Archives for June 2014

Capital One 360 Financial Independence Day Promo 2014

13045000Capital One 360 is running their annual Financial Independence Day promotion, with what is traditionally the best bonus of the year for their 360 Savings and 360 Checking accounts. (Formerly known as ING Direct.) These online bank accounts offer no monthly fees and no minimum balance requirements, all with a decent interest rate. As a result, the savings account makes a great “online piggy bank” where you can make free transfers from your existing checking accounts from any bank into the 360 Savings account on a regular basis. Promo details:

360 Savings $76 Bonus

  • Grab $76 when you open a 360 Savings® account.
  • This has to be the primary account holder’s first 360 Savings account and it needs a $500 minimum deposit.
  • The bonus starts earning interest on day 1, but you can’t take it out for at least 30 days.

360 Checking $100 Bonus

  • Earn $100 when you open a 360 Checking® account. Sign up for fee-free 360 Checking®, make 5 Debit Card purchases or 5 mobile deposits with CheckMateSM within 45 days and snag a cool $100 on day 50.
  • This has to be your and your joint account holder’s (if you have one) first 360 Checking account.
  • Open 360 Checking from June 30th – July 3rd and make a total of 5 Debit Card purchases or 5 CheckMateSM deposits or any combination of the two within 45 days.
  • Your $100 bonus will be automatically deposited into your account on day 50.

Expedia $50 off $200 Coupon Code

Expedia has a 4th of July promotion where if you use their mobile app you can get $50 off a $200 hotel booking. That’s up to 25% off. Pretty simple… go to link, enter mobile phone number, receive both unique coupon code and mobile app download link. Limited time offer; grab the code now if interested. Via Fatwallet.

Hotel stay must be $200 before taxes and fees. Promo code must be redeemed on mobile app (at checkout page) by 7/7/14 for travel between 6/27/14 and 12/31/14. Limit one per user account. Full terms and conditions.

Amazon App Store: Over $100 in Paid Apps Free 6/27 6/28 Only

az100If you have an Android phone or tablet, check out this Amazon App Store promotion which has a bunch of paid apps for free, Friday and Saturday only. As usual, I just grab whatever looks good now while it is free and then later delete the ones I don’t want. If you’ve never used the Amazon App store before, you’ll get a $1 credit after your first download.

Plex app caught my eye, that is a great app for streaming movie files from your computer to your TV via Roku or to your phone. Rip all your old DVDs to a hard drive and have them only a tap away.

Baby!

baby2_125Update: There is now a 2-way tie for the most beautiful girl in the world. As we welcome our newest addition, posting will be lighter than usual for the next couple of weeks (years? decades?). Looks like early retirement might have to be pushed back a bit again…. totally worth it. 😉

Applying for Multiple Bank Accounts: Can You Apply For Too Many?

multibanksUpdated. If you open multiple bank accounts in order to take advantage of higher interest rates or sign-up bonuses, you may be concerned about any potential consequences from all that activity. In my experience, there are two main factors to be aware of when you open a bank account:

Banks pulling your ChexSystems report. ChexSystems is a consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the bank’s version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or leaves their account with a negative balance, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database.

One thing that may raise a red flag is opening up several bank accounts in a very short period of time. This is because of the connection of multiple bank accounts to a form of fraud called ‘check kiting‘. Kiting usually involves sending several checks between different banks to create an temporary surplus of money from the bank’s funds availability policies, and then cashing that out before all the checks fully clear. In the end, one of the banks is left holding the bag.

But for the most part, as long as you haven’t left any accounts in bad standing you shouldn’t run into any problems with opening up new bank accounts. I’ve opened up accounts at over 30 different banks over the last several years, sometimes two or three in one week, and have never been rejected by any of them. However, having a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from all the major banks (even if you make $100k a year). Information generally stays on your ChexSystems report for five (5) years.

As with credit reports, you can get a free copy of your ChexSystems report once every 12 months.

Banks pulling your credit report. Yes, it is legal for banks to pull your credit report. According to the consumer help site HelpWithMyBank.gov, per the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a bank can obtain a consumer report for any legitimate business need, including the following:

  • credit transactions
  • review or collection of an account
  • opening a deposit or savings account
  • underwriting of insurance

There are a couple reasons they do so. First, this is another way for them to identify you and measure the risk of giving you a new account. Second, they may use this information to market other financial products like credit cards or home equity loans to you.

I’ve talked about the difference between hard and soft credit pulls. Usually, bank will just perform a soft credit check, which doesn’t affect your credit score. (All those “pre-approved” credit card applications in the mail are from soft credit checks.) However, some banks also perform hard credit checks, which do hurt your credit score slightly. Some banks do offer a line of credit in lieu of overdraft protection, but in general there doesn’t appear to be a rhyme or reason as to which ones do hard pull and which ones don’t. I personally suspect that it may just be unintentional and they don’t know the difference. (More importantly, most people don’t know the difference so they don’t really get any pushback.)

You can get a free copy of each of your credit reports (which lists all your hard pulls and which financial instituation did the pull) once every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com.

To summarize, I usually try to find out first if the bank will perform a hard credit check based on the reported experiences of other consumers online. This isn’t an exact science, as the banks can often change their practices. If it is likely they will, then I want to make sure that I am getting enough value from the new account because I know I can already trade a hard pull for $200-$500 of value from a credit card application. Otherwise, I don’t really worry about the number of bank accounts I have, although I do close them as soon as I don’t foresee any future benefit.

Cash Reserves & Best Interest Rates Update – June 2014

percentageOur family keeps a full year of expenses put aside in cash reserves; it provides us with financial stability with the additional side benefits of lower stress and less concern about stock market gyrations. Emergency funds can actually have a better return on investment than what you see on your bank statement.

Interest rates are still depressingly low, and I haven’t made any changes to how I hold my cash reserves in the past 12 months. However, I figured an update is in order as some of you may not be aware of the many options besides your too-big-to-fail megabank savings account paying 0.000001%.

My Cash Reserves
First, a quick recap of how I have our cash reserves split up. Keep in mind that most of the rates that I locked in are no longer available, but I did blog about them at the time.

  • Ally Bank Online Saving (0.87% APY of 6/24/14) as a no-fee overdraft backup to my Ally Interest Checking (0.10% APY on balances under $15k, 0.60% APY over $15k of 6/24/14), that way I can keep minimal balance in checking. Ally checking also has unlimited ATM fee rebates and no fees. I know there are some savings accounts paying a tiny bit more, but not worth the trouble for less than 0.1% difference on $10,000.
  • Ally Bank CDs earning between 1.84% and 3.09% APY. These are old 5-year CDs with a short 60-day interest penalty. Current CD rate of 6/21/14 is 1.60% APY with 150-day early withdrawal penalty.
  • PenFed CDs earning 5% APY. Long gone, although earlier this year PenFed did offer 5-year CDs at 3% APY (no longer available). Current rates are yawn-tastic.
  • I also have several US savings bonds that I now consider part of my retirement portfolio as opposed to cash reserves, as I don’t think I’ll ever want to cash them in before full maturity. More info below.

Best Currently Available Interest Rates
If I wasn’t already invested as outlined above, here are the FDIC-insured or government-backed opportunities that I would be looking into based on my needs.

  • Everbank Yield Pledge Money Market and Everbank Interest Checking account both offer 1.40% APY guaranteed (up to $50k each) for the first 6 months for new accounts. Since it is fixed, this is essentially a 6-month CD with a higher rate than any other 6-month CD rate out there and with no early withdrawal penalty to worry about.
  • “Series I” US Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation. “I Bonds” bought right now will earn 1.94% total for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. You must hold them for a year, and if you redeem them within 5 years you lose the last 3 months of interest. While future rates are unknown, the net rate after a year is likely to be higher than any 1-year CD. More info here.
  • Rewards checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but only if you to jump through many hoops. Make a mistake and you’ll forfeit your interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. If you’re up for it, a recent example is Consumers Credit Union where you can earn up to 5.09% APY on up to a $10k balance, although 3.09% APY is probably a more reasonable expectation (there are a lot of hoops).
  • Certificates of deposit. If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. Why not put some money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay an early withdrawal penalty. Synchrony Bank (formerly GE Capital Retail Bank) is offering a 5-year CD paying 2.30% APY for $25k+ balances (2.25% APY for $2k+) with an early withdrawal penalty of 180 days interest.
  • Willing to lock up your money for even longer? Tobyhanna Federal Credit Union has a 7-year CD paying 3.04% APY, however the early withdrawal penalty is a full 2 years of interest. More info here.
  • Even looooonger? “Series EE” US Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.50% APY). You really want to be sure you’ll keep it for 20 years.

All rates are believed current as of writing, 6/24/14.

Reader Story: Early Retirement by Age 40 with Income-Focused Portfolio

The following is a guest post contributed by reader Bob, who started getting serious about financial freedom about 10 years ago and plans to reach early retirement next year at age 40. Thanks Bob for candidly sharing about your personal experiences and income-oriented portfolio.

monodiv_220I started following Jonathan’s blog about five years ago because I shared the same interest in personal finance and the goal of early retirement. I’ve made a lot of investing mistakes over the years, but with my 40th birthday coming up later this month I thought I’d share my approach which had the primary goal of income generation and capital preservation.

My initial goal was to cover my fixed expenses each month (housing, transportation, utilities, etc) from investment income. Once I had covered my fixed costs I expanded the goal to full income substitution for an extended period of unemployment (24 months), and later to full income substitution for 10-15 years. I’d like to say I was focused on a fixed target, but as with everything targets changed based on circumstances.

I started focusing on saving in the summer of 2005. I had graduated with an MBA and took a position at an Investment Bank in New York. I completed my MBA at the University of Texas at Austin largely because the tuition was low and I could graduate debt free. Looking back, this decision turned out be a very good one as I was able to secure a high paying job while investing relatively little in my education. In my view, maximizing revenue and minimizing costs is what personal finance is all about. However in life’s little ironies, I ended up paying through the nose for my wife’s graduate degree at UT in 2013-2014 but at this point we are far more capable of supporting this investment.

One thing I learned early on was that I did not want to be working in investment banking beyond ten years. The job takes a lot out of you and while the money is good and you learn a lot, it can be a very volatile business. Given the volatility in the markets and our annual bonus I decided I’d invest largely in fixed income and as a single guy in New York it made sense to look at tax-free munis. I don’t pretend that I had the foresight into the real-estate and financial crisis of 2008-2009 but I did witness a lot of risk taking and leverage deployed in the pursuit of returns.

I will not go into all details of my portfolio rather I’ll just go over the highlights.

$800,000 in taxable accounts which generate about 6.5% yield through investments in closed-end funds, utilities, and REITs. The vast majority is in muni bond funds as I’d prefer tax free income but qualified dividends also enjoy a lower tax rate. REIT income offers no tax advantage but I hold them as until recently we always rented our home. There is obviously a high degree of interest rate risk in my portfolio, but given I have deployed leverage in other part of my portfolio I’m comfortable with it. Overall I think taxes will go higher and so I’d much prefer munis to treasuries. I also hedge my bond holding by selling naked puts on the TBT (leveraged short treasury ETF). This has the positive impact of boosting my cash returns and hedging my long bond position.

$100,000 in LendingClub which generates a 7-8% return inclusive of defaults. I was hoping for a returns closer to 9% but given the institutional money chasing loans and tepid demand for loans it is not a surprise returns are lower than expected. Hopefully LendingClub does not relax underwriting standards in pursuit of loan growth. I still like this asset as the loans are short-term, payments include interest and principle, and you can invest as little as $25 at a time but I’ll moderate my contributions in the future.

$200,000 in direct real-estate investments through RealtyMogul and Fundrise. I only started investing nine months ago, but I have aggressively added to this asset class. I get geographic diversification across the country and by assets class (residential, commercial, debt, equity) and you essentially cut out the fees paid to fund managers and REITs so I see this as a win-win. It is still too early to estimate returns, but I’m hoping tohttps://fundrise.com generate 7.5% on a cash on cash basis and any capital appreciation would be a bonus. Most of the investment promise IRR’s north of 10% so I think the 7.5% is reasonable. I also think this asset class will prove to be better than LendingClub given these are secured investments and debt financing is cheap. On the downside there is zero liquidity, lead times are very long, and the minimum investments are very high.

Overall I’m generating about $6200/month in tax advantaged income and my goal is to eventually get this up to $7000. My savings suffered over the last 12 month as we incurred costs for my wife’s graduate degree, we relocated from Berkeley, CA to Austin, TX and we purchased our first house. I feel confident in ramping up savings over the next months and hitting full income substation before my 41st birthday next year.
I’m sure other will ask how I intend to offset the impact of inflation I also have $500K in tax deferred retirement (IRA, 401K) accounts but these are broadly diversified across domestics and international index funds so not much to say. I think continuing to invest in tax deferred accounts along with real estate investments will help offset the impact of inflation.

If you have constructive questions or feedback, please leave them in the comments. Please remember to be respectful! If you’d like to share your own story, please contact me.

Infographic: Economic Mobility Based On Income and Geography

Infographic creation site Infogr.am recently gave the Best Data Story award (Data Journalism Awards 2014) to the interactive article In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters from the New York Times. Sometimes NYT articles have such a clean layout that you don’t even notice that many of the images and graphics can be manipulated and contain additional information.

For example, in the top graphic you can hover and find the specific value for the chance that a child raised in bottom-20% household will end up in a top-20% household. 6.9% in Austin, TX by the way, where I spent a significant part of my youth.

mobile_national

In the next graphic, you can actually toggle the value for parental income level. In Austin, you can see how the future income distribution changes from growing up in a 10th percentile household to a 90th percentile household.

mobile_austin10

mobile_austin90

The Largest Consumer of Electricity In US Homes Besides A/C Is…

Most people will guess that the heater and/or air conditioner is the biggest source of electricity usage in the average home. But what about the second-largest?

The HD DVR Cable Box, at least according to the LA Times (what about water heating?). Digital video recorders are basically computers that use about 35 watts (some up to 50W), but the problem is that unlike desktop computers they use that much power even when “off” or on standby. I used to keep mine behind a cabinet door and it always felt like I could cook an egg on top of it.

dvrhog1

Here’s another graphic from the NY Times on the same issue:

dvrhog2

At 35 watts, that’s like running three CFL bulbs (13W, 60W equivalent) all the time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Depending on if you have the cable box and DVR separate, you are looking at roughly 300 to 450 kWh per year. That is $50-$75 per year, per box, at 16 cents a kWh. Many people have two or three boxes in their homes.

One source of this problem is that the cable companies have no incentive to make their boxes more energy-efficient. You pay the electricity bills, not them, and you either don’t know about their vampire energy use or are subject to their local monopoly anyway.

You could put the cable boxes on a timer if you never record shows at certain times, but you’d want to leave time for both the 10-15 minute boot-up and the regular downloading of the day’s channel line-ups. Most people expect their TV to work instantly.

Or you could just drop cable. Apple TV and Roku internet streaming boxes (Netflix, etc.) use much less power when idle and you can just unplug them when not in use. (Startup time is under a minute.) From an older GigaOM post:

dvrhog3b

The newest Roku 3 supposedly uses 3.5 watts when streaming HD video while the Streaming Stick uses about 2.5 watts. Both are reported to use about 2 watts when idle.

Prosper vs. LendingClub Investor Returns 19.5 Month Update

lcvspr_clipoIn November 2012, I invested $10,000 into person-to-person loans split evenly between Prosper Lending and Lending Club, looking for high returns from a new asset class. After diligently reinvesting my earned interest into new loans, I stopped my after one year (see updates here and here) and started just collecting the interest and waiting see how my final numbers would turn out at the end of the 3-year terms.

My last update was 4 months ago, so here’s what things look like after 19.5 months.

$5,000 LendingClub Portfolio. As of June 15, 2014, the LendingClub portfolio had 180 current and active loans. 51 loans were paid off early and 15 have been charged-off ($314 in principal). 6 loans are between 1-30 days late. 5 loans are between 31-120 days late, which I will assume to be unrecoverable. $2,679 in uninvested cash (early payments and interest). Total adjusted balance is $5,368.

1406_lc

$5,000 Prosper Portfolio. My Prosper portfolio now has 157 current and active loans, 78 loans paid off early, 23 charged-off. 6 loans are between 1-30 days late. 6 are over 30 days late, which to be conservative I am also going to write off completely (~$89). $2,434 in uninvested cash (early payments and interest). Total adjusted balance is $5,322.

1406_prosper

Recap and Thoughts

  • The fact that institutional investors are buying a significant portion of Prosper and LendingClub loan inventory would seem to prove that the concept is successful. If I were to invest all over again, I would do it within an IRA to avoid tax headaches. I would also buy at least 100 loans x $25, which also happens to be the $2,500 minimum for free auto-investment at LendingClub (no minimum at Prosper). But simply put, I am not in love with P2P loans enough to allocate my precious IRA space to them.
  • My total adjusted balance is $10,690, which actually shows a slight recovery from my last update in which my total balances were actually dropping. At least I’m still headed to a final balance higher than a savings account. My idle cash is starting to pile up though, so I will take $2,500 out of each account soon and put it elsewhere.
  • Prosper says my annualized returns are actually 5.76%. But just 4 months ago, they said I was earning 7.55%. The lesson here is that your returns will continue to vary and likely deteriorate as your loans age, so don’t assume your returns will always stay the same as they are in the beginning (your returns will look good for a long time if you keep reinvesting into new loans). LendingClub says my annualized returns are now 5.94% (5.24% if you assume all loans 30+ days late will be total losses). Not awful return numbers so far in this low-interest rate environment, but less than I would have hoped for.
  • Prosper is still doing worse relatively than LendingClub. This could change again in the future. Here’s an updated chart tracking the LendingClub and Prosper adjusted balances over these past 15.5 months:
    1406_prvslc

Early Retirement Lesson #2: Earn More vs. Spend Less

Here’s more of my “old man wisdom” about early retirement. I call it that because the lessons that I learned may or may not fully apply to you, but they worked for me and that is why I’m sharing them. Last time I talked about savings rates and how you need to save between 30-50% of your income in order to retire early. That’s a lot, and it leads to another long-running debate: Should you spend your energy trying to earn more money, or spend less money?

The “Earn More” or Capitalist argument is that you can’t save your way to being financially free. You need more money. You need a positive attitude, the willingness to work hard, and a desire to be rich. Capitalists tend to talk about things like entrepreneurialism, multiple streams of income, passive income, leverage, real estate opportunities, and occasionally some sort of multi-level marketing program like Amway or Herbalife.

The “Spend Less” or Frugalist argument is that unnecessary spending is the core problem. You don’t need all that stuff. You just need more spending discipline. Most American households have an amazing, luxurious lifestyle with huge houses, more than one car per person, and enough calories to feed a football team. People who earn more, just spend more. It is amazingly common to earn $250,000 a year and still live paycheck-to-paycheck. Look at athletes like Antoine Walker and Vince Young who have each earned over $100 million and $30 million respectively but still filed for bankruptcy shortly after they lost their jobs.

The easy answer – which I have used myself – is to do both. What a cop-out answer! 🙂 Let’s try harder.

Studies have found that happiness is doesn’t go up after $60-$75k of annual income. Why is that? Perhaps it is because $60k will get you all the you need to be physically and socially comfortable. A house that isn’t embarrassing, reliable transportation, the ability to enjoy a dinner at Applebee’s with friends, the ability to travel occasionally. The median household income in the U.S. is roughly $51,000 a year. $60,000 is roughly 20% higher than that, making you “above average”. If you were to upgrade to a gated community, a Bentley, eating at 3-star Michelin restaurants, flying only on full-fare business class tickets, that won’t get you any better-quality friends. If you already make $200k and aren’t happy, then making $400k or $800k won’t make much difference.

Back to that 50% savings rate. If you’re happy with spending $60k (on average people spend 97% of their income), then you’d need to earn roughly $120k in order to save half. That seems like a good upper bound. If I already earned $120k or more, I’d probably focus on adjusting my spending to the 60k level instead of trying to make more.

On the flip side, as your income drops far below the median you start feeling the pinch more and more. A family of three that earns under $25,000 a year can be eligible for food stamps and other government subsidies. Earning $50k and saving 50% of that means living on $25k a year without being eligible for most government subsidies. Now, some people do live on less than 25k, but is rarely by choice (extreme counterexample). If I earned $50k and really wanted financial freedom, I would focus my energy on earning more money.

Now these numbers should probably be adjusted for the cost-of-living in your area. Look up the median income in your city or county; start here and here).

If your household income is less than 150% of the median income in your area, I would focus on earning more money. Start your own business. Invest in yourself through career advancement or a job change. For example if it is $60k, I would try to get to a household income of at least $90k. (That could be two people earning $45k each.) You could do a little frugalizing and spend $45k to get to a 50% savings rate.

If your household income is more than 200% of the median income in your area, I would focus on managing your expenses. If median income is $75k and your household income is $150k, then try and see if you can get to the spending level of a $75k household. Examine all of your expenses one-by-one. You will need to prioritize and probably cut back on areas that are less important to you. Early retirement is a big goal; you might need to make some big changes like moving to cheaper housing or dropping a car payment.

If you are in between 150% and 200% of the median income in your area, that is more of a gray area, and you may just need to do a little of both.

You can argue about the exact percentage cutoffs, but the basic idea is that I want a rule of thumb that accounts for the tendency of most people to maintain their social relationships (which are closely linked to happiness). At very low spending levels, it gets harder to maintain your social relationships and the self-discipline and energy needed can be better spent making more money. At a certain point, spending more money does not improve your relationships.

Cable Bill Haggling Revisited

Recently it was time again to haggle my cable bill (I still get a steady stream of success story comments on that post). Actually, I ended up just switching to DSL as I’d been having some ongoing speed issues with my cable internet. I’ll take the one-year discounted deal from DSL, and then when I go back to broadband cable I’ll sign up for whatever special offer they have then.

I’m not the only one. Here’s a Vox article “Here’s the secret to getting a lower cable bill” which supposedly talks to ex-Comcast customer service reps and offers the following tips:

  • “It pays to play hardball,” says a customer service representative who worked at an Oregon call center from 2002 to 2009. “Threatening to cancel will get you further than outright asking for a discount.”
  • Asking to talk to a manager could actually backfire, as managers may not be judged based on customer satisfaction metrics like regular customer reps. You just want to reach retention specialists.
  • People in Comcast’s “retention” department are rewarded based on their success at getting you to keep your service without giving you a big discount. So they’re going to do their best to get you to change your mind for free.
  • Retention specialists only have a limited number of discounts to hand out to folks. If you can’t seem to get one, that specific person might not have any left. Call back and try again and you might get someone with discounts left. But don’t call too many times, as they track your calls.

And here is a Business Insider video with basically the same idea, but maybe the nice production value will convince you that haggling is a legitimate customer tool. 😉 As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” Your mega-corp internet provider won’t just hand you a discount worth $100+, but they might if you just ask.