Archives for July 2017

Fidelity Index Mutual Fund and ETF Expense Ratios (Updated August 2017)

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Updated. Fidelity announced another round of expense ratio cuts effective August 1, 2017. They last announced a big round of expense ratio drops in July 2016. This move allows them to make the following claim:

Fidelity beats Vanguard on expenses on 17 of 17 comparable stock and bond index funds and 11 of 11 comparable sector ETFs. Comparisons based on fund expense ratios only.

fido1708_full

Mutual Fund Share Classes. Fidelity separates mutual funds into Investor Class ($2,500 minimum) and Premium Class ($10,000). Individual ivestors in employer retirement plans may have access to these funds, including institutional share classes, without the minimums. This is in close alignment with Vanguard Investor and Admiral share classes.

Highlights. Here are some broad US and Domestic index funds that I track.

  • Fidelity 500 Index Fund. Investor 0.09% Premium 0.035%
  • Fidelity Total Market Index Fund. Investor 0.09% Premium 0.035%
  • Fidelity (Developed) International Index Fund. Investor 0.16% Premium 0.06%
  • Fidelity Global ex U.S. Index Fund Investor 0.17% Premium 0.10%
  • Fidelity Total International Index Fund Investor 0.17% Premium 0.10%
  • Fidelity Emerging Markets Index Fund Investor 0.29% Premium 0.13%
  • Fidelity U.S. Bond Index Fund Investor 0.14% Premium 0.045%
  • Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund Investor 0.19% Premium 0.09%

Here is the full list with changes (official page):

[Read more…]

Costco New Membership Discount – LivingSocial

costco0LivingSocial has a Costco Gold Star Membership Package where for $60 you can get $215.63 value:

  • 1-year Gold Star membership ($60 normally), which includes a membership card for the primary cardholder as well as one free Household Card
  • $20 Costco Cash card
  • $$35.63 in free coupons – Free Paper Towels Create-a-Size 12/160 ct ($15.69 value), Free VitaRain Zero Flavored Water 24/20 oz bottles ($9.99 value), and Free Food Court Whole Pizza ($9.95 value)
  • $25 off an order of $250 on Costco.com
  • $75 Costco Cash Card toward Costco Travel to the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, or the South Pacific (excludes cruises)

Valid for new members only, which here means the primary cardholder can’t have a current Costco membership or a membership that expired after April 1, 2017. Offer is valid at all U.S. Costco locations.

The last $100 is harder to redeem, but the $20 gift card and $25 in free paper towels/pizza still makes it a pretty good deal if you have a household member without a current membership.

Remember that you can save a bit more on your LivingSocial purchases with cashback shopping sites like eBates ($5 new customer bonus) and Mr. Rebates ($5 bonus).

Why Don’t More People Use Programmable Thermostats?

ecobeeThe hottest time of the year has arrived. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shared some results from their 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey in regards to air conditioning.

A programmable thermostat can save you a ballpark 15% on your cooling bill, with the average household saving $10-$15 per month. A programmable thermostat will adjust based on a preset schedule of when you expect to be home, away, or sleeping. Various studies (Nest whitepaper) have shown that you can save about 10% on heating and 15% on cooling, with the averaging household bill going down by about $10-$15 per month.

Prices start at only $20 for basic models, but you could theoretically break even in two years even with a fancy $250 thermostat. This highly-rated touchscreen model is $45 and this basic Honeywell version is only $20. Newer smart thermostats like the $250 Nest Thermostat and $250 ecobee4 can learn how you like the temperature and also work with WiFi and Amazon Alexa so you can change the settings wherever using your smartphone or with your voice.

So… you’d think they would be quite popular, right?

ac_thermo1

Less than 20% of homes with central air conditioning regularly use a programmable thermostat. Heck, only 30% of folks who already have a programmable thermostat installed actually use them. The article doesn’t explore the reasons behind this behavior. Maybe it’s just too complicated to program? They tried it and didn’t like it?

In case you’re curious, below are the average temperatures at which other people report setting their air-conditioning thermostat. Hmm… is it weird that my house is usually around 78 or 80 degrees?

ac_thermo2

Bottom line. Using a programmable thermostat is a pretty reliable way to save money your electricity bill. But for some reason, people don’t use them! Using a smart thermostat is a less reliable way to save money (higher upfront cost, lower marginal benefit over basic programmable thermostat), but if the alternative is doing nothing, then it could be worth the additional upfront investment.

Landline Phone Replacement: OBi200 Adapter $40 Deal + Installation Tips

obi200Updated. If you still like the idea of landline phone service and multiple handsets around the house, Obihai VoIP boxes are officially supported by Google Voice to provide unlimited free calls to the USA to Canada. That’s totally free: $0 a month + $0 in tax and fees. Low international per-minute rates as well. All you need is a broadband internet connection and and a power plug (no computer).

Special offers. Get Obi200 for $39.98 when you use promo code OBIDEAL7 (expires 7/30/17). The seller should be Obihai Technology, Inc. at $49.99 before the coupon brings it down to $39.98 during checkout. There haven’t been many deals on these boxes recently.

I bought myself a Obi200 in order to try out their free calls, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device. I thought about making a video, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

  1. Open the box and plug in the cables. AC adapter, telephone line, and ethernet cable to router. All ports are clearly marked. All the cables are included except the phone cable which you should already have. The image below says it all:

    obi200a

    Here is the back of the box, showing the ports:

    obi200_ports

  2. Write down your unique Obi number. This is clearly printed on the bottom of the Obi200 box. Mine was 9 digits like “123 456 789”.
  3. Go to your computer and visit ObiTalk.com. Click on the link that says “Register” in the top right corner. Then just follow the directions. Dial a test phone number when it asks. It is easiest to use the “Sign in with Google Account” button since you already have one if you use Google Voice. I didn’t even have to type in my password (as I was already logged in by cookie). They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

    obi200b

  4. Use your phone. I turned on my phone, listened to the dial tone, and called my cell phone. Success! Traditional phone service with unlimited calls within the US and Canada for the great price of $0 a month. The voice quality was fine, and continued to be quite good for the few months that I was using it before giving it away. (I already have the grandfathered fully-free version of Ooma. The voice quality between the two was comparable.)

Total set-up time was under 10 minutes. If for some reason my directions don’t work, check out the official Obi200 Starter Guide [pdf] or their extensive set of tutorials. You can also add e911 service for $15 a year.

Which Obi box model should I buy? I think the sweet spot for most people will be the Obi200, which supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter.

The Obi202 offers two independent phone ports so you can use two different VoIP providers simultaneously (or you can have two Google Voice phone numbers). If you can find one on the cheap, the older boxes work too. However, note that Obihai has stopped supporting Obi100 and Obi110 with new development. Here is a handy comparison chart of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

obi200compare2

Bottom line. If you like the idea of having a landline-style phone service (multiple handsets around the house), this is a very good way to save money on your budget.

Limited-Time Offer: Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® 50,000 Mile Bonus

Citi AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard Art

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®, from our partner Citi, is their premium American Airlines co-branded card that includes Admirals Club lounge access. The card currently offers an impressive 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus, which you can think of as offsetting the annual fee. Here are the full details …

  • Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening*
  • Admirals Club® membership included for you and guests with you*
  • Complimentary Admirals Club® lounge Access for authorized users
  • Earn 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year*
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases*
  • Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases*
  • First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to eight companions traveling with you on the same reservation*
  • Receive a statement credit, up to $100 every 5 years, as reimbursement for your application fee for Global Entry or The TSA PreCheck®
  • $450 annual fee

Note the following fine print:

American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles are not available if you have had any Citi® / AAdvantage® card (other than a CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® card) opened or closed in the past 24 months.

As mentioned, this is the highest level Citi/American Airlines card. The 50,000 miles are nice and can be converted to several hundred dollars (or more) worth of airfare. $100 for TSA PreCheck and Global Entry is nice. But the annual fee is a hefty $450. The special features of this card that the lesser cards omit are Admirals Club lounge membership and the opportunity to earn Elite Qualifying Miles towards status.

Admirals Club lounge membership value and details. Admirals Club membership usually costs ~$500 a year on its own, and this is now the only card that gives it to you as a complimentary feature. Here’s the full cost chart:

aa_clubcost

This membership allows both you and your immediate family (or up to two traveling guests that accompany you) to access over 50 Admirals Club locations worldwide. You don’t even need to be on an American Airlines flight! You can even give your spouse or trusted friend/family an authorized user card and they’ll get lounge access too, even while traveling separately from you. (Authorized user cards have no additional fee.)

You can be flying on any airline, and if that airport has an Admirals Club you and your family can go inside. Lounge access might save you money on certain things like comfortable seats, free food/drink, WiFi, and sometimes hot showers. Mostly it just makes the overall flying experience more pleasant. I’ve been to Admiral’s Clubs with special kids rooms; perfect for families during delays or layovers.

American Airlines elite qualifying miles. For those that know you can generate the required $40,000 in spending in a calendar year . I’ve given up status chasing for the time being, but if you’re an elite on American, you probably already know the value of accumulating these type of miles. 10,000 elite qualifying flight miles is like going from Honolulu to Los Angeles, roundtrip, twice.

Bottom line. The 50,000 bonus miles is nice, but this remains a niche premium card. If you can take advantage of the Admiral Club lounge access, this can be a great way to get it for you and your travel companions. If you don’t care about lounge access and aren’t trying to achieve elite status on American, this card is probably not for you given the relatively high spending requirements.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

“The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.”

Money Buys Happiness… If You Outsource Your Unwanted Chores

happyfaceFirst, you were told that the best way to buy happiness was to buy experiences, not things. Other research then said happiness can come from buying the right things. Here’s another academic study making the rounds (WaPo, NYT): Buying time promotes happiness by Whilans et al, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Abstract:

Around the world, increases in wealth have produced an unintended consequence: a rising sense of time scarcity. We provide evidence that using money to buy time can provide a buffer against this time famine, thereby promoting happiness. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (n = 6,271), we show that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

The study found that spending money on time-saving activities was more efficient than material purchases in improving life satisfaction and decrease stress. This applied across different countries, careers, and income levels.

Here are some examples of time-saving activities:

  • House cleaner
  • Grocery delivery
  • Dry cleaning, laundry
  • Lawn care
  • Home repair
  • Cooking service
  • Shopping service
  • Shorter commute (taxi vs. bus)
  • Moving services
  • Junk removal services

For example, instead of spending $125 on clothes or gadgets, you’ll be happier if you spend $125 and the house is cleaned for you every two weeks. The more the activity is a chore that you dread doing yourself, the better.

This seems perfectly reasonable. I’m betting most of us have washing machines and dryers. Many also have dishwashers. That’s paying money to save time. I also paid more for a house with a shorter commute. This article about “extreme” commuting (4 hours+ total every weekday) sounded quite horrible. Amazon… enough said.

I must admit, I still have a hard time outsourcing many household tasks. I don’t love doing home repair, but I do like that after something breaks (and I spend a couple of hours on YouTube and trips to Home Depot), I have learned something new. I should think about what tasks I hate doing the most.

Bottom line: You can buy happiness by spending money to have more positive experiences. You can also buy happiness by avoiding negative experiences (i.e. having to spend your time on unpleasant tasks).

Low-Cost Funds Capture Nearly All of the Market’s Gains (and Losses)

Here’s a quick snapshot that illustrates why Vanguard and other low-cost funds are taking assets from active managers. Via this Bloomberg article. The US stock market has been on a great run for nearly 9 years now, and low-cost funds have been giving investors nearly all of those gains.

vgtriple

People always chase past performance. The vast majority of index fund money is in US stock funds, and those have the best recent past performance. But when the US stock market eventually stumbles, those low-cost index funds will also be great at passing along all of those losses.

What will happen then? While it hasn’t been very helpful recently, I still agree with those recommending have diversified exposure into other areas like developed international stocks, emerging markets stocks, and high-quality bonds.

What if the North Pond Hermit Has Pursued Early Retirement Instead?

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Of my summer reads was The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. Many people dream about leading a “quiet life” away from all the hustle and bustle. The “North Pond Hermit”, real name Christopher Knight, lived alone without speaking or interacting with another human being for 27 years. Read a preview in this GQ magazine article.

Since this is not a personal finance or investing book review, I will just let you read the nice synopsis from the Amazon listing:

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life—why did he leave? what did he learn?—as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

People seem to form strong opinions about this story. Some treat him as some sort of inspirational figure. Others only saw a saw a weirdo that stole a bunch of things. A lot of time and energy was spent trying to label him with the appropriate psychological disorder.

My takeaway from the book was that he was a simple guy. He wanted to be alone. That was it. He wasn’t a libertarian or other political leader. He wasn’t religious. He wasn’t an environmental activist. He was never violent and didn’t carry a weapon. He wasn’t trying to impose his views on anyone.

The fatal flaw to his plan was that he couldn’t provide his own food and shelter. He had to steal things from other humans to keep warm and to feed himself. His criminal trial sounded rather boring – He pled guilty for stealing about $2,000 worth of stuff like propane tanks, canned food, and batteries. More importantly, he affected the personal security of the people he stole from. Knight did wrong things, and he knew it. He served roughly a year in jail with specific terms during probation.

I kept thinking to myself – Christopher Knight could have lived alone forever if he had just worked and saved up some money for a few years. He has nearly all the traits required for early retirement – disciplined, resourceful, low expenses, and disregard for social pressure. Knight said that growing up as a kid, his rural Maine family taught him that being tough was better than strong, and clever is better than intelligent.

What if he had read the books Your Money or Your Life or Early Retirement Extreme when he was 20 years old? (I know they weren’t published until 1992 and 2010. But what if they were?) ERE author Jacob Lund Fisker used to catch flack because he voluntarily took cold showers to both save money and follow his personal philosophy of self-discipline and low environmental waste. Christopher Knight took cold baths from a bucket of rainwater for 27 years. No problem.

He had already shown that he was willing to sacrifice nearly anything to stay away from people. He was willing to live in a tent. He pooped in the bushes. He never spoke a single word so as to keep hidden. How much would it really have cost him to live in the woods alone? $5,000 a year? If you use the 25x rule (aka 4% withdrawal rate), that’s $125,000. If he kept his previous job as a home security technician, he probably could have saved that up in 5 years.

This guy is not a role model, but that’s kind of the point – with financial independence you don’t need to worry about what others think. The book doesn’t provide a current update on Christopher Knight. Maybe he did save up enough “F- You money” and is now alone again somewhere, minding his own business.

The Intangible Benefits of Saving Money: Flexibility and Robustness

tardisNeed a break from the charts? Morgan Housel has an insightful article Let Me Convince You To Save Money that includes no historical data, no survey results, no fancy infographics. Read the whole thing, but here’s my favorite excerpt:

But the best reason to save is to gain control over your time. Everyone knows the tangible stuff money buys. The intangible stuff is harder to wrap your head around, but can be far more valuable and able to increase your happiness. Savings gives you options and flexibility, the ability to wait and the opportunity to pounce. It gives you time to think. Every bit of savings is like taking a point in the future that would have been owned by someone else and giving it back to yourself.

In my experience, every incremental bit of savings changes your life in intangible ways. Going from paycheck-to-paycheck to having $1,500 in the bank lets many things become minor speed-bumps instead of derailing your life. It’ll also make you happier according to (sorry!) the research: Does Cash Make You Happier Than Income or Paying Down Debt?

Continuing onward, going from having a basic emergency fund to $10,000 gives you the ability to take career risks without fear of starvation. You feel like you can put your full effort into a new business, or take a different job with less stress. I personally made a life-changing career switch at about $50,000 net worth.

Finally, going from $10,000 to $100,000 is amazing because that’s when you realize that reaching financial independence is a matter of WHEN, not IF. It’s a sign that you’ve put in the dirty work and figured out the hard bits. To put it crudely, “The first $100,000 is a b****.”

In biology, the term robustness refers to the “persistence of a system under perturbations or conditions of uncertainty”. In computer science, robustness is the ability to “cope with errors during execution and cope with erroneous input”.

In today’s world of questionable safety nets, having adequate savings improves the robustness of your family’s lifestyle. First, you can endure an expected car repair. Then you can endure a temporary blip without a job. Finally, you can go without a job whenever you wish (aka retirement). Your savings rate fuels all of that.

Dorco Coupon: 1-Year Supply (28 Razors) for $24 + Free Shipping

dorcodude0My strategy for saving money on shaving is simple. I buy a bunch of razors once every 2 years, and use one razor per month. I try not to pay more than $1 per razor, so my total shaving bill is under $12 a year. To make sure they stay comfortable, I dry thoroughly after each use (some people use alcohol or mineral oil). I also hone occassionally with my forearm or jeans.

Here’s an example deal for under $1 per razor. Dorco USA (which also makes the blades for Dollar Shave Club) is currently offering 50% off their Frugal Dude Pack with promo code AFFDP717 good through 7/21/17. It’s a mix of 3-,4-, and 6-blade systems. The combo includes 2 handles, 16 cartridges, and 12 disposables. They call this a 1-year supply (at 13 days per razor), but this would last me 2 years (at 26 days per razor) as my facial hair is wimpy.

That’s a total of 28 razors for $23.85 with free shipping included, which works out to $0.85 per razor. Here’s a screenshot:

dorcodude

I’ve been quite satisfied with the quality of Dorco razors. If you want to try it out first, you can get Pace 6 For Men (1 handle, 2 cartridges) for $1.99 shipped with promo code AFPACE6718. Good through 7/21/17. That’s still $1 per cartridge. Note that you should pick budget shipping, go to the end where you enter the promo code, THEN update the shipping cost, THEN it will show budget shipping as $0.00. Screenshot.

I know that some folks prefer safety razors, for which you can buy a quality handle for $24 and then buy refills for 12 cents each after that, which also sounds perfectly reasonable if you enjoy that style of shaving.

Who Maxes Out Their 401k, And Where Do They Make Sacrifices?

piggybank_plainThe Principal Financial Group surveyed “younger” retirement plan participants ages 23-51 who contributed at least 90% of the annual 401(k) maximum limit. That means they put away at least $16,200 each (limit was $18,000 for 2016/2017). These “young super savers” made savings a high priority, so they were asked about the areas in which they made sacrifices. Here are some of the top answers:

  • Cars. 47% of “super savers” drive older vehicles in order to help maximize retirement savings.
  • Housing. 45% of “super savers” choose to live in modest homes to boost savings. 18% of millennial supersavers are renting.
  • Vacations. 42% are opting to travel less than they would prefer.
  • Work. 40% say they put up with work-related stress. 27% put in extra hours instead of spending time with friends and family.

In a separate survey, Vanguard found that overall 10% of plan participants contributed the full maximum to their 401ks. (Note that “plan participants” means people offered a Vanguard 401k option that then also chose to participate.) Here’s how these 401k “super savers” broke down by income and age:

401kmax1

If you make a modest income and max out your 401(k), you are definitely doing something differently. Roughly 95% of people who make less than $100k aren’t maxing out their 401(k).

JetBlue Free Mosaic Status Match + Challenge

mosaicJetBlue Airlines has a free status match program where they will upgrade you to JetBlue Mosaic status if you have elite status with another airline loyalty program. Here are the qualifying levels at other airlines:

  • Virgin America: Elevate Silver, Gold
  • Alaska Airlines: Mileage Plan MVP Gold or MVP Gold 75k
  • American Airlines: AAdvantage Platinum, Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum®
  • Delta: SkyMiles Medallion Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond
  • Southwest Airlines: Rapid Rewards® A-List Preferred or Companion Pass
  • United: MileagePlus Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum or Premier1K

If you become/are a TrueBlue member and submit proof of your qualifying status, you will get Mosaic status free through the rest of 2017. You can then enjoy the perks listed below.

In addition, anyone (even without elite status) can take on the Mosaic Challenge. If you earn 3,750 base flight TrueBlue points in 90 days, you will get Mosaic through through December 31, 2018. This basically means you must spend $1,250 on JetBlue-operated flights for yourself within those 90 days. (Points earned via credit cards or other people’s flights don’t count.)

Mosaic benefits include:

  • Waived change and cancellation fees. Waived for Mosaic members and others on their itinerary.
  • Two free checked bags. Mosaic members and companions on the same itinerary can check both the first and second bag for free.
  • Priority security line access.
  • Early boarding access.
  • Bonus points. Earn an additional 3 TrueBlue points per dollar on your JetBlue flight, for at least 9 points per dollar if you book on jetblue.com.
  • Dedicated phone number. Get access to a dedicated Customer Service Line available 24/7.
  • Free drinks. Enjoy complimentary alcoholic beverages onboard.

Also see: JetBlue Credit Card from Barclaycard Review