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.

Are video games a good investment?

An article on Slashdot asked this weekend whether video games were a good investment. So are video games a good investment? Will they appreciate over time?

The answer is generally no. Collectibles in general are not–they follow a boom and bust cycle. I’ve seen it happen in my own lifetime.

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Workable two-factor authentication

I’m several months late to this party, but I just saw Marcel’s post on Google’s two-factor authentication with a smartphone.

He’s right. It works until someone steals your phone. Once someone steals your phone, you’re in a world of hurt. It’s just a compromise, until we find a way to do two-factor authentication the right way.

The right way is with a smartcard, issued by some sort of central authority. Read more

Is landlording profitable?

Is landlording profitable? The answer is yes. Where people disagree, I think, is on the timing, and perhaps to a lesser degree, on the strategy.

My wife read an article yesterday on real estate investing that made her mad. I’d link to it, but I can’t find it today–maybe it was pulled. But the premise was that you shouldn’t invest in real estate, because being a landlord isn’t a quick way to get rich.

I agree with the second part. But the first part doesn’t logically follow. In fact, I don’t care who you are, probably the best thing you can do for yourself is forget about trying to get rich quickly. I speak from experience. Read more

The circulating privacy threat warnings miss the boat

This week I’ve had multiple people send me warnings they saw on Facebook about a new privacy threat, which, after I read about it, really appears just to be something that aggregates information already available about you.

Perhaps not coincidentally, PC Magazine has a piece telling you what you need to do if you’re really concerned about privacy and really want to disappear. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2376023,00.asp
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Turn off that stupid IE "throbber" in Explorer windows

You know how Microsoft decided in 1997 to make Windows look like a web browser? And continued that decision for the next 20 years? Don’t like seeing that stupid Windows logo moving while you’re waiting for Windows to display your files?

Me neither. Go download Throboff, which works on all versions of Windows up to XP. I don’t know about Vista or 7, sorry.

Even if the throbber doesn’t bother you all that much, turning it off regains some screen real estate, which is useful on netbooks.

How to go bankrupt and/or lose your house

I have a Saturday ritual. On Saturday mornings, about 49 times a year, I go to estate sales. On numerous occasions, I’ve been to estate sales of millionaires who, for one reason or another, were downsizing.

And on Saturday afternoons, I’ve been known to go look at foreclosure houses. Or, now that my wife and I have bought one, working on the foreclosure house.

I see a pattern.It’s unusual for the last owner of a foreclosure house to be in the house for very long. And almost invariably, I see a lot of home improvement projects. Often there’s at least one unfinished project still sitting there.

Often the projects are pointless–tearing out plaster walls to put in drywall, only because that’s what the stupid shows on HGTV say you should do.

But it’s always pretty clear from looking at the house and the information available in public records what happened. They bought the house, they made some payments, the house increased in value during the real estate boom, they took out a home equity loan and started changing things, then eventually they got in over their head.

Often the changes weren’t worth it. They’d start out with a $60,000 house in a questionable neighborhood, sink tens of thousands into modernizing the kitchen and bathroom and finishing the basement, and if everything had gone well, they would have a modernized house, still in a questionable neighborhood, and contrary to the promises they saw on TV, the house didn’t increase in value at all. Someone ends up buying what’s left of it for $35,000 or $40,000, fixing whatever is wrong or unfinished, and renting it out to someone for $700 a month. A rather inglorious end to those TV-inspired dreams.

I see another pattern on Saturday mornings at estate sales.

More often than not, the family stayed in the same house for decades. The kitchen appliances are usually dated. Sometimes they’re from the 1990s, sometimes the 1970s, and on rare occasions, you even see a range from the 1940s or 1950s. And generally most everything about the house gives the impression of age. Sometimes you see kitschy trends that have come and gone, like shag carpets and dark wood paneling. Sometimes you see timeless craftsmanship. The latter is particularly common in the homes of the wealthy–when they did buy things, they bought things that wouldn’t go out of style, so they’d only have to buy once in a lifetime.

None of these houses will show up on HGTV or any other TV, and for good reason: Houses like that don’t make you run out to Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy their crap.

But at the end of the career or life, there’s something to show for it. A paid-off house with things in it that have to be liquidated, which then goes into the estate. The money from all of it then helps pay for retirement, end-of-life expenses, or goes to the heirs.

The foreclosed houses look a lot more like what you see on TV, even if you have to wipe some grime away to see it. The appliances are certainly newer, the kitchen cabinets are usually newer, and somewhere there’s at least one TV-inspired project, maybe still brewing.

But what’s left to show for it? Years of payments, lost. A wrecked credit score. Possibly some other maladies. Nothing anyone would want.

Clearly it’s much better to just live within one’s means, even if it means sacrificing coolness points in the short term.

In the long term, I’m pretty sure the people who chased the newest trends, overextended themselves and ultimately lost their houses ended up with about the same number of coolness points. Maybe a little less.

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