How To Improve Your Finances

Preamble. In what follows I make assumptions that do not hold for many people. Among the most glaring is that my intended audience is gainfully employed and/or they have enough passive income each month to meet basic needs with some left over. Another assumption is that everyone can improve their finances. If I’m wrong about you, I bet you know someone, maybe a young adult child of yours for example, who could use some help building wealth. Consider forwarding this to them if you think it merits it. Thank you.

Official start. Ever wonder why don’t more moderate to high earner families have more long-term financial security to show for all their hard work? In part because financial analysts and advisors make things more complex than they have to so that people will hire them to manage their money.

As a result of needless complexity, and the associated pursuit of the perfect portfolio, people loose focus on what matters most when it comes to building wealth over time, that is, how much they make and spend month-to-month. If asked, how much do you spend on average each month, how precise would your answer be?

Not nearly as precise as it would be if you backward mapped your expenses. Backward mapping, in contrast to budgeting, entails spending regularly without much attention to detail, then totaling everything up after the fact, or more specifically, at the end of each month. Think of it as an x-ray of current spending.

My expense spreadsheet has 7 columns and 12 rows. The columns are for 1) our primary credit card; 2-3) secondary credit cards used less often; 4) cash/checks/wired payments; 5) one-time expenses divided by 12 which include property taxes, home/auto/umbrella insurance premiums, and professional tax preparation; and 6) medical and dental insurance premiums; and 7) a column where I write what the largest expense of the month was in order to see the most expensive outlays of the year in-a-glance. The 12 rows are for each month of the year.

How to build in one-time expenses like a car purchase or new roof? If I buy a $36k car and sell a $12k one, at the end of the year I’ll increase the average monthly total for that calendar year by $2k.* Or maybe I’ll increase it $1k for two consecutive years.

We’re super lucky that we don’t have to budget. With backward mapping though, which doesn’t require much time with credit card statements and most other financial records on-line, I can tell you within a couple percent what our annual burn rate or overhead is. That’s half the battle.

Then comes income. Probably the younger you are, the simpler it is to tabulate. In my advanced age, my income spreadsheet has several columns because in addition to my salary, my university contributes to my retirement fund each month, and then there’s monthly interest from cash and bond investments, and quarterly dividends from stock investments. The wider your income spreadsheet the better. I know, I know, I need a “side hustle” column. I feel younger just for having written that.

Same as with expenses, I keep a running total month-by-month. Here I can be even more accurate than with expenses, even to the dollar. As a result of these monthly calculations, in two weeks, it will take me about 15 minutes to solve for “C” knowing “A” is expenses and “B” is income. If my income exceeds my expenses, “C” will be a positive number. If my expenses exceed my income, like for the federal government, “C” will be negative. Whichever it is, I will carry the number forward and keep a running total from year-to-year.

Building wealth depends upon creating savings on a month-by-month basis much more than fretting about what the market is going to do tomorrow and trying to craft the world’s most perfect portfolio. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $1,200 a year is to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $100 month-after-month. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $12,000 a year is to do everything in your power to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $1,000 month-after-month. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $120,000 a year is to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $10,000 month-after-month.

If that’s so obvious, why do people spend way more time studying stock market gyrations than figuring out how to limit their expenses and increase their income?

If you do well and end up with a surplus of $1,200, $12,000, or $120,000 at the end of the year, invest 50% of it in low cost bond index funds and 50% in low cost stock index funds (+/- 25% based upon your age and risk tolerance). And repeat.

Invest knowing that the most credible analysts in the financial sector seem to be in agreement that future returns will likely pale in comparison to historical ones. For example, here’s Vanguard on 2019 and beyond:

“U.S. fixed income returns are most likely to be in the 2.5%–4.5% range, driven by rising policy rates and higher yields across the maturity curve as policy normalizes. This results in a modestly higher outlook compared with last year’s outlook of 1.5%–3.5%—albeit still more muted than the historical precedent of 4.7%. Returns in global equity markets are likely to be about 4.5%–6.5% for U.S.-dollar-based investors. This remains significantly lower than the experience of previous decades and of the postcrisis years, when global equities have risen 12.6% a year since the trough of the market downturn.”

Subtract 2-2.5% for inflation and another percent for taxes and returns may be 1-3% above inflation. And that’s not factoring in people’s tendency to trade too much with the associated costs that brings. Good luck depending upon your investment smarts to grow wealth.

Building wealth depends upon maximizing income and minimizing expenses a little or a lot. Of course, that depends upon more than using my suggested spreadsheets. Most likely, among other things, it depends upon the degree to which you grew up with role models who lived below their means; how specialized your knowledge and skills are; whether you live in a modest neighborhood; and ultimately, your capacity to delay purchases.

Lastly, one thing your financial planner won’t tell you. Personal wealth won’t amount to much if we don’t revive the Common Good. For us to flourish we need a federal government that can pass budgets without threatening to shut down. We need political leadership that young people can aspire to. We need labor unions to protect workers’ interests. We need health care that doesn’t penalize people of limited means or those with preexisting conditions. We need to partner with other countries to reduce greenhouse gases and global poverty.

Absent commitment to those things, wealth will elude us.

*get a load of this story

Car For Sale—$6 Million

We own three cars. Combined, they have about 260,000 miles on them, meaning they have lots of life left. If we sold all three today, we’d have somewhere around $35k to invest in alternative transpo like this. Tempting at times.

Most mornings I skim the Bogleheads forum, an excellent online community of mostly Vanguard-based investors. Today, I came across a post titled “Novice question” by “Oldman”. Here are his opening sentences:

“I am an 82 year old, fairly healthy, happily married, with one son (gainfully employed) and two grandsons in high school. I have no experience in this investing game. My home is mortgage free, we have lived within our means on my pension and social security income of about $108,000 annually. My life insurance policy is worth $72,000. A very recent car sale has put almost $3 million in my bank account after the tax hits.”

Unsurprisingly, the last sentence left many readers perplexed. One joked that it must have been a Ferrari. He was right. Sale price, somewhere between $5.5 and $7m.

It’s a very cool story that began with a large and questionable financial risk. It’s also about teaching one’s self auto mechanics and passion for auto history and aesthetics.

In the video, the Admiral explains he didn’t buy it as an investment and never really thought of it as one until more recently. Still though, what a lesson in buying and holding. And for taking care of your stuff. I like everything about the story.

Wonder what our 2006 Honda Civic hybrid will fetch in 46 years?

Postscript: If a twenty-something were to invest in a consumer product for 58 years, in the hope of making more money than they would investing in the S&P 500, what would be some options? An AppleWatch Series 4? A Tesla? A Boosted electric skateboard?

Think Differently

PressingPausers have proven to have little interest in personal finance. Correction. PressingPausers have proven to have little interest in my thoughts on personal finance. Big dif. So why do I persist? Idk.

Just like getting dressed in the morning while on sabbatical, the fact that NO ONE will read this is liberating. Whatever shorts and t-shirt I left splayed on the floor last night are good, not many peeps are going to see me anyways as I write a blog post NO ONE will read. If a blog post falls in the woods. . .

Classic investing advice is to keep investing expenses to a bare minimum; determine what balance of stock, bonds, and cash will enable you to sleep well at night; and keep trading to a bare minimum.

In the US, investors currently have 56% of their assets invested in stocks or more than 10 percentage points higher than its historical average of 45.3%. At the top of the bull market in 2007, it stood at 56.8%. This has a lot of analysts worried that a correction is coming.

Another investing maxim of increasing popularity is to stop trying to outsmart the market. Instead, as Kendrick Lamar advises, “Be humble!” His next vid will prolly be about investing in passive index funds like this. The chorus. . .”Be passive!”

Another oft-repeated investing maxim is never invest more than 5% of your net worth in any individual stock because they’re far too volatile. A mutual fund or exchange traded fund is a basket of hundreds or thousands of individual stocks that go up and down at different times, thus creating a smoother, steadier, long term increase in value.

But damn is AAPL en fuego. Check this missive from a Vanguard forum of knowledgeable investors I’ve taken to reading recently. Wait a minute. That last sentence presumed you’re reading this, which you’re not, so note to self—revise that. This missive from a Vanguard forum of knowledgeable investors has me thinking about chucking conventional investing wisdom and improvising like #3.

“Hi—
Long time lurker first time poster. Thank you to all who have contributed to my education here, absolutely invaluable.
I’m writing about my mother and father in law’s finances, which I am slowly taking over at their request.
FINANCIAL PICTURE
Savings
$425k in various super low interest checking / savings accounts
Investments at Fidelity (unlikely to change brokerages):
Rollover IRA: $675k of which
* 86.8% AAPL he’s a lifelong Apple fanboy, bought $11,500 worth way back when, which is now $575k.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but if I was my daughters age again, for every $2 dollars of savings I could set aside, I’d put $1 in a super safe certificate of deposit and the other in AAPL. And then rebalance annually and pay 15 or 20% on the capital gains. As the aforementioned anecdote intimates, I would’ve done really, really well adhering to this “barbell” plan.

But this way of thinking suggests I’m suffering from an advanced case of “optimism bias” which causes a person to believe that they are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. Note to self—AAPL can’t continue its recent run. VTI is a much safer, wiser, long-term instrument for building wealth. VTI is also long overdue for a serious correction, or to use the fancy pants mathematical phrase, a regression towards the mean. It’s as certain as the Mariner’s August playoff fade.

Sometime soon, the half of the barbell holding certificates of deposit earning 3-4% is going to bring great comfort.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ultimate Personal Finance Challenge

There are two types of investors, active and passive. Active investors are always educating themselves about personal finance; and paradoxically, tend to use passive funds, due to their lower fees and superior performance. In addition, they are purposeful in choosing a particular asset allocation and they monitor their progress regularly. They invest time and energy into increasing their wealth. I’m an active investor.

Passive investors, because they often think they’re not smart enough, often delegate to financial planners upon whom they depend for choosing particular investments and determining an asset allocation. Passive investors tend to end up with active funds with higher fees because they’re not paying very close attention.* They may not open their quarterly statements. Picture them falling asleep at the wheel of a semi-autonomous, financial planner driven car.

The most important thing I’ve learned in thirty years of investing is that there’s an undeniable point of diminishing returns when it comes to business smarts and investing success. Simply put, some of the most well-educated and successful business people I have ever known have made some of the worst investment decisions I have ever seen. And to add insult to injury, they’ve been unable to admit the error of their ways and reverse course. Too smart for their own good.

Personal finance research shows that once active investors master earning more than they spend, wire the difference into specific exchange traded funds monthly, and decide how best to balance bonds and stocks, additional trading detracts from their returns. Think of trading based on possible changes in the market as a “too smart for one’s own good” tax. Here’s one example.

Once you master earning more than you spend, wire the difference into specific exchange traded funds monthly, and decide how best to balance bonds and stocks, your ultimate personal finance challenge is doing nothing. Hence, consider my triumvirate of personal finance resolutions for 2017: 1) I will not be too smart for my own good. 2) I will not try to guess the market’s direction. 3) I will not trade. Or for the sake of additional research, you could guess and trade away and then we can compare returns in 11+ months.

* I hired an advisor in the early 1990s. Learned an expensive, but ultimately, invaluable lesson, no one cares nearly as much about your financial well-being as you do.

The Rise of Expert Recommendations

Saturday night, after enjoying a falafel and pear cider with friends at Olympia’s Fish Tale Brew Pub, I read Washington State’s 39 page charter school initiative which will allow up to 40 public charter schools in Washington State over a five-year period. We’re one of nine states that doesn’t allow charter schools. Bill Gates and other charter school advocates are hoping the third time is the charm.

My reading was preparation for a forum discussion I was invited to lead Sunday morning at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Tacoma. My instructions were to take 20-30 minutes to provide some context for the initiative and then explain the arguments for and against it. Then the plan was to spend the remaining 30-40 minutes with the forty or so church members in an open-ended question and answer back-and-forth. I could have invited my right wing nut job of a neighbor who also happens to be one of my better friends. We’ve been debating the initiative during our early morning, pitch-black runs. That definitely would have been more entertaining, but I didn’t want to split the honorarium with him.

I was amazing. Like Fox News, “fair and balanced.” Today’s Tacoma News Tribune* probably describes my presentation as a Romney-Biden mix of preparation and passion**. I started with a joke. I said I think my wife came with me to make sure I wasn’t playing Chambers Bay—a golf course a few miles away, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. Chuckles all around.

About five minutes into the larger context of education reform, the first hand, a middle-aged woman. “How are you going to vote?” What the heck I thought, I hadn’t even handed out the “Yes on 1240” and “No on 1240” handouts. “Like a good social studies teacher,” I said, “I think I’d like to wait until the very end to answer that.” “But I have to leave early,” she fired back. In the interest of maintaining some semblance of objectivity and suspense, I wiggled out of answering her. After I finished my presentation, an animated discussion ensued. With about ten minutes left, someone else popped the question. “So how are you ready to tell us how you’re going to vote?”

Since I still think like a social studies teacher, my initial thought was, come on people, don’t be lazy, think it through yourselves. But on the drive home, I thought about how I also depend upon expert recommendations. For example, when I first started thinking about how to invest my savings, I read John Bogle’s book, “Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor.” Here’s the updated version. Boggle turned me into a passive, index investor. He convinced me I wasn’t smart enough to invest in individual stocks or time the market. Instead of studying the financials of individual companies, I bought Vanguard mutual funds Bogle recommended.

That wasn’t laziness, it was thinking smarter, not harder. Increasingly, we’re all susceptible to information overload. We don’t have enough background knowledge or time to always learn enough to make perfectly informed decisions. So it makes sense to turn to connoisseurs. It makes sense to say to the egg-head education professor who knows public schools and spent Saturday night reading the initiative, “How should I vote?”

It’s a slippery slope though. It’s possible to be too dependent upon expert recommendations. Especially considering “experts” often have a vested interest in how you vote, invest, or spend money. Seconds after this Tuesday night’s Presidential debate, an army of political pundits will try to tell you what you should think about what you saw and heard. Odds are you and I and our democracy would be better off if we unplugged and talked to one another.

Modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, the challenge is figuring out just how much.

At this point, my Washington State readers are wondering, how should they vote. I’ll make you a deal. There’s lots of things you know more about than me. Offer me an expert recommendation (via comments or email) and in return, I’ll tell you how to vote on I-1240.

* It appears as if the Seahawks amazing come from behind victory over the New England Patriots bumped our I-1240 forum from the front page.

** The Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates should be like an athletic tourney—win and advance. Romney and Biden advance to the winner’s bracket and Obama and Ryan to the losers. Given recent events, who wouldn’t want to see Romney v Biden. Then again, Obama v Ryan would be a real snoozer. Another idea. A tag-team format. Whenever you’re getting beat down you tag your partner and he comes to your rescue. Just like we used to do during especially rowdy sleepovers in grade school.

Winning Personal Finance 2

I’ve been successful for several reasons: 1) most importantly, my parents’ work ethic, saving habits, and frugality have been deeply imprinted in me; 2) second most important, I chose to marry someone who wants to live a similar lifestyle as me; 3) I’ve educated myself reading and studying lots of material; 4) I found Vanguard early on which has saved me a lot in investing costs; 5) I’ve come to enjoy managing money so I set aside a few hours every week to continue learning and make decisions; and 6) I almost always avoid impulse purchases.

What might one and two mean for you? When it comes to family history and partner, I’m a personal finance +/+. The gal pal and I have probably had as many financial arguments as the next couple, but they’ve ebbed in number and intensity over time, and ultimately, our personal financial values are very similar. What if you’re a personal finance -/+ or the dreaded -/-? While it’s impossible to completely undo a “losing personal finance” family history, financial counselors can help minimize the damage and your time and resources are probably best spent working with them on minimizing the effects of negative role modeling before turning to asset allocation, minimizing taxes, and the like. Similarly, if your partner and you aren’t in sync, financial/couples counseling is probably more important than technical financial advising. Proactively, the more premarital counseling focused on each person’s financial history, values, and goals, the better.

What about reasons three, four, and five? How much time do you set aside each week to educate yourself about saving, investing, minimizing taxes, and related personal finance topics, not counting paying bills and balancing your check book? Put differently, how much time do you spend thinking about the forest that is you or your family’s financial well-being? My guess is, on a weekly basis, the average person spends very little time thinking about where they’ve been, where they are, and how to reduce expenses. Quiz. What was your net worth, assets minus debits, on 12/31/09? Will you recalculate it at the end of this month and then every quarter? If my assumption is right, is it any surprise that so many people are unsatisfied with their personal financial situation?

Reason six leads to tip five or experiment one, don’t buy anything that hasn’t been on your “To Buy” list for at least a week. Personal example. Three plus years ago I bought eight pairs of $120 running shoes for $60 a piece. Running shoe companies “update” their shoes regularly, every year or so. As far as I can tell, “updating” shoes means “we changed the colors”. If you’re savvy, you can pick up the “old” model at half price. When the big box of eight shoes arrived, it blew the daughters away. “Dad, you saved $480!” “Tru dat.” Fast forward, I’m halfway (250 miles) through pair eight so I’ve started to shop for a similar deal. No luck until last week. I found my Mizuno Wave Creations, model 10, for $65. Model 11, $135. Only two sizes were available, one was mine. Darn if the website would only let me buy two pairs, so I called them. They said they’d investigate and get back to me. Long story short, they found a third pair and all three are in transit. Normal cost for three pairs at $135 and 8.5% taxes, $439.42. After thanking the salesperson I said, “I saw something on-line about a Costco or Triple A discount.” “Yes, what’s your Triple A number?” Cost went from $201.50 ($6.00 shipping) to $181.50. Let’s see you do that on your fancy pants iPhone with the barcode application.

Now my $9,000 loss is a mere $8,742.08.

Winning Personal Finance 1

Everyone is hocking financial advice so how does one decide whose to follow? For example, why on earth should anyone pay any attention to the personal financial advice I offer below? What makes one advisor more credible than another, credentials, their popularity, their marketing savvy, something else? Credentials are nice in that they create a floor with respect to technical knowledge, but they don’t tell you much about the person’s ethics, integrity, or track record. Ultimately all credentials tell you is they succeeded in passing exams.

If I was looking for a financial advisor I’d look for someone that managed their own money well and emphasized saving, investing simply, and had other values that jived with my own. But how do you know if someone manages their own money well when we’re loathe to talk about our personal finances?

Tip one. Ask anyone wanting to manage your money to prove that they’ve managed theirs well. That will probably reduce the pool from which to choose in at least half. Take me for example, I have managed my family’s money well, but for privacy reasons, I won’t provide details except to say that for every ten financial decisions I make, I tend to make seven or eight good ones. Were I in the biz, I would completely understand if that lack of specificity caused potential clients to walk away.

Tip two. Ask any potential financial advisor about some of the mistakes he or she has made and what they learned from them. Last year I made a $9,000 mistake. I repeat, last year I made a $9,000 mistake. It was a brutal, self-inflicted wound that took time to shake. My goal is not to be perfect, but to consistently make more good decisions than bad. Look for a humble advisor who acknowledges complexity and doesn’t over promise. That will probably reduce the pool of potential advisors by at least another half.

Tip three. Even if you find a financial advisor that meets all of those criteria, don’t decide to work with him/her without first looking at yourself in a mirror and repeating several times, “No one will ever care about my financial well-being as much as me.”

Tip four. Never accept any financial advice passively. Instead educate yourself and recognize that no one will ever care about your personal financial well-being as much as you. More specifically, become your own financial advisor. That’s the best financial advice I’ll ever offer. Become your own financial advisor.

Well, the best advice until Part Two.