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Saving for college is a major issue when it comes to
personal finance. When I talk to people,
it’s nearly universal that people say their financial goals are to “have enough
to retire comfortably” and to “pay for their kids’ college so they don’t come
out with loans.”
If that is your goal, that begs the question: How much
should you be saving each month?
Obviously this is a very complicated question. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation
since there are so many details that make can make things vary
substantially. Probably the biggest one
is how much the total cost of attendance will be for your kid’s particular
institution. That said, we can look at
some broad averages.
The type of school
As you know, I actively question the value that colleges deliver in this day and age. When I look at the costs of attendance, that just reinforces the idea that colleges are WAY OVERPRICED. That said, let’s assume we have two broad choices for college:
In-state: Parents will get a huge break if their kids
go to a public in-state school. The
“top” state school in each state tends to cost about $25k for total attendance. Certainly there’s a range—UCLA is about
$34,000 while University of Massachusetts is about $19,000. However, don’t think those lower costs are
charity. Your tax dollars are
subsidizing those lower costs.
The cost of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, in our
home state, is about $24,000. Also,
that’s a number that easy to work with since it’s divisible by 12, so let’s go
with that. We’ll assume that in-state
expenses at a good school are about $24,000.
Private/out-of-state: If you don’t take advantage of that in-state
subsidy, costs get higher very quickly.
Private schools can range from about $25,000 to as high as $70,000. Since most of the schools that you think of
when you think of private colleges—Harvard, Duke, Notre Dame, etc.—are in that
$70,000 range, let’s use that as our number.
How much to save
Maybe time got away from you and you are getting a really
late start. Your child is entering
college this year. The math here is
pretty easy. Each month you’ll have to
come up with 1/12 of the annual cost of college. For a public school, that’s $2000 per month and
for a private school that’s about $5800 per month.
Those are big numbers, but the good news is if you plan for
it and are able to save sooner, those monthly contributions become a lot more
If we look at the other extreme, we can calculate what would
happen if you started saving when the child was born. This is a bit more complicated because there
are two powerful factors at play.
First, tuition costs for college are always rising (I’ll
spare you my rant, but suffice it to say it’s ridiculous). Let’s assume that on average college costs
increase about 3% each year. That means
that $24,000 annual cost for a state school this year will be compounded 18
years by the time your child enters college.
That’s a big deal, increasing the cost from $24,000 to about
Time doesn’t help us there, but it does help us in the way
you probably expected. Second, the money
we save each year can be invested. If we
assume a 6% return, that becomes really powerful, as we all know.
The calculations aren’t easy and I do them on a
spreadsheet. At the end of the day, you’d
need to save and invest $350 each month to pay for a child’s 4 year public
college education. If you go private,
that number increases to a bit over $1000 each month.
Of course, real life probably puts most of us in the middle
between those two extremes—starting when the kid is born and starting when the
kid starts college. This makes
sense. When the kid is born there are a
lot of expenses and other things going on, so it’s not always easy to start
Here is a table that shows how much you’d need to start
saving each month based on the year you start.
Kid’s age you start saving
I don’t know if that chart fills you with optimism or
pessimism. Obviously the sooner you
start the less you have to save. I was a
bit surprised by how much just a few extra years helps. If you started saving when your kid is 15,
you have to save about half of what you’d need to if you started when they
enrolled. That just shows that it’s
never too late to start.
On the other side, if it takes you a few years to get
everything lined up, and you don’t start saving until the child is 5 years old,
you don’t have to come up with a lot more than if you started when the kid was
born. So that means you shouldn’t beat
yourself up too much if you had to wait a bit.
Either way, if you decide that college is right for you
child and that you want to help them pay for it, I hope this helps put those
financial requirements into perspective.
Readers who’ve been following the blog for a while know that in early 2018 the Fox family had to go out on our own to get private health insurance. I did a three-part post on it here and here and here. It was a big change from always having had private insurance through our employers. But we did it.
Here’s how everything looks a year later. If you don’t want to read the whole thing
here’s the punchline: We had our sickest year in the past 5 years, but we still
came out ahead about $16k.
What we got
When we were looking at our different options, there were
two broad choices that we had to make.
We could go with a full-blown Obamacare plan that provided comprehensive
coverage for everything, similar to what we had when we got insurance through
Or we could go with a much more stripped down plan that
offered a high deductible, but put a cap on our expenses if some type of
medical catastrophe happened.
All four of us had always been relatively healthy, and since
the Obamacare plan cost about $2200 per month while the stripped-down version
cost $600 per month, it seemed like a no-brainer. We went with the stripped down version.
For a cost of $600 per month we got access to the health
insurer’s negotiated rates. Plus, there
was a cap of $25,000. If something
horrible happened we wouldn’t be bankrupted.
And on we went.
Just like all things, the first purchase we made probably
wasn’t the best. At the beginning of
2019 we weren’t rushed like we were the first time. I was able to shop around look at a lot of
different options. We found a similar
stripped-down plan, but this one only cost $450 per month and had a cap of
$3000—better coverage at a lower price. We
switched to that, and that’s what we have now.
How we used it
Of course, once we got on a stripped-down plan our two cubs
conspired to make this year the year we consumed more healthcare than any since
Lil’ Fox was hospitalized for four days with croup in 2012.
Foxy Lady and I had no health issues. We just did our normal check-ups. For the first few months everything was fine
and we didn’t have to go to the doctor at all, but then the dam broke:
Mini Fox broke his leg at one of those trampoline places. Total cost $1700
Mini Fox got a nasty cold and had to go to the doctor a couple times. Total cost $200
Lil’ Fox was the only one who wasn’t sick in the family in December but then he came down with a NASTY case of strider. We ended up going to the doctor about six times. Total cost $600
One of the times Lil’ Fox was really struggling breathing we had to go to the ER. They gave him breathing treatments and a steroid, but then sent us home in the evening. Total cost $2300
We had to get an inhaleable steroid for Lil’ Fox that was not on generic so it was fairly expensive (this is one of the places we would have saved a lot by having a full-on plan). Total cost $300
Lil’ Fox went to an ENT and found that his adenoids were very enlarged, and that was largely responsible for all the breathing issues he was having. Plus, his tonsils were infected and were the perfect place for nasty bugs to hang out, likely allowing his cold to persist. We took the adenoids and tonsils out. It was considered an elective procedure so we had to pay cash. Total cost $4000
Yikes!!! Those are
some big numbers. And of course, the
financial gods chose to humble our family by hitting us with all this the very
first year we went on our own for health insurance. Any one of those on its own would have been
more than we paid in any of the previous five years. I guess sometimes timing sucks.
Yet, we’re ahead of
But as expensive as all that stuff was for us out-of-pocket,
we actually ended up WAY AHEAD. How so?
Sure, we had to pay about $9000 out-of-pocket when you add
it all up. But that’s over a whole year
(14 months actually—from March 2018 to May 2019). And the key was that the coverage we got that
exposed us to those higher out-of-pocket expenses only cost about $500 per
month instead of the $2200 that an Obamacare plan would cost us each month.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Because I am a financial nerd, I track this
stuff obsessively. We paid $1700 less
each month in premiums ($2200 – $500).
If we took that money and stuffed it in a mattress, after 14 months we’d
have about $24,000. Subtract that $9000
in out-of-pocket expenses (actually it would be less than that because
Obamacare also has out-of-pocket costs), and you get about $15,000.
If instead of stuffing the extra money in a mattress, we invested
it in the stock market instead, so we ended up with $16k, rather than $15k.
That’s pretty powerful.
We got less insurance coverage but paid a lot less for it. Now we have a $16k buffer to take care of any
of those higher out-of-pocket costs.
Plus, our insurance does cover us for catastrophic expenses beyond $3000,
so it’s hard to see how we lose this game now.
To use a gambling analogy (and isn’t insurance really just another form
of gambling?), we’re playing with house money.
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“You can’t hit what you can’t see” –Walter Johnson, major league pitcher from 1910s
As you take more control of your personal finances, there will come a time when you need to start tracking it somehow. Maybe you’ll be hyper-obsessive like I am and look at it multiple times a day (which objectively is stupid since the numbers don’t change that fast, but I do it anyway). Or maybe you’ll want to see what things look like every week or every month to make sure you are on track. Either way, you’ll need some way to track your finances.
There are two major options: a program you purchase and install on your computer like Quicken, or an internet website that consolidates your online accounts like Mint. For the longest time I was a Quicken devotee (and before that I used Microsoft Money), and then I recently switched to Mint. This post is going to be looking at the pros and cons of each, Dr Jack-style, to help you pick the one that will work best for you.
TRACKING SPENDING: Both do this fairly well. You can download your bank and credit card activity, and both do a somewhat decent job classifying the expenses into the different categories. I think this is a bit of “the price of admission” that you should absolutely expect.
There is one feature that I really liked about Quicken that I don’t get with Mint—the ability to split expenses. When I go to Costco and spend $300, I can only use a single category in Mint, so I use “groceries”. However, in real life, that $300 was split into $150 for groceries, $30 for pet food, $70 for Foxy Lady’s contacts, and $50 for some pool toys for Lil’ and Mini. In Quicken I can split that $300 expense into those different categories which is really nice when you want to compare your spending to your budget.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: After posting this, a reader named Ashleigh mentioned that you could indeed split transactions in Mint. It took some tinkering around but I figured out how to do it. She was indeed correct. That said, I must say that it’s not the most user-friendly or intuitive process. But hey, it’s free so I can’t complain, even though I just did.]
Advantage: Slight edge to Quicken
PROJECTING FUTURE SPENDING: This is a really nice feature in Quicken that you don’t have in Mint. When you look at the cash flow of your checking account, it’s nice to look into the future to make sure that your balance doesn’t fall below a certain level. So you might get a paycheck or two, but then you’ll have your mortgage, a credit card payment, and a couple bills, all of which are hitting on different dates. That’s a lot of moving parts.
If you’re like me and you try to keep your checking account’s balance fairly low, freeing up the extra money to invest where you can get a higher return, then you need to be a little more precise. This is probably the single biggest feature that I miss by switching from Quicken to Mint.
ACCURACY: With Mint the website downloads your transactions and then does its thing. Most of the time this works well but sometimes it doesn’t work and the results look goofy. Look at the picture from Mint for one of my investments. Notice how it thinks that I invested $321.69 and that has increased $26,747. While I would like to think that I am that brilliant of an investor, I can assure you I’m not. For some reason the download had a bug in it. With Quicken, you can actually go into the file and manually change things to take care of stuff like that.
NON-BANK STUFF: A lot of people have financial “stuff” going on that isn’t with your bank or brokerage account. Sometimes it might be off-the-book loans like maybe your parents helped with the down payment on your house. With us, I have stock options that aren’t in an account compatible with Mint, so I don’t have visibility to them. With Mint, if you can’t download them they don’t exist. Obviously that creates a bit of a problem if you want to take these into account.
With Quicken if you have stuff like that you can manually create accounts and transactions. It’s not ideal and certainly not as easy as downloading them, but sometimes something is better than nothing.
ANALYSIS: Quicken has a lot more robust offering of analyses that you can use, including a host of reports that you can customize to show whatever you want. I used these to track how my spending was doing to my budget as well as a report that showed how my investments were doing. Mint has some useful reports, but it isn’t anything near as robust as what Quicken has.
However, Quicken does have a bit of overkill. There are all kinds of reports that it offered that I didn’t use, or even worse used and thought gave bad advice. Quicken had a retirement projection tool that I played around with. It said that at 65 I would have something like $5 million, but that I would run out of money by 90. Ludicrous. I didn’t use that tool after that.
CONNECTIVITY: This is one of the areas where Mint really shines. Its whole platform is based on smooth, seamless connectivity with all your accounts. Everything is designed to make this easy—from initially linking your accounts to Mint, to updating them. I love Mama and Papa Lynx (my in-laws) to death, but sometimes they aren’t the most technologically savvy. They got everything up and running in Mint without any problems, so you know it’s pretty user-friendly.
This is the main reason that I don’t use Quicken anymore. I kept having problems where my accounts wouldn’t update. Sometimes it was my accounts would change (like when my Vanguard account got large enough to go to their Admiral shares), other times it would be a cookie or some other technical thing on my browser that I don’t really understand. No matter, it would be a royal pain in the butt. I’d have one of three options, none of which were good: I could spend time with their technical support, I could manually enter the transactions, or I could just not update (what I ended up doing). We live in a technical age, so to have this not work really well is a problem.
Advantage: Big advantage to Mint
TECHNICAL SUPPORT: As you would expect with a free site on the internet, Mint doesn’t offer you a lot of help if things go wrong or you screw something up. If you click on the “get help” link it sends you to a page that recommends you try to find the answer to your problem in their community. So basically you’re hoping that you can find someone who had the same problem you did and wrote about it. That’s kind of an “f-you”, isn’t it? I’ve struggled a couple times and found my answers by googling for it, and it worked but it took a bit of effort.
Quicken on the other hand has a bonafide help center. You can chat with a real person who will try to help you. This is what I used when I had connectivity issues. By and large, they’re pretty good and can solve most problems with a minimum of hassle (although it’s probably a minimum 30-minute time commitment). Maybe I’m stuck in the past, but I do like it when I can talk (either over the phone or via chat) to a live person.
INTEGRATION TO OTHER PRODUCTS: Quicken allows you to upload your files to programs like Turbo Tax and also to spreadsheets if you really want to do some hardcore analysis. But this is another feature that I think sounds really great, but when you really think about it, it might not be all that valuable.
Take the tax thing for instance. I supposed you could download all your stock sales from Quicken into your tax program to calculate your capital gains, but who really does that? Doesn’t everyone just take the form that Vanguard or Fidelity or whoever sends you and plug all those numbers into your taxes? In all the years I used Quicken I never once used these features.
Advantage: Irrelevant edge to Quicken
COST: Mint is free, and that is awfully hard to beat. Quicken on the other will set you back between $50 and $100. Plus Quicken uses planned obsolescence where their product stops working after a while (it stops connecting to the internet to update your accounts), so you have to buy a new version every couple years. Certainly a few hundred dollars over a decade isn’t going to change the world, but I’d rather have it in my pocket than in Intuit’s.
Advantage: Big advantage to Mint
So there you have it. Looking at it, Quicken has more advantages than Mint, and that makes sense. Quicken is a better, more powerful product, no question. However, Mint has probably the two biggest advantages—its connectivity and it’s free.
I appreciate that I am a power user when it comes to these things, and even I find a lot of Quickens extra features overkill, and I just don’t end up using them. That makes me give the verdict that Mint is probably the better choice for most of you out there. But don’t shed a tear for Quicken and their parent company, Intuit. It turns out that Intuit owns Mint as well. So there’s a lesson in cannibalization.
What is your opinion on Mint or Quicken or any other system you use to track your finances?
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Here’s a question that I received from a reader the other day:
Stocky—my 26-year-old son has saved about $20,000. Right now it’s just sitting in his checking
account. What should he do with it?
The first thing is to ask if he “needs” that money for
anything in the short-term. Does he need
to buy a car, or is he going to buy a house and use that as a down-payment, or
If the answer to that is “yes”, then he can open an account with Vanguard or Fidelity, and invest the money in a broad bond fund like VBLTX or BND. That will provide a decent return (about 3-4%). Of course, there’s a chance that he could lose money, but based on historical data the chances of that are pretty low, and if he did lose money it wouldn’t be a huge percentage of his investment. This isn’t like stocks.
Investing for the
Now let’s get to the more interesting stuff. Let’s assume that the $20k is just
hard-earned savings that can be invested for the long-term.
first place I would start is with his 401k if he has one at work. Hopefully, he is already contributing to that
at some level, and this $20k is on top of that.
The max you can contribute to your 401k in 2019 is $19,000.
With a 401k you can’t really take the $20k he has saved and
put it directly into the account, so we have to do it in a bit of a two-step
Let’s say in his normal budget he is able to contribute $200
per paycheck into his 401k (that comes to $5200 per year). That means that he could contribute $13,800
Crank the percentage up as high as it will go (usually
something like 50%), and that will accelerate his contributions until it hits $19k
for the year. Then the law forces the
contributions to stop.
That will greatly reduce his paycheck, but then that’s where
the $20k he saved comes in. He can use
the $20k he saved to replace the big chunk of his paycheck that went to his
401k. Actually, since 401k contributions
are pre-tax he’ll actually only need to take $11k or so to replace the extra $13,800
he is adding to his 401k.
If he has $20k in the bank he could do this for about 2
years. Just remember that when his $20k
runs out to set the 401k contribution percentage back to a normal level.
As far as investments go, a 401k is meant to be a long-term investment so I would make sure he is invested in some type of broad stock index fund.
IRA—If he doesn’t
have a 401k or even if he does, he should open an IRA. He can do this at any brokerage, but I would
suggest Vanguard or Fidelity.
Here he can contribute directly to an IRA (instead of the
two-step process for a 401k). Once his IRA
is open he can contribute up to a limit of $6000. Just like with the 401k, this money is meant for
the long-term, so I would invest it in a stock index fund.
As he opens his IRA account he’ll also need to decide if he
wants to do so with a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. I have written
extensively on this, and generally his choice should be a traditional IRA
(unless his income this year is very low—let’s say below $30k).
After he’s made his $6k contribution ,that will mean that he’ll
have a lot left over. That takes us to a
normal brokerage account.
similar to IRAs but without the special tax treatment or contribution
limits. You can open these up at the
same place as you do your IRA. So if you
open your IRA up at Vanguard, I would keep it all in the family and open your
brokerage account at Vanguard as well.
Once you have contributed to your 401k and IRA for the year,
you can put the rest in that same stock index fund. Next year, especially if he’s going the IRA
path, he can just transfer the money from the brokerage mutual fund to the IRA
mutual fund and it’s all easy. Of
course, there may be tax implications for this, but that’s one of the reasons
why you want to get the money tucked away in a 401k or IRA as fast as you can.
I hope this helps.
Congrats to your son for having suck a strong head start. Now that he’ll have that money invested, it
will be turbo-charged.
I’ve done a ton of posts on how over time stocks are a great investment, and I absolutely believe that. However, like with all things, if you look at the extremes you start to see funny results. Particularly, over the very short term, stocks aren’t really good investments at all. In fact, if you “invest” in stocks and have a really short time horizon, you aren’t investing at all but rather you are gambling. So investing or gambling, what’s the difference? And when does stock ownership switch from gambling to investing?
As always, this is when I nerd out and get my handy dandy computer and free data from the internet and see what the numbers say. Hopefully it’s not surprising that the longer you hold on to an investment, the lower the probability that you lose money. But it is interesting how the numbers work out.
On any given day, there is a 46% chance that stocks will go down. That’s not quite a flip of the coin (since stocks go up over the long run, you’d expect them to have more good days than bad), but that’s pretty darn close. So let’s agree that if you’re investing for only a day, then you’re gambling.
Obviously, you can contrast that with the other end of the spectrum where historically there hasn’t been a 20 year period where you would have lost money. 0% chance of losing is not gambling, that’s clearly investing.
So where do you draw the line? If you move from a day to a week, the chances of you losing money drop from 46% to 43%. That’s a little better, but that still feels like a flip of the coin to me. Go from a week to a month, and the chances of you losing money drop a little bit more, down to 40%. It’s going in the direction that you would expect—probability of losing money drops the longer you hold on to the investment—but we’re still squarely in gambling territory. If you do something and there’s a 40% chance of it coming out bad, I definitely don’t like those odds.
You can follow the table and see that at 5 years, the chances of you losing money on stocks is about 10% and at 10 years it’s at about 2%. Clearly there is no right answer, and this is an opinion question so everyone is different, but I figure that somewhere between 5 and 10 years is when purchasing stocks ceases to be a gamble and starts being an investment.
One of the things I try to do with this blog is help people better understand the stock market and how it behaves by looking at historic data. I think this is a good example.
As I said at the start, the stock market is a great place to build wealth but you have to be smart about it and you have to have your eyes wide open. If you’re investing just for a month or a week or a day, just understand that what you’re doing looks a lot less like investing and a lot more like gambling. If that’s what you want to do that’s great. Just be honest with yourself.
This brings me to an interesting topic which is “recreational investing”. A lot of people come up to me and say they understand that slow and steady, and index mutual funds, and a long-term view are probably the best way to build wealth. But it’s boring (a sentiment I totally agree with), and they want to keep a small portion of their money so they can “play,” investing in particular stocks they like, similar to the way someone would pick a horse at the track or play the table games in Vegas. To this I say: “go for it”.
Life is too short, and that stuff can be really fun. If it’s fun for you to “play the market” and gamble on some stocks, rock on. Just know that you’re gambling and not investing. But I’ll tell you, if you have a gambling bug, I’d much rather do it with stocks than blackjack or the ponies. With stocks, as we saw above, even over a short time frame, you have the “house advantage”. With other types of gambling, the house has the edge. So I totally support recreational investing if that’s what you’re in to.
What do you think? At what point does buying stocks change from gambling to investing? I’d love to hear.
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When I wrote my three ingredients post, a few of you commented that I was crazy to have so much of our portfolio in stocks and so little in bonds (less than 1% in bonds). Did I have a death wish or something? What if I told you that I think a ton of people are leaving gobs of money on the table because they are investing too conservatively? Tell me more, you say.
We know that you need to balance risk and return in our investments. This is most clearly done when we choose our mix of stocks (more risky, higher average returns) and bonds (less risky, lower average returns). As an investor gets older they want to shift their asset allocation towards less risky investments because their time horizon is shortening. We all agree with this. So where is this hidden pot of gold I’m talking about?
Let’s look at the example of Mr and Mrs Grizzly. They are both 65 years old and entering retirement. They worked hard over the years and socked away $1 million that will see them through their golden years. They do some internet research and learn that a sensible asset allocation in retirement is 40% stocks and 60% bonds, so they invest $400k in stocks and $600k in bonds. Knowing the long term average returns are 8% for stocks and 4% for bonds, they expect their $1 million nest egg to generate about $56,000 per year ($400k * 8% + $600k *4%) , knowing that some years it will be more and some years it will be less. So far so good, right?
THEY ARE LEAVING MAYBE $20,000 PER YEAR ON THE TABLE. That’s a ton of money. How can this be? They seem to be doing everything right. The answer is they are being way too conservative with their asset allocation. They shouldn’t be investing $600k in bonds and $400 in stocks; stocks should be a much higher percentage.
Waaaaiiiiiiiittttttttt!!! But didn’t we agree that about 60% of their portfolio should be in less risky investments? Yes, we did. Are you confused yet?
Here’s what I didn’t tell you. Mr and Mrs Grizzly have other investments that act a lot like bonds that aren’t included in that $1 million. Both Mr Grizzly and Mrs Grizzly are eligible for Social Security with their monthly payments being $2000 each. If Mr Grizzly (age 65) went to a company like Fidelity and bought an annuity that paid him $2000 each month until he died (doesn’t that sound a lot like Social Security), that would cost about $450k. So in a way, Mr Grizzly’s Social Security payments are acting like a $450k government bond (theoretically it would be more than $450k since the US government has a better credit rating than Fidelity). And remember that Mrs Grizzly is getting similar payments, so as a couple they have about $900k worth of “bond-ish” investments.
Also, Mr and Mrs Grizzly own their home that they could probably sell for $300k. They don’t plan on selling but if they ever needed to they could tap the equity in their home either by selling it or doing a reverse mortgage. So in a way, their house is another savings account for $300k.
If you add that up, all the sudden the picture looks really different. They have about $950k of Social Security benefits that have the safety of a government bond. Plus they have that $300k equity in their house. That’s $1.25 million right there.
Investing your portfolio
So now let’s bring this bad boy full circle. Remember their $1 million nest egg they were looking to invest? Look at that in the context of their Social Security and house. Now their total “assets” are about $2.25 million. If you believe that the Social Security and house kind of feel like a bond, just those by themselves account for 55% of their portfolio. If on top of that if you invest 60% of their $1 million nest egg in bonds, they have over 80% of their money in bonds, and that seems way too high.
On the other hand, let’s say they only put $100k of their nest egg into bonds and the rest into stocks, after you include their social security and home, they’d be at about 60% bonds and 40% stocks. Isn’t that what they were aiming for the whole time?
Wow. It took a long time to get there, Stocky. The punchline better be worth it. Remember that with $600k in bonds and $400k in stocks, they had an expected return of about $56,000 per year. However, if they have $100k in bonds and $900k in stocks, because stocks are more volatile but have a higher expected return, they can expect about $76,000 ($800k * 8% + $100k *4%). THAT’S $20,000!!!
But aren’t they taking on a lot more risk to get that extra $20k? Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. For sure, but if you look at it in the context of their Social Security benefits and their home, they have a fair amount of cushion from “safe investments” to see them through any rough patches in the stock market.
I wrote this post to show that people really need to take account all the financial resources they have. In the Grizzly’s case, it was their Social Security benefits and their home. Others of you may be getting a pension (Medtronic is generous enough to offer the Fox family one) or a second home or a dozen other things like that.
When you take those cash flows into account, all the sudden it seems a lot more reasonable to invest the rest of your money a little more heavily in stocks which you know over the long haul will give you a better return.
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Between the gore and the incest, there are some valuable personal finances lessons from A Game of Thrones. This Top 5 list is dedicated to all those who fell fighting for the living against the Night King.
5. Debt creeps up on
you: King Robert’s reign was a
largely peaceful and prosperous one. Yet
like so many people, Robert overspent and went into debt. It wasn’t any one thing and at first he
really didn’t seem to notice. However,
before too long Robert was hamstrung by his debt, and it force him to make bad
choices—the terrible marriage to Cersei being forced upon him since the
Lannisters held most of his debt.
That marriage to Cersei: we all know how that turned out for
4. Everyone likes to
look richer than they are: Rather
ironic based on #5, but by season 4 the Lannisters are broke. Their gold mines stopped producing and they
are deeply indebted to the Iron Bank.
Sounds pretty dire, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at
them. They are still “rich as a
Lannister” and give the outward appearance that they are rolling in the gold
dragons. In no way do they let that they
aren’t rich as ever, and why would they?
Who would want to show their rear end to others?
The key is taking smart “leaps,” those where the rewards
more than offset the risks. Stocks
definitely fall into that category.
2. “Power resides
where people think it resides”: Here
Varys speaks one of the most important lines in the entire series.
There’s probably no statement that describes our financial
system better. Banks work because people
have think they work—you put your money in and you get it out. Fiat currency is really just paper with
colored ink, but they work because people think they can reliably use those
pieces of paper to get other stuff.
The best, most recent example has been Bitcoin. For a while people thought Bitcoin was really
valuable so it went up to $19,000 (Dec 2017).
Then all the sudden people didn’t think it was valuable so it plunged
down to $3200 (Dec 2018), and now it’s back up to $5300. Nothing has really changed about its value or
intrinsic net worth except what people think
about its value.
1. Being good at personal finance opens up A
LOT of opportunities: Littlefinger
was my absolute favorite character, and he’s a great example of the power that
comes with being really good with personal finances.
He started out as a nobody and rose to arguably the most
important and richest person in the seven kingdoms. How did he do it? Investing well and being good with
money. He “had a gift for rubbing two
golden dragons together and breeding a third.”
In our world financial literacy is abysmal. Those who can master those skills can do
quite well; the average salary for a financial planner is over
$100,000. Smart financial decisions
can make a millionaire out of nearly anyone.
As Littlefinger shows, the sky’s the limit with this skillset.
A few years back, I wrote a blog comparing the financials of renting versus buying your house. Back then renting came out ahead when you just looked at the dollars, which was a bit surprising. It seemed to buck conventional wisdom that buying is also the best option.
This seems especially important in light of some of the tax changes that impact your mortgage and property tax deductibility.
For this post, I want to look at the choice from a purely financial perspective. And what better way to do that than break it down Dr Jack style? Just to put a little meat on the analytical bone, let’s assume we have a home that we could buy for $400,000 or we could rent for $2000 (I did a quick search on Zillow in a few different markets and this seemed reasonable).
UP-FRONT COSTS: When you rent, you have to give a deposit which is typically something like one month of rent, so that’s $2000. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. When you buy, your down payment is in the range of 20% (or maybe even higher since the 2008 financial crisis—the Fox family had to put 25% down on our house). That would mean $80,000 if you’re buying.
At first glance that may not seem like a big deal because it’s still your money, it just happens to be “invested” (did you notice how I used quotes there?) in your home. However, when your $80,000 is tied up in your house you can’t invest it (no quotes there) in the stock market. Since the stock market historically returns about 6% that means you’re passing up $4800 per year on average. Over an investing career that ends up being a TON of money.
Advantage: Bid advantage to RENTING
RISING INTEREST RATES: We’ve been living the last decade with historically low interest rates. A 30-year fixed loan was in the 3.5% range, and all was well. Since then interest rates have steadily crept up.
The math on interest rate increases is pretty powerful. A 1% increase would increase your monthly mortgage payment about $3200 per year or about $280 per month.
A couple months ago, interest rates rose to about 5%, but since then it has settled down to about 4%. Either way, interest rates are going up, and it seems that will probably be the long-term trend.
MONTHLY PAYMENT: The most common knock I hear on renting is “every month you pay rent, you’re throwing that money away.” I hate that comment, and part of this post is to show how little sense that makes. Obviously when you are renting, your monthly payment is your rent, $2000 in this example.
When you buy, your monthly payment is your mortgage (here we aren’t going to include insurance and taxes, that will come later). If you have a typical 30-year mortgage, let’s say at 4.5% interest, your payment is going to be about $1620 per month. That’s quite a bit less than you’re paying in rent, so obviously that’s an advantage for buying, but then there’s another little bit of good news. That $1620 you’re paying is mostly interest, but a small amount is going towards paying down your loan. In a way that can be seen as you “saving” money. In this example the amount going towards you’re loan would be about $200 per month. So that’s pretty nice. Of course that “forced savings” has a low return compared to the stock market, so it’s not as good as it could be.
Of course, that means that about $1400 per month is going to interest. So when people say that you’re throwing away your rent, can’t you say the same thing for the interest on your mortgage? Either way, this is definitely an advantage to buying.
OTHER COSTS: With renting, once you pay that rent check, you’re pretty much done. With buying you have a lot of other expenses that nickel-and-dime you to death. Property taxes have to be paid (let’s say 1% of the property value so that’s $333 per month). If you live in a condo complex or an association you might have monthly dues that could range from pretty minor to a significant chunk of money (when the Foxes lived in a condo in downtown Chicago, our monthly association fees were $900 per month—ouch!!!). Those can definitely add up, so that’s a nice advantage to renting.
TAX ADVANTAGES: This is where a huge change has happened recently. Before, all your mortgage interest and property taxes were tax deductible. Now there is a $10,000 limit on those deductions. In a lot of scenarios, your property taxes won’t be tax deductible. Because of the higher standard deduction, a lot of times it won’t make sense to deduct your mortgage interest either.
Before, the deduction for your mortgage interest and property taxes might be worth about $600 per month. Now that is certainly less, maybe all the way down to nothing.
INFLATION: Once you buy your house your biggest cost, your mortgage, is going to stay put. We’ve talked about inflation before, and the enormous impact that even a little inflation can have on expenses after many years, so this seems pretty awesome that you don’t need to worry about it for your biggest expense.
With rent “that’s where they get you”. Rents almost always go up. Often there are laws that put a cap on how much they can go up, 2% seems a number I’ve heard before, so that provides some relief, but even that 2% can be a big deal. If today your rent is $2000, in 10 years it would be $2440, in 20 years it would be $2970, and in 50 years it would be $5390. That sucks, especially when compared to buying where your mortgage payment will always stay the same.
Advantage: Big advantage to BUYING
SELF-DETERMINATION: A neighbor was renting a few houses down from us. The family loved the house, loved the neighborhood, loved the neighbors (of course they did). But one day the landlord called her and said she wasn’t renewing the lease because she (the landlord) was moving into the house. That family that was renting was FORCED to move even though they didn’t want to. That sucks.
When you rent, you’re definitely at the whim of your landlord. If you buy, you are in control of your own destiny, baby. Get drunk off that power.
UPKEEP: One of the super-nice things about renting is that you don’t need to worry about when things break down. If there is a problem with the toilet, call the landlord. Water damage from the really bad storm, call the landlord. Fridge on the fritz, whatever—call the landlord. In general this is an awesome advantage. This is even better if you’re not a very handy person.
If you own a home, whenever anything goes wrong you need to fix it yourself (hence my “handy” comment) or worse you have to pay someone to fix it for you. There’s no perfect estimate, but a generally accepted rule is you should plan on spending 1% of the home’s value on maintenance. In our example that would be about $4000 per year.
NICENESS: As an owner, if you want to make your place nicer you absolutely can. If you want a pool, build it; hardwood floors, install them; custom closets, wallpaper, nice landscaping, and on and on. As a renter there’s a reluctance to do it because in some sense you’re paying to make someone else’s property nicer. If you rent there for years and years, maybe that’s not a huge deal, but that “self-determination” issue rears its ugly head.
I don’t have statistics on this, but I bet that most renters would love to make their place nicer, but just don’t because there is some deep attitude that you don’t do that when you rent. I totally get it and understand it, but it sucks that this keeps you from making your place as nice as it would otherwise be.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: I’m not talking about your hot-water heater going bad or having to replace the roof (those we captured in “Upkeep”). Here I’m talking about real worst case scenarios like a natural disaster (in California earthquakes aren’t covered by most homeowners insurance policies; you can get earthquake insurance which is really expensive, so most don’t get it), or the neighborhood really turns bad, or termites or black mold infestations happen inside the walls. Let your imagination run with this for a second and you can really think of some nasty stuff.
As a renter, you can pick up and leave the nightmare behind. Just go somewhere else and start paying someone else rent, and problem solved. Not so if you own the home. Your single largest investment is at risk. Sucks to be you.
By its nature, the worst-case scenario isn’t very likely, but still it could happen. This is one of the things that keeps me up at night as a homeowner.
ASSET ALLOCATION: A mortgage is a “forced savings” program in a way. Every month you’re making a mortgage payment and part of that goes towards your equity that you can use as you get older (reverse mortgages, cash-out refinances) or pass on to your heirs. After 30 years your house will probably be paid off and you’ll have a tidy little sum of cash to supplement your portfolio. Also, because home values tend to be much steadier than stocks, in a way this investment might seem like a bond.
We saw how crazy important asset allocation is, so if you have a lot of home equity, that might make you feel more comfortable to put a bigger portion of your portfolio into stocks which historically have a higher return. This is a bit of a tricky one, but there’s definitely some level of advantage there.
REALTOR COSTS: There will come a time when you are ready to leave your current home and move somewhere else. If you’re renting this is easy (but not super-easy). Usually, you’ll wait for your lease to expire and then head on down the road. If you need to move right away and your lease isn’t up for a while, that can create a bit of a challenge of breaking you’re lease. That could be as easy as paying a penalty of a month’s rent, or your landlord could play hardball and hold you to your lease until the end. So this can be a pain, but more in the “moderate” zone.
When you own a home and have to sell it, that is a monumental undertaking. Getting a home ready for sale, listing it, showing it, and ultimately closing the sale can take months from beginning to end. Also, it’s not cheap. While realtor fees vary, they average about 6% of the home’s value. In our little example that would be $24,000. That is a lot of money. If you’ve been in the house for 30 years, that will amortize to less than $1000 per year, but if you’ve only been living there a few years that could be thousands of dollars per year that you need to tack on the to “Buy” expense column.
Advantage: Big advantage to RENTING
PRICE APPRECIATION: We saved the best for last, kind of. When you own your home, you get to take advantage of any price increases that your home experiences. Of course, if your home goes down in value, you suffer those loses too. However, like stocks, homes have historically increased in value over time, with notable exceptions like when home values crashed in 2008.
That’s great news, right? No question. However, it’s not as good as most people think. You hear all sorts of crazy stories about people making a killing off their house, but those tend to be anecdotes rather than the rule. The numbers are hard to come by but I think the most definitive and well-respected data, the Case-Shiller index (developed by my BFF Robert Schiller) shows that prices for existing homes have only increased 0.5% over the past 40 years after you account for inflation.
THAT’S CRAZY. That goes against everything we hear. How can that be? Well his index controls for things like home sizes getting bigger, houses getting nicer features, etc. So it really tries to do an apple-to-apples comparison of what you can expect will happen to your home. So home prices do tend upward, but just not at anywhere near the pace that we’ve come to believe.
Investment return on down payment
Realtor fees (5 years)
If you put it all together Buying “loses” with a score of 5-6-2. Furthermore the math shows that Renting comes out ahead on a monthly expense basis, and it has become an even bigger advantage with the new tax laws. Yet, Buying wins on a lot of those intangibles. Ahhhh, this is why the decision is so complex. Hopefully you saw my point that buying isn’t the unambiguously better option.
If you look at the numbers, it really breaks down to two major factors—realtor costs and price appreciation. The longer you’re in your home, the more years you can spread that 6% realty fee over. So if you’re planning on moving after a few years, that becomes a major disadvantage to buying. Your home appreciating in the icing on the cake that can really make the whole difference. However, the Case-Schiller index showed that prices don’t rise nearly as fast as everyone seems to think (hence, I didn’t even include it in the expense comparison).
It’s a tough call, but the dollars are real. Renting costs about $800 less than Buying in our example; that 40%!!!
The Fox family owns our home, and it has turned out to be the best investment we’ve ever made. We bought in 2010 when the housing market in Southern California had been thoroughly thrashed by the 2008 crisis. In the past 5 years our home has rebounded, more than doubling in value. We would have missed all that had we rented, but if I’m honest with myself, it was just really lucky timing. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky that good.
Long before there were ever stocks or bonds, the original investment was gold. Heck, even before there was paper currency or even coins, gold was the original “money”.
That begs the question, What
role should gold have in your portfolio?
If you don’t want to read to the end, my quick answer is “None”. However, if you want to have a bit of a
better answer, let’s dig in.
Gold as an investment
Just like stocks and bonds, gold is an investment. The idea is to buy it and have it increase in value. Makes sense. And historically, it seems to have been a good one—back in 1950 an ounce of gold was worth about $375 and today it’s worth about $1300. Not bad (or is it???).
However, there is a major difference between gold (and broadly commodities) as an investment compared to stocks and bonds. Gold is a store of value. If you buy gold it doesn’t “do” anything. It just sits in a vault collecting dust until you sell it to someone else.
That’s very different from stocks and bonds. When you buy a stock that money “does” something. It builds a factory that produces stuff or it buys a car that delivers goods or on and on. What ever it is, it’s creating something of value, making the pie bigger. That is a huge difference compared to gold, and it’s a huge advantage that stocks and bonds have over gold. You actually see that play out by looking at the long-term investment performance of gold versus stocks.
Statistically speaking, gold gives an investor more diversification than probably any other asset. We all know that diversification is a good thing, so this means that gold is a great investment, right?
Well, not really.
Stick with me on this one. Gold
is negatively correlated with
stocks (for you fellow statistics nerds, the correlation is about -0.12). Basically, that means when stocks go up gold
tends to go down, and when stocks go down gold tends to go up.
Over the short term, that’s probably a pretty good thing, especially if you want to make sure that your investments don’t tank. In fact, that’s one of the reasons gold is sometimes called “portfolio insurance”. It helps protect the value of your portfolio if stocks start falling, since gold tends to go up when stocks go down.
However, over the long-term, that’s super
counter-productive. We all know that
over longer periods of time, stocks have a
very strong upward trend. If gold is
negatively correlated with stocks, and if over the long-term stocks nearly
always go up, then that means that over the long-term gold nearly always goes
(wait for it) . . . down.
That doesn’t seem right, but the data is solid. Look back to 1950: an ounce of gold cost
$375. About 70 years later, in 2019,
it’s about $1300. That’s an increase of
about 250% which might seem pretty good, but over 70 years that’s actually
pretty bad, about 1.8% per year.
Contrast that with stocks.
Back in 1950 the S&P 500 started at 17, and today it’s at about
2900. That’s an increase of about
17,000%, or about 7.7% per year. WOW!!!
Just to add salt in the wound, inflation (it pains me to say
since I think the data
is suspect) was about 3.5% since 1950.
Put all that together, and gold has actually lost purchasing power since
A matter of faith
Fundamentally, if you have faith that the world will continue to operate with some sense of order, then gold isn’t a very good investment. So long as people accept those green pieces of paper you call dollars in exchange for goods and services and our laws continue to work, gold is just a shiny yellow metal.
However, if society unravels, then gold becomes the universal currency. The 1930s (Great Depression), the 1970s (OPEC shock), and 2008 (Great Recession) were all periods where gold experienced huge price increases. Those are also when the viability of the financial world order were in question. Each time, people were actively questioning if capitalism and banks and the general financial ecosystem worked.
People got all worked up and thought we were on the brink of oblivion. Gold became a “safe haven”. People knew no matter what happened, that shiny yellow metal would be worth something. They didn’t necessarily believe that about pieces of paper called dollars, euros, and yuans.
Yet, the world order hasn’t crumbled. Fiat currencies are still worth
something. Laws still work, so that
stock you own means that 1/1,000,000 of that factory and all it’s input belongs
to you. Hence, gold remains just a shiny,
The bottom line is that stocks have been a great long-term
investment, and gold hasn’t. And that’s
directly tied to the world maintaining a sense of order. So long as you think that world order is
durable and we’re not going to descend into anarchy Walking-Dead style, then gold isn’t going to be a good investment.
So the survey says: “Stay away from gold as an investment in
In the United States, Social Security is an important part of most peoples’ retirements, actually probably too important in many instances. Social Security is a fairly simple program that was designed to be pretty idiot-proof. You don’t really need to make many decisions for it, which contrasts sharply with all the decisions you need to make on your other investments (like tax strategies, asset allocation, picking investments, etc.).
With Social Security, you just work and the government takes its 12.4% (6.2% from you and 6.2% from your employer) of your compensation. In fact, you don’t really have a choice in the matter and the government does it automatically. Then when you get old, the government gives you a monthly pension. Not real complicated on your end.
However, there is one really important decision you need to make regarding Social Security: when you start taking it. Basically, you have three options: 1) Early retirement-when you turn 62; 2) Regular retirement-when you turn 67 for most of us; 3) Late retirement-when you turn 70. And as you would expect, if you start taking Social Security later, you get a larger monthly check from the government.
This is obviously an important choice to make, and it’s one that gets a lot of press coverage with all sorts of people opining on what to do (I guess with this post, I am adding my opines to those ranks). Generally speaking, the advice slants towards taking it later. Yet, I wonder if that’s really good advice. Using my handy-dandy computer, let’s go to the numbers to see what they tell us.
I checked my Social Security statement and I’ll be able to pick from one of the three choices:
Age to start taking Social Security
Early retirement—age 62
Full retirement—age 67
Delayed retirement—age 70
As you would expect, the answer to this riddle is a morbid one. When do you expect to die? The longer you live, the more it makes sense to delay taking Social Security so you can get the bigger check. That’s not a tremendous insight, but when you do the math, you start to see some interesting things going on. I fully appreciate that Social Security is very nuanced and complex, so I am just covering the simple basics here.
In my analysis to be able to compare the different scenarios, I assumed that I saved all the Social Security checks and was able to invest them at 4%, about the historic rate for a bond. If you do that the table above expands to this:
Age to start taking Social Security
Early retirement—age 62
Die before age 79
Full retirement—age 67
Die between age 80 and 84
Delayed retirement—age 70
Die after age 85
That’s pretty profound actually. The average life expectancy in the United States is 76 for men and 81 for women. Doesn’t that mean that most of us should be taking Social Security with the early option? That contradicts most of the advice out there on this topic. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why Stocky is here for you. This is where it starts to get fun, and we can apply a little game theory (awesome!!!).
When to start Social Security?
Actually, once you reach age 62, the life expectancy of those still alive (and able to make the decision on Social Security) is 82 for men and 85 for women. This makes sense because you’ve survived to 62 so by definition you didn’t die before then (awesome insight, Stocky), and those early deaths pull down that initial life expectancy model.
Since women are better than men as a general rule (Foxy Lady took over typing for just a second there), let’s look at this decision as a 62 year-old-woman. She needs to make a decision on when to take Social Security. She knows her life expectancy at this point is 85, which means there’s about a 50% chance she makes it to 85. So the worst choice for a 62 year-old is to take the early retirement option. She’s probably going to live long enough that either full retirement or delayed retirement is the better option.
At 62 she does the smart thing, and decides to wait. Her next decision comes at age 67, assuming she lives that long (there’s about a 5% chance she’ll die during those five years). But a similar thing happens—when she was 62 her life expectancy was 85 (right on the border of picking between full retirement and delayed retirement), but now that she’s 67 her life expectancy jumps up a year to 86. So if she makes it to 67 then she’s better off taking the delayed retirement (of course, there’s about a 4% chance she’ll die before she makes it to 70).
That’s a little bit weird though, isn’t it? It kind of feels like you’re that horse with a carrot dangling over his head, keeping him walking forward. It’s a bit of a conundrum. At any given time, you’re better off delaying starting your Social Security, so the math tells you to keep waiting and waiting. But if the dice come up snake eyes and you die, then you miss out on everything (not strictly true, but true enough for our analysis).
And keep in mind that since Foxy Lady hijacked Stocky’s computer, we’ve done this analysis for women. The math tells you that it’s just about a wash between taking Social Security at 67 or 70. Since women live on average 3 years longer, for men you would think it means that the advantage leans towards taking it early.
What does it really matter?
So the analysis tells us that we’re better off waiting if you’re a woman and it’s really close if you’re a man. And of course the longer we wait, the further we come out ahead by taking delayed retirement instead of early or full retirement. But how big of numbers are we talking?
Remember, the cut off for when full retirement becomes better is at about 80 years old. The cut off for when delayed retirement becomes better is about 85 years old.
Future value of Social Security payments
Early retirement (62)
Full retirement (67)
Delayed retirement (70)
Those are meaningful differences. If you make it to 100 years old, delayed retirement comes out about $800,000 higher than early retirement. However, those are in future dollars, 38 years into the future if you’re 62 today and faced with this decision. That $800,000 when you’re 100 would be worth about $370,000 today. Of course that’s if you make it to 100, which isn’t really likely (about a 3% chance).
If you make it to 90 years old (you have less than a 30% chance) then the difference is about $260,000 in future dollars which is about $150,000 today.
Wrapping up, I’m really torn on this. There’s a little bit of a prisoner’s dilemma type thing working that keeps making you want to push back when you start collecting. And then when you look at the upside of delaying retirement, the numbers are pretty big (whenever you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s real money), but the chances of us making it to that super-golden age are pretty small.
I suppose it’s best to wait, but I’m giving that a pretty “luke-warm” endorsement. It certainly isn’t the “slam dunk” that so many pundits make it out to be.
Actually, I think the way the Social Security administration sets it up, the options are all pretty similar. We all have this personal belief that we’ll live longer than average (but not everyone can live longer than average, expect if you’re from Lake Wobegon, MN). And that makes us think we’re better off waiting, but it probably is all pretty equal.