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?

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The Case Against Automatic Payments

Saying that you’re against automatic payment in the world of personal finance definitely makes one an outsider. Most personal finance bloggers or advisers will tell their audiences to set up automatic payments. The common argument is that you’re less likely to forget about a bill than your online banking software. If you tell your bank to pay your mortgage every 1st of the month, the bank is not going to forget. However, you can go on vacation or have a bad day and your mortgage is the last thing on your mind when the first rolls around. That is however just one perspective. I’d like to present my own case against why I oppose automatic payments and you should too.

Reviewing your bill. If your arrange your payments like an infomercial oven using the “set it and forget it” technique, you are likely not going to prioritize reviewing your bill. Which means, sneaky little charges that your providers use to nickel and dime you will get past you and that’s exactly what they want. For example, when Comcast decided to start charging me twice as much for some premium channels, I only noticed because I actively pay my bill every month and immediately saw that the total balance was different from what I was paying before. I went over my bill line by line and saw where the extra charges came from. A call to customer service revealed that my previous rate was a promotional rate and my promotion expired the month before. I got a credit for the charges and changed my bill to a new promotion so I wouldn’t have to pay the higher fee. Otherwise, this would have gone unnoticed. Not having automatic payments forces me to look at my bill and makes me remember what a normal payment looks like.

Ghost charges. Subscriptions for small items that we don’t even think about are what I call ghost charges. You don’t even know they are there. The fee is very low and it’s been so long since you’ve used it that you don’t even remember anymore. But like clockwork, $5, 10, or even $20 comes out of your bank account. In my case, I had a Planet Fitness membership for $20/month. I had it for several years but I eventually moved to a town where there was no PF. It took me 2 months to realize that I was still paying that bill. If it was something that I had to actively pay every month, I would have realized that I no longer had any use for the membership that I was still paying for. The same is likely to happen with magazines (does anyone besides doctor’s offices order those still?), subscription boxes, infomercials that will send you refills “for life” etc.

Overdrafts. When you go to pay your bills, you are aware of exactly how much money is in your account. You also know when you are about to be paid. You can set up your bill payments around your anticipated bank balances. I don’t think anyone should be living like that because it means you’re living paycheck to paycheck, but I also live in the real world and understand it’s the reality of many. If there is ever the possibility that you may not have enough money in your account, the $35 overdraft fee is not something you can afford. And even if you do have enough money, there are other risks, like the time one of my payments did not go through because my credit card had been compromised and my bank closed my card without notifying me.

Lil’ Ugly: Driving my Way to Financial Freedom

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Actual car, not pictured

That’s my mom’s nickname for my car: Lil’ Ugly. She came up with that a few weeks ago. I don’t know if she’s just sick of the multiple dents and scrapes peppering the body of my beloved 2008 Honda Accord, but she has been on a pretty aggressive campaign to sow discord between me and my road buddy.

I am what you call a road warrior. I easily put 20,000 miles a year on my car. In my day job as well as my work with real estate, I do a lot of driving. While Massachusetts isn’t a very big state, it’s not that hard to hit the 20k club both a a real estate agent and a landlord running to and from properties. In all of these years and miles, my faithful commuting partner has remained loyal, offering great gas mileage and reliability.

I haven’t had a car note in 10 years and that has allowed me to save a tremendous amount of money. My husband’s car which is more recent (and in much better shape than mine) was paid off a year and a half early. So I am in no rush to jump into another car note situation, even though my car is becoming a topic of conversation every time I pull up. Instead of allowing it to stress me out, I revel in telling the stories of how I got each dent, scrape, chip and rust:

“This one is from when I was pulling out of the garage while steering with one hand and holding a water bottle in the other.”

“Picture it, Museum of Fine Arts, 2011. Hit and run.”

“I came out of the mall one day and I had this dent. Someone must have opened their door a little too hard.”

But how do I manage to not let the gentle teasing get to me? Well, it does get to me. I just dry my tears with the stack of thousands I save every year from having a reliable paid off car. I sob in my stock portfolio and wipe snot bubbles with my early retirement fund. Devastating…

Here’s what my car has cost me (besides gas) since I’ve owned it:

New tail lights: $15

New wipers: $30

New Tires: $500 x 2 = $1,000

Quarterly oil change (includes filter change, fluid top off and tire rotation): $40 x 4 = $160 annually

New brakes: $300 x 3 = $900

Service every 35k miles (currently at 137k so approximately 4x) averaging $500 each: $500 x 4 =  $2,000

That’s a total of just over $5,000, which means my car has cost me less than $75/month to maintain it. Meanwhile, others continue to pay $300-600/month on a car note, plus higher insurance premiums and excise taxes for those who lives in states with personal property tax (nearly 10 times my maintenance costs) just to be seen in a nice car. Now, in all honesty my husband’s car is much nicer and we do have that as a back up in the event that we need to go somewhere that my car is not respectable enough, so maybe that’s where my complacency comes from. If you are single or are in a one-vehicle household, you might want to have something nice in case there is an important affair to attend. But that’s still not a good enough reason to buy the most expensive car you will get approved for.

Just because the dealer says you can, doesn’t mean you should. If the key to success is living well below your means, it doesn’t make any sense to live at, or even above your means. Sure, I could afford a $500/month payment, but by refurbishing my old girl at the cost of $75/month, I’m saving close to $5,000 a year which I can put towards other ventures.

I do have to acknowledge though that I made a good decision early on that continues to pay dividends years later. Honda vehicles are known to be reliable and for that reason tend to have low cost of ownership as well as maintaining their values better than other cars. Although I can’t escape a new car for ever, I think there are enough Accords on the road with 200k+ miles to give me hope that my homie and I might be together at least another year if not longer.

Loyalty: How We Treat Ourselves for Less

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One of the most common overspending traps that we fall into is the idea that we deserve that (expensive) purse, that (overpriced) gadget, or that trip to Hawaii. While that is a slippery slope to getting off track financially, we should still seek to have balance in our lives. Budgeting can quickly become a chore if we find ourselves giving it all up without receiving anything in return. That’s why it’s important to treat ourselves. But what is the best way to do it?

In our case, we make it a point to maximize our loyalty rewards program. We find a service provider we are happy with in a couple of categories and study their rewards program to see how we could best benefit. In our case, we have the trifecta of travel. My husband is an avid traveler. Personally, I’m not a fan of airplanes so my fear of flying often overrides my curiosity to see the world. However, we find the balance between satisfying his wanderlust and my desire for firm ground. Even with moderation, travel still remains our most expensive hobby. As a result, we have found creative ways to manage costs.

Flights: We stick with one airline as much as possible. That allows us to rack up miles and a certain number of trips in order to gain a certain status with the airlines. We also have the option of buying tickets with our miles or transferring them to partner loyalty programs. We have racked up thousands of miles with JetBlue and are saving them towards a future trip.

Lodging: Although we spend very little time there, a hotel is one of the most important part of any trip. Not only is it the most expensive, but it is a matter of comfort. We are fans of everything Marriott. They aren’t always the cheapest but as Gold members two years running, we enjoy having high speed internet at no additional charge, early check in, late checkout, bonus points towards future stays, complementary breakfast, welcome snack, discounted rates etc. We also like the general consistency that the brand provides all over the world. Sure, we have gone to Marriott brands or properties where the rooms have been smaller, but the service has always been impeccable and there have been no concerns about the cleanliness. And since both my husband and I travel for work, we make sure that we earn points with every business trip by staying at Marriott properties; points we use to subsidize our pleasure trips.

Credit Card: As American Express members who use the Premier Gold Rewards card, we benefit from no foreign fees on overseas purchases and can take advantage of statement credits ($75) for certain hotel spending and in-flight purchases and checked baggage ($100) that all but wipe away the $195 annual fee. That is in addition to bonus points in certain spending category. Using our AmEx for every purchase allows us to earn points an accelerated pace that we can later redeem for statement credits to offset our spending or AmEx gift cards.

This combination of loyalty programs, including our willingness to actively bargain hut, has been our ticket to cheap travel.

Have you thought about how you can treat yourself for less?

Adulting 101: Big Girl Money

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Adulting is hard. It’s even harder for the millennials who came of age during or after the Great Recession. It certainly doesn’t help that financial literacy has always lacked in our society. So I decided to put together a list of 10 things you can do to manage your personal finances like a grown up.

1. Have a budget to help you keep tabs on money.

2. Set specific and realistic financial goals to make sure that you not only have something to look forward to but that you also stick with it.

3. Find a money role model who will give you something to strive for. S/he will make you realize that it is possible to get yourself out of debt, they can keep you accountable and they are a much better influence than your friend who says: “YOLO!”

4. Practice the art of ‘No’. Establishing boundaries protects your wallet as much as your sanity. Girls trip to Bali? Matching designer duds for the bachelorette week end? Expensive steak dinner after work? If you can’t afford it, say no & stay firm.

5. Don’t overspend. It sounds simple but if it were that easy, studies results wouldn’t show that 1/2 of all Americans are struggling financially. There’s no greater sign of maturity than exercising self control & being able to delay gratification.

6. Save, save, save. Emergency funds, retirement, short & long term goals. Save for all of them. Saving will prevent you from spiraling out of control under a mountain of debt.

7. Monitor your credit. There should never be surprises when it comes to your finances. Maybe except for pleasant ones like being ahead of your savings schedule or inheritance from a rich long lost cousin. You don’t want to find out long after you’ve started the process that your mortgage has been denied or after your clunker breaks down that you don’t qualify for a car loan. You should show up for credit applications equipped with enough information to negotiate from a position of power.

8. Be properly insured. When I landed in the hospital in late 2009, I couldn’t have imagined my life would change the way it did. In fact, I did 2-hour street parking outside of the hospital. I ended up leaving 4 weeks later & a month after that, I got $50,000 bill. All but $150 was covered by insurance. As a seemingly healthy 23 year old, I could have passed on coverage to save myself the $250 a month I was paying. Instead, I decided I needed to be properly covered like the adult that  I was & that decision saved me from financial disaster.

9. Start learning investment basics. You cannot save your way to wealth. You can only earn your way to wealth either through wages, investments or some combination of both. You don’t have to become an expert stock picker, but you should learn the difference between some key concepts like 401k v. IRA, stocks, bonds & mutual funds, associated fees & tax implications of different investment types, etc.

10. Track your net worth. Your net worth is a measure of your financial progress. It is also a motivating & financial management tool & that is why I began actively tracking my net worth late last year.

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.