Author Archives: thefinancialjourneyman

About thefinancialjourneyman

Deciding to be free: My Journey toward financial independence

Defining Your Investment Style

There are many different approaches an investor can take in managing their money.  Some approaches are hands-off and require little effort to maintain the desired asset allocation.  Other approaches are more time intensive and might require daily or weekly management.  There are other approaches that fall somewhere in-between.

No matter how you decide to invest, you need to have an investment philosophy.  It should be part of your financial plan.  Without having direction, there is just too much noise to misdirect you on a daily basis.  Every hot investment tip will sound like a good idea.  That will lead an investor to try to chase performance.

It is up to you to decide how you want to invest your money.  Some approaches are considered more favorable than others because they are tax efficient, cost very little, and allow investors to capture average market returns.  There are approaches that rely on investment professionals to try to beat the market.  Some investors feel confident that they can manage their own selection of individual securities and want to pick their own stocks.  There are also Robo-Advisors that investors can use to manage their investments.

When it comes to trying to invest to build wealth, there are countless avenues for investors to explore.  There is passive investing, active investing, crowdfunding, and countless other forms of ventures to invest in.  The purpose of this post is to cover some of the most common forms of investing where the transactions can occur with the click of a mouse.

Index Funds

Index funds are what their name implies.  An index fund is a mutual fund that is composed of stocks that track a specific index.  For example, if you buy a share of an S&P 500 index fund, you are buying an investment that is made up of the largest publicly traded U.S. corporations.

There is little actual management and turnover with index funds.  That is what makes them cheap and tax-efficient.  A management team is not required.  There is very little trading and turnover within most index funds.

There are index funds that track large-cap stocks, small-cap stocks, international stocks, and bonds.  There are index funds that hold every publicly traded stock in the world.  There are also index funds that track individual sectors or sub-asset classes such as consumer stables, natural resources, technology stocks, and other sectors.

An investor can keep it simple and buy three index funds like the total U.S. stock fund, total international stock fund, and total bond market fund that would allow them to own every publicly traded stock in the world.  An investor can slice and dice and break it down into many different funds and build a custom portfolio with different tilts.  There truly are limitless possibilities.

Managed Funds

Managed funds are like index funds.  They invest in a basket of different stocks or bonds.  The major difference is that they do not track an index.  They have a fund manager or team of managers who try to beat a benchmark.  For example, a managed large-cap growth stock fund would try to beat the S&P 500 index.

Compared to index funds, managed funds have higher fees.  The average expense ratio for a managed large-cap stock fund is 0.99%.  The expense ratio for the Vanguard S&P 500 is 0.04%.  That is almost one whole basis point.

The goal of the fund manager is to outperform its benchmark.  Based on the difference in fees, the fund manager must outperform the S&P 500 by almost 1% per year to just break even.  That is very difficult to do.  It is getting even harder as the result of the shrinking alpha.

For the fund manager to try to beat their respective benchmark, they need to make trades.  They are paid to buy stocks within the fund that they think will outperform.  They also must identify the stocks that they think will underperform and sell them.

All of that buying and selling is called turnover.  Some managed funds have a turnover ratio of 90% or more of their portfolio annually.  If a managed fund is held in a taxable account, all those trades trigger capital gains that are passed on to the investor.

Most managed funds do not beat their benchmark.  In 2016, only 34% of large-cap mutual funds beat the S&P 500.  It gets worse with time.  Only 10% of large-cap mutual funds beat the S&P 500 over the last 15 years.

What happens to the underperformers?  Usually, a new manager is brought in to right the ship.  If its performance does not improve, it normally merges with another fund.

Individual Stocks

Investing in individual stocks can be rewarding.  If you select the right stock, you will outperform the major indexes.  Just look at Google, Amazon, or even Apple.

The problem with investing in individual stocks is that it is hard.  Most active mutual fund managers who have unlimited resources cannot consistently do it.  It is not likely that an individual investor will outperform the S&P 500 for a decade or longer.

Can an investor get lucky when they buy a few stocks?  Sure, they can.  That, however, is speculation.  Investing is not gambling.

When an investor buys an individual stock, it is a vote of confidence in a company.  It is a vote that they know the stock is undervalued compared to its market price.  They are making a statement that says they know more about the fundamental business operations of the company and they are positive that it is sure to appreciate.

They do not know any of those details.  The individual investor receives their information from the financial media or a stock screener.  They are the last to know anything about the value of a stock.  The professionals, analysists, and insiders know before the media.  They provide the information to the media.  The media informs the individual investor.

Robo Advisors

Robo-Advisors are the new frontier for individual investors.  Robo-Advisors are financial management platforms that allow investors to manage their investments based on algorithm-based variables.  An investor plugs in their goals, risk profile, and other survey data and Robo-Adviser does the rest.

The technology used by Robo-Advisors is not new.  The investment industry has been using it to rebalance accounts since the early 2000’s.  It is new, however, for individual investors to have access to this type of asset management technology.

Even though it has been around for some time, it is fascinating technology.  Since it is automated and based off an algorithm, there is not much room for human error.  Not only can it be used for investment selection, but it can also be used for more sophisticated processes like tax-loss harvesting.

There are some nice benefits to using a Robo-Advisor.  They are a much more affordable option than having to hire a human Financial Advisor.  The annual fee to use a Robo-Advisor is between 0.2% to 0.5%.  That is much more affordable than must shell out up to 2% for a human financial advisor.  The minimum amount that is required to invest with a Robo-Advisor is much lower than the standard six-figure minimum that many traditional human financial advisors require.

Conclusion

The above investment styles are just a few of the more popular methods for individual investors.  Over the years, my portfolio has become primarily made up of a few index funds.  I have invested in a few managed funds but sold off all except one.  As far as individual stocks, I have only bought and sold five individual stocks since I started investing.  I have not owned any individual stocks since 2004.  Many investors in the financial independence community use individual stocks as part of their dividend strategy.  As for the Rob-Advisors, I have invested using that technology, but do see its value for tax-loss-harvesting in a retirement account.

What is your approach to investing?

Do you follow any of the methods that I covered or a blend of a few different approaches?

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Money & Happiness

Money can do many things.  If you have money, you can live life to the fullest.  Money enables people to cover all their necessities including food, shelter, and healthcare.  Having money is a key requirement to get the best education in the classroom and by way of traveling the world.  Money is also required if you want to add convenience and have some luxury in your life.  Money is tied to almost every aspect of life, but can money buy happiness?

In 2010, a study was conducted to determine if happiness can be increased when income is increased.  These researchers found out that it can.  There were limits though.  The researchers discovered that happiness increased with income, but only up to the amount of $75,000 per year.  People who earned over $75,000 were not happier than those who earned $75,000.

That sounded reasonable to me.  $75,000 would be enough to live a reasonably comfortable life in most parts of the country excluding New York City, San Francisco, or some of the other major coastal cities.  Even in smaller markets, $75,000 will not be enough to afford a first-class lifestyle.  It should be enough, however, to cover your needs, some wants, and have enough left to save for retirement.

A more recent study was conducted by Researchers from Harvard Business School.  This survey was given to 400 millionaires.  They were asked to rate their happiness based on a scale of 1 to 10.  This study found that the people who had at least $8,000,000 were happier than those with less than that amount.  Many agreed that they would be happier with even a little more wealth.  Most felt that they needed much more than what they currently have.  To score a perfect 10 on this happiness survey, the results stated that the millionaires who took this survey would need to have a 1,000% increase in their net worth.

In my opinion, money can buy many things, but I do not know if it can buy true happiness.  There have been times in my life when I had very little money.  Based on my current lifestyle and expenses, I have enough money to live for a couple of decades without having to work.  I feel blessed, but I do not think I am happier today compared to when I was just starting out.

Obviously, life is better with money compared to being broke, but I do not know if there is much of a difference on the happiness scale.  I view having money as the means to more options in life.  That makes me happy.  In my opinion, money equals freedom to live a life on my own terms.  That also makes me happy.

I just don’t think that money itself makes me happy.  Money pays the bills and allows me to buy things.  I am not overly materialist and don’t want for much.  Material possessions generally do not make me happy.

Accomplishment

There are a few things in life that make me truly happy.  The first is when I accomplish a goal.  Even though I am focused on early retirement, I do get a great feeling when I accomplish a goal at work.  It is not based on the praise from others.  It comes from that internal sense of accomplishment.  The same feeling of satisfaction can be found when I accomplish a home improvement project, complete a workout, finish a book, or make an improvement to my blog.  For example, I am happy that you took the time to read this post.

Laughter

I also find joy in the simple things in life.  Laughter makes me happy.  I take my work and my goals seriously, however, I do not take myself seriously.  I have been humbled enough times to say that my ego is right-sized.  A therapist friend of mine recently told me that a good sign of emotional intelligence is to have a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh.  I find it therapeutic to laugh at myself as well as to laugh at the absurdities of life.  I am also happy when other people laugh.

Nature

Spending time in the outdoors makes me happy.  I love going to the local park with my wife and our dog.  It feels great to breathe in the fresh air while hiking the trails and to take in the wildlife.  One of my favorite hobbies is spending an afternoon in my kayak bass fishing.  There are few things more exciting than catching a bass on a topwater lure.

Service

The closest that I have ever come to experiencing true happiness is when I am being of service to others.  In my experience, if you want to find pure joy, go and volunteer at your local soup kitchen.  The fear of stock market volatility quickly vanishes when you tune into the needs of those who truly have nothing.

Helping people who are less fortunate than myself gives me gratitude that lasts for weeks.  It puts my problems into perspective.  These people are not thinking about finding investments with the lowest expense ratios or finding ways to pay fewer taxes on capital gains.  These folks are literally wondering where their next meal is coming from.

My wife and I try to volunteer a few times per year.  We try to not tell anyone about it.  We Just simply show up at the food kitchen on a Saturday morning and volunteer for a few hours.  Nobody needs to know how wonderful we are.  I feel that if I talk about it, it becomes more about me than about the act of giving back.  That just reduces the degree of happiness that I find in this type of volunteering.

If you are intimidated by the thought of helping the homeless, don’t get discouraged.  There are many ways to volunteer.  It does not have to be a formal process.  Take a ride to your nearest park and bring a trash bag and gardening gloves with you.  Spend one-hour walking around the park and picking up litter.

I have found that many people in the financial independence community have discovered the joy of helping others.  A good example of this occurs at the Chautauqua Financial Independence Conference.  I have read that it is common for a day of community service to be added to these events to go along with the lectures and discussions about financial independence.

Conclusion

Can money buy happiness? I honestly don’t know for sure.  The research shows that it can up to a point for some people.  For others, it seems like happiness is based on having more.  I also don’t know if people should be basing their happiness on how much money they have.  I have found that having money is better than not having money if the rest of your life is in order.  If you have enough of it, you have more options as to how you choose to live.  That will afford you the ability to focus your time and energy on what you are passionate about.  If the concept of being free makes you happy, money is a means to that end.

 

How Bonds are Impacted by Interest Rates

There are many different economic factors that can change interest rates.  The Federal Reserve can act to change interest rates.  Interest rates can be lowered to increase borrowing and spending during a slumping economy.  Interest rates are also used to manage inflation.

No matter what causes the change in interest rates, the change has a direct impact on how bonds are priced.  When interest rates increase, the value of existing bonds decreases.  The opposite occurs when interest rates are reduced.  When that happens, the value of an existing bond would increase in value.

Not all bonds are the same.  Bonds have different maturity dates.  There are different issuers such as the Treasury, corporations, and municipalities.  Different bonds have different coupon rates.

With bonds, the value of a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow.  Today’s price of a bond is based on the total of future cash flows.  The value is discounted because they are not available today.  When there are changes in interest rates, all bonds are impacted.  Not all bonds, however, are impacted equally.

The price of a short-term bond is affected less by the increase in interest rates than a longer-term bond. Long-term bonds maturity value and interest are paid with future cash flows.  They are paid in the distant future.  When there is an increase in interest rates, the long-term bonds become discounted and decrease dramatically in value.

The interest rates are also known as the coupon rate that is periodically paid also impact the bond price volatility.  The higher the coupon rate, the more cash that is paid in interest to the investor prior to the maturity date.  When interest rates increase, the future cash flows are discounted at a higher rate.  The lower coupon bond will have more cash flow in the future.  The maturity value of the bond represents a larger portion of the total cash flow.  The current value of the bond will fall.

To determine the risk of a bond, an investor needs to look at maturity and coupon rates.  The most volatile bonds have lower coupons and longer maturities.  Less risky bonds are shorter until they reach maturity and have a high coupon rate.

Most individual investors use bonds to reduce the volatility of their overall portfolio and for income.  If you are using the bond portion of your asset allocation to reduce the overall volatility of your portfolio, consider bonds that have maturities that are shorter than five years.  Also, avoid zero-coupon bonds.

How much do bond prices change?  The prices of bonds do change, but not as drastically as with stocks.  What you can lose in bonds in one year, you can lose in stocks in one day.  Even though bonds are less volatile than stocks, it is still important to understand how interest rates affect them.

For example, assume that you have a bond with a 30-year maturity and a 6% coupon rate.  How much would the value of the bond change if there was a 2% drop in percentage points from 6% to 4%?  The bond would increase in value by almost 35%.  A bond that had a face value of $500 prior to the interest rate decrease would climb to $674.

What about if there was an increase in the interest rate from 6% to 8%.  The bond would decrease in value by almost 23%.  That $500 bond would have a loss of $113 in value.

The only way to reduce the price volatility of the bond portion of a portfolio is to consider shorter maturities.  When looking at mutual funds that invest in thousands of different bonds, look at the average maturity and the average coupon rate.  That will give you a ballpark of what the price volatility of the overall portfolio would be.  Below are a few examples of Vanguard Bond Funds:

Vanguard Total Bond Market Fund (VBMFX)

Average Maturity: 8.4 years

Average Coupon: 3%

Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index Fund (VBLTX)

Average Maturity: 24 years

Average Coupon: 4.4%

Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index Fund (VBIRX)

Average Maturity: 2.9 years

Average Coupon: 2%

Mutual fund managers keep a keen eye on interest rates and other economic factors.  They can adjust their portfolio by buying or selling bonds with shorten or longer maturities based on projected interest rate changes.  Fund managers are limited as to what they can buy and sell based on the fund’s investment objective statement found in the prospectus.  For example, a short-term fund cannot increase its holding in long-term bonds just because interest rates might be falling.

There is also a quality factor to consider.  When interest rates are increasing, lower-rated bonds tend to fall in price faster than high-quality bonds.  Bonds with a higher default risk fall the fastest.

If the economy was in a recession, a rise in interest rates would drop the price of a high-yield (junk) bond with a low rating.  A double or triple-A rated corporate bond with the same maturity would also fall in price, but not as quickly as the lower quality bond.  U.S. Government bonds have historically been rated as the highest quality bonds.

It is just as difficult to try to time changes in interest rates as it is to time the stock market.  There has been speculation of raising interest rates for many years and they are just starting to occur.  Economics and fund managers can make predictions as to where interest rates are heading, but nobody truly knows for sure.

When you are building the bond portion of your asset allocation, keep in mind why you are buying bonds.  Be aware how interest rates affect how bonds perform.  If you want to be more conservative, focus on high-quality government, corporate, and municipal bonds.  A risk-averse investor should also stick with short-term bonds or bond funds.

If you want to take on more risk, do so in the stock portion of your asset allocation.  That is not what bonds are intended for in an individual investor’s portfolio.  Bonds should be used to reduce risk and provide income, not add to the overall risk of a portfolio.

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Dumping Stocks at Retirement

Have you ever considered selling all your stocks or stock mutual funds when you retire?  Who wants to have to deal with the ups and downs of the markets when you are no longer dollar-cost-averaging?  Are you afraid of a major market crash when you are drawing down your portfolio?

The market is near its all-time high.  With retirement right around the corner, are you tempted to sell all your stock holdings and call it a day?  It might sound tempting.  This market cannot keep going up, can it?

Every investor has the right to feel exactly how they feel about all of the scary things that are going on in the world.  Don’t lose your head.  The world has always been a volatile place and unfortunately, it always will be.  If it is not one thing, it is something else.

Yes, it might be tempting to pull the trigger and sell high.  You would walk away as a winner.  Before you do that.  Let’s look at how an all-bond portfolio might serve you in retirement.

For this exercise, let us assume that you are now sitting on $1,000,000 in your 401K.  At retirement, you want to draw down 4% per year.  How would an asset allocation of 100% in bonds hold up over the course of 30 years?  To find out, I am going to run this test based on the Monte Carlo method by using the Vanguard Retirement Nest Egg Calculator.

There is a 69% chance that your savings will last 30 years.  I do not like those odds.  I especially do not like them for a person who retires early.

What about if a person wants that $1,000,000 to last 40 years?  The percentages are getting much worse.  There is now only a 36% chance that money will last 40 years.

Could you imagine going broke after being retired for 40 years?  What would you do?  Would you go back to work?  Who would hire you at such an advanced age?  Sure, employers cannot discriminate, but let’s be honest about the opportunities for someone who has been unemployed for that long.

What could an investor do to improve the chances of their savings lasting 30 years or even 40 years for those who enter early retirement?  In Benjamin Graham’s book The Intelligent Investor, he gave a few suggestions for defensive investors.  He suggests that a balanced portfolio made up of 50 in equities and 50% in bonds is a good place to start.  He also suggested that an investor should never exceed an asset allocation of 75/25.  In other words, an investor should never have more than 75% or less than 25% in equities or bonds.

I know that you are seriously considering selling your equity holdings and exchanging them for bonds.  You have told yourself that you are finished with the market.  Volatility is no longer for you.  You want to enjoy your retirement without having to worry about how stocks are performing.  If you do that, the odds are still not in your favor of not running out of money.

How would your $1,000,000 fair if you followed what the late Benjamin Graham suggested in his classic investment book?  How would keeping only 25% in equities change the projected outcome?  Would adding a more volatile asset class help or hurt the likely hood of running out of money?

By keeping 25% in equities, the percentages have dramatically improved.  There is now a 78% chance that your money will not run out over the course of 30 years with a 4% drawdown rate.  Over the course of 40 years, there is 57% chance that your money will last.  By keeping 25% of the portfolio in stocks, there was an improvement of 9% over the course of 30 years and an improvement of 21% for 40 years.

Holding a small allocation of equities sure goes a long way.  What about if you took it a step further and went with a mix of 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds?  I know, I know. You are finished with stocks.  Keeping 25% of your money in stocks is one thing, but going to 50% is just too aggressive for your retirement account.

I understand how you feel.  You do not want to own stocks when the next recession occurs.  A long stock market correction can be scary.

During a drawdown period, how does having 100% in bonds compare to an asset allocation of 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds?  Over the course of 30 years, the 50/50 mix has an 85% chance of success.  Over the course of 40 years, the 50/50 mix has a projected success rate of 74%.  Compared to the portfolio made up of 100% in bonds, the 50/50 mix has a 16% better chance to not run out of money over the course of 30 years.  For the period of 40 years, the 50/50 mix has a 38% better chance of not running out of money.

There are many factors to consider when selecting the asset allocation that is right for your retirement.  How old will you be at the time of retirement?  How long does your money have to last?  How will RMDs impact your drawdown?  What type of lifestyle do you want to live during retirement?  Are you planning on leaving a legacy?

I am not trying to convince you on how you should allocate your portfolio during retirement.  That is ultimately your decision.  Everyone has a unique financial situation.  The purpose of this post was to examine how different conservative portfolios might perform during the drawdown period.  I am just trying to convince you to do your due diligence before you rush to any financial decisions that will impact your quality of life down the road.

After reviewing these results, it shows that diversification is still important during the drawdown period.  Just as holding 100% in stocks is too aggressive for most investors during their working years, holding 100% in bonds might be too conservative for investors during the drawdown period.  When an investor is working on building their wealth, holding a percentage of bonds helps to reduce the impact of how stock market volatility impacts a portfolio.  During the drawdown period, holding a small percentage of equities greatly improves the likelihood of not running out of money in retirement.

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Customer Service Saved the Sale

Very few purchases are as stressful as buying a new car.  Next to buying a house, a car is the second largest purchase that most people make.  Since it is such a large purchase, it is wise to do some research before you sign on the dotted line.

We recently decided that we were going to buy a new car.  My wife and I live in North East Pennsylvania.  While there are parts of the country that do receive more snow than we do, we start to get snow in November and this year it kept snowing until late April.  As the result of our long snow season, we find that Subaru is our best option.

The all-wheel-drive comes in handy on bad road conditions.  In the past, Subaru did not provide very good miles per gallon (MPG) for the size of their cars.  Now, with the CVT transmission, they average around 30 MPG.  In my opinion, that is good for an all-wheel-drive car.

We decided that we wanted a Subaru Outback.  The Subaru Outback matched our needs.  We like to go to our local lakes and the Outback is rated to tow up to 2,700 lbs.  That is more than enough to pull our kayak trailer.

As a member of the financial independence community, I am extremely frugal.  I don’t like spending money, but when I do, I shop for the best value.  I view salespeople as competition.  That is especially the case for big-ticket purchases like a car.

My approach to car shopping is simple.  I know the make and model of what I want before I head out to buy it.  I know how much I want to spend.  As the result of KBB, the value of my trade in is already known. 

To find a car, I just type in what I am looking for in Cars.com.  It is based on year, brand, model, budget, and I search for certified used.  The distance that I am willing to travel is 150 miles. Based on where I live, the 150-mile distance covers both New York City and Philadelphia where there are high volume dealers that offer better prices.  The last part of my search is to sort by lowest mileage on the car.

After I performed that search, the first car that came up was a 2017 Subaru Outback Premium with 4,000 miles for $24,995.  When I looked at what the average price for the same exact car, the closest that I was able to find was one for $27,500, but it had 30,000 miles.  I am willing to drive two hours to save $2,500 and to get a car with 26,000 fewer miles.

Now that I picked out the car, I reached out to the dealer.  I told them that I wanted to buy the car.  My initial call was on a Tuesday.  I made an appointment for the following Saturday.  They did inform me that they could not hold the car but would reach out to me if it was sold. 

Over the course of that week, I had communicated with the car dealer every day.  There was at least one email per day and a few phone calls.  Friday rolled around, and they sent me an email to verify my appointment.  We were all set.

When Saturday arrived, my wife and I drove down to Allentown, Pa to buy our new car.  The dealer was right off of the highway and easy to find.  I thought that it was going to be a simple process.

When we arrived, I asked for the salesperson who I was dealing with.  When he came out, he had bad news.  He told us that the car was sold that morning.  I was annoyed, and my wife was pissed.  She asked him, why did they not call us?  He apologized and said that they have other used Outback’s and would find us another car.

At this point, I had a feeling that I was not going to buy a car from this dealer.  I looked at their online inventory and they did not have any deals that were as good as what I came down for. The salesman asked if we wanted to see their used inventory and I just played along.

He showed us about 10 used Subaru Outback’s that they had in inventory.  One was $1,000 cheaper than the one we drove down for but had 43,000 miles on the odometer.  That was a no.  Most of what they had were the Limited model that was a step above what we wanted to buy.  They were nice.  The Limited had more features like leather and other fancy crap, but they were $30,000 and higher.  I saw one that I liked and asked if he could get it down to $25,000.  He did not think that he could do it.

At this point, I was already looking for a new car on my phone.  I found a very similar deal in New Jersey.  It was only 40 minutes away and I was ready to drive there.

The salesman knew that we were not interested in what he was selling.  I flat out told him that I drove 60 miles for a specific deal.  We only buy cars every 8-10 years and I am willing to travel to buy a cream-puff used car.

He asked if we were willing to sit in his office while he went and spoke to the Sales Manager.  I was not mad at them for selling the car I came down for.  It is just business.  However, I was not going to pay any more than what I budgeted for and was not willing to accept a car with more miles.

He disappeared and left us in his office.  My wife was already over the experience and thought the deal was a basic bait-and-switch.  I was programming the other Subaru Dealer into Google Maps and ready to drive to New Jersey.

About 10 minutes passed and the salesman came back.  He asked what we thought about buying a brand new 2018 model.  I thought to myself, here comes the bait and switch.  He is going to try to sell us a $30,000 plus car.

He told us that he spoke to his Sales Manager.  The best that they could do was to sell us the exact same car that we drove down for except it was brand new and cost $25,300.  It took me about 1 second to review the offer and I said, “you got a deal”.

The Sales Manager came over and told us that he wanted us to leave the dealership satisfied.  He knew that we drove over 1-hour and he felt that he had to offer us a better deal than we came in for.  He reduced the price on the brand-new car from $29,500 to $25,300.

Even though our initial opinion of this dealer felt shady, they ended up saving the sale.  I wish that I could tell you that it was the result of my negotiation skills, but it was not.  My wife and I were just willing to walk away and never come back.  The Salesman and Sales Manager both knew that.  To save the sale, they had to sharpen their pencil on a new model to close the deal. They did what they had to and it was one of the best displays of customer service that I ever experienced.

I was more than satisfied with this deal.  More importantly, my wife was satisfied.  It is her new car.

Even though they had to drastically reduce the price, they saved the sale.  As the result, they made the customer happy.  Without knowing it, they benefited by me sharing this positive experience with my friends, family, and everyone who reads this blog.

As the result of their excellent customer service, I highly recommend Ciocca Subaru in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They are about 60-miles from Philadelphia and about 90 miles from New York City.  If you live in the Mid-Atlantic Region and are looking to buy a Subaru, I would contact Ciocca Subaru.

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Financial Unmanageability Transcends Money

When it comes to finding ways to better manage your finances, there are unlimited resources.  There are many great books, blogs, forums, websites, and apps.  There is not a shortage of information, tools, or even professional services.  If a person wants to make improvements when it comes to spending less, paying down debt, saving more of their earnings, or learning to invest, they could find out how to do it in a matter of minutes by doing a few simple online searches.

If the solution to finding ways to improve your financial situation is so readily available, why are so many people struggling?  Yes, we can blame the marketers for always trying to sell the newest gadget.  That excuse, however, only carries so much weight.  Consumers are more educated than ever and many tune ads out.

What if the problem is more pervasive?  What if the problem is beyond simple behavior modification? What if the problem is based on unmanageability?  Yes, the inability to have mastery over your life.

If the problem is based in unmanageability, there is not a blog or app to solve the problem.  If your life is truly unmanageable, trying to get a better handle on your financial shortcomings is just treating a symptom.  To gain control of your life, it will take a little more than spending less and saving more.

Denial

Nobody truly wants to admit their life is unmanageable.  Just like nobody wants to admit they drink, spend, eat, or gamble too much.  It is natural for many people to think, I don’t have an issue with my finances and then go spend more money.  It is common behavior for people who have addiction problems or a spiritual malady to deny what the problem is.  The thought process is like a broken record that skips the same verse over and over.  I do not have a problem with my finances – go spend more money.

Resentment

To resent is to keep going back to a negative feeling.  Instead of feeling and processing those bad or negative feelings, you spend money.  Resentment is not always based on harboring ill feeling towards someone who you believe wronged you in some way.  Resentment can also be rooted in harboring ill feelings towards someone who did exactly what you expected them to do.  The problem was that you were still not satisfied.  They were unable to fill that void that exists within you.  To find temporary relief, you continue to spend and try to fill that void with an external fix.  Unfortunately, it does not last.  After you exhale out and feel relief, you almost immediately inhale the resentment back in.

It is All About You

When you live an unmanageable life, there will always be a conflict with self.  It is all about you.  You cannot be of real use to others.  Sure, you might be physically present in their life, but are you truly living in the moment?  Or are you just physically there, but mentally bound to your troubles?  When your self-centered thoughts and feelings are the focus of your existence, it is difficult to make meaningful connections with others.

Anxiety 

You are not a bad person.  You might even do nice things for others.  You believe that you are thoughtful and caring.  You spend money on the people you care about and on those who you want to care about you. Externally that all might be true, but aren’t you just doing all those things to find more relief and to feel better about your current state of unmanageability?

Do you live in fear?  Do you spend more than you earn and panic when the bills arrive?  Do you lay awake at night and worry that you will never be able to get out from under all the debt you are in?  Do you see retirement as a possible option for others, but something that you would never be able to afford?  Do you obsess over your finances in one thought, but follow it up with more spending that pushes you further away from having healthy finances?  Do you feel hopeless?

Is this fear leading to other health concerns?  Is it leading to weight gain or panic attacks?  Have you gone to see your doctor because you feel overwhelmed?  Did your doctor put you on meds to take the edge off and to help you cope?

There is a Solution

Yes, getting your finances in order is great, but you first need to get your mind right.  I am not a therapist.  I am just a guy with a personal finance blog.  If you are honesty suffering from the symptoms that I listed above, you should seek outside help.  Find out if your health insurance covers visits to a psychologist without a referral from your primary care doctor.  If not, ask your doctor for a referral to one that they recommend.  You might have to pay a low co-pay, but it will be worth it.

There are also 12-step programs.  As I stated earlier, your spending might be just a symptom of a larger issue.  There are 12-step programs for spending, gambling, drinking, and just about any other type of obsessive disease.  It is up to you to dig deeper and decide if you think a 12-step solution would be a good fit for you.

Conclusion

Don’t beat yourself up.  Don’t wallow in guilt, shame, remorse, or any other negative feeling.  The past is the past.  It is time to move on.  Pick up the pieces.  You are not a bad person.  You might have made poor decisions and you might suffer from the disease of addiction.  After you put your own house back in order, you can make amends to those you feel you might have harmed including yourself.

There is hope.  There is also help available.  It is now up to you to find the right help that will be a catalyst for positive change.

Once you get your mind right, great things will start to happen in your life.  Not only will your financial situation improve, but every area of your life will get better.  How could it not, you will be moving away from the problem and in the solution.

You will be able to better accept people and situations as they are.  You will be able to let go of the past. You will better assimilate into the mainstream of life.  You will become more useful to the people around you.  You will finally find the peace that you have been searching for all along.

As a bonus, you should be able to better budget and save money.  Your whole life will become more manageable.  Having a few more bucks in the bank will just make life more enjoyable.

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Joining a Board of Directors

Have you ever thought about joining a board of directors for an organization that you are interested in serving?  I recently was invited to join the board of directors for a local non-profit organization.  It was flattering to be invited.  Of course, I jumped at this opportunity to be of service.

My wife has always been involved in community and church service.  Slowly, her good nature has rubbed off on me.  Over the past few years, I have volunteered to help the clients at the local chapter of The ARC to prepare for job interviews.  It is such a rewarding experience.  When I finish with a lesion, I feel that I receive back more in gratitude than they receive in development.

By joining this board, I see it as an opportunity to give back more to the community.  The board that I joined is for The Mature Workers Program that is part of the National Council on Aging.  It was a good fit for me since I work in HR for a not-for-profit healthcare organization.

There are many benefits of joining a board of directors:

Career

Joining a board of directors is a smart move for your career.  It looks great on your LinkedIn profile.  It shows that you are service orientated.  By being on a board of directors, it reflects that you are a well-respected individual by people of influence.  It shows that you see the big picture.  When a potential employer sees that you volunteer as an advisor, they interrupt it as that you want to contribute to something that is bigger than yourself.  Those are all great characteristics that might not normally stand out on a standard chronological resume.

People of Influence

Many boards attract people of influence.  It is common for boards to be made up of lawyers, executives, community leaders, business owners, and other financially independent people who are passionate about an organization or cause.  It is an opportunity to meet and interact with these folks.  It is a chance to partner with them and work to improve the organization that you now help to oversee.  It is a networking opportunity that is not readily available to everyone.  By closely interacting with these individuals, there is the potential to develop close relationships with them because you share a common bond.  Work to foster those relationships.  You never know how or when those connections can be helpful in the future.

Community Pride

Do you care about the area where you live, an organization, or a cause?  By joining a board of directors, you are able to have input.  Today, everyone has an opinion, but by being on a board of directors, you have an option that matters.  It is an opportunity to become a community leader and to develop an abundance mindset.  Even if it is on a small level, it is still a trusted role.  It is a position where people care what you have to say.  Everyone might not agree with you, but you still have a voice and a vote when it comes to the management of the organization that you serve.  It is truly a position of respect.

Leadership Skills

Being on a board of directors will help to develop you into a leader.  You will have to review and approve of budgets.  You will have input when it comes to shaping policy.  You will be presented with the goals of the organization and how management is working to reach these goals.  As the member of a board of directors, you are responsible to lead and to present input that shapes the best practices of the organization.  Your negotiation skills will be sharpened.  You will learn true team building skills as you work with other board members to shape the future direction of the organization.

How to Join

In most cases, you must be invited or elected to join a board of directors.  There are organizations, however, that are looking for people to join.  First, do research on organizations that you are interested in.  Try to identify organizations that have a mission, vision, and values that you feel strongly about.  Do some deeper digging and find out if you have any connections to the organization.  Use LinkedIn to identify possible connections.  Share your interest in the organization and look for ways to volunteer.  After you learn if the organization is a fit, make a formal request to join the board or to be nominated if the selection is based on an election.

Conclusion

The organization that I am now on the board of directors for wants to increase the number of clients that they serve.  They have an adequate marketing budget.  They run television ads, radio ads, and attend most community events where people over the age of 55 might attend.

At my first meeting, I suggested that they allocate some of the marketing money towards social media and brought up the idea of creating a blog.  The suggestion went over well.  It is going to be added as a topic for debate and to be voted upon at a future board meeting.

I have truly enjoyed my short experience serving as a board member.  It feels good to be able to give back.  It has been a privilege to volunteer my time.  I am looking forward to future board meetings and for the opportunity to be of service.

Have you ever served on a board of directors?

If yes, please share your experience.

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Making Retirement Less Complicated

The following is a sponsored post provided by Blueprint Income.

Planning for retirement is challenging. It’s the most complicated time in our lives, financially. When you’re young, all you really need to do is save. But, eventually saving won’t be enough. You have to start figuring out how you’ll actually survive in retirement. And it’s not the same as surviving today for 3 big reasons, which I’ll go through below. Then I’ll tell you about a company I recently discovered that is trying to make retirement less complicated.

Reason 1: You won’t have a steady source of income.

While we’re working, the financial calculus is pretty simple: spend less than you make. Many of us have steady sources of income that dictate our spending ability. We know that each month we’ll get $X dollars, and we spend some amount less than $X so that we don’t go into debt and we save.

But in retirement, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who have a pension, you won’t have a steady source of income. We do have Social Security, which helps a lot, but it only covers 40% of the average retiree’s spending. So the remaining 60% of our spending we’ll have to cover through interest, withdraws from our savings accounts, or finding some other way to generate income. Most of our options out there aren’t as stable as our salaries, so we might not have the security of steady income.

Reason 2: You don’t know how long retirement will last.

There’s a reason why you can’t get a great answer to the question of how much you need to save for retirement. There are so many variables that impact that number, including what happens in the stock/bond markets and how long you live. You might have a retirement that lasts 10 years, or perhaps it’ll last 30 years. A 30-year retirement is wildly more expensive than a 10-year retirement. So which do you prepare for?

This also isn’t as much of a challenge if you have a pension, because a pension provides income no matter how long you live. But if you’re heading into retirement with a finite amount of assets, you need to figure out how much to spend monthly so that you don’t run out, no matter how long you live.

Reason 3: You might not have the same cognitive ability to deal with your finances.

Sometimes we procrastinate — it’s normal! And, often it’s not a huge deal; we’re able to catch up. But only because we’ll have the same level of intelligence and reasoning to get us back on track. Unfortunately, we can’t count on this in retirement. Some of us will start to lose our cognitive abilities. And, if we’ve set our future selves up with the responsibility of making complicated financial decisions (like the one outlined in reason 2), we might not do well.

Again, if we had pensions with paychecks coming in the door every month, then this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. But since most of us will be managing a market portfolio to an unknown end date, there will be no autopilot.

The Blueprint Income Solution

I was recently introduced to Blueprint Income, who are trying to do something about this. They’ve recognized the challenges listed above and created a new type of retirement plan to deal with it. It’s called the Personal Pension. Using annuities (insurance products that provide guaranteed income in retirement), they’re able to help you design your own pension-like plan if you don’t have one from your employer.

You contribute to it on an ongoing basis, alongside your 401(k). But, instead of that money going to buy stocks and bonds, it turns into steady retirement income that continues for as long as you’re alive, and even if the stock market crashes.

The annuity market is known for being complicated, hard to navigate, and expensive, so they’re dealing with that as well. Their platform only includes the simplest, fully-guaranteed, low-cost annuities, not the more complicated variable and indexed annuities that have a bad rap. And, their plans start at $5,000 with the ability to contribute flexibly over time if desired, much lower than the rest of the market.

Learn more about Blueprint Income and the Personal Pension here.

All of this isn’t to say that retirement is necessarily going to be hard or complicated for you. In fact, it has the potential to be exactly the opposite. But, creating a financially secure retirement for yourself — where you don’t have to stress about money — takes hard work and planning ahead. I hope the resources on this site and companies like Blueprint Income help make it easier for all of you.

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The House We Did Not Buy

Buying a house is a major decision.  For most people, it is the largest major financial decision that they will ever make.  There are many aspects to consider when deciding on a house.  Do you want to live in a city, the suburbs, or in a rural area?  Finding your dream house and neighborhood can be a major undertaking.

My wife and I have lived in our current house since we were married.  She bought the house from a relative before I was in her life.  It is nice house and we live close to many of her relatives.

The house did need some upgrades when I moved in.  It was built in 1964 and much of the house was outdated.  After I moved in, we remodeled the kitchen, bathroom, added a deck, as well as many other upgrades.

The house was about 1,200 square feet and we wanted a little more room.  We added a nice 320 square foot addition.  That addition is our sitting room and we spend most of our time in there.

The house is almost paid for.  We only owe about $30,000 on the mortgage.  The house was appraised for $226,000 in 2012, so we have a nice amount of equity in the house.

By staying in this house, my wife and I have avoided lifestyle creep.  Having a small mortgage and low taxes enabled us to have a high savings rate.  If we upgraded to a $500,000 house, we would not have been able to save 50% of our gross earnings over the past 10 years.

We are not planning on retiring until 2028.  After we retire, we are planning on buying a house on a lake because we enjoy kayaking, boating, and fishing.  We are planning on staying in Pennsylvania for 9 months per year.  For the winter months, we plan on becoming snowbirds and head south for the winter.

A major life event caused us to rethink our plan.  A close family member recently passed away following a four-year battle with cancer and other major health issues.  Watching him suffer made us think about living more in the present and not focusing on what our life will be like in retirement.

We decided to look at some houses that were for sale on the lakes that are close to where we currently live.  The nice thing about living in the Pocono Mountains is that there are many nice lakefront homes.  The region is also known for private gated communities that attract people from New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston who buy weekend homes in these developments.

We started by looking online.  What I found did not surprise me.  Most of the lakefront houses were very expensive.  Older houses that were lakefront cost $400,000 and needed upgrades.  The newer houses are much more expensive.

Our next move was to look for a house that was not lakefront but had lake rights.  This was a more modest priced market.  Houses that were only 5-years old were less than $350,000.  That was more in our price range because we would be putting about 60% down on the house.

We found a few that we really liked and decided to spend a Sunday looking at these houses.  The first few were nice but way too big.  We do not need or want 4,000 square feet of living space.

After looking at 5 houses we were starting to get tired.  It is fun to look at these houses, but also overwhelming.  Before we called it quits for the afternoon, I wanted to look at one last house.

The last house was a little less expensive.  It was listed at $258,000.  This house was in a private community that is only 8 miles from where we currently live.  It also comes with lake rights to a private 150-acre lake.  It is a serene lake that does not allow outboard motors.  Only sailboats, kayaks, or boats with electric motors are allowed.  It is also a catch-and-release lake that is stocked with bass, trout, catfish, and walleye.

For me, it was love at first sight.  For my wife, she really liked the house, but more legwork was needed before we decided.  We both agreed that we needed to do our due diligence and not buy a house after our first visit.

The next day, I called the realtor to set-up an appointment to tour the house.  The realtor was nice as well as transparent.  She gave me some interesting details about the house.  In 2010, the house sold for $389,000 and is now listed for $259,000.  I did not want to admit it, but that was the first red flag.

I asked why there was such a deep discount on a 10-year old house?  She said that the taxes doubled because of a county reassessment.  There is also a homeowners association (HOA) that charges $2,500 per year.  The total annual cost of the taxes and home owner’s association fees would be $8,200.  We now pay $2,700.

I was not happy about the major jump in taxes and fees.  It was, however, not a deal breaker.  I was smitten with the privately stocked lake.

The next evening, my wife and I decided to take a ride over to see our potential new house.  We were excited.  Our excitement, however, did not last.

We pulled into the driveway and got out to walk around the house.  It was not currently occupied by the owners.  We only took about two or three steps and we saw the neighbors Doberman Pincher as he came barreling towards us.  Luckily, the dog’s owner was in his yard and called the dog back.

The Doberman caused me great concern.  I am not afraid of big dogs, but my wife and I have a little dog.  His safety trumps everything.

I was happy that the neighbor was outside.  He came over and spoke with us.  He seemed like a nice guy.  He was young.  I would guess in his early 30’s.  We spoke about the house and of course what the fishing was like at the lake.  I asked him about the homeowners association.  He said they are not too bad to deal with, but he gets in trouble with them often.  He said that he gets in trouble with the homeowners association for driving his ATV and snowmobile at night.

On our drive home, I was still thinking about fishing on a private lake every evening after work.  At this point, my wife decided that she did not want to buy the house.  She did not say anything to me on our drive home because she did not want to bust my bubble.

That evening, I could not sleep.  My anxiety was out of control.  I did not fall asleep until after midnight.  The house was very nice, and I loved the lake.  Deep down, I knew that it was not a good fit.  All those red flags would not go away.  They kept running around in my mind.  I could not justify all of these issues.

As a member of the financial independence community, I do not like to pay taxes.  I love fishing but hate taxes.  Having my taxes go up almost 200% did not sit well with me.

The second source of anxiety was our dog.  We don’t have children, so our dog is our baby.  He currently has his own two-acre field to enjoy without worrying about being eaten by a Doberman.  I would never do anything to put him in an unsafe situation.

The third warning sign was the neighbor.  He did seem like a nice young man.  However, I am not willing to put up with him driving his ATV at night.

When I awoke, my wife said that she wanted to talk.  She told me that she loved me and wanted me to have a lake house.  I worked and saved for over two decades and she wanted me to be happy.  She just felt that this house was not for us.

I told her that I agreed with her.  There are many reasons why my wife and I have a happy and successful marriage.  We love each other, communicate well, and think alike.  If a situation is not right, it is wrong.  The house was not the right fit for us.

We could have afforded the house.  It might have caused our saving rate to go from over 50% to 40%.  That does not sound like a big deal, but I am more interested in saving and reaching early retirement than owning a lake house at this point in my life.

We have not since looked at any other houses.  It was too emotional of a process for me.  At this point, I think that we are going to stay in our current house until we retire.  I have said this before, once you become a saver, you will never be a spender.  As a saver, I will have to settle for fishing at our local state parks and public lakes instead of a private lake until we retire.  Life can be much worse.

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Travel Hacking: Round One

Until recently, I have never tried travel hacking.  As a member of the financial independence community, I have not looked favorably at credit cards.  I saw them as a way for undisciplined people to spend more than they earn.  In my opinion, I saw them as tools that banks use to hack high fees and interest payments out people who have fallen victim to materialism.

My view on credit was to only borrow when it was a must and to pay it back as quickly as possible.  Since I started working full-time, I only used credit when I needed it.  However, I knew that having a high credit score was important.

My wife and I both have high credit scores but have not borrowed much.  I once had a car loan that I paid off in my early 20’s.  When I went to college, I paid cash for my first two years and took out student loans for my Junior and Senior years.  My wife and I also took out a home equity loan to remodel our house.  That is currently our only debt.

For years, my wife and I only had one credit card.  We used it for travel, shopping on Amazon, and for other purchases when a credit card was more convenient than cash.  We have always just used a basic bank card that paid 1% cash back.

I did not know if 1% was good or not.  I was more interested in using the card when it was required and just paid off the balance every month.  At the end of the year, I would get $500 back and just use the rewards money for holiday bills.

The focus of my personal finance management and writing has been saving and investing.  My approach has been to focus on career growth, saving as much as possible, and capture average market returns by investing in index funds.  Hacking has not been on my radar.

Over the past year, I have started reading more and more blogs about people who are taking two or more vacations per year for free.  Since some of the most trusted bloggers promote it, I decided to read more about it.  It was not until I attended a meet-up in New York City where a group of bloggers from Rockstar Finance got together.  At this event, I got turned on to travel hacking and decided to give it a shot.

The idea of taking a vacation or two per year for free excited me.  We travel anyway, so why not enjoy our trips for free.  I started to do some research.  I also took the Travel Miles 101 online course.  Travel Miles 101 is a comprehensive course that explains all that a person needs to start travel hacking.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about travel hacking.

After taking the travel miles 101 class and reading many other blogs, the consensus card to start with is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year.  The annual fee after that is $95 per year, but as part of the hack, you set it up to never pay that fee.

So, what do you get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card?  If you spend $4,000 in 3 months, you earn 50,000 bonus points.  Those 50,000 bonus points add up to some nice rewards. The redemption value is worth $625 in airfare, $625 towards hotels, or $300 in cash.

There are other nice benefits With the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  A cardholder will receive 2X points on travel purchases.  When you dine out, a cardholder receives 2X points on restaurant purchases worldwide.  Every other purchase equals 1 point per $1 spent.

Based on all of the suggestions, I opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.   In order to hit the target of $4,000 to earn the points, I set up all of our monthly household bills to be charged to this card. Since it was November, it did not take long to hit the $4,000 with all of the extra holiday spending.

After I reached the $4,000, my wife opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  We followed the same plan and used the card for all of our bills and spending.  It took us less than two months for us to hit $4,000 on her card.

Now for the fun stuff.  It was time to redeem our points.  We decided that we wanted to visit Dublin, Ireland this summer.  To redeem the points, there is a portal to access the travel section on the Chase Dashboard.  It is as easy as booking a flight on any other travel website.

We decided to fly out of Philadelphia (PHL) and wanted a non-stop flight.  Based on the value of our points, these tickets were going to only cost us about $150 in out of pocket expenses.  Before we booked our flight, I decided to check if there was a cheaper flight out of the Newark Airport (EWR).  I typed in our travel dates and a round-trip ticket from Newark to Dublin on Air Lingus was only $605 per ticket.  We booked our flights and had points to spare.  It was that easy.

I do not know if travel hacking is for everyone.  If you are not good with paying your bills every month, travel hacking might not be for you.  If you end up with a balance and have to pay the high interest, the credit card company is actually hacking you.  You also need to have the required spend to earn the points.  If you do not spend enough to qualify, you should not just spend money you otherwise would not spend to just earn points.

Does travel hacking hurt your credit score?  I have only opened two cards, so I do not have any personal evidence to share with you.  Based on many other blogs, there is minimal change and most credit scores increase over time.  The most important thing is paying your balance every month.

If you are responsible paying your monthly bills and enjoy traveling, you should look into travel hacking.  Travel hacking also requires a person to be structured and to know when to close a card before the annual fees will be charged.  There are many great travel websites and points tracking tools like awards wallet to make the process easier.

I hope you found this post useful.  Moving forward, I will share our experience with every new card we open and hack.  Please keep your eye out for round two in the next few months.

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