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.

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.

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?

Screen, Screen, Screen: The Real Estate Professional’s Protection Against Scammers & Time Wasters

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Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual luxury wives, persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Location, location, location? If you’re a buyer yes. If you’re a real estate agent, due diligence might be your mantra. There have been stories in the news for decades about real estate agents setting up their final appointments unbeknownst to them. There are some very sick and dangerous people out there. I’ve seen cold and/or vintage cases on Investigation Discovery just like I’ve seen modern cases play out in real time on the news. Fortunately, I find that agents are becoming more aware of the importance of not doing blind showings. Furthermore, access to technology has given us the resources required to separate our personal lives from our professional lives. We can use email to get acquainted (and leave a paper trail), have a google voice number, use a PO Box or use office sharing (for smaller operations) to avoid linking any of our activities to our primary residences. Some agents have even begun to arm themselves to various degrees (mace, guns, knives) and the team model is becoming more popular, giving us strength in numbers. But not every dishonest inquiry will lead to physical harm. How do we protect ourselves against scammers?

With real estate being an appointment-based business, it means that efficiency is the key to success. We cannot afford to waste time on buyers who are unrealistic about their purchasing power. Or worse, waste time on those with no purchasing power at all, but simply seek photo-ops for social media attention where likes feed their egos but not their empty lives. I’ve had my fair share of time wasted and I will tell you it is incredibly painful. You can’t help but think of all the serious clients you missed talking & spending time with those who did not buy anything or bought elsewhere. However it can also be a liability to both your overall livelihood and your short term income.

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I was recently made aware that our resident dollar store Kardashians were claiming to be renovating a recently acquired multimillion-dollar mansion that was at some point the residence of actor/comedian Katt Williams. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to discredit my previous post about their true socio-economic status as routinely evicted squatters, they reached an apex in the web of lies they spun aggressively and without much foresight. They posted pictures and videos of the property online, including showing children playing in the pool. This would normally be very convincing, because, how many people get to hang out by a pool on 10 acres of land near prime real estate if we don’t have access to the upper echelon? Except, the pictures combined with the knowledge that the home was the residence of a celebrity, only made it easier for people to track down. The issue is that the home in question is still for sale. It was for sale at the time this post was written and it was definitely for sale when the pictures were being shared online last week showing children in the pool, while they claimed that they were settling in and renovating.

A perturbed individual with some superb detective skills (not me) was able to unravel the entire story within 24 hours. It turned out that the husband has a real estate acquaintance who was able to give them access to the property and allowed them to get a little too comfortable in someone else’s home. It has yet to be determined whether or not the showing agent was another victim of their scamming ways or a wiling participant but he was certainly instrumental in the (attempted) trickery. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt for the sake of this post & show how his lack of screening may have opened him up to liability.

Listing Agent: Within reason, the listing agent is responsible for securing the property & protecting their client’s privacy. That is why many sellers demand accompanied showings for properties over a certain price point. A listing agreement is a contract with the seller. While your primary duty is to actively market & subsequently sell for the highest price, there is a certain expectation from the seller that you will do what you can to protect their most valuable asset when they hand you the keys. After all, the house has not yet been sold, which makes it still the property of the seller & often times, their homes. Many people still reside in houses that are on the market until 24-48 hours before closing. This stunt could have cost the agent the listing, which at over $3 million, would have been quite the payday. As a seller, there is no way that I would be comfortable with continuing a business relationship with someone who failed to protect my asset. What would have happened if they began squatting & had to be evicted?

Showing Agent: Within reason, a showing agent should take responsibility for the potential buyers they bring in. While you’re not responsible for an unruly child who bumps into an expensive lamp, I cannot imagine the lack of ethics & professionalism it takes to allow 2 children in a pool at a house that is actively being marketed for sale. While the showing agent cannot control where the footage subsequently ends up, it is a clear indication that at the very least, there were no boundaries established, and at worst, he might have been a willing participant. He runs the risk of being reprimanded by his managing broker or worse, be reported to the licensing board.

This had the potential of being a PR nightmare for both brokerage firms. Rogue showing agents giving known grifters access to high end properties & listing agents perceived as careless for not keeping an eye on the foot traffic. But, could this have been avoided? Absolutely. A little bit of screening could have prevented this egregious violation of  privacy.

First, interview your prospective buyers. An 30-minute long conversation might save you many hours of driving around people with no ability to buy or those whose tastes far exceed their financial capacity. Not to mention, lies are not very hard to detect. The more outrageous the story, the harder it is to keep it from unraveling. Ask questions and if you have any doubts, ask follow up questions.

Second, request documented proof. For anyone who will be financing their purchase, ask for a pre-qualification letter. Do not accept anything older than 3 months. The most important function is to make sure that you show them homes in their price range. If someone is qualified for up to $500k, there is no point in showing homes in the $650-700k range. The secondary purpose is to discourage any window shoppers or scammers for wasting your time. The people in question have been known to forge wedding dress receipts so this might not have deterred them, but the vast majority of con artists aren’t that committed to a scam and will likely move on to someone else who isn’t going to ask those questions. You can further protect yourself by requesting a letter with a phone number on it & the name of the loan officer who issued it. The possibility that you might call the financial institution to verify, should put forgers on ice.

Third, be ready for cash buyers. Not everyone finances a home purchase. Some really well-off people buy houses cash. Scammers might try and use that to try and circumvent the pre-qualification request. In that case, demand proof of funds. If it’s true, the seller will demand it anyway when they get an offer. If they aren’t comfortable enough to provide you with that information, perhaps, they should look to hire an agent they trust.

Fourth, sign a contract. In a previous post, I discussed my unwillingness to work for free & I presume you feel the same way. A buyer’s contract is your sole protection from someone making you do the leg work, picking your brain but buying from their cousin Deedee who’s efforts did not extend beyond completing the offer contract. That particular safeguard will not protect against scammers, but the hope is that all the other barriers will prevent you from getting to that point with a scammer anyway.

Finally, don’t be gullible. Discernment is a great asset and it is time we use it to its full capacity. You are a professional handling the most expensive transaction most people will ever make in their lives. You are not a follower of a fantasy social media account desperate for a fairy tale story. You are therefore held to a higher standard and it is unacceptable for you to see and yet ignore a multitude of red flags. Question the statements and behaviors you find suspicious.

It might seem difficult to implement these rules, especially when we are eager for business, but most clients will gladly provide the required information to ensure maximum efficiency. You just have to explain that it is for your protection as well as theirs. They are more likely to respect your professionalism & your time as you’ve demonstrated the value you place on your schedule.

 

 

Your 7-Day Guide to Financial Discipline

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While you can’t strike it rich in 7 days, you certainly can organize your life enough in 7 easy steps (1 per day) to improve your financial management skills.

Monday: Maximize your retirement contributions, either to the maximum amount you can afford or to the IRS limit. If you have not yet started contributing, do at least the minimum that will get you a company match.

Tuesday: Create a budget. Budgeting is the building block of financial freedom. Start based on the new amount you will have left over in your paycheck after you’ve changed your retirement contributions.

Wednesday: From your budget, you will of course categorize a portion of your income as savings. Set up an automatic transfer that will happen around the same time every month. Saving in autopilot mode is the least painful way to set money aside because you don’t have to think about it.

Thursday: Set calendar alerts of all your upcoming bills. Nothing is more damaging to your finances like late or missed payments. They negatively affect your credit score reducing your chances of getting the most favorable rates and you face the potential of late fees that will chip away at money that you need to hold on to. Having your alerts pop up a day or 2 in advance if you’re paying electronically or a week in advance if you’re paying by check, will make sure you stay on top of everything you owe.

Friday: Clip coupons and know your cash back opportunities. I am not a fan of processed foods so I cannot always escape a high grocery bill. However, even fruits, vegetables and certain grains go on sale, particularly if they are in season. Familiarize yourself with the circulars throughout the week and clip some coupons. It will help you stay organized and maximize your savings.

Saturday: Set some goals for the upcoming week. Having specific goals gives us something to strive for and motivates us to improve on our previous efforts. Whether you want to start small by saying you will make coffee at home every day for the upcoming week to save money, or you decide on something more long term like paying off your credit card debt, setting goals will keep you motivated.

Sunday: Meal prep for the week. The markup on prepared foods is brutal. If you eat out regularly, you will hate yourself when you see how much it costs you monthly or even annually. The easiest way to avoid temptation so you can resist the convenience of prepared foods is through advance preparation. While you may either run out of food or get sick of eating the same thing, bringing lunch 3-4 days a week will still yield a better outcome than buying lunch 5 days in a row.