Fraud Alerts, Hacks, and Insider Trading

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You’d have to be under a rock to not have heard of the Equifax hack that exposed the personal information of millions of customers (143 millions to be exact) that amount to essentially 1/2 of the entire U.S. population. It’s alarming and frustrating because the nature of their organization does not allow us to opt out of their business model. If a hack of that magnitude occurred at my financial institution, I would simply take my business elsewhere. But, the way our credit system works, we do not get a say as consumers. If you have a pulse and you have any credit history, at least one, if not all three credit bureaus, will have a lot of personal information about you.

If you ever looked at your credit report, you’ll see that almost everything except your medical history is included (past and current addresses, employers, account balances, payment history, phone numbers, etc.) If you think that’s alarming, I’ve got news for you that should make it worse: honestly, there is nothing you can do about those organizations having your information other than living off the grid like those crazy cult people (who may be on to something) who shun the use of credit, social security numbers, and civilization altogether.

While you can’t keep the information from getting out, you can prevent someone from using it for nefarious purposes. After thinking it over, I decided that the 7 year credit freeze was overkill and instead opted for a 90-day fraud alert. The fraud alert allows me to block any attempt at applying for credit without the potential lender first calling me on the phone to verify that I am indeed the one applying. It is free, fast and convenient to do, and best of all, you only have to contact one of the three agencies as they are required to notify the other three. The alert lasts 90 days and you can keep renewing it every 3 months. You can do it over the phone or on any of the three reporting bureaus’ website (phone numbers and links below).

See below for their contact information and good luck! If you’re concerned about your information being in the hands of criminals, just think of it that way, at least you have it better than the three Equifax executives who will probably end up in jail for insider trading. I hear prison food is terrible.

TransUnion
1-800-680-7289

Experian
1-888-397-3742

Equifax
1-888-766-0008

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What Can you do with $1,400 a Month?

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I don’t know about you, but for me, not much. But according to the Social Security Administration, that is approximately the average monthly benefits that retired seniors were receiving as of December of 2016. This highlights the importance of having limited reliance on Social Security income later in life. It is no longer enough to have something to supplement Social Security, but it is looking more and more like Social Security itself is the supplement rather than the main source of income. Currently, we spend a third of that amount in my household for food per month. It is imperative that we plan appropriately if we want to maintain a decent standard of living. We do not have to live lavish lifestyles, while that would be nice, but it would also be rather unfortunate if we worked for 40+ years and ended up living in squalor in our old age.

Although I am relatively young, I place great value in planning for retirement. After all, due to the effects of compounding, time is not only of the essence, time is our friend, so we must start early. The more time we have, the more opportunities there are both for growth and for recovery in the event of a downturn. The time is now to build that solid nest egg. Barring an accident or illness, I have at least another 30 years of work left in me, 31 to be exact. I have been actively saving for retirement since June 2007. That is 41 years of full time work where wise lifestyle choices and prudent investments will come together to ensure that I live the life that I earned throughout my working career. Note that I didn’t say the life that I wanted. Because when it comes to being retired, you don’t get the life you want, you get the life you deserve. As harsh as it sounds, it is our reality.

Different practices both as a result of changes in our political landscape and employers’ decreased willingness to contribute to their employees lifestyle, has drastically modified retirement outcomes. There are fewer and fewer pension options for people who dedicate their lives to serving the public or helping advance companies. Most of our futures now depend on market volatility. Even those with pensions are now beginning to supplement their defined benefits with additional investments in 401ks or 403bs.

I know there is an older segment of our population that reasonably had expectations for a pension since that was the practice at the time. Unfortunately, things started changing later in their careers and they did not have the time to save enough to bridge the unanticipated gap. There are also changing factors like longer life expectancy that plays a significant role in the “nasty surprise” our seniors face when they began to outlive their funds. For example my former roommate actually told me that her grandmother outlived her retirement funds by 14 years. While she may have planned, she didn’t necessary plan to live to be 90 because back when she was in the working world, that was unheard of.

So we’ve identified the problem, but what steps are we taking to make sure we don’t fall victim to a lack of planning? Here’s what I’m doing:

Traditional IRA: I rolled over my 401k into a traditional IRA from a previous job approximately 3 years ago and today I contribute to it monthly.

401k: Unfortunately, this new job no longer offers a match but I can still save pre-tax so I started out by contributing $25 a pay period and increased it gradually until it reached 10% of my income.

Pension: I am eligible for a pension at age 55 if I work at least 10 years and the amount I am eligible to receive increases every year I work past the 10 years. I will most likely work at least the 10 years to ensure that I become eligible.

Real Estate Sales (Today): Selling real estate is a way of boosting my Social Security Income because the Self-Employment Tax that I pay out of my real estate income contributes to my social security payments.

Real Estate Sales (Later): I also plan to continue doing part time real estate sales a few years after I retire from my regular job. This will supplement my retirement income for the first 5-7 years delaying any distributions I will have to take to allow my investments to grow further.

Rental Properties: They are the gift that keep on giving. They don’t require much effort. As I get older, I will probably spend more money to outsource some of the services so I will no longer have to deal with tenants, but by then, my mortgage will be gone and my rents will likely increase so I don’t anticipate a significant drop in my margins.

Reduce Expenses: I will be doing my best to avoid debt, I will consider downsizing to one car, and my living expenses should decrease significantly as the mortgage on our primary residence will be gone.

What are you doing?

Prey to Play: Exploiting Black Misinformation

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In a country built on a legacy of race-based abuse and marginalization, it should be a surprise to no one that segregation was the norm until HUD decided to outlaw discriminatory norms that after several decades (excluding centuries of slavery since “property” cannot own property) of people of color, mainly blacks, being locked out of financial markets. Then redlining moved from exclusionary practices to predation. As recently as the early 2000s, communities of color were still targets for predatory lending practices, which do nothing to alleviate the inequalities we continue to witness between different demographics regarding generational wealth. However, I am becoming just as alarmed by the defeatist attitude and victim mentality of some black people as I am outraged by the systematic and oppressive treatment perpetuated by powerful institutions.

Thanks to the internet, everyone, including myself, has a soap box. High speed internet and free platforms has given rise to a multitude of different social justice movements, of which, many are catalysts for change, some are questionable and some others I find without merit. Among those that I find to be without merit, are those that really call for what seems to be throwing in the towel and making no efforts toward self-improvement because after all, the boot is on our neck, so why should we even bother breathing? Let’s just hold our breath and die right here. While this might be a simplistic summarization of it all, I struggle to extract any other point from the message when the systemic oppression is continuously highlighted with any educational effort made to provide solutions to the problem.

“We are kept out of financial markets! We don’t own homes! We don’t have infrastructure in our neighborhood! We don’t have retirement accounts!”

But, there is no effort to save, to attend a home buyer class, to build a business to request a pamphlet from the employer about what 401k plans are available. Meanwhile, anyone who makes an attempt at providing the information is quickly labeled “classist”, tool of white supremacy and is bombarded with an overwhelming list of excuses reasons why they can’t get a job, save money, have decent credit, own a home, travel, etc.

Everyone is complaining about what are real problems, but do so without seeking real answers. Identifying the concerns are a first step but not even half of the battle. Education followed by action are still necessary to reverse course. Although, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the e-SJWs actually want to see changes.

They might very well be afraid because struggle, while uncomfortable, is not unknown so there might be a sense of safety there. Struggle can be used as a crutch to escape accountability. At the same time, there is also the possibility that they might  run out of discussion topics that will generate adequate traffic to their pages and build their following. That pool of fans is actually a critical source of donation money for those who chose to crowdfund their lives rather than work. If their entire platform is built on enumerating the ills of the community, what will they talk about when most people have taken definitive steps towards self-improvement? To me, that in itself is a form of exploitation. That is the equivalent of not teaching a man to fish, not even giving him a fish, but instead, complaining about how hungry you both are just because you want company. It is unfair and self-serving to keep people ignorant in order to build a platform off their misinformation. With the accessibility of the internet and the amount of people willing to provide the right information for next to nothing, it would probably be less work-intensive, and definitely be less abusive, to get a job than to keep our peers misinformed.

We shouldn’t encourage mediocrity just because the playing field is not leveled. Just because we can’t close the gap, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and bridge it. After all, the world doesn’t end with us after we are gone. There are still future generations for whom we can make the world a little better. Our forefathers who fought for freedom did not get to live to see integration, but they laid the ground work for the civil rights movement. Doing anything less than putting up a good fight is regression. We have to do better. Black exploitation isn’t suddenly fashionable because the perpetrator is not white.

Question Everything

I don’t mean to speak for anyone but I’d like to think that we work hard for our money and we would like to keep it. That’s why I discussed fraudulent investments earlier and some of their tell-tale signs to help you recognize and avoid them. But people can be really crafty when it’s time to con you out of some cash.

If the proposed investment initially passes the smell test, here are three questions you can ask to further pull back some layers and determine the merits of the deal:

Does the dealer have a license? Even with the best of intention, the market has shown that it cannot be trusted to regulate itself. The best way of ensuring that people and organizations are doing the right thing is to have the threat of severe penalties (usually financial) hanging over their head. Unlicensed advisers are illegal and accountable to no one. Furthermore, we do not know what their qualifications are.

Does the risk/reward structure make sense? “High risk, high reward” is a common cliche, but it is true. If someone is offering a low risk guaranteed investment, the returns will likely be very low. The opposite applies if the rewards are significant. The risk is likely to be high and the returns will not be guaranteed. Anything different is likely a scam, or at best it is misrepresented.

Is the investment registered? It is similar to an unlicensed dealer. Who is tracking and regulating the security if it is unregistered? Personally, I do not like to rely on a company that is financially invested in me being uninformed for the truth. Registering a security ensures that the SEC, an independent government organization will ensure transparency by providing you with the necessary information to make good choices.

No Rest for Dead Presidents: My Dollars aren’t Lazy Bastards

What an awful headline. But I’m not feeling particularly creative today so it will have to do.

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In an introductory investment post, I liken dollars to employees who must work to make my life better. Money has a significant advantage over us when it comes to working and earning potential. We get tired, we need sleep, our loved ones want our attention. Money has none of those conflicts so what reason is there for it to not be working tirelessly to free you from the rat race? In my case, my little dead presidents’ only duty is to slave away to improve my quality of life. Here are some of the ways I make sure they aren’t being lazy little bastards.

I structure my bank accounts deliberately: Some days I can’t even keep track of how many accounts I have. But the complexities of both life and banking regulations do not allow me to simply have a checking and a savings. While I have a checking account for my every day use, that is the lowest yielding account there is. I can’t keep all my money in a checking account. However, the highest yielding bank account is a CD (learn more about CD’s here and here) and there are penalties for early withdrawals. Since emergencies do not wait for CDs to mature, I also have a money market account which provides me with quick access to cash at a much higher rate than a checking but without the potential for a penalty.

I only use cash back credit cards: Your bank is making money off your use of the card, shouldn’t you do the same? My credit card gives me 1.5% cash back on everything I buy and on a monthly basis, the bank runs some specials at various merchants where I get an additional 5-15% cash back. For example, my tail lights went out a few weeks ago. We have both an Auto Zone and an Advanced Auto Parts in our area. However, our credit card company was running a 10% cash back special at Advanced Auto Parts. When it was time for my husband to replace the tail lights, I told him to make sure he went there. He spent $40 and we ended up getting $4.60 back (10% special + the 1.5% we would normally get). Of course, since there is no annual fee and we pay the balance in full every month to avoid interest, we are being paid to use our card.

I get educated: It’s hard to make or save money when you don’t know what benefits or features are available to you. I’ve discussed my solar adventures in the past. We got thousands of dollars in rebates courtesy of the U.S. Government for our investment in solar panels (if you pay taxes, thank you!). Although we would have eventually taken the plunge, we might have missed the opportunity for our big tax credit if we waited too long. There is no guarantee that the program will be available indefinitely or even beyond 2020. We also learned about the energy credits which we are on track to receive quarterly for 10 years. While they are small amounts, they will be offsetting nearly half of the cost of the system. So not only did we get a 30% subsidy, we are also selling some of the credits we produce over a period of time to offset the remaining 70% of the cost. That does not include our actual energy savings which have been pretty substantial (my March 2017 electric bill was $38. I live in a 3,100 square foot house in New England).

I pay debt aggressively: Debt is slavery. It’s crippling because it’s expensive. The best way to handle debt is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. My student loan interest is 5.16%. It makes no sense for me to carry that balance for 10 years (standard repayment) if it’s costing me as much as a moderate investment portfolio would cost. So when I graduated from an MBA program with a balance of $47k and change, I was determine to get rid of it by any means necessary. Two years later, my balance is  $11,600. I have saved myself thousands in interest and the amount that I did have to pay, I have able to deduct it from my taxes. So I have used the money I have in the bank and the money I earned working both my regular job and real estate to cut my balance and reduce my interest.

I keep cash to a minimum: ‘Minimum’ is relative.  It doesn’t mean I only have $1,500 in the bank. I keep a fat emergency fund which correlates with my low risk appetite. The more risk adverse you are, the more money you want available to weather unpleasant unforeseen events. For me that number is a year’s worth of living expenses. Before the recession, the recommended amount was 3 months. After 2008, financial experts were recommending 6 months. I like to be cautious, maybe overly so, thus, I choose 12 months. Anything above that number is invested in various types of projects (or debt payments) that are meant to increase cash flow (or cut my interest expense).

Think of the ways you can make your money work for you. Idle funds are being eaten away by inflation and are not doing anything to improve your bottom line and get you closer to financial freedom. This is the value equivalent of throwing your money away.

De-clutter Challenge

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In a previous post I briefly discussed money challenges and how people use them as extra motivators to either boost savings or pay down debt. Whether you’re saving for a vacation, a house or just want to improve your money management skills, you can never have too many tools or tricks at your disposal. This is why I encourage people to get creative about improving their financial behaviors. Not everyone gets as excited about personal finances as I do, so it doesn’t hurt to find a way to spice it up.

Today’s post is dedicated to the de-clutter challenge.

What is it: This challenge requires a little bit of elbow grease, but besides needing some motivation and patience, it  is not very difficult. We tend to acquire a lot of things over the years and the less we move the more we accumulate. Given that spring is in full swing, I think this timing is appropriate. Regardless of your financial goals, I think anyone can benefit from this activity.

This is spring cleaning with a purpose! Make a pile of everything you have not used in 12 months and separate the pile into 2 more categories. One is what you think you will use in the near future (maybe you broke your arm this winter and that’s why you haven’t used your skis, but you’ll be done with rehab soon and will be hitting the slopes for sure in 2018). The other pile what you don’t foresee yourself using, or anything that you have 2 of (newly weds, this is where you will shine! When I got married, I suddenly ended up with 2, if not 3, of everything. Seriously… I have 2 microwaves & 3 toasters). Take very good pictures from various angles (the more valuable, the better the pictures should be) and post your items on various sites for sale. I use Facebook, Amazon and Letgo. While I generally don’t mind ebay, I do not like that their listings expire every 7 days, making me a slave to continuously have to go back and relist the items.

Outcome: Results will vary, but the more items you have and the better the quality, the higher your revenue will be.

Variations: If you’ve already done that, try the same challenge with unused furniture. This will work well if you live in a college town where young students cannot always afford new furniture.

Why I like it: This is a great way to hit two birds with one stone.

If you love cash and your messy garage has been driving you crazy, this is the challenge for you.

Path to a Million: 2017 Q1

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This is my first update since the initial posts (announcing the start of the series and the pilot post). Things are going well, maybe better than I expected because a great thing happened: tax season! *eyeroll* (take some time to read this post about why it’s not a windfall you should rejoice in).

However, in my case I can rejoice just a little. Part of my big refund had less to do with my lax W4 allowances, but because we had some credits for energy efficient updates, primarily in the form of solar panels and we were able to use the cost of depreciation to offset our rental income.

Tax season came through for some serious debt reduction which had a snowball effect on our net worth. It will reduce our liability (once I get around to actually making the large payment) and free up cash that was normally going to satisfying my monthly student loan payments, to put towards investments/savings. This really does show the positive effects and importance of eliminating debt. Of course, we continued to pay down all our other obligations as well, but using our refund to all but eliminating student loans will make the most significant impact.

 

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Last quarter, I recorded my net worth at $369,922. This time, it’s $389,213, up $19,291. This represents an average increase of just under $6,500 every month. Although most of that is achieved by reducing debt, it’s a start, and a very good one. Debt plays significant role in our financial struggles and if we can consistently decrease our debts over time rather than add to them, we have the right attitudes and the necessary tools to build wealth, because the idea is that, once the debt is gone, we can use the same disciplined approach towards investing to gain even more speed towards financial independence.

*See Pilot post for more info on loans.