When it Makes Sense to Commute by Plane

True story. I was in Vietnam a few weeks ago and on a street food tour of Hanoi, I met an Australian expat. She was a lively conversationalist and told me the nugget of a story: there are Australian resource workers who choose to live in Bali and commute to Perth to work in the mines.

It’s true (the internet proves it so!) and it makes total sense for those involved.

  1. They get to live in paradise, or at least a place that most people pay thousands to travel to
  2. The flight is cheap (Google Flights shows direct round trip tickets to be $180 if you book a month out)
  3. At 3 hours and 40 minutes, the flight is doable given that the work schedule was described to me as 5 on 5 off
  4. Cost of living is lower in Bali than in Perth
  5. Living expenses are covered at the worksite in Western Australia, which avoids the unpleasant need to maintain two residences
  6. Enough people do it that the visa/residence aspect in Bali must not be a problem

Calculating that the cost of a flight 2-3 times per month is still less than the difference in rent between Denpasar and Perth, the miner comes out way ahead. Of course, this works best if you’re single, mobile, and without significant family attachments to keep you in Australia. But if you are single or can otherwise make this work by moving your spouse to Bali, it can work out really well.

Can this type of arbitrage be applied to other situations in life? Of course! In fact, the cost of housing in most major American cities has become so exorbitant (see $3500 per month rent in SF for a one bedroom apartment) that it’s cheaper to commute to work, even on a business class flight! It’s true. I’ve been investigating this for my own professional life and came up with one such arrangement.

  1. Live in Tokyo, where the monthly rent is about $1200 in the city itself, even cheaper if you live in the suburbs
  2. Catch a direct flight to a west coast city in the US for a job as a locums nocturnist (bonus if the job is in Washington state where there is no state income tax)
  3. Work 7-10 days straight and then take the rest of the month off

Mind you, the living expenses stateside are of course all covered by virtue of being locums, absolving the nocturnist of maintaining a costly car and pied-a-terre in the city. There is a secondary bonus. Normally night shift workers are paid a premium in the US, due to the unsociable hours. However, Japan is far enough away from the US such that accounting for time zone difference, our nocturnist will be working a daytime schedule back home! By keeping the number of contiguous shifts high and the number of trips back and forth low, our nocturnist gets to maximize his # of days off, pay per shift, and minimize overhead expenses (time, money) involved in the commute. With a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Seattle about $850, rent in the US will just need to be more than $2000 per month for this commute to be worthwhile. That’s not even accounting for how much cheaper and better life is in Japan compared to the US.

Of course, one can think of similar arrangements for a British locums physician seeking to live in SE Asia and commute to the UK to work night shifts on an as needed basis.

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Can You Avoid Paying Income Tax?

Elon Musk is depressed from overwork, just like many American his age. This is why your life goal should be to strive for full financial freedom by creating enough income streams such that your needs are fully met without you having to devote your time to it.

If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I’ve identified being a digital nomad operating your own online business as one of the best ways to achieve that end. While I was pondering this, I wondered if there was a loophole in the system, a backdoor lifehack to circumvent existing laws regarding residence, territoriality, and taxation. That is, can you avoid paying all income tax completely?

As it turns out, others have wondered the same thing. Basically, most countries will not tax you if you haven’t lived in that country for a certain amount of time to qualify for residence. Usually it’s something close to  less than half of the calendar year. By staying below that level,  you avoid being considered a tax resident of that country. The US is a little different, being one of only two countries (along with Eritrea) to tax you on worldwide income regardless of residence, though it does give a foreign earned income exclusion.

The loophole is due to laws regarding residence and taxation that have not yet caught up with modern innovations in travel, communication, and technology. Before with income tied to jobs which were tied to location, countries can get their share of tax from your employer or from you based on your residence (if you operated a small business, for instance). However, now we have online web businesses that we can run from anywhere in the world. If governments can’t tax us at the source of production (because the business is “based” in a tax haven) or by residence (due to the digital nomad being constantly on the roam, never staying long enough in any country to gain residence), we’re free from all income tax.

As an example, let’s take a British citizen who wants to start a web business offering cultural sensitivity consulting to large established companies. This adventurous individual incorporates in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, and then proceeds to travel the world, never staying long enough in any single place to owe taxes. This is made easy with visa free access to many of the world’s most fun destinations, and eventually our nomad settles on a regular cycle of Ireland -> Thailand -> Singapore -> Australia -> Panama -> Ireland. Meanwhile, all the web income generated from work done remotely is not subject to tax in any of the countries visited, since the corporate income is categorized as earned in the tax haven.

Let’s celebrate this with a Joan Baez song glorifying the joy of avoiding taxes:

 

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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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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 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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Broke at Half A Million

Marketwatch ran an article about how one can still be broke despite earning half a million a year. Preposterous, you say? They do show the breakdown of sample spending for the rich family compared to an average family with $80,000 in yearly income.

Let’s break this down in an itemized manner:

  1. 401k contributions: a good thing, especially given the tax bracket
  2. Taxes: unavoidable, but the rich family should be looking to diversify more into legal tax shelters like mortgage interest deductions and maximizing HSAs
  3. Child care: I can’t explain this discrepancy. Does the wealthy family choose to use a premium service as opposed to the McDonalds of child care? Does that really provide any benefit? Both families have the same number of kids, so there’s no reason for spending to be any different. And besides, those in the know opt for live in Hispanic au-pairs so their kids can get a head start in life
  4. Food: both families eat way too much. I spend $40 per week on groceries (that includes household items like detergent) for myself. Multiply that by 4 gives you $8480 for a whole year. Even if you spend a bit more on eating out, you will still may just top out at what the average family spends. What does the rich family get by spending more? More calories? Whole grain organic quinoa?
  5. Housing: this is a big opportunity to cut back by living in a smaller house for less. A bigger house just adds to the housework, not necessarily truly improving happiness. Likewise, this allows for a corresponding reduction in property tax and insurance
  6. Gas: no reason that this needs to be different between the two families
  7. Life insurance: just self-insure by saving more. This is one of the biggest cons out there
  8. Clothes: do you really need to wear better clothes than the average family? If anything, standing out more in this era of Occupy Wall Street just makes you more of a target
  9. Children’s lessons: I’ll admit, probably a good investment. If anything, Asian families in the Bay Area spend much more in this category
  10. Charity: cut back on this, especially if you’re living on the edge
  11. Debt repayment: probably unavoidable, but you can save on this by studying overseas or in state schools
  12. Miscellaneous: I don’t even know what this means

Notice how I didn’t include vacations on this list? Generally, I will allow one budget busting “splurge”, either in clothing, house, car, or vacations. Among those, the one that gives the most lasting happiness is vacations.

 

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The Trend Towards Minimalism

Feels good to be vindicated, yet again, or perhaps my own behaviour is not so uncommon but merely representative of the prevailing attitude of my generation. After all, it’s “widely known” that Millennials value experiences over things.

As for retail, owners have to adapt or die. Innovative retail stores are experimenting with ways to blend a more experiential type of shopping with brands and goods. As the article recognizes:

“Shoppers are reaching a tipping point around American consumption,” it read. “Feelings of angst about acquiring too much ‘stuff’ is driving a shift toward purchasing experiences rather than things.”

Those of us who are involved in entrepreneurship recognize this. As the older generation dies out, Millennial preferences will increasingly drive profitable product lines. We see this in the traditional media, which initially resisted the move to digital (Napster was merely early) before eventually acquiescing (see: Hulu) to the tidal shift. Those that continue to resist (ESPN, Comcast) face declining revenues from cord cutters.

In general, being “light”, mobile, portable, flexible, and catering to the customer’s preferences for when, where, and how to consume something is the new name of the game. Amazon recognizes this. Old retail still tries to force someone to come into a brick and mortar store and be assailed by rude and unhelpful sales representatives. That’s not a winning approach.

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How Time Warner’s Acquisition Increases Your Cable Bills

Those who value competition should shed a tear for Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The cable and internet oligopoly just shrunk even further. The US lags far behind the rest of the world in speed, pricing, and availability of high speed internet, and much of that is due to consolidation in the telecommunications industry. The few players have nicely carved out the country among themselves, preferring dominance over a section rather than expensive face-to-face competition. It makes sense. Laying down fiberoptic cables and building radio towers are expensive propositions.

It should come as no surprise then that after the acquisition, Time Warner immediately shook up their internet offerings. Previously, they had a $15 per month “everyday” package and a $30/month “basic” internet package. Those are gone. The cheapest remaining option is the previous mid-tier “extreme” package, at $35/month promotional pricing. By lopping off the low end, Time Warner nudges everyone slowly along the ladder to higher price points, making the company more profitable.

This is not consumer friendly! If their intent was to bring faster internet to all, they would have kept the same price points and instead raised the speed for each tier. That’s not what happened.

old twc internet options
The old internet plan lineup
new twc internet options
And now… After the acquisition

Oh, forget about being grandfathered in on the cheaper older plan. Time Warner has already planned for those people. You see, the advertised price of $15/month for the cheapest internet is actually $35/month with a $20/month promotional discount that lasts for a year. After that year, you can either re-up for another yearlong contract for whatever discount is offered at that time. By trimming the cheapest plans, Time Warner will count on attrition to nudge people on the older plans to upgrade. How cunningly have they planned things, for the $35/month true price for the cheapest internet matches the promotional discount price for the cheapest package offered after the acquisition (the “Extreme” plan). Someone on the Everyday plan whose promotional discount has already run out will compare the two and decide to “upgrade” to the Extreme plan for no change in monthly payment  and faster speeds.

While this is a big argument for telecom to be regulated like utilities (it won’t happen here; there’s too much money to influence government), what options does the little guy have? We can take cord cutting to the next extreme by refusing to play. Vote with our wallets and give up the cable or DSL internet and rely fully on LTE 4G from our phones. With tethering, we can turn our phones into wifi hotspots and broadcast internet to all devices that can connect to it. Tmobile offers a nice 4G package that’s throttled, not data capped, past a certain data limit. For the average consumer who consumes media and doesn’t need a fast internet connection, this should be plenty to meet his or her needs.

If you live in an available area, look into Google Fiber. Originally started in Kansas City, it’s now spreading across the country as a way to get high speed internet on the cheap. The lowest tier option gives you fast and free (!) internet at the price of a one time set up fee. What’s more, Google’s goal is to use fiber to bring more people online and to get them to use Google’s services. They don’t need to make a profit from being an ISP (internet service provider). That’s why I anticipate that they’ll be able to keep prices low going forward.

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Save on a House with Seasonal Buying

Are you in the market for a house? If so, it’s important to be aware of seasonal variations. In my book on wealth, I discuss how time shifting purchases and activities outside of peak areas can lead to significant savings. In the case of buying a house, this means buying in wintertime.

Take a look at the following graph from Schwab:

seasonal fluctuation of house prices

If you look at the blue line, you’ll see that while the overall trend since 2012 is rising house prices, within each year there there are predictable ups and downs. House prices are highest during the summer months, and correspondingly hit a nadir in December-January. This makes sense. Fewer people are actively shopping for homes in the winter, given adverse weather.

Even though this trend is well-documented, a smart shopper can still use this as an opportunity to save on buying a house. The big downside is that sellers know about this trend as well and delay putting the houses on the market until summer. This means that the selection in winter may be suboptimal. You may not find your perfect dream house in the winter, but the sellers that do list in this time may be more desperate for a quick sale.

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