Some stock advice from the Post-Dispatch

I found this warning about trying to time the markets in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend. The warning was that 2009 was when the stock market bottomed out. Nobody predicted that was when it was going to happen. People who were buying stocks in 2009, when things looked bleak, are sitting much prettier than people who weren’t.

Although the economy as a whole is still a bit shaky, the stock market has had a historic run from 2009 to now. It just goes to show that the markets are fickle. Very fickle.

When the market was sinking fast and hard in 2009, I saw an opportunity. The fortune my grandfather made in the Great Depression is something of a family legend. (Where that money went is another legend that I’m not interested in speaking about.) That year looked like it might be the best opportunity I would see in my lifetime, so I sunk every dime I could into my 401(K) that year and encouraged my coworkers to do the same, though the most vocal of them were certainly talking about how much of a waste of time the 401(K) was, as far as they could tell.

I don’t know how many listened, but those who did probably are glad they did.

You can’t time the market. The best you can do is buy whatever is cheap. Take the emotion out of it. Set it up and make it automatic. Buy stock every payday by having automatic withdrawals, set a mix of blue-chip stocks, growth stocks, small company stocks, and bonds, and set the portfolio to rebalance. Some years it’s been the big companies that made the best return and some years it’s the small ones. Rebalancing forces you to buy low and sell high, to take last year’s profits and turn them into next year’s.

Remember. The market is fickle. It’s not God, and it’s not infallible. It’s actually very fickle and stupid. The way you beat a fickle and stupid market is by not being fickle. Don’t trust the market. It’s not trustworthy. Exploit the market.

I’ve had financial advisors try to sell me other gimmicky investments over the years. None has come close to matching the simple formula of evenly dividing holdings between those four categories in plain, simple no-load index funds. (You may have to settle for a managed fund for your growth holdings, but that’s OK.) Then rebalance. Whether it’s better to rebalance once a year or once a month or once a quarter is unclear. Your 401(K) may only give you one option anyway, so don’t obsess over it. The important thing is having a schedule.

When I was still in my 20s, I lost most of my retirement savings to poor management. I don’t intend to repeat that.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t look at your financial statements. Toss them in a drawer in case you need them. The only time I look at them is when I’m trying to get a mortgage. Real estate is cheap, but stocks are expensive, so I’m buying real estate. I have to prove I have six months’ worth of mortgage payments stashed somewhere to get a loan, so that’s when I look at those statements–and then, just to make sure the big number is big enough, and that I’m putting it right-side up in the scanner.

Feeling poor on $100,000 a year

Yahoo! Finance! has! a! first-person! story! about! struggling! on! six! figures!

Silliness aside, you might be surprised to hear I–an infamous stingy Scottish miser–am at least a little sympathetic. Read more

Just because you can afford it now…

Today, the sermon at church was based mostly on Nehemiah 5. Nehemiah 5 talks about the ruinous financial situation of the children of Israel at the time the book was written. Check out Nehemiah 5:4-5.

“We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”

In other words, in order to pay their bills, some had resorted to selling their children into slavery. Sadly, some Americans find themselves in that situation today. Or close to it. At least it’s uncommon enough that we’re offended when we hear about it. Read more

Twice-monthly mortgage payment alternatives

The debate whether making a twice-monthly mortgage payment saves money is making the rounds on some popular blogs right now. The idea is paying your mortgage every two weeks rather than every month in order to save money. Whether this trick works depends on several things, but the most important part is that you shouldn’t pay a penny extra for this service. You should also consider twice-monthly mortgage payment alternatives.

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Why I never kept up with the Joneses

I had a bit of a financial epiphany over the weekend.

I have a well-deserved reputation for being a tightwad. Part of it is in my blood; I’m largely of Scottish descent, and Scots just tend to act that way. But I think part of it is what I observed growing up.My wife and I were sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, and for whatever reason, we were talking about my teenage years. In 1988, we moved to a new subdivision in Fenton, Mo. Fenton is a boomtown today, thanks in part to urban sprawl and also because of its first-rate school district, but in 1988 it was still largely an industrial town. Lots of people worked there, and not many wanted to live there. But in the late 1980s, the McMansions started sprouting up like weeds, and lots of families started moving there, ours included.

We talked about our neighbors, and something immediately occurred to me. Most of them were in their early 30s. They were the same age I am now. Not only were they my age, but they drove new cars, and most of them had at least two kids. Meanwhile they were trying to make payments on houses that cost $125-$150,000 at the time. According to inflation, they should cost a quarter million today. Not only that, though, in 1988, interest rates were a lot higher–10 percent wasn’t uncommon according to my quickie research.

Dad could afford that lifestyle–barely. He was a doctor and had been practicing medicine for 15 years. But even we made sacrifices in order to afford to live in that house.

The problem is, I shouldn’t say "even." Most of our neighbors had nicer furniture than we did. Some of them drove fancier cars. And their kids had bigger, costlier toys.

The absurdity hit me. I wouldn’t even try to compete with the lifestyle of a 45-year-old doctor. Not at 33. I make enough that a bank probably would let me have a mortgage of a quarter mil. I could lease cars that don’t depreciate quickly in order to keep my monthly payments down. But there wouldn’t be much of anything left at the end of the month, and I could probably forget about retiring any earlier than 73 (which is what Social Security is saying my retirement age should be). Just because I could make the payments doesn’t mean I should.

I wondered why so many of them got together every weekend and drank themselves senseless. And I don’t think I consciously ever realized I was living in a neighborhood full of people living way over their means–even the family next door, headed by a young dentist trying to establish his practice with five kids and a wife who insisted they needed a Jaguar.

Suddenly, sitting there at the table, telling old stories, I realized why that woman was such a psycho. She couldn’t pay her bills.

And that was also probably why another neighbor wouldn’t go anywhere without a thermos full of wine, and why another young couple who lived nearby smoked pot every Saturday night.

They had everything any reasonable person could dream of having at 32, but if anything at all ever went wrong–a layoff, an extended illness, or a serious injury–they would be in serious danger of losing it.

For whatever reason, I never measured my lifestyle against them. My first few jobs didn’t make me a lot of money, but they let me do pretty much anything I wanted. I had a nicer apartment than Dad had at a comparable age. I could go out to eat any time I wanted. I could buy a new computer every year if I wanted to, as long as I didn’t go overboard on it, and for a few years I did. I drove small cars, but there were always at least two or three cars in the parking lot that weren’t as nice as mine, so I was content to drive my 1992 Dodge Spirit. When it died, I got a 2000 Dodge Neon. It wasn’t a status symbol, but it had power locks and windows, which were two things Dad’s 1981 Chrysler LeBaron didn’t have. It had a nicer radio too. And that LeBaron was supposed to be a luxury car.

My lifestyle was far ahead of where Dad’s had been at my age. And not only that, I had money left over at the end of every month.

There were two things I wasn’t happy about. At the time, I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. And my apartment rent was going up by about $50 a year but the management company wasn’t taking care of the place. When stuff broke, they fixed it halfheartedly, and I didn’t want to pay $575 a month to live in a slum.

When my rent hit $575, I told them I wasn’t going to pay it. They offered me a seven-month lease at about $550. Conveniently, I had enough in the bank for a down payment on a house, and I figured I could afford to pay a couple hundred more every month for a mortgage. I just didn’t want to throw that kind of money away on rent.

So I bought a house. There was a neighborhood about a mile away that reminded me a lot of the neighborhoods I grew up in. I found a house about the size of the house we lived in before we moved to St. Louis. It cost more than I had planned, but it was big enough that I could get married and have a family there and not have to move again. I hate moving. Plus, it was (and still is) in a good school district, all the schools are close by, and anything I could need was close. I didn’t know it right away, but in an emergency, the nearest grocery store AND the nearest car repair place are both walking distance.

For an extra $100 a month, it just made sense. I bought the house. And every night, I filled up that Dodge Neon with everything that would fit, drove to the house, and unpacked. Several friends with vans or pickup trucks helped me move the stuff that wouldn’t fit in my tiny car.

Even though my 1-bedroom apartment was stuffed to the gills, it wasn’t nearly enough to fill a 3-bedroom house with a living room, family room, a study, and a basement. But it didn’t take long for that problem to solve itself. Several people offered me some nice furniture. They were hand-me-downs, but there wasn’t anything really wrong with any of it. Before I knew it, the house was full.

A couple of years later, the right girl came along too. At first she wanted me to get nicer stuff. The problem was, even though I’d gotten promoted to a server administrator at work, they were still paying me my old desktop support salary. The house had wiped out my savings, and I couldn’t really take on another monthly payment on anything. We fought about it a little. I showed her how little was left at the end of every month, and I argued that everything in the house was nicer than anything my parents had at my age. For that matter, most of it was nicer than the stuff they had when I was a kid.

She relented. I don’t know how happy she was about it then. But she didn’t complain.

A few months after we got engaged, I lost my job. I was mad about it. I was convinced I would lose everything I’d worked for. I guess for a minute I thought I was like those neighbors.

But because I’d lived within my means, I survived and soon I ended up with a job with a competitive salary for the first time in my professional career.

Something else came out of it too. The day we got married, neither of us had a job. We started a small business out of necessity. Our final paychecks made the mortgage payments during that summer, and we used our wedding gift money to get the business going. Soon it was bringing in enough to make our utility payments and buy groceries. When I got a full-time job, she took the business over and I helped out at night and on weekends. It allowed her to not have to work outside the home. There are probably things she could do that would make more money, but she doesn’t have a lot of stress, and she enjoys the flexibility.

The odd thing is, we’ve been able to upgrade our lifestyle on the cheap. For example, there are three light fixtures we’ve been wanting to replace for a long time. This weekend I found two light fixtures at a yard sale for a buck apiece. My sister rolled her eyes when I told the story, but these fixtures don’t fit the yard sale stereotype. A sticker on them says they were made in February 2005. Home Depot still sells the same fixture (or something extremely similar) for about $30. That’s not terribly expensive, but $1 is a lot less than $30. The third fixture we need to replace is smaller. We can get something that will look fine with them, and look much better than what we have, for under $20. The result will be a significant upgrade in how the kitchen and living room look, at well under 1/3 the price.

That $60 savings may not sound like a lot, but we’re constantly finding ways to save a few bucks here and there like that. We’re never the first to have anything, but it seems like we always end up getting whatever it is we want or need, and meanwhile we’re socking money away and whittling down on that house payment.

Judged against the standards of my neighbors in 1988, one could argue I’m a failure. I drive a five-year-old car and most of the time I use a six-year-old computer, and the four shirts I bought in 1998 to comply with my then-employer’s dress code are still in my rotation today.

But let’s look at things another way. Not only do my wife and I have nicer stuff than my parents had when Dad was 32, we also have an easier time finding money for necessities like groceries. She can shop at the health-food stores even though they’re more expensive. As long as nothing unexpected happens, we’ll own everything outright and have absolutely no debt–no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage–well before I turn 40. I stress over some things, but money isn’t one of them.

In my early 20s, I watched some of my friends from high school rack up massive credit card debt. At least it seemed like massive debt at the time. I knew then I didn’t want to be like them, at least not in that regard. Now I know that the average American family has $9,900 in credit card debt. That’s about what one of those friends owed, and about twice what another one owed.

I know who I want to be like. I want to be like my wife’s parents. They paid off all their debt sometime in their late 30s or early 40s. Today, when my mother in law sees something she wants, she doesn’t think about it. She can just buy it. Not only that, she’s retired, and she’s nowhere near 73.

I’m not saying I want to buy anything and everything I see on a whim. But not having to think much at all about money seems really nice.

And I guess on some level I’ve known that for almost 20 years, since I was in my early teens.

Nickel and dime your way to prosperity

An old friend and I have been talking a lot about debt elimination these past few weeks. With any luck, both of us will be completely debt-free by age 45 at the very most, and probably sooner.

The trick is to dump as much money as possible into debt retirement. As recently as November, the interest on my Honda Civic was costing me $1.40 a day. Think what you could do with that $540 a year you’re paying in needless interest.

The challenge is finding the money to use to retire debt.Some of these tricks will only save you a few cents. You must get yourself over the it’s-only-25-cents mentality. That quarter can either work for you or against you. A quarter paid at the beginning of a 30-year mortgage saves you more than a dollar by the end of the loan. Can you find a safer way to quadruple your money? I doubt it.

If and when you have no debt, dump those pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters into an index fund. An index fund just buys you the same stocks that are in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or some other index. Historically, these funds double in value every seven years. Great Depression, Schmeat Schmepression. Dump a quarter into an index fund and don’t touch the investment, and in 28 years, it’s $4.

So let’s find some creative ways to get some quarters.

1. Pay your bills online. This potentially does more than save you the 37 cents in postage. My gas and electric companies both have arrangements with checkfree.com to allow online payments free of charge. I was invariably late in paying them, which subjected me to interest payments. The other nice thing about Checkfree is that it schedules the payment for the due date. So if by chance you have an interest-bearing checking account, that money can work for you until the last possible day. You probably won’t save more than a couple of bucks a month this way, but that’s $25 over the course of a year. If someone offered you $25 without any strings attached, I doubt you’d turn it down.

2. Make car and mortgage payments as soon as possible. I may be showing my ignorance here, but interest paid to me on most accounts I’ve had is calculated monthly. Interest on my car is calculated daily. So, making that payment as soon as my paycheck shows up in my checking account reduces the principle, thus reducing my interest payments by a few pennies a few days early. It’s only pennies? I’d rather they be my pennies than Honda’s.

3. Use credit wisely. I remember one day a few years ago, I was at the grocery store and instead of pulling out my debit card, I pulled out a credit card accidentally. I thought how awful it would be to have to pay for life’s necessities on credit.

But if you’re disciplined, and you have a credit card with rewards–and we should be talking cash here, not merchandise–then it makes sense to pay for life’s necessities on credit. Take a look at my Discover Card bill, and you’ll see the bulk of it is things like gasoline, groceries, my telephone bill, and $20 trips to Kmart, which means I was probably buying stuff like toothpaste and deodorant and other household necessities. I pay the balance in full every month, so the result is essentially some bank paying me to buy the things I’d need to buy anyway. This nets me about $80 a year. I never see a dime of it–I apply it directly to the card’s balance.

4. Buy a programmable thermostat. The cheapest programmable thermostats cost about $30. They can easily save you that much in a month. During my 8-hour workday, my thermostat only heats the house to 56 degrees in the winter time. It cools it to 82 in the summer. During waking hours and on weekends, it keeps the house at 70 degrees in the winter and 75 in the summer. During sleeping hours the temperature raises or lowers by 5 degrees depending on whether it’s summer or winter. I used to have $300 heating bills in the winter months. Now I have $175 bills. That’s still ridiculous, but it leaves me money to actually do something about it.

5. Cut out the sodas and snacks. I used to routinely spend $1.50-$2.00 a day at the vending machine and the cafeteria at work, buying coffee, soda, and snacks. Over a 240-workday year, well, do the math. The 34.5-ounce can of coffee in my fridge (it lasts longer when stored there) is marked 9-26, the date I bought it. I expect it will last me until the end of the month. So that can of coffee will last me five months. I buy the off brand, so I can sometimes get one of those cans for between $3 and $3.50. So my morning coffee costs me 2.3 cents. I quit drinking soda entirely and I pack a granola bar in my lunch. Over the course of the past year I am sure I’ve saved $300.

6. Pack your lunch. Lunch at a sit-down restaurant almost always costs you $7. Fast food usually costs at least $5. The cafeteria at work is usually $3-$4. Sometimes I pack leftovers that would otherwise get thrown away, so they’re essentially free. It’s fairly easy to pack a lunch for $2. Again, do the math over 240 days. Do you want to spend a house payment on lunch every year, or do you want to spend a car payment instead?

7. Eat out less. A couple of years ago I was dating a girl who had to eat out 3-4 times a week, at least. Usually it was places where I was lucky to get out for under $20. I always paid, of course. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have any money. But with a little creativity, it’s entirely possible to make dinner for two for $4. You can make a fairly impressive dinner for two for $10.

8. Shop the cheap stores. St. Louis has five different chains of grocery stores. At the top of the ladder is Dierbergs, followed by Schnucks. A third local chain, Shop ‘n’ Save, generally beats the Schnucks and Dierbergs prices by a few percent. But now I do most of my shopping at two stores that white-collar professionals rarely visit: Aldi and Save-a-Lot. In most cases the quality of the product is the same. But when I can get a loaf of bread for $.99 versus $1.59, the difference adds up quickly. For the things Aldi and Save-a-Lot don’t carry, I still go to Dierbergs, but I rarely spend more than $10 at Dierbergs now, unless they’re running a big sale on something.

8. Buy generics. A lot of people are afraid of generic products because they feel they might be getting ripped off. You’re actually a lot more likely to get taken with a costlier brand name. I’ve found the quality of most generics to be as good as the name brands. When it isn’t, I try a different generic the next time. Eventually I’ll find a generic that’s as good as the big name brand, and save a bundle. I’ll buy the name brands when they’re on sale, but aside from that, my pantry is full of generics and I don’t care who knows about it.

9. Don’t spend a dollar to get 14 cents. A common excuse for not paying down your house is that the interest is tax deductible. That may be, but you’re getting pennies on the dollar. My car payment was costing me $1.40 a day until I paid it way down.

It’s tax time. That means you have a piece of paper that tells you exactly how much interest you paid on your house last year. Are you paying $14 a day to inhabit a house you supposedly own? That tax deduction only reduces the net cost to $12. I can think of better things to do with $12, and I’ll bet you can too.

10. Don’t spend your windfall all at once. Are you getting a tax refund? Did you get a bonus? Have you been working a lot of overtime lately? It’s OK to reward yourself and/or your family. But don’t blow all of it indulging yourself. Spend 10 percent of it, tithe 10 percent of it, and use the rest to retire debt, and dream of the day when you have no mortgage payment and no car payment and every paycheck is a windfall.

11. Save your pennies. Coinstar, the makers of those change-converting machines in grocery stores, says the average household has $90 in loose change scattered about the house. A fairly painless way to save money is to dump your change into a jar at the end of the day, rather than spending it on frivolous things. At some point, convert the money into a more usable form, then apply the windfall rule to it.

12. Cascade your debt. I pay extra on my car every month. When the car is paid off, I’m going to start adding that amount to my mortgage payment every month, except in case of emergency. I estimate I can have my house paid off in about five years by doing this.

13. What will I have to show for this purchase? This is key. Before you spend even a quarter, consider what you will have to show for it by buying it. Just because you walk past a candy store in the mall doesn’t mean you have to go in and buy something. If you’re lucky, all it’ll do is rot your teeth and make you fat. You could have paid that quarter into your mortgage and turned it into a dollar.

Some purchases are unavoidable. In a couple of months, I’m going to need new tires. I can think of a million things I’d rather do with that money, but I need it. That’s OK. I’ll have it.

The trick isn’t to live in total self-denial, but to exercise restraint. Most of us live like millionaires, but the problem is that we’re spending our million dollars instead of letting it work hard so we don’t have to work as much. And it’s killing us.

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