Kids investing in real stocks

For those of you who have been following the Summerfield Open, you know that those tests for 4th and 5th graders had a major focus on applying mathematical principals to personal finance.  Many of the kids got interested in investing because of those questions which led parents to ask me how their kids can start investing in stocks.  Here is how I would approach it.

Of course, remember this is just friendly advice.  I am not an expert and you should call the broker (I suggest Vanguard) or work with a paid advisor.  With that out of the way, here’s what you can do:

 

Fun or boring

We’ve talked ad nauseum on this blog about the best investing strategy being buy and hold index mutual funds.  This is a tried and true approach, but it’s boring.  When you’re thinking about how to get kids excited about and engaged in investing, that’s a conundrum.

You want investing to be exciting for the ankle-biters to hold their attention.  If you’re an ankle-biter who is looking to start investing, the point may be less to make a lot of money.  Rather, it might be to gain experience investing.  Yet, you want them to develop good investing habits that will pay dividends (haha, do you see what I just did?) for the rest of their lives.

With all that, I think you want to have a foundation of correct investing principals (boring), and then try to mix in some fun into that.  Let’s look at those investing principles and see which should apply to the padawans:

  • Diversification—This is a critical concept that you want to have early on. Investing in individual stocks might make it a bit more tangible for the munchkin (you’re investing in Apple which is the type of phone mom has), but I think you can do something similar with a mutual fund or more likely ETF (more on that in a minute).  Individual stocks will be more volatile which will translate to more exciting for a munchkin, but ETFs will definitely have plenty of action.
  • More diversification—As you look to diversify an important concept is “total coverage”. You want to have investments everywhere.  That might be a bit harder for individual stocks because it’s not always easy to know the exposure that a company has geographically (you’re investing in Ford because that’s the car dad drives, but how much of their business is in the Middle East?).  With ETFs you can overtly pick US funds or European funds or Pacific, etc.  That gives a bit of a built in geography lesson too, so there you go.
  • Minimize costs—We’ll have a whole section on this, but costs are especially important for the half-fries. They probably don’t have a lot of money to invest (remember, investing is probably more for the experience than the wealth creation).  With a smaller portfolio a $5 or god-forbid $15 transaction fee to buy some shares of stock would have an outsized negative effect on a $100 portfolio compared to a $100,000 “adult-sized” one (but even adults shouldn’t pay transaction fees).
  • Hold investments for long term—This is critical for wealth creation, but I think we sacrifice that for the tadpoles. Trading is “exciting” and keeps them engaged.  Fortunately, because of the Random Walk there’s no reason to believe that more active trading will negatively impact the portfolio beyond the transaction costs (mentioned above, and again below).  So here I say have a lot of fun and dip your toe in and out of the different investments somewhat frequently to keep it exciting.
  • Track your investments—This is probably even more important for the spuds. As an adult it’s actually a bad thing to be looking at your portfolio all the time.  However, here I think it’s good.  Everyday something will happen with the investments—it’ll go up a lot or down some or something.  There are amazingly great math lesson here—calculating returns, making graphs of what’s going on.  If you want, as a parent you could really dig in and make this a huge adjunct math course.

 

Setting things up

Fair warning, the advice I am giving here might be illegal.  I strongly recommend you talk to an investment professional as you do this.

Unfortunately, to set up a brokerage account that allows you to trade in stocks or ETFs or what ever, you need to be 18.  So that’s a problem for the half-pints.  As a parent you would need to take said half-pint’s money and invest it in your (adult’s) account.  Technically, the money will belong to the adult, but perhaps you can make a deal with your half-pint to “promise” it will go back to them.  Seriously, the IRS does allow gifts between people (I think the limit is $10,000 per year), so I don’t think it should be too big a deal, but do understand the technicalities.

All our investments are at Vanguard, and that is where I would go.  You can go to www.vanguard.com, select “Open an account”, say you’ll fund it with a check, and then pick a “general savings account”.

There will be a lot of questions that you’ll need to fill out and then with things like your social security number, a username and password, and other stuff.  Get all that done, and then you can call them up and ask for deposit slips so you can send them a check to fund your account.

 

Minimize costs

Once everything is set up and the money is in your account, you will get to the fun part which is picking your investments.  Here I would suggest ETFs, which basically act like stocks—you buy them in whole shares and they trade throughout the day—but they are really like a mutual fund in that they invest in hundreds of companies.

This is where Vanguard really shines.  You can open your account for no minimum and then invest as little as one share (each share is typically between $50 and $150).  If you invest in a Vanguard ETF (they have a ton of high quality ones—here) they don’t charge any transaction fee.  So you can trade and out of them as much as you want.  Obviously, you don’t want to be silly, but that works well for juniors who want to experience the trades.

If you want to invest in individual stocks or non-Vanguard mutual funds there is a fee (I think $7 per trade), but I don’t really think there’s any reason to do that.

There are ETFs for everything.  For a little dude, I would suggest equities, and here are a few that you might consider:

  • VTI—all US companies
  • VB—small US companies
  • VT—all companies in the world
  • VXUS—all international companies
  • VDE—energy companies (industry specific)
  • VHT—healthcare companies (industry specific)

 

As you know, I have a huge passion for investing and helping kids.  If you’re doing this and need some help navigating things, please let me know.

Top 5—Financial moves when the stork is coming

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A lot of our readers are starting their families or have younger kids.  Foxy Lady and I have been so blessed to bring two wonderful little cubs into the world.  As you embark on parenthood and rearing little ones, what are the financial considerations you need to make?  Surprisingly, I don’t think there are all that many:

 

5. Set up your health insurance. Depending on when you find out your pregnant, the chances are you will have an enrollment period with your health insurance.  Foxy Lady and I screwed this up twice since both of our boys were born in October (we found out we were pregnant in February so we missed the open enrollment while pregnant), but let’s imagine that found out that we were pregnant in October and the baby was due in June.

When open enrollment comes around every December and goes in effect in January, we would have bought the primo policy that gives the best coverage.  Normally, we don’t pick the Cadillac policy that our work offers because we’re relatively healthy and don’t go to the doctor a lot.  Under normal circumstances we get a middle-of-the-road policy.  If we happen to have a medical issue (like with ‘Lil Fox in 2014) we know we’ll spend a little more in out of pocket, but that doesn’t happen very often so we generally come out ahead.

However, when you’re expecting you know for sure you’re going to spend a lot of time in the hospital and you’re going to have a lot of doctor’s visits, and that gets expensive.  If you know this is coming, get the insurance policy that has the higher premium every paycheck but then covers most or all of those expenses.  Had we done this with our boys, we probably would have saved $3000-4000 on each little guy.  As it is, I’ve told both boys they owe us that money and it should be treated as a loan accruing interest, but neither has acknowledged the righteousness of my claim.

 

4. Set up your flex spending account. Similar to #5, if you’re having a baby you know you’re going to have some medical expenses. Make sure at open enrollment you set up your flex spending account to pay for those.  With flex spending accounts you can pay for medical expenses using before-tax dollars.  So that $2000 you had to pay with pre-tax dollars only feels like $1300.

Also, once you have kids, you can use a flex spending account to pay for childcare.  The government allows up to $5000 per child to be tax deductible (I’m not a tax expert, but that’s my understanding) if you use a flex spending account.  Spending $5000 in pre-tax dollars instead of after-tax dollars is pretty sweet.  And for childcare it seems like a no-brainer that amounts to about $1500 per year.  Most of us know for sure that we’re going to have childcare expenses.  Why not spend the hour it takes to save that money (if $1500 isn’t worth an hour of your time, then I’d like for you to help me with my finances).

 

3. Steel yourself against crazy “baby” spending. Definitely when you are going to have a baby there is a lot of stuff that you need, and this is especially true for your first child.  But for everything item that you do need there are probably 5 that you don’t need.  Baby stuff has become a big business and the people who market this stuff are smart.  They know you want the best for your child, and they aren’t above pulling on your heart strings to let you think that you “need this to be a good, loving parent.”

We did get the diaper genie and are glad we did.  We never got the bottle warmer, and never missed it for a second.  We got a pee tent (when you’re changing your son’s diaper and keeping him from peeing everywhere between diapers) and never used them.  We got three strollers with our first—a regular that the car seat fits into, a jogger, and an umbrella stroller—and used all three but we never have really used the tandem stroller once Mini Fox joined his brother.  There are a million more examples but you get my point.

This isn’t a baby blog, so I’ll stop there.  Just understand my point is that you can spend hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of dollars on baby stuff, much of which you won’t need and none of which will make you love your baby any more.

 

2. Start a 529 account. If you are planning on paying for some or all of your child’s education (that’s a big “if” and one I covered here), a 529 is a no-brainer.  Basically, a 529 allows you to take after-tax money and invest it for your kid’s education.  That money can grow tax free so when you take it out you won’t pay any taxes on it.  In that way it’s very similar to a Roth IRA.

Doing back of the envelop math, if you saved $500 per month for your child’s education that would give you about $200,000 after 18 years.  Of that $200k, about $110k would be what you put in and $90k would be what you gained on your investments.  Without a 529 you would be taxed on that $90k gain; depending on your tax bracket that could be $30-40k you would owe Uncle Sam.  With a 529 you get to keep that.  Think about that for a second—basically the tax advantages of a 529 buy you another year of college.  It’s like buy three years, get the fourth year for free.

 

1. Love. This is a finance and investing blog so I always focus on money, but with your baby your love is a million times more important than anything you can do that has a dollar sign attached to it.  There will be some costs, a few of which we discussed above, but not as many as you’d think.  You’ll spend some on diapers and formula, as much or as little on clothes as your fashion sense (or lack thereof) allows, and you’re pretty much set.

Very often, somewhat to your chagrin, they’ll find more joy in the box that expensive toy comes in than the toy itself.  Library books are free, and children’s books in general are pretty inexpensive, so reading to your kids (one of the best things you can do according to child development experts) is pretty cheap and really rewarding.  And walks to the park and rides on the swings are still free.  As is keeping your cool when your kid puts one of his rubber balls under the treadmill, having it sucked into the motor so now it makes a funny noise.

As you embark on parenthood it’s a crazy rollercoaster.  Sure there are a couple financial bows you have to tie, but I don’t believe near as many as a lot of people would have you believe.

 

Happy parenting.  For those parents out there, what were the major financial items you had to take care of when your bundle of joy arrived?

Thinking about your home equity in retirement

Sometimes my logic just doesn’t add up.  When ever I think about the Fox family’s retirement, or when ever I work with clients and discuss their retirement, I never consider the value of our/their home.  That seems crazy, especially when you look at national statistics.  The average American has a net worth of $80k, of which about $55k is their home equity!!!  That means that for the average American 70% of their net worth is in their home, yet that’s something I don’t incorporate when I think about retirement.  What gives?

 

Your home as an investment

To start, it’s worth thinking about your house as an investment.  As investments go, especially over the long-term, houses don’t perform nearly as well as other types of investments like stocks (I did a whole blog on this point).

You’re always going to hear stories about people who made a killing when they sold their house.  Like fish stories, you only hear about the “wins” and not from the people who didn’t do that well.  Also, a lot of people think about the “gain” of the sale, comparing what they originally bought the house for and what they sold it for, yet they don’t factor in all the maintenance and home improvements they put in.

The point is that I think most people and certainly the mass media tend to romanticize the idea of houses as an investment.  I think the performance is much more modest.

 

Your home as a shelter

Obviously, your home serves a very practical purpose as a shelter.  It keeps the rain off your head, protects you from the bad guys (as Mini Fox would say), provides storage for your crap, etc.  That’s the rub, and makes your home fundamentally different from other, more traditional investments like mutual funds or other securities.

Even in retirement you need that shelter, so it’s not like you can sell your home and use the proceeds to fund your lifestyle (actually, maybe you can, but there’s some deep water there that we’ll talk about in a few minutes).  So you’re stuck in the middle—you need the shelter your home provides, but your home represents a large portion of your savings nest egg.  What to do?

 

Options (and why they are problematic)

As we’ve discussed, you’ll probably need about $5000 to $10k per month in retirement to support a moderate, middle-class lifestyle.  That will go to food, vacations, healthcare, and all the other stuff you’ll need.  Oh, by the way, you’ll also need shelter—a roof over your head—so let’s think about how that would go.

Option 1—At some point, maybe when the kids leave the house, you can sell the home you own, take all the equity and put that into your investments, and rent for the rest of your life.  This isn’t a very popular option, yet I think it has a lot of really positive features (see my comparison of renting versus buying).   The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and very, very few retirees with at least a moderate investment portfolio do this.

Option 2—When the kids leave you can downsize, selling your larger family home for a smaller one that accommodates two older people rather than a nuclear family.  This allows you to get a less-expensive home, pocket the equity and put that money in your investment portfolio, and go forward.  This allows people to use that home equity to support their retirement, but the problem is still there, albeit smaller.  You still will own a home that ties up a bunch of your net worth.

Option 3—Do a reverse mortgage.  This is a bit of an obscure strategy with a number of complexities that probably deserves its own post.  Basically, you take your home equity and borrow against it—let’s say taking out $3000 per month to fund your lifestyle.  There are a lot of details here with a lot of fees (that make it less attractive), plus it “forces” you to stay in your home which may be a good thing or a bad thing.  That said, this solves a lot of the problems we discussed.

 

What does it all mean?

It’s clear there are some complexities with this, and I don’t think there’s a clear approach that you should take.  Counting your home equity in your net worth can definitely expose you to not having enough liquid funds to pay for things like food, healthcare, etc.

On the other hand, not counting that money at all seems to be really, really conservative.  After 30 years, our mortgages will be paid off and we’ll have an asset that is potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That needs to be incorporated somehow, right?

Basically, I calculate everything as though there is no home equity.  When I look at the Fox family’s financials or those of the clients I help, I know that what ever those numbers (just the investments) say, there’s some upside.  It’s a stupid game we play with ourselves, but that’s how I do it.  If our finances were so close (what I had was right at what I needed), I would definitely start dissecting the home equity value more.

Usually, though, I set the goal for myself and my clients that their investment accounts (brokerage, IRA, 401k, etc) should be enough to fund their retirement.  Then their house can be upside which gives a bit of a cushion for posher retirement or for unexpected expenses which may arise.

Sweet—a really important item in personal finance that defies an easy answer.  That’s how I do it.  How do you think about your home equity?

Problem solved: Race Relations

We are living in a country where race relations are at a multi-generational low.  Despite decades of approaches and policies meant to improve things, up to this point it doesn’t seem to have gotten better (it actually seems to have gotten worse).  Maybe personal finance can move the needle?  Admittedly, personal finance isn’t going to solve every issue, but I think it is uniquely positioned to make a major impact, all the while without redistributing wealth in a way that makes it a dead-on-arrival policy.  Let’s dig in:

 

Income (and net worth) inequality

Data show that there is a huge difference between the haves (whites, Asians) and the have-nots (hispanics, native Americans, and blacks).  Just for simplicity, for the rest of this post we’ll contrast the black/white differences, although this entire post could easily be about black/Asian or hispanic/white or hispanic/Asian and the concepts would be nearly identical.

Race Income (2015) Net worth (2013)
Asian $80,720 $112,250
White $61,349 $132,483
Hispanic $46,882 $12,458
Native American $39,719 N/A
Black $38,555 $9,211
TOTAL $57,617 $80,039

 

The median income for whites is $61k and the median income for blacks is $39k.  That’s a big difference, but the difference becomes even more pronounced when you look at net worth–$130k for whites and $9k for blacks.

The income disparity gets A TON more press than the net worth disparity, and that’s a big miss.  You don’t eat income or use income to buy a house or pay for college: you use net worth for that.  Obviously they are closely related, yet they are different, and the data shows just how uncorrelated they are.

Racial challenges are multi-dimensional, very complex, and nuanced.  There’s no single path to address all of them, but I think you get the biggest bang for your buck by closing the income/net worth gap.  Obviously, by definition, closing the income gap addresses the income gap (incredible insight there, Stocky) and also goes a long way in addressing the net worth gap.

It also addresses a lot of other racial issues: interactions with law enforcement—police have infinitely fewer negative interactions with rich people than poor people. Education—rich people have much better access to high-quality education at every level than poor people.  Healthcare—exact same statement as education.  Political voice—exact same statement as education.  And on and on.

So the challenge is how to increase the income, and more importantly the net worth, of blacks to get it closer to the levels of whites?

 

Net positive, not sum-zero

This becomes a delicate subject.  An obvious solution is wealth distribution based on race.  To address the net worth issues, we as a society could tax white people and give those proceeds to black people.  This actually has a name: Reparations.

Michigan congressman John Conyers had introduced a reparations bill in every Congress since 1989.  Every single time, the bill never came to a vote and “Died in a previous Congress”.  Given it didn’t even have the support to come to a vote it’s hard to imagine having the support to pass both houses of Congress and get the President’s signature, plus withstand the legal challenges.   I would certainly be opposed to such legislation.

While people can have a lively debate about reparations in particular, they are extremely unlikely.  Broadening that out a bit, I think the idea of punishing/taxing/taking away from one race of people to give to another just isn’t realistic or moral.

That speaks to net worth disparity (give net worth from one race to another), but there is a similar train of thought on income disparity.  We could take certain high paying jobs and force companies to employ blacks but not whites.  This again causes similar challenges.

Actually, this played out in real life recently at Youtube.  Allegedly, they excluded white and Asian men from consideration for some roles.  I’m not certain to the legality or illegality of this, but from a PR perspective this is a practice that Youtube (they are owned by Google) vigorously denied.  They said they hire “candidates based on their merit, not their identity.”  If a private-sector company in an at-will state won’t publicly say they do this, there’s zero chance such a practice would be codified with legislation.

Getting back to the task at hand, that means we can’t address the income and net worth gap by taking from whites and giving to blacks.  We have to find a way to increase the income and net worth of blacks that has no impact (or dare I say a positive impact) on whites.

 

It’s what you do

If you read this blog, you know I am an enormous advocate of personal finance, and “doing the right thing” with your money, whatever that means.  We live in a country with very low financial literacy, which means that people don’t really understand concepts of compound interest, appropriate asset allocation, tax avoidance strategies, and much more.  That applies to all races.

That ignorance comes at a huge cost.  Take two twins, Bill and Jill.  Bill represents your average American who isn’t too financially savvy, while Jill knows the best ways to invest her money.  If they are identical in every way—same job, same salary, same income growth, etc.—Jill will end the game much, much wealthier than Bill.

Just to put numbers to it, let’s assume they each start at 22 with a $50,000 job that grows to $150,000 over time, and they save 10% of their income.  At age 60 Bill would have $630,000 and Jill would have $2,640,000.  Read that again!!!  Jill ends up with a full $2 million more than her twin.

How does such a thing happen?  They both made the same incomes, and they both saved the same amount.  The short answer is Bill wasn’t smart and Jill was.  Bill saved all his money in a brokerage account with a mix of stocks and bonds.  Jill saved her money in a 401k (tax avoidance), got the match (free money), and invested in all stocks (asset allocation).

Those are all fairly simple strategies for personal finance, certainly they are ones we have talked about on this blog quite a bit.  Those couple gems translate to millions of dollars, literally.

But what does this have to do with race?  Unfortunately in our country, personal finance participation is much lower among blacks than whites.  That’s short hand for: blacks tend to act more like Bill than Jill.  “Personal finance participation” is a tricky term that loosely means having investment accounts, having retirement accounts, investing in stocks, and generally doing what personal finance theory says you should.  Make no mistake, it’s an impossible term to define and calculate (which is probably why it’s such a hard problem to tackle).

Certainly you can look at the difference in “personal finance participation” as a function of wealth.  Whites are richer than blacks so of course they are going to have more brokerage accounts and 401k’s and all that other stuff.  That’s true, but even when you control for jobs and income and the other factors like that, black “personal finance participation” is significantly lower, 35% lower by some estimates.

That impact is ENORMOUS and devastating if your broad societal goal is reducing net worth disparity.  If you believe the studies, and use our example of Bill and Jill, the average black person is getting 35% less of the investment gains that Jill got.  That’s could easily be a difference of $600k (in reality is probably even more) and that’s HUGE.

GOAL 1—Increase black “personal finance participation”

 

It’s what you know

Education is a pretty powerful tool, and one that certainly plays a role in the black “personal finance participation” issue as well as the broader income inequality issue.

In college there is a striking disparity between the majors that black students and white students pick.  Statistically, black students tend to pick majors which lead to much lower salaries than their white peers.  That alone can address the income gap in a major way.

However, we’re going to go deeper into the world of finance.  Finance is a pretty good college major, as majors go.  I proudly earned my bachelor’s degree in finance from Pitt.  The average salary for finance majors is $120k.  In a country where the average income for the whole population is $58k, being a finance major seems to be a pretty sweet deal.

Breaking down that by race tells a profound story.  About 14% of all college students are black, in line with the total population—that’s a good thing.  A similar 14% of all business majors are black—so far so good.  However, only 2% of finance majors are black—Houston, we have a problem.  Similar to the issue a couple paragraphs above, finance is a high-paying major and black students are picking it way too infrequently.

That leads to two major problems:  First, those classes for finance majors are a great way to learn the skills critical to “personal finance participation”.  Remember, that accounted to $2 million that Jill had which Bill missed out on.  If you take finance courses, you’re much more likely to be a Jill than a Bill.

Second, finance majors get high paying jobs—remember the average salary is about $120k.  More to the point of this post, finance majors can become investment advisors (much, much more on this in a second).  Data is hard on this, but most estimate that only about 1% of investment advisors are black.  As it is, the decisions black college students are making when choosing a major are cutting them off from all of this.

GOAL 2—Black college students major in finance

 

It’s who you know

Let’s start bringing all this together, shall we?

About 45% of blacks are in the middle class.  Add rich blacks to that as well and you’re talking at least 20 million people.  That’s a lot.

Based on the “personal finance participation” statistics we know a lot of those people aren’t investing the way they should, and they are missing out on a lot of money because of that.  This is true among all races.

I am a financial advisor (I passed my series 65), and my experience tells me that the vast majority of highly-successful professionals, independent of their race, aren’t doing near what they should be doing with their finances.  On a scale from 1 to 10, I see a lot of 3s and 4s among people who are incredibly smart and successful.

Fortunately, those people who would be a 3 or 4 on their own can hire someone, and for a small fee bring them up to a 9 or a 10.  Jill showed us that being a 9 or a 10 can be worth $2 million (and really it’s a much, much larger number), so if you aren’t there on your own hiring someone to help you seems like a good idea.

Understandably, if you hire a financial advisor, that needs to be an incredibly trusting relationship.  Personally, all my clients I knew for at least 5 years before I ever started advising them; also, they’re all white and my age, plus or minus a couple years, and live in my time zone.  Once you start working with a client it becomes a very intimate relationship.  You learn all sorts of super personal things about your clients—what they spend money on, what are their goals, what do they try to do but fail at, etc.  I think it’s even more intimate and personal and trusting than a doctor or a lawyer or a minister/rabbi.

The point of all this is: who are those rich and middle-class blacks going to go to for financial advice?  It’s reasonable, and not racist in any way whatsoever, that they would have a preference (possibly unconsciously) for a black financial advisor.  Not because of skin color per se, but because of shared experiences and understandings.  Someone who grew up how you did, had a similar family dynamic, have similar likes and tastes, prioritizes things in a similar way—those are all really good reasons to pick one advisor over another.  Those all correlate strongly with race.

A black person is probably going to have a lot more in common with a black financial advisor.  It’s not that you can’t pick someone from a different race for your financial advisor, but there’s an undeniable level of comfort for many.  Here’s the rub, at least based on my experience, if you don’t find a financial advisor you’re really comfortable with you don’t often pick the “next best thing,” but rather you don’t use anyone.  “Not picking anyone” tends to lead to “not doing anything” and you start to look much more like Bills than Jills.

Let’s be clear, a good financial advisor of any race can help a client of any race.  No question.  But we live in the real world, and here those personal relationship and trust dynamics are powerful.  This isn’t racism, it’s just being comfortable and having a trusting relationship with someone who is dealing with an incredibly personal part of your life.

Clearly the data show this is happening.  Blacks participate in personal finance at much lower rates—they’re closer to Bills.  And that costs them millions.

GOAL 3—Black financial advisors to work with black clients

 

Everyone wins, no one loses

Black college students become finance majors and then financial advisors.  Because they can relate to middle-class and wealthy blacks better, they get those clients and increase their wealth (becoming Jills instead of Bills).

We wanted to close the income gap.  We just found thousands of really high paying investment advisor jobs for blacks.

We wanted to close the net worth gap.  We just converted millions of black families from Bills to Jills by connecting them with highly skilled financial advisors.

Clearly, those are two winning cohorts, but there are no losers.  As blacks become better investors, that really doesn’t impact the investment returns of whites.  The stock market is more like a club with room for everyone, than it is like a high school basketball team where there are only so many spots and if you get a spot that means I don’t.  Also, those black financial advisors aren’t taking clients away from white financial advisors; those black clients weren’t using anyone before so it’s all upside.

 

My local plan

I’ve been trying this with very limited progress so far.  I haven’t gotten past step 1, but I’m not giving up.

  1. Find a couple black college seniors from UNC-Greensboro or North Carolina A&T who are finance majors. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there aren’t a lot of these and I haven’t had luck so far. But I’m still trying.
  2. Teach the protégés the ins and outs of investing, not necessarily investment advising but just investing. Actually, it would really just be telling them “read all the posts I’ve done in my blog, understand the concepts inside and out, and then come to me with questions.” We’d work together and get them extremely financially literate.
  3. Go to a large gathering of rich and middle-class black people (a church, an NAACP meeting, fraternity alumni meeting, whatever) with my protégés . Tell the audience the story of Bill and Jill, and say I’m here to help.
  4. Work with a couple clients, taking my protégés to every meeting. Legally, the protégés wouldn’t be able to talk or do anything since they aren’t certified, but they could observe and build a non-investment advisor relationship with the client.
  5. Protégés would graduate, then pass their Series 65 or Series 7, and get a job with some investment company. Completely out of left field 😉, the clients I had been working with in the presence of the protégés would leave me for them.
  6. Protégés would take my clients to their new firms. Given most financial advising jobs are meat grinders where getting new clients is the toughest part, my protégés would have a HUGE head start. That would translate to a higher income, faster promotions, and altogether a better career.
  7. Rinse and repeat.

Championship—Asset allocation v. Tax optimization

Basketball hoop

This is what we’ve all been waiting for.  After two weeks of amazing investing tournament challenge action (just indulge me, will you?), in this post we will crown the champion of investing strategies.  Here we have Asset allocation taking on Tax optimization.  In the Final Four, Asset allocation pounded Index mutual funds with higher returns early on and limiting risk as you approach retirement.  Tax optimization made it two thrillers in a row, beating Savings rate on the strength of major tax savings with a little bit of work and education, but not a lot of monetary sacrifice.  As always, see the disclaimer.

bracket-game 6

Obviously both these strategies have tremendous upside, otherwise they wouldn’t be here.  So how do you pick between them?  It’s no easy task, but for you, my loyal readers, I’m ready to take it on.  Let’s see who cuts down the nets.

 

Reasons for picking Asset allocation:

In some ways Asset allocation seems really easy, since all you’re doing is figuring out what percentage of your portfolio goes into stocks, bonds, and cash.  90% Stocks, 10% bonds, and 0% cash; there, I’m done.  That didn’t seem so hard.  Obviously it’s more complicated than that.  We already know that Asset allocation is critically important throughout your investing time horizon.  When you’re younger you probably want to be mostly in stocks (even now the Fox family is 99% in stocks).  As you approach and ultimately enter retirement you want to be more in bonds, but stocks still probably need to be a significant part of your portfolio.

About 10 or so years ago, the mutual fund companies came out with a really cool innovation called target-date funds.  The basic idea is that these handle your Asset allocation for you.  Imagine today you’re 35 and you want to retire when you’re 60, in 2040.  You could invest in a fund like Vanguard’s Target Retirement 2040, and it will automatically shift your Asset allocation from mostly stocks today (currently it’s about 90% stocks, 10% bonds) to gradually less stocks and more bonds as you get closer to retirement.  It’s been a wonderful innovation that has proven extremely popular among investors.

So there you go.  Problem solved, right?  Well, not so fast.  I actually don’t think these really solve the Asset allocation problem because they figure everyone retiring in 2040 is in the same situation, but that’s definitely not the case.  Let’s say you and your twin retire in 2040, but you will get $1000 from Social Security while she’ll get $3000.  What if she had her house paid off completely while you have always rented?  What if you worked for a company with a 401k and she worked for a company with a pension?

All those scenarios are very real for investors, and require more individualization than knowing you want to retire in 2040 can give.  For all those, conventional wisdom would say that your twin should take on more risk (French for “invest in more stocks”) than you because she has other “assets” that are generating more cash.  Reasonable people can debate that last point, but clearly the idea is that Asset allocation is much more complex than just picking a year and being done with it.

So where does that leave us?  I am a firm believer in investing DIY, and Asset allocation is no different.  But I think this is one of the areas where the degree of difficulty is much higher just because you’re balancing a couple opposing forces and there’s never a clearly “right answer”.  You want to be in stocks but not too much in stocks, and then that changes over time.  Oh yeah, and the stakes are super-high.  Getting it “right” whatever that means could give you an extra few percentage points in return and it could also save your nestegg from catastrophic failure if another 2008 rolls around.  When I work on the Fox’s nestegg, this is probably where I spend the most time.

 

Reasons for picking Tax optimization:

As we’ve said ad nauseam, Tax optimization is important and can lead to enormous savings.  What makes taxes so difficult is that the tax code is constantly changing and the stakes are super-duper high (the stakes for Asset allocation were only “super high”).

Every year there are hundreds of changes to the tax code which keeps accountants employed and programs like Turbo Tax (the Fox family uses Turbo Tax) flying off the shelves.  With the new tax reform bill that just passed, there were major changes to your taxes like the deductibility of mortgage interest and local taxes.  Those changes have massive implications on choices of where to live–both at the level of which state to live in but also whether to buy or rent.  These were huge and made the news.  What about the others that do hit the media’s radar and you never hear about?

There’s always talk about more changes, perhaps profound ones like a wealth tax.  You have to keep up.  Also, it can get really confusing.  I think I’m fairly knowledgeable on these matters but I am still befuddled by the Alternative Minimum Tax, and I know I screw up the foreign interest paid on my international mutual funds.  This stuff definitely isn’t easy.

Also, look at the stakes.  If you screw up on your taxes, theoretically you could go to prison.  If it’s an honest mistake I don’t think the Internal Revenue Service will push it that far, but horizontal stripes are definitely in play as Wesley Snipes can attest.  What is more likely is the IRS will hit you with a fine composed of a penalty plus interest.  Oh, by the way, that interest rate is about 6%; that’s not “Pay-day Loan” high, but it’s still pretty freaking high these days.  That certainly can make someone cautious about how far to push Tax optimization, even when they’re clearly in the right.

However, there is a silver lining.  If you want professional help, there are thousands of Certified Public Accountants who are there to help you out.  For under a few hundred dollars most people can probably have their taxes done by a CPA who can make sure that you stay on the IRS’s good side.  Unfortunately, when it comes to developing creative Tax optimization strategies, my experience says there’s a huge range in quality that you’ll get from CPAs.  Several years back I had a horrible experience with H&R Block and thought they were border-line incompetent.  No way would I trust them to advise me on the finer points of maximizing the tax advantages of investing.  But there are amazing CPAs out there right now (like David Silkman who did our small business’s taxes when we lived in California) who I do think can really help.  But this is a real caveat emptor situation.  Maybe Angie’s List might help.

 

Who wins it all?

It all comes down to this.  In the end, I have Asset allocation pulling it out 76-70.  Obviously both investing strategies are amazingly important and getting them right can have an exponential impact on your portfolio.  For me I gave the nod to Asset allocation over Tax optimization for a couple of reasons:

First, if I met a total train wreck of an investor (he was just stuffing cash in his mattress) and I could only give him one piece of advice, I think it would be to get that money invested in some combination of stocks and bonds.  Tax optimization strategies like an IRA or 401k are nice, but first things first.

Second, I think the big rocks for Tax optimization seem to me better understood and more accessible than for Asset allocation.  Most investors probably know that investing in your 401k or an IRA is a good idea, and probably most could tell you why (at least be able to say “it helps with taxes”).  I think that’s different for Asset allocation where you have a lot of investors who are totally off on what is probably appropriate for their situation (age, income, other assets, etc.).

Third, there’s no real “right” answer for Asset allocation.  I could have a lively debate with my dear friends/loyal readers who work in the financial industry like Jessamyn and Mike, where we argued whether the Fox family should be more in stocks or more in bonds.  But there’s no right answer (other than if stocks go up a year from now, then you know you should have been more in stocks).  It depends on so many variables as well as risk tolerance which are super-hard to quantify.  With Tax optimization you can get closer to a right answer—either the tax code allows you to do that or not.  Of course, you typically sacrifice ease of access to your money for tax benefits, so that does add a complication.

Finally, I think it’s easier and cheaper to get expert advice on Tax optimization.  As I mentioned, a good CPA can probably really help guide you on Tax optimization.  Sure, the quality of CPAs is pretty wide, but good ones are out there, and probably they’ll charge you something with in the three-digit range.  With Asset allocation if you want professional help you typically need a financial adviser.  Unfortunately, and this is just my opinion, it’s a little more Wild West for financial advisers than CPAs.  A really good financial adviser is probably worth her weight in gold (140 pound of gold is worth about $2.6 million, so maybe they aren’t worth quite that much), but the range of quality is staggering; there are some real shysters out there.  Also, they’ll probably charge you in the four- or five-digits range.

So there you go.  Put that all together and I think Asset allocation comes out on top 78-71, finishing the sentence, “if you only do one thing in investing make sure you get Asset allocation right.”

bracket-end

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading all these posts on investing as much as I have enjoyed writing them.  While Asset allocation “won” remember that all eight of these are important and should be definitely be considered as you think about bulking up your portfolio.

Final Four–Asset allocation v. Index mutual funds

Basketball hoop

Welcome to the first game of the Final Four of my investing strategies tournament.  Here we have Asset allocation taking on Index mutual funds.  In the first round, Asset allocation blew out Diversifying mostly due to the higher returns that younger investors can get by investing more in stocks early in their investing career.  Index mutual funds upset Free money on the strength of lower management fees that can apply throughout an investor’s career and across every account type.  As always, check out the disclaimer.  With that out of the way, let’s see who wins.

bracket-game 4

Reasons for picking Asset allocation:

Last round we saw how being too conservative with Asset allocation can really reduce the returns of younger investors who aren’t as heavily invested in stocks as they should be.  If you go to the other end of the investor’s time horizon, when he or she is older and nearing retirement, you can make equally harmful mistakes.

On one end of the spectrum older investors can become way too risky.  As the years tick by and people get closer to retirement, they begin to take stock (pun intended) of where they are probably a little more closely than they did in their 20s or 30s.  If they aren’t quite where they want to be, knowing that on average stocks have higher returns than bonds, one natural response is to allocate more of their nestegg to stocks to “catch up”.  According to generally accepted investing theory, this is the exact wrong thing to do—as we get closer to retirement you should be reducing your allocation of stocks to lower your risk, not increase it.  Here you’re stepping away from the world of investing and into the world of gambling.  Maybe you’ll get lucky and ride a bull market up to get your portfolio back to where you want it, but you’re definitely putting yourself at risk of hitting a market pothole and putting yourself further behind.

On the other end of the spectrum, they can become way too conservative.  Some people have the natural instinct to want to get completely off the investing train in retirement because they don’t want to have any risk, so they put all their money in bonds or cash.  This is understandable because they’re going to be depending on that nestegg, so it’s got to last.  But the problem is that even in retirement, many people still need the higher returns that stocks provide to balance out the relative safety of their bonds.  This is especially true in a world where people are living longer and it’s not unreasonable to expect retirement to last a few decades or longer.  And actually, that time element also makes the case for stocks being a significant part of your retirement portfolio—you have time to ride out the storms, just not as much time as you had before.

These are what make Asset allocation one of the harder investing strategies to get right, because it’s changing over time and there are shades of grey (at least 50 shades of grey).  Other strategies like Diversification and Free money are much simpler because your strategy is absolute.  Diversification—you should be diversified at all times.  Free money—you should get as much of it as you can at all times.  But with Asset allocation, the right thing to do gradually changes from being mostly in stocks during your early years, and then slowly switching to more bonds and cash as you start to near retirement, but never shifting completely to bonds.

There’s no strict rule on what your Asset allocation should be at different stages of life, but I always look at Vanguard target retirement funds as a bit of a guide (although I’ll write about some of my issues with these types funds in a future post).  With 40 years until retirement, right around when you’re first starting out, Vanguard suggests about 90% stocks and 10% in bonds.  Once you hit retirement Vanguard suggests 40% stocks and 60% bonds.  Notice that even in retirement a very significant portion is still in stocks.

Vanguard target date funds % in stocks % in bonds
2055 (40 years to go) 90% 10%
2035 (20 years to go) 85% 15%
2025 (10 years to go) 70% 30%
In retirement 40% 60%

 

So what does that all mean?  Well early on Asset allocation done properly can get you higher returns over the long run, historically about 3-4% higher than if you completely screwed it up.  Later on, it’s going to help protect you from any market crashes, market corrections, or general market zaniness that occurs.

 

Reasons for picking Index mutual funds:

We know from the Elite Eight round, that one of the major advantages of Index mutual funds is their lower management fees, which are on average about 1% less than actively managed mutual funds.  We also know from The power of a single percentage that saving 1% of your portfolio year after year can lead to some serious ducats (I’ve decided to use as many slang terms for money over the next few posts, so prepare yourself).  But we’re in the Final Four now so we need something more than that.

Not above a little chicanery, Index mutual funds is going to steal a page from Asset allocation’splaybook.  Often with actively managed funds, they keep a significant portion of the fund’s assets in cash so they can buy an investment when the opportunity presents itself.  Of course we know from above that holding cash over the long term leads to lower returns than holding stocks.  Index mutual funds are able to be almost 100% invested in stocks (or whatever asset class you want) because they aren’t picking investments so much as just following the index.  Just doing some simple math, if actively managed funds have 5% of their assets in cash, and over the long term stocks return 6% more than cash let’s say, that comes to a long term benefit of about 0.3% (5% x 6%).  That’s not going to change the world, but even those little bits compounded over decades can make a huge difference.

Index mutual funds is also copying Tax optimization.  When your mutual fund sells shares there are tax implications on that (death and taxes, baby).  That’s why you get that statement every year from your mutual fund telling you what you need to report to the IRS. The more frequently your mutual fund trades stocks, the more likely it is that you’ll have short term gains which are taxed at higher rates.  But with Index mutual funds, trading is minimized because the fund is only following an index like the S&P 500 which doesn’t change that often.  That leads to lower taxes which we know can add up to some serious cheddar (see, I did it again).

There are also people who argue that Index mutual funds do better than actively managed funds because they take the human element out of it.  This is pretty controversial, and if you believe in the theories from A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which I unabashedly do, then shouldn’t active managers do just as well as a passive index?  Hmmm, that sounds like fodder for another post.  People debate this all the time and I’m not convinced that this really drives the needle.

The final major benefit of Index mutual funds is that they’re super easy, especially compared to some of the more difficult investing strategies like Asset allocation.  You can go to a place like Vanguard (that’s where the Fox family’s money is) or Fidelity or a dozen other places and sign up for one of their index funds, then as Ron Popeil says, “you set it and forget it.”  That means you’re getting pretty incredible value for a relatively small amount of work.

 

Who goes on to the championship game?

Index mutual funds pulled out all the stops, but in the end Asset allocation was just too strong.  Index mutual funds will definitely help build your nestegg, probably juicing your returns 1% compared to actively managed funds and maybe even 1.5% if you’re feeling charitable.  That’s nothing to sneeze at, but we’re talking about punching your ticket to the Championship round here, people.

Let’s say you completely abandoned the idea of Index mutual funds and went totally with actively managed funds.  How bad would that be?  It wouldn’t be ideal (just my opinion and one not shared by my good friend Mike), but you’d be fine in the end.  Actually this is what millions of people do all the time and it tends to work out.

Compare that worst-case scenario to Asset allocation’s and you see why they won.  Screwing up early on and investing too much in bonds and cash instead of stocks can cost 3-4% on your returns.  That dwarfs what Index mutual funds bring to the table.  Screwing up closer to retirement can put your whole financial plan at risk.  Ask near-retirees who were to heavily invested in stocks before the 2001 or 2008 crashes what they think.  In the immortal words of Winston Zeddemore “I have seen s%$t that will turn you white.

bracket-game 5

With Asset allocation the stakes are just too high.  I have Asset allocation pulling away, 68-59.  Be sure to come back tomorrow to see who they take on in the final, either Savings rate or Tax optimization.

First Round: Mortgage versus Savings rate

Basketball hoop

After a thrilling contest between Index mutual funds and Free money yesterday, we are now pitting Mortgage against Savings rate.  As always, I am not an expert on these matters.

bracket-game 2

 

Reasons for picking mortgage:

For most families, their Mortgage payment on their home is the single largest expenditure they have.  Also, due to its nature as a commodity, it’s also one of the easiest places to really save a lot of money pretty painlessly.  For a lot of products there’s a trade off between price and quality.  A BMW 325 owner could pay $20,000 less and drive a Honda Civic, but there is a trade-off, either real or perceived, between those two cars.  Sure you’re saving a lot of money, but you’re also getting not nearly as nice a car.

Mortgages are very different because money is a commodity, so there’s no difference.  If you get a Mortgage from Bank of America it acts pretty much identically as the Mortgage you get from Roundpoint (incidentally, the Fox family used to have our mortgage with BofA and now we’re with Roundpoint).  Money is money so here you want to go with whoever can give you the lowest rate (there are some features that might be important like prepayment penalties or ability to refinance within a certain period of time, but in my experience those are pretty rare).

Here we’ll use the Grizzly family as an example; they owe $400,000 on their home.  One of the easiest ways to save money on a mortgage is by refinancing when interest rates go down.  In the past few years, rates have been at historic lows and that means Mortgage interest rates have been similarly low.  Let’s say the Grizzlys got their mortgage 8 years ago with a rate of 6%, but now they can refinance at about 4%.  That alone would reduce the interest payments over the life of their mortgage about $175,000!!!  That’s an incredible amount of money for going through a process that takes maybe a month from beginning to end, and probably about 5 hours of work on your part.  As easy as this is, there are millions of homeowners out there who haven’t done this yet.

You can move a little up the difficulty spectrum and save even more.  Some Mortgages are sold with “points” which is basically prepaying interest; for example you might pay an extra $5000 when you get your loan and for that you would have an interest rate of 3.5% instead of 4.0%.  Points aren’t very well understood and because of that a lot of people tend to stay away, but if you are planning on staying in your house for a long time, they can be the best money you ever spent.  Using that above example, paying the $5000 to get the lower interest rate would net you a savings of about $35,000 over the life of the loan.

Kind of the opposite of points are adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  Instead of a 30-year fixed loan (the interest rate stays constant for the 30 year life of the loan) you could get a 5-year ARM where the interest rate is fixed for the first 5 years of the loan and then adjusts based on market conditions for the remaining 25 years.  The benefit of these is ARMs tend to be about 1% less than fixed rates, but the major concern is that rates could rise after the 5 years is up and that could increase the cost of your Mortgage.  In my opinion ARMs make sense if you don’t think you’ll be in your home for very long.

In fact the Fox family got a 5-year ARM when we relocated to North Carolina.  In the here and now we enjoy a rate about 0.8% lower than if we got a 30-year-fixed (our rate is 2.2% and it would have been about 3% with a fixed).  That’s worth about $300 each month.  Rates have been rising, so in 2020 when the ARM starts to float (rates can move) we can either pay a higher rate (remember, we’re still ahead of the game so long as rates stay below 3%), refinance to a fixed mortgage and pocket five years of monthly $300 savings, or just pay off the entire mortgage.  We’ll see.

  What it does?
Refinance Take out a new loan at a lower interest rate to decrease the amount of interest you pay
Buy points Pay more in closing costs to get a lower interest rate
ARM Get a lower interest rate that is fixed in the beginning but then becomes adjustable (usually after 5 years)

 

So all these seem to be pretty big numbers, especially since you aren’t really giving anything up to achieve them.  But they aren’t going to be quite that big because interest on mortgages is tax deductible, so saving $100,000 in interest on the life of your mortgage may only put you ahead $60,000 because of the tax deduction.  On the other side of the spectrum, you might end up with significantly more if you took those savings and invested them.  Either way, your Mortgage is a great way to pad your nestegg.

 

Reasons for picking savings rate:

Savings rate is probably the most fundamental element of investing.  You can’t really invest until you have saved some money to invest with (Gee Stocky, thanks for that tremendous insight into what we already know).  And certainly, the more you save, the more you can invest, and the larger your nestegg will become.  But how much can saving more really move the need?

savings rate

The impact can be pretty staggering.  Over a 38-year period, from 22 when most of us enter the workforce, until we turn 60 and hopefully retire, if you invest $100 per month (assume a 6% return) you will end up with about $175,000!!!  It’s not that $100 isn’t a lot of money (it definitely isn’t chump change), but that seems pretty incredible that such a modest amount every month can lead to such a large number at the end of the run.  Over those 38 years, you would have invested a total of about $47,000, and because of investing returns you would have ended up with about 4 times that amount.

And the math works so if you save $200 per month, you end up with about $350,000; $1000 per month, you end up with $1.75 million.  Ladies and gentleman, say “hello” to the power of compounding.

 

Who wins?

Mortgage gives it a good fight, but in the end Savings rate is able to generate numbers that are so much bigger.  Also, while refinancing at a lower rate is a pretty sure-fire way to save money with your Mortgage, the more complicated maneuvers like buying points or using an ARM do entail some risk which could cost you serious dollars if you move too early or too late.  On the other hand, there is really no way that saving more can hurt your nestegg.  In the end Savings rate crushes Mortgage 65-51.

Come back on tomorrow to see the final match of the first round, Starting early against Tax optimization.

 

bracket-game 3

First round: Free money versus Index mutual funds

Basketball hoop

After a thrilling first day where we saw Asset allocation blow out Diversification, we are now on to day two where Free money will face off against Index mutual funds.  As always, I am not an expert on these matters.

 

bracket-game 1

Reasons for picking free money:

Free money is . . . well . . . FREE.  And obviously the more money you can contribute to your portfolio the closer you’ll be to retirement, the better you’ll be able to ride out stock market downturns, and the more financial flexibility you’ll have generally.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

In the US, by far the most common opportunity for Free money is the company match for your 401k.  Of course, credit card rebates are another nice source of free money, but let’s stick with 401k’s.  Typically it looks something like they will match $0.50 for every dollar you contribute up to 6% of your pay.  And there are some companies that are even more generous; Medtronic has historically matched about $0.90 for every dollar up to 6% of your pay.  Do the simple math and your average 401k match comes in at about 3% ($0.50 * 6%).  Ever since I started working in 1999 I have always contributed at least enough to get the entire company match.

If you do a quick calculation (assume you work from 22 to 60, with a salary that starts at $50,000 and rises to $100,000 over the years, with a 6% investment return), the value of that match is about $350,000.  That’s not what your whole 401k would be worth, that’s just the value of the match!!!  Not bad considering the median nestegg for a 60-year-old living in the US is about $160,000.

So who says no to this?  Sadly, about one-third of employees who have access to a 401k plan are “leaving money on the table” by not contributing up to the amount that their employer will match.  This is some really low hanging fruit that is going unpicked.  I get that there is only so much money to go around, but man, every dollar you’re putting in gets you another $0.50 of FREE MONEY.  That’s a guaranteed 50% return; there are a lot of investors who would give their first born for something like that.

 

Reasons for picking index mutual funds:

Index mutual funds are mutual funds that mimic an index like the S&P 500, Barclays Bond index, FTSE Global Cap, or the MSCI US REIT index.  That may sound confusing—the point is these mutual funds find an index already established in the market and do their best to copy it exactly.

Index fund advocates, and I count myself among them with probably about 95% of the Fox’s nestegg in Index mutual funds, believe that these funds actually perform better than actively-managed mutual funds (an actively managed fund is one where the mutual fund manager picks individual stocks or bonds that he or she believes will out-perform the general market).  I personally think the data here is mixed to slightly favorable for index mutual funds (mostly because of tax implications), but that is a pretty deep discussion probably for another blog post.  For this analysis, I’ll assume that actively managed mutual funds and index mutual funds return the same amount.

The undeniable advantage of Index mutual funds is their lower management fee.  Like all things, mutual funds charge a fee for their services; it is a percentage that the fund managers skim off the top to pay for managing the fund.  For actively managed funds that fee averages to about 1% with some higher and some lower.  This goes to paying for all the research done, salaries for the different teams, brochures and disclosures, travel to different conferences, etc., and it tends to be a pretty decent chunk of change.  For Index mutual funds, you really don’t need all that because all the team is doing is tracking a pre-existing index; because of this management fees tends to be fairly low—in the 0.05% to 0.2% range.

Remember The power of a single percentage?  We actually called out mutual fund management fees there as ripe for a 1% coupon.  Running the numbers using the same scenario we just used for Free money (assume you work from 22 to 60, with a salary that starts at $50,000 and rises to $100,000 over the years, with a 6% investment return), that 401k account using a index mutual fund with a fee of 0.2% would leave you with about $990,000.  An actively managed account with a fee of 1% would leave you with about $820,000.  That a difference of $170,000 in your 401k over the course of your investing career.

But that’s just for one account.  Index mutual funds can be used for pretty much all your investing accounts—401k, IRA, 529, brokerage.  Also, they can be used throughout for investing career, from the time you open your first account as a youngster all the way through the end when you shuffle off this mortal coil and leave some cash to your loved ones (more cash than you would otherwise because you were paying lower fees).

 

Who wins?

This turned out to be much closer than I anticipated.  At first I figured that Free money would win this going away, but Index mutual funds definitely came to play.  Free money has a power effect (about 3% of your salary on average), but that is generally limited only to 401k accounts, only to the first 6% of your compensation, and only while you are working.  Even with all those limitations, it makes an enormous difference over your investing lifetime.  Index mutual funds have a smaller impact but a much broader application.  You can use them on every account, with every dollar invested, for every year you’re investing.

In a game that came down to the absolute wire, I think Index mutual funds barely edges out Free money in a Bryce Drew-style miracle finish.  The final score, Index mutual funds 70, Free money 69.  Ultimately I think Index mutual funds and that lower management fee will save more of your money in every corner of your investing portfolio, and that will ultimately lead to a bigger impact on your nest egg.  I hope to see you tomorrow when your Mortgage takes on Savings rate.

bracket-game 2

Top 5—investing moves when you’re just getting started

A week ago, my Uncle Lynx passed away.  At the funeral I was chatting with some distant family members (my cousin’s wife’s nephew).  He and his wife are a super cute couple.  They are in their early 20s and just getting started on this crazy journey called adulthood.

As we were chatting, the subject veered towards personal finance (me talking about personal finance . . . imagine that).  This couple’s ears perked up and then seemed genuinely interested; I suppose it’s possible they were just really polite, but I think it was something more.

It got me to thinking about what are the most important things to do in the world of personal finance when you are just getting started.  Here is my Top 5 list:

 

5. Figure out your debt situation: If you’re lucky, you won’t have a lot (or any) debt.  For most of us there is some out there, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  List out every debt you have (student loan, mortgage, credit card, car payment, etc.), the balance, and the interest rate.

On a spreadsheet (see #4) rank them in order of interest rate.  As a general rule I use a cutoff of about 6%.  If your interest rate is above that pay those off right away, starting with the highest interest rate debt first.  If your interest rate is below that, that might be okay to keep that debt and just make the normal monthly payments.

If you have any debt (especially credit card debt) at any rate higher than 10%, that’s a “debt emergency”.  Really look at every purchase you make—if it’s not critical to your survival (food, shelter) then pass that up until your debt is paid off.  The only exception to this is #1—funding your 401k.

You can get creative with your debt by consolidating high interest rate cards onto a lower rate card or one that offers a low teaser rate.  That could save you a ton of money, and you should probably look into that, but ultimately, you’ll need to pay that sucker off.  So just hitting the grindstone of paying off your credit cards is a must.

 

4. Make a budget on a spreadsheet: Take a spreadsheet and put a quick budget together that includes your income, your expenses, and the difference between those two.  This can be simple at first (and it should be simple at first).  Over time, you’ll add more and more sheets to the spreadsheet for things like your mortgage, investments, kids’ education, and other things.

But at the beginning, you need to get a sense of where your money is going.  The budget will give you an aspirational view of this.  After your budget is done, you can track your spending with a website like mint.com.  This two-step process lets you figure where you want to spend your money, and then also look at where you actually spend it.

Of course, this is an iterative process, and as you close a month and look at your expenses, you can see if you’re spending more than what you budgeted.  This isn’t a time to beat yourself up (being too hard on yourself is a sure way to stop looking at your finances closely, and that’s a REALLY bad thing), but a time to ask yourself why you spent more and if it was worth it.

As an aside, using a spreadsheet is a really good skill in general.  I was really good at spreadsheets and it’s hard to overstate the incredible impact it had on my career, as well as the incredible wealth those skills gave me and my family.  And really, my experience with spreadsheets started in college when I was creating a financial budget.

 

3. Educate yourself on investing: At a young age, educate yourself on investing.  Obviously, this blog is the universally acknowledged best place to learn about investing, but I have heard rumors there are others.

www.mrmoneymustache.com is a great website that looks at personal spending and his early posts had a tremendous impact on my outlook.  A Random Walk Down Wall Street is a book on investing that really defined my investing strategy; I read that as a 19-year-old and still think about its insights today.

There are a lot of websites written by millennials about spending and personal finance that might resonate even more.  A few are: millennialmoneyman.com, moneypeach.com, and brokemillennial.com.  Most are about reducing spending and budgets and that sort of thing, but there are some on the nitty gritty of making investing choices.  You’ll want perspectives on both.

The whole point is that you need to know what you are doing here.  Spending 20 hours early in your life to figure out basics like asset allocation, tax avoidance, and fee minimization as well as a general attitude towards saving early can easily lead to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.  That comes to about $50,000 per hour—not bad.

 

2. Start an IRA with $1,000: This is as much about the experience gained as it is about actually investing your money.  Vanguard lets you start an IRA with $1,000 as the minimum amount.

You’ll navigate through their website, figure out how to make choices (like Roth or Traditional IRA—go traditional).  You’ll pick your investments, and then you’ll have something to look at every once in a while to see how it’s doing.

So many people are just at a total loss when it comes to setting up accounts for their investments.  That becomes a real problem once you hit 30 or 40 and you’re starting to get behind the 8-ball; you know you need to do something but are kind of clueless on where to start.  Doing it now lets you get your toes wet in this world and makes the next accounts you need to set up (529, 401k, brokerage, etc.) all the less daunting.

 

1. Get the company match on your 401k: #2 was more for experience than for investment.  Here is where you should start walking down the path for investments.  At a minimum, contribute the match and take the free money.

This is so important for a couple reasons.  First, you’re getting that free money.  Second, you’re making your first “asset allocation” decision.  When it comes time to pick which fund to invest in, unless you have very unique circumstances for an early-20s person, I would definitely go with a 100% equity index fund.

Third, your 401k is a really powerful tool.  If you had no other investing tool, you could still grow a 401k to well over a $1 million during your working career.  That is enough to fully fund your retirement.

 

BONUS—Stay poor:  Too many young adults make a huge mistake of trying to mimic the lifestyle their parents provided, once they (the young adults) get out of school.  That first paycheck of $2,000 is going to seem like a ton of money (and it is).  It’s really tempting to decide to buy a new car or go on a kickin’ vacation or upgrade the furniture.  Resist the urge.

Your parents took 25 or more years of working (with pay increases and investment returns) to provide the house and cars and vacations you enjoyed your senior year of high school.  It’s not realistic to think you can have stuff at that level of niceness so early.

A car is a really good example.  In general, automobiles are horrible investments.  To the degree you have a car that can get you from point A to point B, keep it.  A new car will be nice and cool and make your friends gawk, but it’s a horrible use of money.  A couple hundred dollars a month for a car, plus insurance, and maybe $50 for a gym membership, $50 for cable, and $80 for four dinners at a restaurant—those numbers add up.  Those alone could fund your savings in the early years.

Your early 20s are a time when it’s still okay not to have the best and nicest of everything.  If you can embrace that, even when you do have the money, and put that extra money to work in investments you’ll build a very strong financial foundation that will afford you many more opportunities are you reach your 30s and 40s (remember, I did that and I retired at 36).

Should you use an investment advisor?

I started writing this blog because I wanted to share my own experiences with investing, including how to navigate the complex world of investing on your own.  I am a firm believer in DIY financial management.  That is what worked for me, and I believe all people can get really great results doing it on their own.  That said, many readers ask about using a broker or investment adviser or financial planner.  Here’s my take.

Quick disclosure: I am an investment adviser.  I passed my Series 65 and work with a small number of friends, helping them with their finances.

 

Are financial professionals worth it?

As with any purchase you make, you need to evaluate a investment adviser on the basis of how much she costs, and how much value you get in return.  On the surface I would say “no, it probably isn’t worth it,” however there are definitely some factors which may reverse that decision.

First, let’s look at how much investment advisers cost.  The rates range widely.  Plus there isn’t a lot of transparency in the marketplace so it’s not always easy to know what the going rate is.  My experience says that 1-2% is typical.  This can come in many forms—typically brokers get paid fees from the mutual funds they suggest for you or from the transaction costs for trades.  Advisers tend to charge a percentage of your portfolio.  We know that 1% coupons are really valuable, so those fees are a lot.  Over an investing career they can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That’s a pretty big deal.

Of course, if you’re getting a lot of value from your investment adviser, maybe it’s worth it.  I just bought Metallica tickets today and they were expensive, but I’ll get a lot of value, so there you go.  One of the main missions of this blog is to show you how you can invest successfully on your own, and I think most people can do that without having to hire a professional.  Sure you have to make decisions on asset allocation, which accounts to use, what investments to make; but those aren’t really all that complex.  Also, thanks to the efficient market lessons from A Random Walk Down Wall Street we know that you’re as good a stock picker as anyone.

So my general feeling is that investment professionals aren’t worth the money; a motivated investor can do just as well on their own and pocket the fees.  Wait, what???  You said “motivated”.  As it turns out, a lot of people, despite their best intentions, aren’t able to put their financial plan in motion.  If you’re one of those people, and if an investment adviser can help motivate you to do the right things, then I do think they are more than worth it.

In this way, investment advisers are a lot like personal trainers.  Most of us know that exercise is good for us, and most of us know how to run on the treadmill and lift weights properly (or you can find out by watching a 3-minute video on Youtube).  But if a trainer can motivate you to actually hit the treadmill and the weights, they’re definitely worth the money, right?  How much is your physical health worth to you?  Same thing with finances.  If you know what you should be doing, but for one of a million reasons you never end up actually doing it, maybe you should get an investment adviser to help you out.

Nearly every post I’ve done shows that there is a ton of value out there if you invest properly, taking into account things like time horizon, taxes, etc.  But if you don’t do anything, you’re losing ALL that value.  If an investment adviser helps you in ways you won’t or can’t, then you’ll probably end up ahead of the game, even after you take his fees into account.

 

How would you pick a financial professional?

So let’s say you’ve decided that an investment adviser makes sense for you.  How do you pick a good one?  This is one of the biggest challenges, and in my opinion one of the reasons a lot of people don’t get investment advisers: They don’t know a good one they can trust.  The problem is there are a ton of them and the quality varies greatly.  Sadly, there are a lot of unskilled people in the industry who don’t know what they’re doing.  Even worse, there are some real shysters who might take your money, either overtly steal it or use other schemes to siphon away your money and put it in their pockets.  It’s a legitimate concern.

First, you need to find someone you can trust.  Ideally, this would come from a personal reference.  Today you also have things like yelp.com or Angie’s List that gives ratings.  Additionally, there are government agencies like FINRA.org that track these people so you can look them up to see how long they have been around and any complaints that have been files against them, etc.  These are okay, but for my money, nothing beats a personal reference from someone you trust.  Of course, it’s not always easy to have those conversations with friends: “So Mary, who is helping you with your money, and can I talk to them?”

Second, you need to find someone who is good.  Of course, knowing this isn’t always easy.  Using that same personal trainer analogy, you probably wouldn’t hire an obese trainer.  You’d want someone who is ripped, someone who has shown they have been successful at physical fitness themselves (like my totally buff friends Christel and Tobias).

Tobias
If you have a personal trainer, he should be ripped like Tobias here. Similarly, if you have an investment adviser, that person should be rich.

 

Similarly, you want a rich investment adviser.  You want someone who has been successful creating wealth for themselves.  But this is where the challenge comes in: if the investment adviser is wealthy then why is he working with you?  Seriously.  You have a lot of young kids who are doing this (let’s say less than 30).  I’m sure there are some good ones, but I’m not trusting my family’s financial well-being to someone without a lot of experience.  You also have a lot of people who just aren’t that good.  If someone has been an investment adviser for 20 years or more and they aren’t a multi-millionaire, how good can he really be?  I’m not trying to be mean, but shouldn’t that be more than enough time to accumulate some serious wealth?

 

Questions to ask:

If you do decide to go with a investment adviser, make sure you ask a lot, A LOT, of questions.  Beyond your doctor or minister/rabbi, this person will probably have the biggest impact on your well being.  Take the time to make sure you find a good one.

How long have you been doing this?  This is an area where experience definitely matters.  In particular, you want her to have lived through a few bear markets.  At a minimum she should have been doing advising people since 2008 and even better if she’s been doing it since 2001.

What did you do during 2001 and 2008?  Investing is a lot easier when things are going well.  You prove your mettle during the tough times.  Figure out how he handled himself when everyone thought the world was coming to an end.

What are you paid?  This should be answered in excruciating detail.  Does he get paid by you (how is the amount determined, when is it paid), by others like mutual fund companies (how much, how do you make sure you serve my interests ahead of theirs)?

What is your personal financial situation?  No point sugar-coating it.  Find what his financial situation is like.  As mentioned above, if he isn’t rich, how good is he really?  Also, the relationship you have with him needs to be based on trust because you’re going to be sharing everything with him.  If he isn’t willing to reciprocate in some way, that might tell you something.

How will you ensure you serve my best interests?  This is a biggie.  Ideally you want her to have a fiduciary relationship which is a legal standard where she serves your interests ahead of anyone else’s, including her own.  No matter how this turns out, you’re going to need to trust this person, and you should get a sense of how she will ensure that you are #1.

What is your investing strategy?  Obviously, there are a lot of nuisances to this, especially as he customizes it to your specific situation.  But he should definitely have an approach and a philosophy that he can articulate clearly and understandably.

What type of power will you have over my money?  Will she be able to make trades and move money between accounts with your express permission, on her own, or not at all?  This is a tricky one because maybe you want to offload these activities completely, so her having a ton of control may be okay.  No matter, you should definitely understand this completely.

How will you take into account other assets that you won’t manage?  Most situations will have him managing an account like your IRA or brokerage account but not others like your 401k, mortgage, pension, etc.  Most times, he’s only paid on the accounts he manages, but to do his job well he’ll need to take into consideration those other accounts as well.

 

Those are what I came up with off the top of my head.  At the end of the day, if you do go with an investment adviser make sure you find someone who has demonstrated they have the skills to build your wealth.  Just as importantly, make sure you find someone who you can trust completely.