How Not to Support Spending

What’s one way that you can stretch your spending beyond your means? By financing it. What used to be bought entirely with cash has turned into longer and longer payment schemes. From 10 to 30 and even longer mortgages, and ever increasing auto loan durations, it’s one more way for cash strapped modern families whose wages haven’t grown to keep up with their neighbours.

I can understand doing it for housing – it’s generally a productive asset that will increase in value or at least hold its own. Many may say cars are a necessity for modern life, so that’s fine, but do try to be frugal with how luxurious a car you get. What’s inexcusable though is financing every aspect of your life including luxury spending and consumption. That’s just asking for debt trouble. Live by the old mantra that if you have to go into debt to buy a depreciating asset, it’s probably not a good decision.

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Get Out of a High Cost Area

You probably know that coastal cities are expensive. Actually, if  you’re reading this blog, chances are better than not you’re an educated person living in an urban area. It’s also not surprising that the high cost of living serves as a wall that prevents the migration of poor workers from e.g. Ohio or West Virginia. Interstate mobility in the US has decreased, and part of that can undoubtedly be explained by pull (family ties) and push (cost of living) factors. This has contributed to political polarization, overall wage stagnation, class-based segregation, and increased resentment all over the board.

The key tenet in my book is that wages are not going up, at least not as fast as cost of living. This article makes it abundantly clear that it’s driven by housing:

Housing costs have grown much faster in high-income places than low-income ones since 1960. Housing has always been more expensive in high-income places, but the difference is getting more extreme. In 1960, on average, US states with 10% higher incomes had housing costs that were 10% higher. In 2010, states with 10% higher incomes had 20% higher housing costs.

I would also add labour to that mix. As part of overall price pressures, you have to pay more for help, since they need to be able to afford to live there or otherwise be compensated for a long commute in from the exurbs.

So if you’re living in an expensive city, carefully examine your own life and entertain the notion that you may have more disposable net income after moving to the sticks. (Note: this doesn’t factor in the potential for career advancement and networking opportunities in the big city)

Better yet, take advantage of geographic arbitrage using techniques from my book.

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How to Buy a Car (From an Expert)

I somehow got subscribed to the daily Quora mailing list with interesting questions and answers. The one for today was about how to get a good deal when buying a car. Pasted here is the entirety of the response:

Let me make your life easy (I own a few dealerships). It takes 5 minutes. Once you know exactly what kind of car you want, simply go to the dealer, a salesmen will greet you. Tell him you’d like to go inside and talk about the car your interested in. Go inside, tell him you’re comparing with two other brands but you like this one the best. Tell him, I’d like to buy this car now if you can match the other dealers’ offers which is $100 over invoice. Tell him kindly, “Please let your manager know my offer is $100 over invoice, which is what the other dealers offered me, and if he accepts, I’d like to see a copy of the invoice (which they must do legally – you’re welcome), and then we can wrap this up now and I’ll buy you lunch for your great service.” That’s it. Unless it’s a specialty car, it will go down just like that. If you’re paying cash, it’s a done deal 99.9%. If that doesn’t work, call the next town over, tell them you were offered $100 over invoice but you don’t like how they do business so want to go to the competitor. If they agree (which they will because the car biz is super competitive) ask them to email a copy of the invoice. Once they do, call them and tell them you’re on your way. Side note- best time to buy a car is New Years Eve, 2 hours before closing using this method….just tell them “Come on guys, let’s wrap this up quickly so we can all go spend time with our families.” It’s not as hard as people think. Believe me, the salesman just wants to sell a car, he cares more about closing the deals than anything else because if he doesn’t, he doesn’t get paid. Another note, the faster the deal, the better. And be POLITE, good salesman ARE expert salespeople and they’ll rip your head off without you knowing if you’re an ass. Oh, and all your friends who think they’re experts…are not! Even if you buy the car for 50 cents they’ll tell you that you’ve been screwed, lol. Buy a decent car for $100 over invoice and go home happy. And don’t over spend on cars, they all have four wheels….just get a good running car. The more you spend, the more they depreciate and they’re all worth $2500 in 10–15 years. This is advice for new cars. Used cars….offer 3k less than the asking price OR 500 over wholesale book whichever is less (use blue book online between trade-in & private party value)(pay cash)…also 5 minutes. But only do these if you’re ready to buy in that moment. Test drive all first. If you don’t have cash, get pre-approved at a credit union and take the letter to the dealer to solidify your seriousness. If you have bad credit….it’s the bank that will screw you, not the dealer. Also with bad credit, the dealer had to pay bank fees so they can’t come down as much on the price. Bank fees range from $500–$3000! depending on how bad your credit is. My thumb is tired now…good luck!

All I can say is that these recommendations make sense. I usually go through Costco Auto which gives a pre-fixed price, but direct bargaining with a dealer can work as well. Go in with a no nonsense attitude, have an anchoring price, and come prepared with a preapproved loan (or cash). That takes away the multiple possible ways that the dealer can screw you over. Be prepared to walk away if the dealer can’t meet your pre-established price though.

It also helps to go in at certain times of the year (4th of July sale, Christmas sale) at the end of the season when sales reps are trying to meet quotas. Also what can help is buying a model that is not that popular that the dealer is trying to move off the lot. Sedans right now are losing ground relative to SUVs and light trucks, so it’s a good time to scoop up one and go against the grain.

Of course, going for a slightly used car instead of a new one can save you money, as this post shows.

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To Buy or Not to Buy at Market Highs

There is always a bit of fear when evaluating buying in at all time highs. The sentiment is understandable. Everyone is afraid of buying in at a market peak and eating the recession that follows. After all, after almost a decade of uninterrupted growth, aren’t we due for a downturn?

However, the data analysis (done by someone else!) and existing scholars such as Tobias Moskowitz supports momentum investing. In other words, when the market or an individual stock is rising, it’s more likely than not to keep rising than to suddenly reverse.

Applied to current market highs, I would still encourage ordinary people to invest their new capital in accordance with prior allocation ratios, to achieve a healthy rebalance despite stock market highs. More likely than not, the market will be even higher (even after adjusting for inflation) in the next decade. If prior trends hold, we may be on the cusp of a 1-2 decade run of sustained all time highs.

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Link Roundup: The Value of Hard Work

During times of plenty, when there are more interesting articles than I can do a feature review of, I will combine them into a single post called a link roundup. Here is one such event.

  1. The value of hard work. This reminds me of my time growing up in the crucible of competitiveness that is the Bay Area. Investments made in oneself through education and knowledge pays compound interest down the road, establishing a solid foundation for improved performance and confidence, that feed off each other in a virtuous cycle. Take for example a high school student taking summer classes to prepare for the next quarter’s math and reading classes. That person will get a leg up in results for the rest of his or her life, because of repeated exposure and increased familiarity, not to mention having an easier time in the class. Compared to someone like this, if you’re not working hard every day, you’re falling behind your peers. Just like in athletics, average is over. Every day you’re slacking or doing something else is a day falling behind your peer competitors.
  2. What do future jobs look like? The thinkers of yesterday and today have a vision for how the future looks, and it doesn’t bode well for some. Unskilled work will be replaced by robots. Technical and computer skills will become more valuable. Good future areas to specialize in include AI, robotics, and VR. At the same time, some jobs like in health care that deal with human emotions, where empathy is essential, will be relatively shielded from the effects of technology. But then again, you would know this from reading my book.
  3. As a corollary to the above, university students increasingly recognize the reality of a tough job market for graduates, and are tailoring their studies accordingly. This means fewer liberal arts graduates and more social science, business, engineering, and “trades” graduates. That’s probably a good thing for individual finances but a tragic loss for the country. After all, from their pen would have come art, literature, and poetry – the stuff that gives colour and meaning to life. That’s what separates us from somewhere like Singapore or India, which are
  4. If you have truly niche technical skills, you can make bank. Just look at blockchain developers. Btw, software is one of the fields where if you have the interest and the talent, you can teach yourself and get a great job without having a degree in the field. That’s the path my dad took.
  5. Here’s a great story of a self made web entrepreneur with the vision to establish a business reselling cheap Chinese toys from Alibaba to American consumers willing to pay more. Wait… why don’t Americans just buy directly from Alibaba? Doesn’t sound like a very sustainable business model but somehow it works.
  6. Concierge medicine is taking off, and whispers are that you can have a lucrative practice with low patient volume, if you cater to the rich and treat everyone like a VIP. It’s not my cup of tea, but I see disruptive potential in different delivery methods for health services. Target mini clinics are good, as is the underutilized format of telemedicine.
  7. I can’t harp on the concept of geographic arbitrage enough. By moving to a cheaper location, your dollars stretch so much further. Not only that, but your kids can grow up multicultural with foreign language skills, interesting life experiences, and a great prebuilt application essay for Ivy League schools telling them how unique you are.
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Luxury Is Cheaper than Land

Of all the innovative uses for geographic arbitrage, one of the most satisfying is monetizing one’s home and trading it for an itinerant life. That wanderlust can be satisfied in a variety of different ways. The online travel blogging community has made being a digital nomad in cheap areas like SE Asia and Latin America so commonplace that it’s become trite.

An interesting choice is to instead live on a cruise ship. It’s not just a way of life for the wealthy to live on a luxury boat like The World, but even worldwide voyages with one of the mass market lines (Princess, HAL, Oceania, etc) can be affordable, when considering all the expenses racked up on land in an expensive place like New York City.

At a certain point, if you own property in NYC and decide to rent it out, it may be able to generate enough income to subsidize all (or a great portion) of the cost of the cruise. And when you factor in food, entertainment, and travel all being bundled into the price of the cruise, it becomes an even better bargain.

Of course, this type of lifestyle is not appropriate for everyone. Not everyone likes life on a ship, whether due to claustrophobia, seasickness, or boredom. But it’s worthwhile knowing about the options to enhance life that others have found worthwhile and workable.

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Secrets to Successful Investing

It feels like we’re always hammering the same points on investing over and over again. Don’t watch your portfolio. Stop tracking the market’s daily gyrations. Focus on the long term. Stay diversified. Don’t try to stock pick or market time. Stick with the asset allocation determined earlier and rebalance. Stick to these tried and true principles based on solid research and you’ll be fine.

Sometimes, we feel that we can be exceptional or lucky and we try for the moon. Humans are poor learners from others’ failures, and rather learn best from a strongly emotional personal experience (like a major loss in the market due to a self-inflicted error). I believe everyone should learn that by starting out playing single stocks with small amounts of play money, ideally earlier in life rather than later, so we can quickly return to the right path having learned our lesson in a way that sicks.

In other words, use the “the martyr system” to your advantage, letting the hippocampus impart the long-term financial scars from personal failures that will leave lasting memories of what not to do.

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No Regrets

My last post touched briefly on the nature of regret in missing out (selling too soon, buying in too late). However, this is not a healthy mindset to have. As Marketwatch pointed out today, very few people have the intestinal fortitude to ride out the market’s gyrations and hold for the 10+ years needed for wealth to compound exponentially. How many of us would have sold out during one of the times when bitcoin or Netflix crashed >50%?

This Morningstar article serves as a reminder that we are our own worst enemies:

Well, it’s really about the target-date funds because they are sort of the confluence of good behavior. In other words, they are boring funds. You’ve got tremendous diversification. They don’t cause fear or greed. They are just boring. But then the other part of it is, in 401(k)s where you see nearly all the target-date money, people are investing every paycheck very steadily. So, they are also kind of shielded from the ups and downs of the market. So, if you go back to ’08, ’09, 2010, people just kept steadily investing, people generally did not panic in their 401(k)s, and so that meant you are really buying low and then staying with it to see those benefits. So, if you think about it, target-date is kind of the intersection of good funds and good investor behavior and it kind of suggests where we might want to go as an investing group as a whole because this is where things really work well.

The best returns actually came from disciplined boring investing. As Monevator likes to say, keep investing as boring as watching paint dry, so you won’t be tempted to buy and sell all the time. As another former mentor once told me, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” That is really the approach to take when investing.

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Take More Risk in Tax Advantage Accounts

The Bond King Bill Gross likes to philosophize about profound emotions such as joy and melancholy in his investment rants, and this post is driven in part by the emotion of regret seeing Bitcoin hit all time highs, and even surpassing the price of gold.

Such is the case for many in my field. When I was finishing my last year at Berkeley, I came upon news reports of the fancy new cryptocurrency idea called Bitcoin. Independently at the same time, so did my fiancee’s brother, childhood friend, and cousin-in law (all techies). We didn’t think much of it, and as risk averse as I was, I didn’t even bother putting $50 or so of play money into there. If I did, it would be worth almost a million! Similarly, my fiancee’s aunt regrets not buying Apple stock when it was down in the dumpster right before Jobs took over (seriously, most smart money was on the company going bankrupt, not staging a phoenix-like revival).

While we can all regret not doing the most “optimal” thing (life doesn’t have a save/reload button) in hindsight, we can also never with certainty predict what the future will hold. What we can do, and it will sound boring, is to make sure we have the right types of investments in the right places, and to stay allocated to assets in a way that allows us to sleep well at night. If we do dedicate a small (e.g. 5%) portion of our portfolio to lottery ticket bets on small cap stocks, that’s fine. Just make sure to do it in the tax advantaged section of the portfolio.

Standard portfolio theory suggests that we should make sure that our money is invested in the way that takes advantage of legal tax shelters to our benefit, as much as possible. Just to recap, there are in general three big categories of holdings: taxable, pre-tax 401k/IRA, and Roth 401k/IRA. Here’s what we should put in each:

  • Taxable: The goal here is to hold for as long as possible and to minimize the number of transactions and income generated, since each sale can generate a huge tax bill for capital gains. The best choice is a low fee total stock market index fund (Vanguard, iShares, and Schwab are all good choices) that is held and not sold until death. Then we can take advantage of the tax free basis step up when we bequeath to heirs. The small amount of dividends generated is taxable, yes, but at a much lower rate than the marginal rate. Bond holdings should be in tax-free municipal bonds as much as possible, doubly so if you’re in a high tax bracket.
  • Pre-Tax: We have to pay tax on the whole thing anyway but not until we cash the money out from the account. That quirk makes pre-tax accounts ideal for traders, stock pickers, and market timers who move in and out of positions with regularity. It’s also a good place to stash taxable bond funds and high dividend funds that throw out a lot of periodic income.
  • Roth: This is where you should make your highest risk “lottery” type bets. Let’s say you could (and want to) invest in bitcoin, startups in their infancy, micro cap stocks, penny/value stocks, turnaround stories, Greek bonds on the verge of default, and foreclosed homes. You would do so here. The bigger the potential gains, the better it will be. Whether you stumble upon a 10-bagger or 100-bagger doesn’t matter. You won’t pay any tax on it at the end.

So in summary, you want to use the right tool for the job. A balanced portfolio should consist of stock funds, bond funds, and maybe a dash of play money. Instead of making each tax category holding the same, we should concentrate our investments in the type of account that is best-suited from a tax perspective. Big gainers should be in the Roth, slow steady accumulator broad market funds should be in taxable, and income spewing investments in the pre-tax account.

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Secrets of Wealthy Millennials

Is it just me or does Business Insider seem to be sliding into a paparazzi version of the staid Forbes magazine? The articles being published these days seem more like a weird hybrid of Moneyish and Gawker, with more sensationalist titles than the Daily Mail and plastered with more inline Instagram posts than TMZ.

Still, despite the descent into frivolity, there are some nuggets of truth and wisdom to be gleaned from their latest series on wealthy millennials.

The first story from BI is that of Ebony Horton. To summarize, she was a newly minted graduate making $38,000 a year in DC. She then went back to get an MBA and racked up a total of $220,000 in loans from undergrad + MBA. She freaked out at the amount, and came up with a plan to pay it all off by moving back to rural Illinois, lowering her cost of living, saving like crazy alongside her husband, buying rental property, and getting some opportune gifts from her family. Now 31, she’s debt free and ready to share her story in a book and go on the speaker circuit to make boatloads of money.

What can we take away from this?

  1. It helps to have rich parents who can support you, either directly financially or indirectly by providing free/subsidized shelter
  2. Being dual income (however miserly), no kids dramatically accelerates your savings trajectory
  3. If you set your mind to it, saving 75%-95% of after-tax income is possible
  4. Control lifestyle inflation (let your standard of living appreciate slowly) or it will ruin you
  5. Investing in the property market uses leverage to enhance the growth rate of your wealth

One of the topics in my book on finance is that in the modern age, there are a few viable paths to success. However, this book focused purely on wealth and its accumulation, the pursuit of which is unsustainable in the long term. One of my upcoming books will instead deep dive into the human mind and explore how we become happy. With that in mind, when thinking of work-life balance, there are two ways to go about it. One is to “finish” a high-paying career, accumulate boatloads of savings, and retire early. In short, this abbreviates the traditional working time and prolongs retirement. It can be very effective, as legions of FIRE (financial independence, retire early) adherents can attest. However, it requires significant discipline to accumulate that much savings so quickly.

The next BI story is that of two 30 year old teachers who managed to save $1 million after 8 years, and are now retired and travel the world. Isn’t that the dream of every young millennial these days? They did it by doing much of the same that Ebony did, only they had the advantage of minimal education debt. Their lucky break was to pick up houses in Las Vegas on the cheap in the depths of the real estate collapse, converting them to rentals. Gradually, the market bounced back and they were able to make more rental profit from the houses, which they used to buy yet more houses. Now they make $10000 per month on average from rent, balanced out against only $2000 per month in mortgage, letting them retire to pursue their passions.

The take away bullet points?

  1. Paying down debt is good, but it’s a lot better to not have debt and to divert savings into investment vehicles
  2. Being lucky (getting into real estate at the bottom, even before hedge funds) is better than being good
  3. Sometimes living in a lower cost of living area beats moving to a high cost area (Bay Area, London) to earn a high salary
  4. Buy a property and rent it out to others, letting them cover the cost of the mortgage (see my analysis of yield on equity here)

The other reasonable approach is to maintain the frugality but to intermix one’s working years with “fun” activities traditionally associated with retirement. This can come from working on cruise lines, at vacation resorts, as an English teacher abroad, etc (more examples of ways to do this are in my book). These jobs may not be high paying, but the cost of living is either low or completely subsidized such that significant savings are possible. Experiencing fun stuff as a tourist is expensive, because you duplicate costs such as housing by having to pay for a hotel and the mortgage back home, and other costs are more expensive (such as having to eat out every day). It’s a lot easier to see the same sights and go to events as a local, relying on cheaper longer term housing, cheaper grocery options, and public transportation.

On this point, BI ran not one but two (oh my how they like to recycle stories) articles about the same girl – Nina Ragusa. She took the fun road, working hard initially in multiple jobs to save up enough money to launch her career as a travel blogger. She gets to roam the world, doing the typical things on the well-trod road of teaching English in Thailand and working in the tourism sector in Australia (the working holiday visa for young people is a great boon). In essence, instead of slaving away at a desk job, she gets to live in vacation paradises, work freelance in a bunch of industries that aren’t that intense, and save a bit to boot. There are two possibilities for how she will end up. If she does well with her travel blog, she can spin that into a brand and partner with tour agencies as a promoter. The worst case scenario is that she returns to the US at some point having had a decade of amazing experiences and a small amount of savings.

You may wonder how young people can spend so much time and money on travel and not exhaust all their income or savings. For one, cost of living is so much lower for most places outside of the US, and low end wages (especially for the service sector in Australia, NZ) can be higher. Finally, many fun activities aren’t that costly. By working at a resort, you’re afforded the privilege of taking the kayak or surfboard out when you aren’t leading a tour, and sometimes can even use the company’s van for personal excursions. In a tropical paradise, many of the most fun activities are free. It’s so easy to get sucked into complacency living in these places.

Take home points for this case:

  1. For young people who want to have fun now and mix in a bit of the retired life with their youth, it’s hard to beat adventure travel and freelance work
  2. Geographic arbitrage wins again
  3. There’s an outside shot that you can create a sustainable brand/blog based around travel and never have to work again
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