Set up your retirement account. Just do it. Then forget it.

My new mortgage company wants to see the balance of my 401(K) account. That turned out to be a bit of a problem, but for the right reasons.

You see, I might or might not get 401(K) statements. I don’t look at them. Sometimes I save them. Usually I don’t. So I hadn’t looked at my 401(K) balance in years, and I really only had a vague idea what was in it. I knew there ought to be enough to make the lender happy.

What I found when I finally got my hands on a statement shows why part of my strategy is to never look at the account. Read more

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.

How to invest without a financial adviser

I’m not a big fan of financial advisers. Their job is to sell you financial products, not to look out for your own best interests. I learned that the hard way, after sending most of what I made in my early 20s to one. He doubled my money in a year or two, but erased the gain and then some just as quickly. So I had motivation to learn how to invest without a financial adviser.

There’s a pretty easy formula you can use to outperform 90-95% of financial advisers.
Read more

My standard security lecture

Myth: Nobody wants to get into my computer because I don’t have anything important saved on it.

Fact: I don’t care who you are or what you do with your computer, security is important. Do you want the Russian Mafia using your computer? The North Korean military? Al Qaeda?

If you’re OK with that kind of vermin using your computer, then do whatever you want. I hope you don’t have problems sleeping at night. If you don’t want that kind of vermin using your computer, I suggest you read on.Odds are, the next 9/11 isn’t going to involve airplanes or even bombs. It’s more likely to be a computer attack of some sort.

Modern computer viruses generally join infected computers together into large networks, which then “phone home” for orders. They can sit dormant for a long time, or they can start carrying out orders immediately. Those orders could be sending out spam e-mail messages. Or those orders could be to conduct an attack on some other computer, perhaps a bank, or perhaps a government or military operation.

Imagine Al Qaeda building a network of a few million computers, then using that network to overwhelm an important computer. When Amazon or eBay have a bad day and you can’t get to them, it’s possible they’re being attacked and struggling to cope with it.

The same approach that crashes Amazon.com could theoretically be used to crash the stock market or the Space Shuttle. Fortunately, that kind of trick is nearly impossible. But not completely.

Building the network is the easy part. Locating a target to point it at is the hard part.

The network already exists. There was a virus expected to trigger on April 1 of this year. It didn’t, for whatever reason. But everything isn’t OK. The network still exists, it’s still growing, and nobody’s figured out yet who built it, what they intend to do with it, and how to get in and disable it. Believe me, there are experts around the world trying to figure it out.

Whoever or whatever is behind it, you don’t want your computer unwittingly participating in it.

Here’s to avoid inadvertently aiding and abetting criminals and terrorists with sloppy computer security practices.

1. Use antivirus software and keep it up to date. Many Internet providers will give you antivirus software for free these days. Call your provider and ask. If not, download Microsoft Security Essentials.

2. Configure Automatic Updates. This allows Microsoft to fix security vulnerabilities in your computer as they’re discovered. Macintosh users, don’t get smug. You need to configure Apple update too–Apple releases a dozen or so fixes every month to fix security issues on Macs too.

3. Don’t open unexpected e-mail attachments. It’s been 12 years since this has been safe to do, but people do it anyway. STOP. NOW. I don’t care how funny the joke is, or how cute or hot or whatever the picture is.

4. Don’t open unexpected e-mail, for that matter. Booby-trapping an e-mail message with a virus isn’t especially difficult to do. Frankly, if any e-mail message looks suspicious (a subject line like HOT HORNY SINGLES WANT TO TALK TO YOU NOW! is usually a giveaway), I just delete it.

5. And if you ignore steps 3 and 4, for Pete’s sake, don’t buy anything. Nearly 10% of people actually buy something based on spam e-mail messages. That just encourages all of this other activity.

6. Use web-based e-mail. Most web-based providers use good spam and virus filtering, giving you an extra layer of protection.

7. Use an alternative web browser and e-mail program. Internet Explorer is literally a superhighway for viruses and other malicious software to hook directly into the operating system. Use Firefox, Chrome, or Opera.

Have I scared the living daylights out of you? Good. If your computer is beyond help, get a reputable IT professional to clean it up. Then start doing these things. If your computer is OK right now, start doing these things.

And then stop aiding and abetting criminals and terrorists.

How to become a millionaire in 10 years (safely)

I saw a blog post today called How to become a millionaire in 10 years. The majority of commenters dismissed it outright.

I don’t like that attitude. The plan makes some assumptions that aren’t always true. But having the plan is an important first step. What’s impossible now might not be impossible in a few years, so it makes sense to do what you can now.The plan, in brief, is this: Invest $996 a week, get a 12% return, and in 10 years, you’ve got a million bucks.

Let’s look at the first objection. It is optimistic. Unfortunately, the guy who floats that figure the most frequently is exaggerating. But you can come close by tweaking your strategy a bit. Twelve may be a bit optimistic, but it’s probably close enough. If you’re pessimistic, use a figure of 7% and adjust the rest of your math.

It may be tempting to try to do better. I suggest not. Average returns are all you need. Warren Buffett has said repeatedly that it’s better to spend your energy increasing your earning power rather than trying to outperform the market.

The second objection was that the numbers were just too unreasonable, so how do you become a millionaire in 20 years?

That’s easy. Save less. According to this handy calculator, $1,100 a month for 20 years at 12% more than does the trick.

Or you can save $2,000 a month for 15 years and pass the million mark.

So the math is sound. Let’s tackle that really big objection: How in tarnation do you come up with $996 a week to save? (And no, you don’t have to already be a millionaire in order to do it.)

The key is the same as paying off debt quickly. Don’t try to do it all at once. Take some baby steps. If the best you can do is half that, you still reach the goal in 15 years. Start by saving what you can, then ratchet it up when you can.

I set out to find a large number of common ways that people can save $996 per week (or more). Step one is the big kahuna, which will save most people a cool $24,000 a year right off the bat.

Step one: Pay off your cars and your mortgage. Between a house and two cars in the driveway, it’s safe to say most families are spending $2,000 a month. Some are spending a little more, others a little less. The trick here is the debt snowball. Look at your statements, pick the car you can pay off the soonest, then scrape together whatever extra cash you can and pay that much extra every month until you have that car paid off. Then take what you were paying on that car, and apply all that money to the other car. After that, apply all that money to the house.

Chances are very good that you can pay all of that off in less than seven years. The biggest reason why is because banks generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to pay off in that timeframe. The reason for the subprime mortgage crisis was because banks started ignoring that rule and giving loans to pretty much anyone.

If you are a middle class family that manages to pay the bills somehow, some way every month, I’m reasonably confident in saying that you can pay off all your debt in seven years, then dump that car and mortgage money into an index fund and be a millionaire in another 20.

What about cars in the meantime? Drive the paid-off cars as long as you can, then replace them with the least expensive vehicles that are practical. Given a choice between driving a Lexus and looking like a millionaire, or driving a Toyota Corolla and being a millionaire, personally, I’d choose the latter.

So this gets you roughly halfway there. Let’s see if we can nickel and dime our way to the other half.

Step two: Live off one salary. If you’re married and your spouse works, try as much as possible to live off one salary and bank the other. This was the strategy my in-laws used to pay off their debts (rather than the debt snowball). If one of you brings home $26,000 a year or more after taxes, that gets you the other half immediately. Congratulations.

If step two is impractical or impossible, or doesn’t quite get you there, here are some smaller steps to get you there.

Step three: Put your raises and windfalls towards savings, rather than lifestyle changes. Someone I know was talking just yesterday about a job opportunity that paid a cool $30,000 more than he makes currently. “Lifestyle change!” he said excitedly.

Personally, I’ve never been able to make that kind of a jump, although I’ve made a couple of much smaller jumps since 2006.

Unfortunately it’s often difficult to get much of a raise from a current employer–the money comes when you change jobs. If you’re able to, say, move to a new employer and get a raise of around 10 percent, that takes care of a few of your 52 weeks. Do that every 2-3 years, and you can work your way towards the goal.

This strategy can take care of about four weeks.

Step four: Bank your tax refund. If you get a tax refund every year, instead of using that money to buy something, put it towards the goal.

In most cases, I would think the tax refund takes care of anywhere from 1-3 weeks.

Brown-bag your lunch. Early in my career, I ate out pretty much every day. My day started with a cup of coffee and a doughnut in the cafeteria ($2), and on a good day, lunch cost another $5. Eventually I realized these habits were costing me almost $1,400 a year. Brown-bagging isn’t free, but I figure brown-bagging every day costs less than $400 a year.

That’s another week, or possibly two.

Cut the cable and phone. My local cable provider charges up to $70 per month for some of its packages. Basic cable costs $40, which is still outrageous. If you can live without cable altogether, you can get anywhere from half a week to 3/4 of a week right there. If not, cut back as much as possible.

So how do you live without cable? My wife and I rent movies from Red Box about once a week. It costs a dollar. Other than that, we watch over the air TV. Sometimes there’s nothing on, but when I visit people who have cable, a lot of times there’s nothing on at their house either. The DTV changeover means there’ll be more local channels–many PBS stations are broadcasting on several frequencies, and DTV stations have a range of about 120 miles, so there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to pick up stations from nearby cities that you couldn’t get before.

So try it. If you can’t live without it, cut back as much as you can.

The same goes for your phone line. Are you paying for Call Notes? Cancel it and get an answering machine. Call waiting? Cancel it unless you can’t live without it, but in this day and age when everyone has cell phones and e-mail, I’ll bet you can. Call forwarding? Cut. If you buy everything Southwestern Bell tries to sell you, you can easily pay $50 or more per month for your phone line. When I ordered phone service, I asked for just a dial tone, and repeated the request every time they tried to upsell me. I pay just a shade over $20 a month for my dialtone. I can receive all the calls I want for free, and make all the local calls I want for free too.

By cutting back on cable and phone, most people should be able to save another $996 a year.

Take a long, hard look at the cell phone. Do you have two cell phones with $99 ulimited talk plans? Do you really need two?

Cricket offers an unlimited talk plan for $35 a month. But you may be able to save even more by cutting down the number of cell phones you have, or just getting pay as you go phones for emergency use and sharing phones as much as possible.

And keep in mind that a landline lets you make all the local calls you want. Ditching the land line and going all cellular may be trendy, but it’s not always economical.

My wife and I have one cell phone with a plan that costs us $30 a month, plus a pay-as-you-go phone that we refill as needed, for $25 a pop. It ends up costing us $10 a month, on average.

I can see how someone could potentially save another week’s worth by getting stingy with the cell phones. Maybe more.

Save on your utilities. Buying a programmable thermostat and setting it to not work as much at night and to minimize heating/cooling during the hours when we’re not home saved us a bundle. To the tune of $100 a month.

Weatherproofing the house helps too. Put film on the windows during the winter, and put weatherstripping on all the doors. I also went into my basement, where the utilities come into the house, and found a number of holes for wires that are much larger than they need to be. I filled those in with putty to keep the elements out.

If you really want to be a stingy Scottish miser, invest a few hundred dollars in a whole-house fan. These fans can replace all the air in your house in a matter of minutes. So in the morning when it’s coolest, you can open some doors and windows, run the fan for a few minutes, then shut off the fan, close the house back up, and give your air conditioner a big head start.

Also, for some reason society says we should keep our houses at 70 degrees in the summer and 80 degrees in the winter. Why? We keep ours at about 75 during the summer and between 70 and 75 in the winter. Once you get used to it, it’s comfortable. The savings aren’t exactly peanuts.

Using fans can help keep the air moving, making those temperatures more tolerable.

Squeezing the utilities ought to take care of another week or two.

Go out less. I know some people who easily spend $100 a week going out on Friday nights. Rent a movie from Redbox, have a couple of drinks at home, and save the difference, which is five weeks’ worth.

Cut the Starbucks habit. Do you start off your day with the stereotypical $5 cup of coffee at Starbucks? That’s $1,050 right there. Bank $996 to cut off another week, and you have $54 left to buy a coffee maker (if you don’t have one) and a year’s worth of reasonably good coffee.

Cut the bottled water habit. If you drink three bottles of water a day, that’s commendable because it’s healthy, but you’ve also fallen for the biggest scam in recent memory. Cut the bottled water, buy a water filter, and bank a thousand bucks.

Cut back on expensive hobbies. I’d rather not think about what I used to spend on my Lionel train habit. I know some people spend five figures a year on theirs. I was never that bad, but at its peak I know I was spending more than $1,000 a year on it. I’ve cut back, and the last two or three years I’ve probably spent a couple hundred.

I think it’s safe to say that most households have at least one or two expensive hobbies that could be cut back and still be enjoyable. Buy less and try enjoying what you have. Or buy used instead of new.

Or perhaps they could (gulp) be eliminated, for the time being at least.

Call this one another week’s worth.

Use the library. I know someone who is a voracious reader, which is admirable. She reads a couple of books a week, easily. That’s admirable, but the problem is she buys all these books at retail. A book collector might perk up and call it an investment, but there’s very little collectible interest in Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts. She buys the books, reads them once, and then they sit on the shelf until she gives them to someone.

She probably could save $1,000 a year by using the library instead.

Eat out less. Eating out once a week at $20 a pop easily works out to $1,000 a year. Cut that back, whether it’s by eating somewhere less expensive or just eating out one less time, and you’ve got another week’s worth of $996.

Use public transportation to go to work. The average person commutes about 20 miles a workday. That’s $2,436 a year if you go by the IRS standard mileage rates, which factors in depreciation and maintenance on top of gas. The savings wouldn’t quite get me a full two weeks’ worth due to the cost of a monthly pass, but it would get me close. Call it two weeks.

Buy used and generic when possible. I’ve read that the poor are less likely to buy generic than the wealthy, out of fear of being ripped off. The fear is usually unfounded. Generics usually are made in the same factory right alongside one of their brand name competitors, and the only difference is the label that gets put on in the end.

But let’s talk used. Last week my wife and I bought my son about $80 worth of toys, but we paid $4 for them. They came from a church rummage sale. They were a bit dirty, but we ran them through the dishwasher to clean and sanitize them (they’re plastic). The swing was missing the strap to strap him in, but we replaced it with a belt from a thrift store, which cost another dollar. It fits perfectly.

At the same rummage sale, I bought myself a button-down shirt for a dollar. It looked new. I remember paying $20-$25 in a store for something comparable.

I bought the shoes I’m wearing right now at an estate sale. They didn’t look like they’d ever been worn, and I checked the fit before I bought them. I’ve been wearing them for more than a year now. I paid $3 for them. They would have cost me $50 in a store.

Most people buy a new computer every three or four years. I buy off-lease business computers every three or four years instead. They’re better built so they’re less likely to break (I’ve never had one break on me), and a $100 business PC that’s a few years old will be about as fast as a new computer that costs about $500. So I figure this practice saves me about $400 every three or four years.

I once saw someone in line ahead of me at a department store try to drop a thousand dollars on new clothes. He had several nice shirts, some nice pants, socks, some nice ties. I was pretty impressed with his haul. The problem was he tried to buy them on credit, and was denied. My work clothes mostly come from secondhand sources. They don’t look as nice as what that guy had, but what good does it do to look nice if you can’t pay your bills?

I figure it’s pretty easy to save a thousand or two a year by buying generic and used stuff.

Be careful with the flex-spend account. Back when I was single, I was annoyed because every year HR made us attend a meeting trying to coerce us into signing up for a Flexible Spending Account (also known as a cafeteria plan). These plans made no sense for me whatsoever. Some years my medical expenses were $100. Some years they were $200. Other years they were $20. So if I put $1,000 in, as they tried to convince me to do, I would have been wasting a lot of money. Being in the 14% tax bracket, at best I stood to save $28 if I had a $200 year. But if I put in $200, then I might turn around and have a $20 year and waste $180.

Now I’m married and my wife is diabetic. In this case it’s a no-brainer. We sat down and figured out how often she goes to the doctor, and what she spends on supplies in a given month. Her expenses are predictable, and high enough to make it worth doing. Between her expenses and having a son, I put the maximum in, since babies are always needing various FSA-eligible things, and they go to the doctor on a regularly scheduled basis.

If you’re in the 28% tax bracket and you put $3,000 into an FSA, being able to use pre-tax dollars for those medical expenses saves you about $840 a year. Not quite a week’s worth, but close. You can probably scrape up the other $156.

But if your medical expenses are always really low, you can save a bundle by not putting anything in such a plan. Employers love these plans because people frequently don’t track them very well, and anything left in the kitty at the end of the year goes to the company. It’s a great way to steal from your employees, frankly, and that’s why HR departments push them so hard. If you don’t need one, don’t put the money in, and pay yourself instead.

I think it’s safe to chalk up judicious use (or non-use) of an FSA as another week’s worth.

Be careful with AFLAC. AFLAC is a similar thing. My employer’s HR loves to push AFLAC on us. “I have three kids. I know I’m going to make at least one trip to the ER every year, and that pays for my AFLAC,” the pitch goes.

Think it through. I have a peculiar talent for injuring myself with sharp objects. But I’ve found that my best bet is to go to urgent care when it happens and put it on my FSA. Urgent care always gets to me faster than the overburdened ER, and it costs half as much. I did the math, and AFLAC just didn’t make sense. One trip to the ER didn’t cover a full year’s worth of AFLAC.

Maybe when my son gets older and starts playing sports and stuff, AFLAC will make sense. I’ll revisit it then. But do the math yourself, rather than just taking HR’s pitch. They’re salespeople. Their job isn’t to help you, their job is to make the company money by taking back as much of your salary as possible.

Making the right decision on AFLAC isn’t going to save you a full week’s worth, but it can make up for a shortfall.

Get a side gig. I’ve come up with more than 26 week’s worth of common ways to save $996, but not all of them will necessarily apply to everyone. Having a side gig is a good way to make up the shortfall. I can tell you to mow lawns or fix bicycles or make quilts, but I’d rather let you find something more ideal, since the best thing for you to do probably isn’t the best thing for me. Here’s a series of questions to ask yourself to help you find a side gig.

What do you enjoy?
Is there some service that you can provide at a better value than your potential competitors, whether it’s because you’re cheaper, or because your work is higher quality?
Is there some product that has resale value that you know how to find and then resell some way, after making any necessary repairs?

Basically, you need to find a product or a service that you already know well and enjoy that allows you to add value to it. Don’t quit your job to do it; do it on weekends or evenings with the goal of making a bit. If you can make $50 a week, that works out to $2,500 a year. That’s a reasonable early goal, then build it up from there. Some side gigs grow into full-time jobs but others don’t. Your chances of succeeding are much better if you don’t try to rely on it as a full-time job.

Start small, then let it grow (hopefully) to fill whatever number of $996 shortfalls you have in a year. And as you gain skill and experience, it could potentially grow beyond that, either allowing you to reduce some cutbacks, or achieve the ultimate goal more quickly.

So there you have it. Not everything in this list applies to everybody. But I would say the majority of these things do apply to anyone who can call themselves upper middle class. Such a family can take this list, find 52 things, and join the ranks of the wealthy in a decade or two, if they’re willing to let savings take priority over keeping up appearances.

But I also suspect that pretty much anyone who owns a home and two vehicles can probably take this list and find lots of things they can cut. They might not be able to find a full $996 a week for all 52 weeks of the year. So it will take them longer, but it’s possible. Making some sacrifices now in order to have financial independence later is worth it.

The most important thing is to put everything on the table. The year 2005 was my turning point. I lost my job, and it seemed like everyone who needed IT people couldn’t afford them. Stretching the pennies was necessary for us to stay afloat when I was in between jobs. Eventually I found one. The cutbacks that allowed us to make ends meet while my best source of income was doing odd computer jobs also allowed us to pay off our house early after I regained steady employment.

With the house out of the way, financial independence certainly is my next goal. I’m not sure that this formula is precisely what I want to follow in order to get there. But it’s important not to dismiss such formulas immediately just because they seem difficult or nearly impossible.

The key to success, financial or otherwise, is to take difficult problems and find solutions, rather than dismissing them immediately as impossible. One strategy is to break the problem down. This problem conveniently breaks down into 52 smaller problems. I’ll admit I had to sit and think a very long time to come up with 52 smaller answers.

I just have one more thing to say. Please try. I’m currently reading a financial book written in 1975 that said the average U.S. household headed by someone aged 24-34 had $2,500 in savings. In today’s dollars, that’s a shade over $10,000. Today, the average household has zero savings and around $10,000 in credit card debt, on top of car payments and rent or a mortgage. That has a lot to do with why our economy is such a wreck right now. We can’t buy any more stuff because we’re paying too much in interest.

It’s not too late for one or two generations to rise from these ashes and buy our country back. So let’s do it.

Surviving a recession

I saw a link to a short story on Get Rich Slowly called What to do during a recession.

I think I can do a little better. So I’m gonna try.You might not lose your job, so don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The story states that most people don’t lose their jobs when the economy goes south. That’s important to remember. I lost not one, but two jobs in 2005, not the worst year on record but certainly not the best for either of those two employers. I was pretty certain in both cases that there would be cuts and I would be one of them. I couldn’t do anything about the second case because an edict came down from a new CEO to get rid of all contractors, and I was a contractor. In the first case though, yes, I probably made myself a more likely target for downsizing. I wasn’t as bad as the guy in Office Space who got hit by a truck, but if management thinks you think you’re on your way out, they have an excuse to not feel as bad about letting you go. After all, if you saw it coming and you’re not prepared for it, it’s your fault if something bad happens, right?

So if you think you might be on the short list, don’t let anyone know you think that way, and be quiet and discrete about finding your next job.

Work your contacts. When I lost that job, I knew some people who’d asked me at one point or another if I might be interested in opportunities elsewhere. Of course I called them within 24 hours. None of that panned out for me, but at least I got some practice interviewing and some good resume advice out of the deal.

I think it’s a very good idea to ask your friends once a year or so if they know of any openings. In the event of an emergency, it gives you a much better idea of what might be out there.

Build an emergency fund, just in case. Having an emergency fund is also important. When I got hired on at my current job, my boss told me to try to have half a year’s salary in the bank. Some vote of confidence, huh? But the reality of our business model is that we can be forced to make cuts at any time, with no warning. It even happened to him once a few years ago. The upside is that the pay is pretty good and we get at least one or two opportunities to make some extra money each year, so we put up with it.

Six months’ salary can be hard to save, but you should have at least two, and more is better. Sometimes I can find a new job in less than two months, but I can think of two times in my career where my new employer dragged the hiring process out by a month. That was fine the first time it happened, because I still had my previous job, but it really stank the last time, because I’d been out of work a month.

Make a bare-bones budget. I also suggest having a bare-bones budget. Make up a spreadsheet listing the non-negotiable expenses that happen every month (mortgage or rent, car payment, utility bills, car insurance). Then figure the cheapest you can feed yourself for a day. I have a coworker who might try getting by on three packs of Ramen noodles and feed himself for 30 cents a day, but for most people, $3-$4 per day for food is about as low as they can go. Multiply that number by 30 and add that as a line item. Then add a few bucks for gas (it costs money to drive to the store and to job interviews too). It’s much easier to make a budget like this before you need it than when you need it.

You don’t necessarily need to kick into the emergency bare-bones budget the day you lose work, but I did. It helped my savings last longer.

Start saving money now. Knowing where to get things cheaper will help you build your emergency fund faster, and it will help you when you can’t afford to pay full price. Find out where the nearest day-old bakery is. If there’s a thrift store near you, wander into it sometime to see if it’s any good. If there’s a farmer’s market near you, check it out and compare its produce prices to your regular grocery store–and prepare for a pleasant surprise.

Don’t bail on your stocks. This might be the most important thing. When the stock market takes a dive, a lot of people hop on the phone and take their money out. Unless you own marginal stocks, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You don’t need to know what to do with marginal stocks when a recession hits. If you own stock in companies that can’t survive a recession, you should sell them now and buy stock in companies that can. I had a relative who made himself rich by investing in boring companies like General Electric and Coca-Cola–companies that sell things that people buy no matter how much money they have–and holding those stocks for several decades.

That money vanished after a generation (and no, I don’t have any of it), but that’s another story.

There’s a financial cliche that poor people run to buy when stores have a sale, but when Wall Street has a sale, they rush to sell.

The thing to remember is that stock prices are purely theoretical unless you sell. So when they go down, you don’t lose anything. If the company still has decent products to sell, its price will rebound if only because vast heards of rich people will come in and buy more of the stock while the price is low. If you have some savings and you know how to stretch it, there’s absolutely no reason for those rich people to be buying that stock from you.

The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.If you read the various pages on the Web, that’s certainly the impression you get. But for whatever reason, Marx prices seem to be rising. Search on eBay and you see inflated prices. Maybe the secret’s out.

Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way. I don’t recommend toy trains as an investment. Yes, vintage trains are almost certain to hold their value. Yes, many will increase in value. But their values tend to be more unpredictable than stocks, and certainly less proven. This is true of all collectibles. Your investment money needs to go to the bank or the stock market. Spend entertainment money on collectibles. They’ll retain more of their value, on average, than CDs and DVDs will, and they’re almost certainly worth more than empty beer cans or movie ticket stubs.

End disclaimer. For whatever reason, Marx isn’t the value that it used to be. Maybe it’s because Marx made so much other stuff and has a large collector following, causing Marx prices to rise along with the values of its other toys because of its appeal outside of train fans.

So where do you go for a bargain these days?

Lionel.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lionel made starter sets. Unlike their higher-priced items, these didn’t have operating couplers, and sometimes they were made of cheaper plastics. In 1969, Lionel Corporation went bankrupt and sold its tooling and licensed its name to General Mills, whose subsidiary Model Products Corporation manufactured and marketed Lionel trains. MPC cut a few more corners, and the trains manufactured by MPC from 1969 until the mid-1980s are cheaper still.

They do have a collector following, but the following is much less than that of Lionel of other eras, or Marx, or anything else for that matter. And the prices reflect that.

I bought a box of junk this weekend for $35. Inside was a figure-8 of slot car track, some pieces of old slot cars, a few random pieces of Lionel track, and a Lionel Scout set from the 1962-1966 time period. Included was a Lionel 2-4-2 steam locomotive (model number 242, appropriately) and corresponding tender, a flatcar, a hopper, a gondola, and a plain red unlettered caboose.

While the writers in the train magazines dismiss Lionel’s cheap Scout locomotives as junk, I’ve found them reliable and, additionally, they’re more tolerant of bad track than the more expensive offerings. I can see how they’re more difficult to fix, and maybe they don’t hold up as well when they’re run for hours at a time, but when they’re worth between $10 and $15 I don’t see much room for complaint, either. If the motor dies in a few years, buy another locomotive and keep the old one for parts. Maybe you’ll find a deal on a mechanically sound Scout with a bad body.

As for the cars, they have a bit more plastic shine than I’d like. But at $5-$10 a pop, why complain? K-Line sells new box cars for $10, but you can’t get new freight cars for much less than $20. Given the choice between a $20 K-Line or Industrial Rail hopper or a $5 Lionel hopper from the ’60s or ’70s, I’ll take the Lionel every time. The Lionel isn’t going to decrease in value. The others will. The Lionel may not hold the track as well, but that $15 savings will more than pay for some upgraded trucks (wheel sets) if it needs them.

Meanwhile, the equivalent Marx hopper will probably cost you $12.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t pass up a nice Marx, but if I’m looking for cheap cars to pad out a long train, Lionel’s offerings from its darkest hours are the better bet.

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