returned 10.53% minus fees.  Let us say this investor had some crazy fees which brought the return down to 8%.  Paying high fees is annoying, but 8% is still not a bad overall return.

According to the study, the average investor didn’t do this well.  In fact, they did a lot worse.  The study found that the average investor returned 1.65%!

1.65%!!!???  They might as well have put all that money into an online savings account and saved themselves the stress of investing.

This means that the average investor is probably not using index funds.  And if they are, they are using the wrong ones or are just going in and out of investments way too much.  I think the latter is the culprit for most investors.

Dancing In and Out of Investments

“Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.” -Warren Buffet in his 2012 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders

(The basic game is investing and Charlie refers to Charlie Munger, Buffet’s partner at BH.)

As Mr Buffett explains in this quote, “dancing” in and out of investments is very risky.  I firmly believe this is why the average investor does not even come close to the returns of the S&P 500.

But why does going in and out of investments produce such poor returns?  Shouldn’t we always be looking to get out of our investments when things get bad and find some better places to put our money?

The answer is yes, we should be looking for better places to invest.  But the best place to invest is usually in an index fund that follows the overall market.  And it’s almost impossible to find another group of investments that does better than the overall market on a consistent basis.

And by dancing in and out of investments, most people are actually buying high and selling low.  We should always try to buy low and sell high!  People usually panic and sell investments when things get bad (sell low), and then they try to buy into investments that everybody is saying is “safe” (buy high).

A great example is the recent Brexit vote that will lead to the UK withdrawing from the European Union.  It was expected that the stock market would fall after the vote was yes, and it did just that.  The day after the vote was final, the S&P 500 dropped 66 points, which was about a 3% loss.  Not a huge drop, but pretty decent.

But if you turned on any form of financial news, you would think the Four Horsemen were arriving.  Predictions that the international markets will be in turmoil for years was the theme of the day.  The S&P actually did fall about 1% more the next day, which lead to more doom and gloom.

But about 10 days after the Brexit vote, the S&P 500 was right back to where it was before.  And as of now, 2 months after the vote, the S&P 500 is about 3% higher than it was pre-Brexit!

The Big Takeaway

What this all means is that if you were one of those investors who panicked and sold some stocks after Brexit and then bought more stocks when the market rebounded, you were dancing in and out of the market which means you were selling high and buying low.

And this is why the average investor averages returns a little over 1%.  As the study showed, just owning an S&P 500 index fund for the last 30 years and not doing anything with it would get you a 10% return.

The best course of action for investors who don’t want to make stock picking their full time job is to formulate an index fund strategy that is appropriate to your investing timeline.  Pick the funds.  Rebalance the funds every year so they don’t get too out of wack.  And then leave it alone.

You will be a better investor than the majority of America.

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Why Retirement Calculators are Dumb

I don't think Walter White needs 85% of his pre-retirement income.

I don’t think Walter White needs 85% of his pre-retirement income.

When I graduated from optometry school waaaaaaayyy back in 2009, I started to finally make some real honest to goodness money.  I figured I should learn more about this finance thing and proceeded to read almost every personal finance book at the library.

I started to follow awesome blogs like Ramit Sethi’s and Mr Money Mustache.  Being a personal finance novice, I eagerly soaked up whatever information I could.  This led me to be on both sides of the argument on many different issues.

Debt is evil!  But some debt is okay.  Increasing your income is the way to wealth!  But so is being frugal.  While some of my stances on different issues are pretty solid at this point, I’m always learning new things that affect one opinion or another.

But one thing I’ve never liked throughout my financial journey are retirement calculators.  You know, those websites where you input 5 different pieces of information and you’ll find out how much you’ll have during retirement.

I’m not sure why I’ve never liked them initially.  Maybe because retirement was so far away.  Or the fact that I thought I was done with calculators once I got out of school.  But after reading more and more on personal finance, I’ve realized that retirement calculators are downright dangerous.  That’s because they assume you will participate in lifestyle inflation!

Mo’ Money= Mo’ Problems?

I’ve talked about the dangers of lifestyle inflation a number of times on here.  Pretty much it’s when you start spending more once you start making more.  It is the killer of dreams and it’s what keeps most Americans in debt regardless what income class they are in.  Almost everyone would agree it is a bad thing.

But not retirement calculators.  I was fiddling around with my company’s 401k retirement calculator, and at my current contribution rate (maxing it out!) it said I’m on track to have a great retirement by age 60.  Great news.

Then I started playing around with some numbers.  What if I changed my contribution rate?  What if my salary changed?  I found that if I doubled my salary and kept the same contribution rate, my retirement was in danger.  What in the hell?  If I make double the money I will be worse off during retirement?

In what universe does that make sense?  In the sick universe of retirement calculators, that’s where!

The problem lies in a ridiculous “rule of thumb” that keeps popping up:

“You will need 70-85% of your pre-retirement income during retirement.”

This is not an official rule (hence rule of thumb), but it is adopted by most calculators.  The retirement calculator on CNN.com says this:  “We then assume you can live comfortably off of 85% of your pre-retirement income. So if you earn $100,000 the year you retire, we estimate you will need $85,000 during the first year of retirement.”

According to the same calculator if you work hard and end up making $200,000 per year, saving $85,000 for retirement will magically not cut it anymore.  That’s because they assume the extra money you make will be going towards new expenses and not towards things that can actually produce more wealth.

This assumption shows a lot about the mentality in this country as well as the retirement industry.  While it’s good to be conservative and assume you will need more money during retirement, assuming that your expenses during retirement will increase in step with your pre-retirement income makes no sense.

Conclusion

Maybe this is not a big deal.  Maybe I just got offended because a calculator told me my retirement was in danger since I’m making more money than I was before.  It does make sense to be conservative when it comes to retirement.

But what doesn’t make sense is that this rule of thumb is like gospel throughout the retirement industry.  What financial advisors and retirement specialists should be saying is that when you make more income, don’t increase your expenses!

There are so many financially positive ways you can apply your extra income.  You can pay off debt, increase your emergency fund, invest it into equities or real estate or use it to help out a family member or charity.

The idea that you will need more money during retirement just because you are making more before retirement is preposterous.  Studies show most retirees become naturally conservative compared to their working years.  And it’s also important to remember that during retirement you won’t be saving for retirement anymore!  So a huge expense is already gone.

Lifestyle inflation is what keeps most middle and upper class people in the paycheck to paycheck cycle.  It’s a type of hedonistic adaptation that is dangerous because it can keep you from fulfilling your dreams and spending time with the people that matter.  Don’t let a retirement calculator tell you otherwise!

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I Would Love to do Peer to Peer Lending but…

check-cashing

Our state is too good for P2P lending, but not too good for establishments like this.

Update:  As of February 2016, Lending Club is now open to Maryland residents!  Click here for the details.    I will be doing some heavy research into this before I take the plunge, so look for an update on my journey into P2P lending.  Edit:  Still no Prosper though 🙁  

I’ve been hearing a lot about Peer to Peer Lending (also known as P2P lending).  It’s one of those topics I just kind of glossed over since I had more “pressing” things to learn about like student loans, investing and trying to freelance.  Before last week I had a rough idea of how it worked.  Many people were reportedly getting great returns, but it seemed like a lot more work than I would have liked.  It seemed complex and then some bloggers reported that they were still getting good returns, but not as high as before.  I didn’t think it was worth my time.

But last week I heard an interview on the Stacking Benjamins podcast (which is a great podcast by the way).  The interview was with Simon Cunningham, who runs a website called Lendingmemo.  His interview pretty put P2P lending in a much clearer light for me and I was itching to learn more.  I went over to LendingMemo and got some great information.  Here are what I believe to be the pros of P2P lending:

  • You’re loaning capital to actual people, and not a big corporation.  The vast majority of borrowers on P2P sites are looking for help paying off credit card debt.  I could definitely get behind that.
  • It’s relatively low risk.  The two big P2P sites are Lending Club and Prosper, and they each have their own algorithms they use to determine the risk that a borrower will default on their loan.  According to LendingMemo, the default rate for Lending Club is around 5%, which was a lot lower than I expected.  Higher risk borrowers give investors the potential for higher returns, while low risk borrowers give less a return but a good chance that you will get a return at all.  It’s like a balancing act between risk and reward, which is what investing generally is.
  • Returns are solid.  According to Lending Club, historical returns of their lowest risk loans range from 4.91%-8.38%.  That’s a very good return for what seems like a low risk investment.  And it certainly beats the pants off of an online savings account or CD.  While past returns don’t reflect future performance, it’s good to keep them in mind.
  • It seems like fun.  My preferred method of long term investing, making regular contributions to index funds, is pretty boring.  The only thing I may have to do is rebalance, which takes just a few minutes.  Otherwise, it’s set it and forget it.  With P2P lending there are a few more decisions you have to make, and while they do have an automatic contribution system to make things super easy, you still have to check on your loans from time to time.  This seems like it would be be a fun mental exercise.

I say it SEEMS like fun, because I will not be able to see if it is really fun.  Here’s the notice I received when I tried to sign up for an account at Lending Club:

lending club deniedYes, because I live in the state of Maryland, I can’t participate in direct P2P lending as a borrower or as an investor.  As a medical professional, I’m used to the zany differences from one state to another, but this was just a little annoying.  Some states allow you to use Lending Club only.  Some states allow Prosper only.  There are only 3 states that don’t allow any type of P2P activity (Kansas, Ohio and Maryland), and I happen to live in one of them.  This would firmly fall into the category of a first world problem, but it’s still a problem.  (Here is an interactive map that diagrams all the craziness between states).

So what is an aspiring P2P’er from Maryland to do?  My plan is to do some more research on P2P lending until I know it front to back.  In the meantime I’m still working on getting rid of a 6% student loan, so paying that off would be a pretty good use of my money.  And then I’ll just wait until the curmudgeons in charge of Maryland join the P2P bandwagon.

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Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy

Stop getting in your own way!

Stop getting in your own way!

Investing can be a tricky business.  You have to determine why you’re investing and what you’ll be investing in.  Then you have to make investing a habit and do it regularly.  But you also have to watch yourself and make sure you don’t abandon your well thought out plan and change your investments around once the going gets rough.

It has been normal as of late to experience a 2% gain one day followed by a 2.5% loss the next day, and vice versa. Listening to most financial news outlets, you would believe that these are the darkest days the market has seen in a long time.

While it is true that the S&P has seen some dramatic ups and downs as of late, it has not reached the “correction” stage as many financial television stars have been breathlessly predicting the past few months.  Even after the infamous Brexit vote, the stock market actually GAINED ground for the week after a big single day loss after the vote.

For those heavily invested in the stock market, watching these wild swings can be dizzying. But the market goes up, and the markets go down. That’s what it has always done and that’s what it will always do. The important thing for investors to remember is to stay with the plan through thick and thin.

Stick to the Plan

If you and your financial advisor have already formulated a long term investing plan, you can be sure that volatility, or the ups and down of investing, has been taken into account. While timing the market is usually an exercise in futility, the market has historically been pretty predictable as a whole.

Taking a long term view, let’s say 30 years or more, the market has always gone up in any such period. After bear markets and periods of volatility, the market has rebounded to new heights. This was most likely taken into account when forming your financial plan, so there is no need to abandon the plan if a little volatility rears its head.

In fact, doing so would be foolish and harmful to your wealth. To make money with any investment, you need to buy low and sell high. By abandoning stocks in your 401k when there is a downturn, you are essentially buying high and selling low, exactly the opposite of what you should be doing.

Manage your Behavior

Staying the course sounds great in theory, but it can get old after a while and start to wear you down. Listening to the doom and gloom of the mainstream media and talking to people who are making big market moves can make it tempting to pull the trigger.

Pushing that panic button could torpedo your entire financial plan. Sitting on the sidelines during dramatic market swings can actually wear an investor out, and the idea of keeping your money “safe and sound” in a money market account sounds really enticing.

But, again, it’s important to remind yourself that markets go up and down. That is simply the nature of the beast. Find a way to tune out the noise to avoid any volatility fatigue. This could mean not watching any financial media for a few days, getting a pep talk from your advisor or reading a common sense investing book. You can be your own worst enemy when it comes to making investment decisions.

Conclusion

Sometimes, the best course of action in times of turmoil is to do nothing. Let others head for the hills and abandon their stocks, which will invariably happen as we see a rush of investors dumping equities and heading to bonds.

Sticking to your plan will allow you to pick up stocks at a bargain and be poised to gain tremendously when the next market upswing occurs. So while others will be scrambling to get in on the gains, you will already be locked in. Think about that when the idea of staying the course starts to wear on you.

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If You Don’t Want to Work Forever, You HAVE to Start Investing

Investing_money

Investing for retirement is usually not a topic of discussion among new graduates.  Most Millennials would rather talk about Pokemon Go or Game of Thrones,  Two things I have thankfully not gotten sucked into yet.

A discussion about student loans may follow.  And then maybe how crappy the economy is and how hard it is to find a good job or start a business.

But talking about retirement or when to stop working full time is not usually a riveting discussion.  Some just don’t understand how retirement accounts investments work, and they don’t care to learn.  Others dismiss the idea of retirement altogether, claiming that they will just work for the rest of their lives.

Sounds like committing yourself to a life sentence.

If you’re self employed or work for a large company, you need to talk about retirement.  If you have the most fulfilling and rewarding job ever, you still need to talk about retirement.  That amazing job may not seem to fulfilling 20 years from now.

In the business world, you need an exit strategy.  You have to plan for how you’re going to leave your work and set things up so you have enough money to live on.  This is what retirement planning is in a nutshell and the earlier you get a plan set up, the better off you will be.

And the ONLY way to give yourself a shot at a great life post work is to invest.

Why is Investing Necessary?

Being able to save money is an essential step to having good retirement income.  And finding a way to make that money grow is just as essential.  But why?  Can’t you just put money into a savings account or under your mattress and not bother taking investment risk?

No, you can’t.  If someone makes $100,000 per year and is able to save 10% of their income into a regular old savings account every year from age 30 until when they retire at age 60, they will have $300,000 saved up.  Not a bad sum right?

Wrong.  This person was living on $90,000 per year during their working years.  Having $300,000 in the bank mean they can live the same type of life for a little over 3 years.  Even if they cut their cost of living in half to $45,000, that’s still just over 6 years worth of money.  Average life expectancy is around 78, so this person still has a decade or so to live with no money in the bank.

So this person was able to save a decent amount of money for decades and will only be able to survive on their own for 3 years?  How can anyone live a long and fulfilling retirement?  By investing their money, that’s how.

Run Your Numbers

It’s all a numbers game at this point.  This person could decide to either work a lot longer, save a lot more or live on a lot less.  Saving 10% per year for 30 years is actually a pretty good savings rate in this day and age, so I’m not sure how many people would be willing or able to do more.

Obviously, we should always be trying to save more and live on less.  That is the cornerstone of personal finance.  But even better would be to combine those ideals with investing, which allows your money to grow and compound over time.

What would change if this person decided to invest that $10,000 a year into a retirement account instead of a savings account?  After running through some retirement calculators I found that at a conservative rate of return of 6%, this person would have a little over $637,000 to spend in retirement after taxes are accounted for.

You read that right, just by putting their money into a retirement account instead of a savings account, you are able to more than DOUBLE your money.  Now being able to invest like this does require some education and up front work, but not really too much.  And I would say it’s well worth it if you can double your money.

This is the power of investing and this is why everyone, even new grads saddled with student loan debt, needs to start investing early and give their accounts lots of time to grow.

Where to Start?

Stocks, bonds and mutual funds.  Investment properties, house flipping and wholesaling.  Commodities, start ups, local businesses, your own business Bitcoin, and peer to peer lending are just SOME of the ways you can invest.  Where is a new investor supposed to start?

It can be overwhelming when you look at all of the options out there.  And each type of investment has its own world of information to learn.  But the best place to start would be a 401k.  If you work for a company they probably have one and if you’re self employed you can open one for your business.

The reason I recommend starting with a 401k (or a Traditional IRA if your workplace doesn’t have one) is because the contributions you make are tax deferred and so is any growth in the account.  This is very advantageous especially if you start contributing early in your career and give the account time to grow.  Once you choose what type of investments you want, start contributing regularly and watch your net worth skyrocket over time.

My next piece of advice would be to do research!  No one can walk you through investing step by step because there is just so much information available.  Do some research on different ways to invest, such as real estate or dividend investing.  If something strikes your fancy, look into it some more and see if it’s worth putting your money in.

Investing is one of those things that are east to get into but difficult to master.  But you don’t have to be a master to have a stable retirement.  You just have to start early and let your money grow.

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4 Books New Grads Should Have Read BEFORE Finishing School

Students in undergraduate and professional school usually have one thing on their minds: sleep!  The next thing is usually studying to do your best (or to just stay afloat) in your respective program.  Many times this requires a laser like focus where nothing else matters except the next test or practical.

But on the other side of that diploma or degree, real life is going to be waiting.  Which means you are going to have to make a lot of financial decisions which could potentially affect the rest of your life.  I would advise students to take a few minutes a week (that’s really all it takes) to read some good books and form some type of financial plan.

I’ve recommended four books for students to read while they’re in school.  Like I said, it just takes a few minutes a week and I know every student can find a few minutes between ping pong tournaments (and studying of course!)

These are light reads that are packed with great information to get you started on the right financial footing.

Good grades are important, but you’re only in school for a small part of your life.  Taking some time to plan the rest of your life is essential.

Here are the recommended books:

I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi

This is the first book i read after graduating optometry school.  And I’m glad I did.  It touches on some theory when it comes to investing, but it is ultimately a very practical book and this is what I appreciated about it.  Ramit talks about what specific bank accounts he recommends, how to invest and even how to negotiate when buying a car.  The overarching theme from this book is to DO SOMETHING rather than not acting.  Getting 80% of the way there is a whole lot better than getting 0%.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

If there ever was a book out there that tells you what REAL wealth looks like, this is it.  MND is a light read that talks about the characteristics of real life millionaires.  Despite what society and the media tells us, millionaires don’t usually drive around in luxury cars and have gigantic houses.  More often than not they are hard working people who spend their money very wisely for a long time.  This book is especially important for those new grads looking to get a new car and/or house right away.  If you want to be a millionaire, this book will show you that’s just not the way to go.

Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason

I was fortunate to read this book while I was in optometry school, and I’m really glad I did.  It is a light and short read that can help establish a solid financial foundation.  The book consists of Biblical sounding parables that contain financial wisdom.  The main theme I got from this book is the biggest financial lesson of all: you will never get ahead unless you spend less than you earn.  Constantly spending 100% of your earnings is no life at all.

The White Coat Investor by James Dahle MD

This is a great book geared mainly to MD’s and other health professionals, but has some great advice for everyone.  The White Coat Investor is a fantastic blog that teaches professionals about student loans, investing and keeping more of your money.  Honestly, it is one of the blogs that inspired me to start blogging and trying to help my fellow broke professionals.  Great book for investors and a must have for anyone graduating from professional school.

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