Book Review: Money for Something – A Free Investing Primer

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There is always a demand for starter books on investing and personal finance, especially as graduation season is coming up again. Although they often cover similar topics, the execution varies widely. For example, I found Tony Robbin’s “7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom” to be dense, unfocused, and it somehow ended up suggesting a complicated insurance product. Blech.

This is why I found it refreshing to read Money for Something – A Handy Field Guide for Turning Small Investments into Financial Freedom by Matt Henderson. This starter book was short, focused, and practical:

  • Short – The book consists of 17 brief chapters. In roughly the time it takes to read 17 of my blog posts, you can finish this book.
  • Focused – The world of investing is wide and deep, which makes it very tempting to explore every nuance. This book keeps the supporting material very tight.
  • Practical – The same holds true for the actual implementation of his plan. For examples, he gives you two options for model portfolios, he tells you where you can buy them, and that’s just enough to get you started.

Henderson has an engineering background and says the book is based on his own experiences. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Hoping not to rely on luck, I began reading books about personal investment. What I discovered was very exciting—that practically anyone can achieve financial freedom.

I put the principles I learned into practice, and over the next 15 years confirmed that they work. It seems profoundly important that the path to financial freedom is so accessible—just by following a set of basic principles with discipline. At the same time, it seems profoundly sad that so many never find it, simply because they are unaware.

In terms of criticisms, it would be the same as with any starter investment book. Readers should take it as a rough roadmap, something motivational that shows a way to get from here (starting out) to there (financial freedom). But actually following the map will take many years, and there will be many distractions and moments that question your faith along the way. In my experience, you will need to keep learning in order to build up the required confidence in your (probably somewhat different) plan. It’s not that the original plan wasn’t good, more that you need something that you truly believe in. Don’t let that scare you off though, because the payoff is worth it!

This may also help… Money for Something is now available for free to read online, $5 in PDF format, and also available for purchase in Kindle format.

Recap. Concise and practical starter investing book. If you need a short roadmap, I recommend reading this book and doing additional research as needed. It’s free to read online, so that’s one less excuse!

Related: Another recommended starter book on personal finance is If You Can by William Bernstein, which is also free in PDF format and about $6 in paperpack. You can use the included recommended reading list for additional research.

Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow: Comedians and Financial Freedom

apatow_book160I’ve never really identified with comedians. I’m not funny, and I always avoid large crowds. But after reading the fascinating notes at The Waiter’s Pad, I had to read the new book Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This is 40, Freaks and Geeks). It is not an autobiography, but instead a collection of intimate conversations with famous comedians including Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Seth Rogen, and Lena Dunham.

Comedians are virtually required to be nonconformist and view the world differently than everyone else. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be funny. Those are also important traits to have for a person who want to be financially independent, at least before the Social Security checks start arriving. I found myself relating to their stories on many different levels. Here are some selected quotes and my takeaways from this book.

Find people who encourage your voice and originality. Find your tribe. Judd Apatow started working at comedy clubs when he was 15 and spent several years as a stand-up comic before becoming a well-known director and producer. He knew he was different, and so he started interviewing his idols for his high school radio station. After high school, he moved to the LA comedy scene and became roommates with people like Adam Sandler. I often see “tribe” defined as “followers” or “hardcore fans”, but I think it is enough to find people with similar interests and passions.

For example, most people will never really consider financial freedom. Most people just want to be like everyone else, except maybe a bit richer. That or hit the lottery. The reality is that you have to be different and embrace it. The good news is the internet allows you to find people who are different just like you, or at least close enough that you can learn an enormous amount.

Hard work with focus. To be successful at anything, you need a combination of hard work, talent, and the ability to maintain the proper focus.

In the book, multiple comedians use Jerry Seinfeld as an example of the rare combination of very talented and very hard-working. Most comedians try to get by with only one or the other. As shown in an early 1983 interview, he also showed his high standards for where to point his energy.

Judd: And what kind of vehicles are you looking for?

Jerry: Quality. That’s my only real consideration. It could be anything, as long as the people are trying to do something good. I don’t want to do a piece of junk. I’m not starving, you know.

This was before the TV show Seinfeld, which started in 1989, so he wasn’t rich or famous yet. Yet he was already using the word quality. In a later interview, he reveals that the reason he ended the show was also quality. He couldn’t keep on going without compromising the quality, so he ended it.

In a 1984 interview, Garry Shandling laid out every single thing he intended to do the rest of his career. Looking back today, Apatow realized that Garry Shandling went on to accomplish everything he said he would. Apatow:

The lesson here, for me, was that you have to have a dream before you can execute it. That the people who succeed are the ones who think through what the next stages of their careers might be, and then work incredibly hard, day after day, to attain their goals. They don’t just flop around like fish. They have a vision, and they work their asses off to make it a reality.

Jay Leno is another example of a comedian known as a hard worker. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult it is to produce good material. Here I will paraphrase Leno from a 1984 interview:

To find the really good jokes, you have to go somewhere awful and if they laugh there, then they will laugh when you use them on Dave Letterman. You just get better the more you do. Throw out what doesn’t work, and keep refining what does work.

Motivation, keeping the spark, and being true to yourself. In a 2014 interview with Jerry Seinfeld, they landed on the topic of motivation.

Judd Apatow: “I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to work from a very young age because I was afraid of being broke.”

Jerry Seinfeld on his motivation: “To never have to do anything else. I learned very young in this business that you bust your ass or you get thrown out of the kingdom. My motivation was not wanting to leave the kingdom. Plus, I just love the life of it. I love my independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes. It’s as simple as that.”

Again, paraphrasing Jay Leno:

It’s a job, but you should have fun doing it. If you can’t get up for it, then get out of the business. It [Comedy] doesn’t get boring for me. I really like it.

From a 2013 interview with Eddie Vedder:

I just try to always remember where that initial spark came from. It’s like a pilot light, and you try to make sure it doesn’t go out.

Even Judd Apatow recently went back and started doing stand-up just for fun. He doesn’t have to. He doesn’t do it for money, he doesn’t do it with a career goal, he just does it because he wants to. He wants to get good at something that he loves, something that he was only okay at before. He calls it “unfinished business”.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 interview with Jimmy Fallon about the early stages of his show:

We just went in knowing that we might get canceled. And if you’re going down, you have to go down going what you like doing and what’s fun for you, because I don’t ever want to do something painful and then have everyone go, “Hey, that works. Keep doing that painful thing for years.”

How many of us went down exactly down that route, or at least could have? “I’m reasonably good at this, even though I don’t like it much, but it pays the bills so I guess I’ll have to do it forever…”

Low overhead. Here’s Sarah Silverman (2014):

I’ve always kept my overhead low so I could do whatever I want. I think of myself as lazy with spurts of getting a lot done. I find myself rooting against things sometimes because I get excited at the thought of a clean slate. I also really like sleeping. My friends make fun of me because, you know, I love hanging out but I always hit a point in the night where I just want to get home and sleep. I have a very active dream life and I have to be there a lot.

This last bit wasn’t in the book, but Jay Leno never spent any of the paychecks he received from hosting The Tonight Show. He only spent the money from his other jobs – stand-up comedy, paid personal appearances, and endorsement deals. His philosophy was Bank one paycheck, Spend one paycheck. From USA Today:

I had two jobs as a kid, one at a fast-food restaurant and one at a Ford dealership. And I’d put the money from one job in one pocket and spend it. And the other paycheck I’d save. I do that now. I have always banked my Tonight Show money and lived off the stand-up. I have one credit card, no mortgage, and I don’t lease.

Invest With The House + Free Investing Books by Meb Faber

investwiththehouseAsset manager and author Meb Faber has a new book out called Invest With The House: Hacking The Top Hedge Funds, where he explores the idea of simply copying the publicly-available holdings of top investment managers. I haven’t read it yet, but for a taste, consider that a copycat portfolio of Warren Buffett using simply the Top 10 holdings of Berkshire Hathaway would have beat 98% of mutual funds since 2000. It is free to borrow for Kindle Unlimited subscribers and $9.99 to buy on Kindle.

(Test your investing nerd skills. How many of the hedge fund manager caricatures can you name on the cover?)

To celebrate and promote this release, Faber is also making his last three books free to buy on Amazon Kindle for a limited time (1/7-1/12/16). Here are direct links to those eBooks, plus links to my book notes.

Now, Faber does a fascinating job going back and finding such market-beating tricks, and I will probably read this new book as well. But before you put your hard-earned money at risk using such strategies, please realize that even if they continue to work (which is in no way guaranteed), they are also very hard to stick to in real life. Don’t change your investing strategy unless you are supremely confident you will keep to it through thick and thin.

Amazon.com: Extra 25% Off Another Print Book

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New code so you can get 25% off again. Good through 12/13 Midnight Pacific. Take an extra 25% off any book at Amazon.com with promo code 25OFFBOOK. Print books only, max $10 off, must by sold and shipped by Amazon.com. Valid until December 14, 2015 at 02:59am EST. This is a different code than the previous 30% off and 25% off coupons, so you can use it again.

Stack with your $15 off $60 at Amazon from American Express, 10% off Amazon from Chase Freedom, and 5% off Amazon from Discover (10% with Double Promotion).

Here are some recommendations for those looking to give or receive some financial inspiration:

Here are all my book reviews in reverse-chronological order.

My favorite book of 2014 was Dinner A Love Story. It has some inspirational material to help you cook for yourself and your family, along with the best compilation of weeknight dinner recipes I’ve read in a cookbook. They taste special enough (not bland or boring), but they also take 30 minutes. I still use it to this day.

My favorite book of 2015… I looked back at my book reviews and didn’t really have a strong favorite. I would say one trend is that I have become a fan of re-reading Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s classic books. His old stuff has a lot of common sense reasoning that doesn’t always fit with today’s “one-size-fits-all” advice.

How To Start Your Very First Business by Warren Buffett’s Secret Millionaires Club (Book Review)

startbiz_180While I don’t expect my kids to be the next Warren Buffett, I do plan on encouraging them to start and run their own tiny businesses someday. I’ve previously shared an online cartoon series called Secret Millionaires Club that teaches financial literacy and is supported by Warren Buffett. As an extension of that effort, there is a new book called How to Start Your Very First Business.

I accepted a free review copy of the book and here are my notes.

I think the best question to start with is – why do you want a kid to start their own business? The primary goal is not to make them rich. It’s about helping them to be successful at life in general. Both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger think this way. Consider the many character traits and interpersonal skills involved:

  • Reliability
  • Honesty
  • Social skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Patience and tolerance
  • Failure and perseverance

The book does a good job of covering the different aspects of starting a business. For example, there are worksheets for figuring out your per-unit profit and your equivalent hourly wage. One area that has light coverage is business licenses, taxes, and legal permits (understandably I suppose). Here is the table of contents, nabbed from its Amazon page.

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Lots of good examples and ideas. There are several case studies of other young entrepreneurs along with additional business ideas in the book. A few examples:

  • Hart Mann started Man Cans, candles that smell like sawdust, bacon, or coffee. (Started at age 13.)
  • Jake and Lachlan Johnson invented and sell customizable bow-ties at Beaux Up. (Started at age 14.)
  • Greyson Maclean sells reusable stickers and cling decals for Lego products at BrickStix.com. (Started at age 9.)

Lots of Warren Buffett quotes and quips. Oldies-but-goodies include:

Protect your reputation. It takes years to build a reputation but only minutes to ruin it.

Decide early in life to make your money by selling things that you really believe are good for the customers.

The book understands that it can’t teach you everything. They really have to go out and do it themselves. There are so many intangibles in real business, this book is just a starting point. Hopefully the book can give them a base, and parents can support their efforts (but also let them fail, and hopefully get back up).

Overall impression. This book would make a great gift for the motivated tween or teenager. I enjoyed the mix of approachable advice, Buffett quotes, and real-world examples of young business-owners. The book says it is intended for ages 9 and up, but you’ll have to decide yourself if the recipient is ready. It won’t be much use if they aren’t ready to take action.

If you’re a parent, you’ll have to look up any legal requirements in your area. The book comes with a free Square reader for accepting credit cards, but the parent will have to sign up for an account first.

Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor Book Review

mungercompleteI’ve just finished reading new book Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor by Tren Griffin. For the unaware, you can read the Wikipedia for Charles T. Munger, otherwise probably best know as the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and partner of Warren Buffett. The book is meant to corral all the various sources of Munger teachings into a “unified theory” of investing. As is my practice, here are my favorite highlights of the book followed by a quick review. I will try to clearly separate what are Munger quotes and Griffin book excerpts.

First, some good sentences on why learning from reading is awesome (Griffin):

The point is not to treat anyone like a hero, but rather to consider whether Munger, like his idol Benjamin Franklin, may have qualities, attributes, systems, or approaches to life that we may want to emulate, even in part. This same process explains why Munger has read hundreds of biographies. Learning from the success and failure of others is the fastest way to get smarter and wiser without a lot of pain.

Munger on efficient markets:

I think it is roughly right that the market is efficient, which makes it very hard to beat merely by being an intelligent investor. But I don’t think it’s totally efficient at all. And the difference between being totally efficient and somewhat efficient leaves an enormous opportunity for people like us to get these unusual records. It’s efficient enough, so it’s hard to have a great investment record. But it’s by no means impossible. Nor is it something that only a very few people can do. The top three or four percent of the investment management world will do fine.

The book also serves as a good introduction to value investing based on Benjamin Graham’s teachings. Griffin emphasizes the fact that it is about patience and waiting around a mispriced asset to appear. It is not about forecasting the future. Griffin:

Successful Graham value investors spend most of their time reading and thinking, waiting for significant folly to inevitably raise its head. Although Graham value investors are bullish about the market in the long term, they do not making investing decisions based on short-term predictions about stocks or markets.

What kind of qualities does any person owning stocks need (even index funds)? Here’s what Munger said when once asked about how much he worried about a big drop in the value of Berkshire:

Zero. This is the third time Warren and I have seen our holdings in Berkshire Hathaway go down, top tick to bottom tick, by 50%. I think it’s in the nature of long term shareholding of the normal vicissitudes, of worldly outcomes, of markets that the long-term holder has his quoted value of his stocks go down by say 50%. In fact you can argue that if you’re not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% two or three times a century you’re not fit to be a common shareholder and you deserve the mediocre result you’re going to get compared to the people who do have the temperament, who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.

Why professional money managers don’t make big alpha (Munger):

For most professional money managers, if you’ve got four children to put through college and you’re earning $400,000 or $1 million or whatever, the last thing in the world you would want to be worried about is having gumption. You care about survival, and the way you survive is just not doing anything that might make you stand out.

Munger has been talking about the link between behavioral psychology and investing before it was popularized by books and mainstream media. There are many sources of misjudgments, but I like that he covers many of the more subtle ones that I put under “help me live a good life” more than “help me make more money”. Take envy and jealousy (Munger):

The idea of caring that someone is making money faster [than you] is one of the deadly sins. Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on the trolley?

On drug and alcohol addiction, this is Griffin writing about Munger:

His timeless advice is to avoid situations with a massive downside and a small upside (negative optionality). Why play dice with something that can ruin your life forever?

Commentary. This book was a solid, short introduction to the world of Charlie Munger from an investing point of view. It has a ton of Munger quotes, but Griffin also does a solid job weaving in quotes from other famous investors like Warren Buffett and Seth Klarman. If you are a fan of Warren Buffett, you will like this book.

Of course, what makes Munger special to me is that he talks about stuff beyond investing, like ethics and morality. For example, I liked that he points out the lifetime benefits of simply “being reliable”. So many workers are just not reliable. Therefore, for a more complete picture, I recommend reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack, which includes transcripts of all his talks, lectures, and public commentary. Reasons for why it is not more popular include the length (really long) and the cost ($50+). After reading and digesting it all, I feel it was fifty bucks well spent. However, if you choose to skip the Almanack, I’d say you’d get $15 of value out of this book.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Book Review)

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After reading many reviews including from Bob Lefsetz and Brad Feld, I had to add Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance to my reading list. I can recommend this book to anyone who likes biographies about interesting and unique people, especially entrepreneurs and technologists. (Also available on public libraries linked up with Overdrive e-Books.)

Musk has grand vision, relentless drive, and a confrontational style. As a result, he is usually either loved or hated. As someone with an engineering background, it is impossible not to be impressed that he is a critical force behind promising companies in solar power (SolarCity), electric cars (Tesla), and space travel (SpaceX). Here is a brief selection of quotes from the book that I wanted to share.

Consider the difficulty of his pursuits:

For most of their histories, SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX have been the clear underdogs in their respective markets and gone to war against deep-pocketed, entrenched competitors. The solar, automotive, and aerospace industries remain larded down by regulation and bureaucracy, which favors incumbents.

He’s not making Snapchat or Tinder. He wants a legacy:

“I really like computer games, but then if I made really great computer games, how much effect would that have on the world,” he said. “It wouldn’t have a big effect.

On Tesla Motors:

Had anyone from Detroit stopped by Tesla Motors at this point, they would have ended up in hysterics. The sum total of the company’s automotive expertise was that a couple of the guys at Tesla really liked cars and another one had created a series of science fair projects based on technology that the automotive industry considered ridiculous. What’s more, the founding team had no intention of turning to Detroit for advice on how to build a car company. No, Tesla would do what every other Silicon Valley start-up had done before it, which was hire a bunch of young, hungry engineers and figure things out as they went along.

The guys like Straubel who had been at Tesla since the beginning are quick to remind people that the chance to build an awesome electric car had been there all along. “It’s not really like there was a rush to this idea, and we got there first,” Straubel said. “It is frequently forgotten in hindsight that people thought this was the shittiest business opportunity on the planet. The venture capitalists were all running for the hills.” What separated Tesla from the competition was the willingness to charge after its vision without compromise, a complete commitment to execute to Musk’s standards.

On SpaceX:

The more he thought about space, the more important its exploration seemed to him. He felt as if the public had lost some of its ambition and hope for the future. The average person might see space exploration as a waste of time and effort and rib him for talking about the subject, but Musk thought about interplanetary travel in a very earnest way. He wanted to inspire the masses and reinvigorate their passion for science, conquest, and the promise of technology.

Who knows if any or all of his companies will ultimately be successful. I still appreciate that he is a force of hope and optimism, not some doom-and-gloomer telling everyone to get ready to live in caves and learn how to shoot each other.

Weight Management vs. Money Management: Taking the Long-Term View

nodietI’m currently reading Smart People Don’t Diet by Charlotte Markey. The book offers a “science-based approach” to weight management backed by academic research from scientists, doctors, nutritionists, and psychologists. Sounded good to me. The main takeaway from the book so far is exactly what the title says: Diets don’t work.

Why? You can’t achieve permanent weight loss with a temporary plan. A diet is almost always a short-term gimmick, like “no carbs” or “eat only this smoothie for lunch” or buying meals from Nutrisystem. Once you go back to your original eating habits, you’ll go back to your original weight. Therefore, any changes you make should be something you can maintain for the rest of your life. Can you really not eat bread ever again? Or eat processed frozen meals forever? For a few people yes, for most people no.

Looking at everything through the long-term “rest of your life” filter encourages you to consider carefully and find changes that are sustainable. Skip the ideas that are unreasonable (for you). These days, there is no way I am waking up early to work out every day. I will probably never be a vegan or even vegetarian. However, I can exercise twice a week in the evenings and reduce my portion sizes.

It feels natural to compare weight management and money management. For weight loss, you are consuming and burning calories. For personal finance, you are earning and spending money.

  • In terms of consuming less calories, this meant consciously choosing food that truly give me joy, and cutting back significantly on the rest. I love cheese, crusty bread, and roasted vegetables. I discovered that I could reduce the following to once a week or less without significant pain: beer, desserts, and red meat. Research supports the idea that for weight loss, eating less is far more important than exercising more.
  • In terms of managing my spending, I tried to identify the things that truly give me joy, and cutting back significantly on the rest. I plan to always spend a big chunk of money on travel every year. On the cutting room floor: I spend very little on clothing and entertainment, I never go to bars or clubs, and I dine out at restaurants less than once a week. Here, your savings rate is most critical, which places high importance on your income levels as well.
  • One-time actions can also be sustainable as you don’t have to use up your willpower over and over, such as moving into a smaller house (lowering housing, maintenance, insurance, and utility costs all at once). In terms of eating, simply never allowing certain tempting foods to enter your home will help you avoid eating them (salty, crunchy things like potato chips are my weakness).

Can I keep all of this up forever? I don’t know, some stuff I’ve already kept up for years, and others have only lasted the last 6 months or so.

  • I suppose you could argue that if you manage to accumulate a big enough pile of money, you could never have to work again. But even that assumes a certain level of long-term discipline, as many people with many millions of dollars still manage to go broke all the time.
  • No matter how much or how long you starve yourself, there is nothing that will allow you to eat junk food all the time without gaining weight again. On other hand, this also means that even if you eat horribly for a day or even over a month, you can still recover. Now I don’t feel too bad about that bag of Cheetos I had for “lunch”. :)

Which reminds me… taking the long-term view also means you need to expect failures, both financially or weight-related. The important thing is to accept that you stumbled, pick yourself up, and keep moving forward. You’ve got the rest of your life to go, right?

Global Asset Allocation Book Review: Comparing 12+ Expert Model Portfolios

gaafaberI am a regular reader of Meb Faber’s online writings, and volunteered to received a free review copy of his new book Global Asset Allocation: A Survey of the World’s Top Asset Allocation Strategies. It is a rather short book and would probably be around 100 pages if printed, but it condensed a lot of information into that small package.

First off, you are shown how any individual asset class contains its own risks, from cash to stocks. The only “free lunch” out there is diversification, meaning that you should hold a portfolio of different, non-correlated asset classes. For the purposes of this book, the major asset classes are broken down into:

  • US Large Cap Stocks
  • US Small Cap Stocks
  • Foreign Developed Markets Stocks
  • Foreign Emerging Markets Stocks
  • US Corporate Bonds
  • US T-Bills
  • US 10-Year Treasury Bonds
  • US 30-Year Treasury Bonds
  • 10-Year Foreign Gov’t Bonds
  • TIPS (US Inflation-linked Treasuries)
  • Commodities (GSCI)
  • Gold (GFD)
  • REITs (NAREIT)

So, what mix of these “ingredients” is best? Faber discusses and compares model asset allocations from various experts and sources. I will only include the name and brief description below, but the book expands on the portfolios a little more. Don’t expect a comprehensive review of each model and its underpinnings, however.

  • Classic 60/40 – the benchmark portfolio, 60% stocks (S&P 500) and 40% bonds (10-year US Treasuries).
  • Global 60/40 – stocks split 50/50 US/foreign, bonds also split 50/50 US/foreign.
  • Ray Dalio All Seasons – proposed by well-known hedge fund manager in Master The Money Game book.
  • Harry Browne Permanent Portfolio – 25% stocks/25% cash/25% Long-term Treasuries/25% Gold.
  • Global Market Portfolio – Based on the estimated market-weighted composition of asset classes worldwide.
  • Rob Arnott Portfolio – Well-known proponent of fundamental indexing and “smart beta”.
  • Marc Faber Portfolio – Author of the “Gloom, Boom, and Doom” newsletter.
  • David Swensen Portfolio – Yale Endowment manager, from his book Unconventional Success.
  • Mohamad El-Erian Portfolio – Former Harvard Endowment manager, from his book When Markets Collide.
  • Warren Buffett Portfolio – As directed to Buffett’s trust for his wife’s benefit upon his passing.
  • Andrew Tobias Portfolio – 1/3rd each of: US Large, Foreign Developed, US 10-Year Treasuries.
  • Talmud Portfolio – “Let every man divide his money into three parts, and invest a third in land, a third in business and a third let him keep by him in reserve.”
  • 7Twelve Portfolio – From the book 7Twelve by Craig Israelsen.
  • William Bernstein Portfolio – From his book The Intelligent Asset Allocator.
  • Larry Swedroe Portfolio – Specifically, his “Eliminate Fat Tails” portfolio.

Faber collected and calculated the average annualized returns, volatility, Sharpe ratio, and Max Drawdown percentage (peak-to-trough drop in value) of all these model asset allocations from 1973-2013. So what were his conclusions? Here some excerpts from the book:

If you exclude the Permanent Portfolio, all of the allocations are within one percentage point.

What if someone was able to predict the best-performing strategy in 1973 and then decided to implement it via the average mutual fund? We also looked at the effect if someone decided to use a financial advisor who then invested client assets in the average mutual fund. Predicting the best asset allocation, but implementing it via the average mutual fund would push returns down to roughly even with the Permanent Portfolio. If you added advisory fees on top of that, it had the effect of transforming the BEST performing asset allocation into lower than the WORST.

Think about that for a second. Fees are far more important than your asset allocation decision! Now what do you spend most of your time thinking about? Probably the asset allocation decision and not fees! This is the main point we are trying to drive home in this book – if you are going to allocate to a buy and hold portfolio you want to be paying as little as possible in total fees and costs.

So after collecting the best strategies from the smartest gurus out there, all with very different allocations, the difference in past performance between the 12+ portfolios was less than 1% a year (besides the permanent portfolio, which had performance roughly another 1% lower but also the smallest max drawdown). Now, there were some differences in Sharpe ratio, volatility, and max drawdown which was addressed a little but wasn’t explored in much detail. There was no “winner” that was crowned, but for the curious the Arnott portfolio had the highest Sharpe ratio by a little bit and the Permanent portfolio had the smallest max drawdown by a little bit.

Instead of trying to predict future performance, it would appear much more reliable to focus on fees and taxes. I would also add that all of these portfolio backtests looked pretty good, but they were all theoretical returns based on strict application of the model asset allocation. If you are going to use a buy-and-hold portfolio and get these sort of returns, you have to keep buying and keep holding through both the good times and bad.

Although I don’t believe it is explicitly mentioned in this book, Faber’s company has a new ETF that just happens to help you do these things. The Cambria Global Asset Allocation ETF (GAA) is an “all-in-one” ETF that includes 29 underlying funds with an approximate allocation of 40% stocks, 40% bonds, and 20% real assets. The total expense ratio is 0.29% which includes the expenses of the underlying funds with no separate management fee. The ETF holdings have a big chunk of various Vanguard index funds, but it also holds about 9% in Cambria ETFs managed by Faber.

Since it is an all-in-one fund, theoretically you can’t fiddle around with the asset allocation. That’s pretty much how automated advisors like Wealthfront and Betterment work as well. If you have more money to invest, you just hand it over and it will be invested for you, including regular rebalancing. The same idea has also been around for a while through the under-rated Vanguard Target Retirement Funds, which are also all-in-one but stick with simplicity rather than trying to capture possible higher returns though value, momentum, and real asset strategies. The Vanguard Target funds are cheaper though, at around 0.18% expense ratio.

Well, my portfolio already very low in costs. So my own takeaway is that I should… do nothing! :)

Alpha Architect also has a review of this book.

My One-Page Financial Plan: Why Is Money Important To Me?

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onepage0I’ve already shared two nuggets from the book The One-Page Financial Plan by Carl Richards – the importance of getting started and the true value of a human advisor. But what about the title itself?

Before even reading the book, I was impatient and tried to make a one-page financial plan but it didn’t sound right. Even after reading it all the way through, I got a bit lost as besides “one-page plans”, it also tried to cover other big topics like budgeting, investing, and insurance. It took a few re-reads before things finally settled down in my mind. Here are the parts that helped the most:

Your one-page plan simply represents the three to four things that are the most important to you: some action items that need to get done along with a reminder of why you’re doing them.

Having done this with hundreds of my clients, I’ve found no more efficient strategy for solving the problem of how to handle our finances than asking “Why is money important to you?” […] If you’re doing this with a spouse, it’s important that each partner answer the question separately.

The reason I ask my clients this question is because it helps us understand their values. Often, the process of asking “Why?”—“Why is money important to me?” or “Why have I been so anxious about money lately?” or “Just why do I work so hard anyway?”—uncovers deep desires and fears that we are often too busy or too scared to think about. While the process can be uncomfortable, recognizing what really matters to you is the first step toward making financial decisions that are in sync with your values.

Recently, the author shared his own plan on his website – What Does a One-Page Plan Look Like?:

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There are many reasons why my plan (at the top of this post) will be different from the author’s and yours. Our current situation is different, our priorities will be different, our goals will be different.

Why is money important to me?

  1. I greatly value security, sometimes so much that it is irrational. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone else for money or favors. We cut back on work hours to spend more time with kids, but we still want to make more than we spend. It’s not time to touch that nest egg yet!
  2. I greatly value spending time with my family, both on a day-to-day basis and for extended vacations in new and strange places. I have to work hard to avoid getting into a rut where the days and weeks all start melding together. Even if it means lugging multiple car seats and strollers everywhere, I still want to stay curious, make some mistakes, have some adventures.
  3. I want to someday shift my activities such that they more directly give back to my community or some other greater good. I don’t like the idea of just writing checks though, so I need to find a more active and satisfying role. If I could make some money while doing this, that would be great, but otherwise I need to put enough aside that my investments will support me.

The overall point of both this exercise and the book is that improving your financial life doesn’t have to be done perfectly. Just by getting started and putting down your best guess down on paper, you’ll already be better than most. If you see something wrong when comparing your values and your actual behavior, then make some changes. Having done them, I recommend both doing this exercise and reading the book. If your library participates with Overdrive.com, it is available to borrow as a Kindle eBook.

The Opposite of Spoiled Book Review: Kids and Money

spoiled160Here’s my one-sentence review of the book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber. If you have kids and feel it is important to teach them about money, then you need to read this book. Why? Simply put, money is still taboo and I don’t know of any other well-organized discussion of the topic. Your school won’t probably won’t teach them. Consider the point of view of teachers addressing why some families make less money while and others make significantly more:

If teachers answer them by talking about government and taxes and policy, the responses can start to sound political (and boring). If they respond by addressing individual behavior and ambition, the answers start to seem like moral judgments.

Other parents feel sensitive about it themselves. This is what Lieber himself was told when he was asked to talk about money at a private school:

[…] could I please keep in mind that some of the families with more money than average were starting to feel demonized and those with less were feeling like their noses were being rubbed in everyone else’s affluence?

I know there are textbooks and stuff related to “financial literacy education” out there, but studies have shown that financial literacy classes don’t work.

The book is basically an attempt to compile the best practices for parents in the areas of allowances, chore-setting, cell phones, clothing, cars, part-time jobs, and paying for college, along with teaching the skills of saving, investing, and charitable giving. I may not necessarily agree with every idea in the book, but at least it allows provides good exploration of these topics and may uncover small things you might not have considered.

As you may have guessed from the book cover image, one recommendation for giving allowances is to split it up into three jars: savings, giving, and spending. As I wrote about in my teaching money skills without money post, these three jars each have a special purpose:

  • forced saving jar = patience, delayed gratification
  • forced giving jar = generosity and empathy, responsibility to help community and others
  • forced spending jar = trade-offs and thrift

Throughout the book, I definitely felt that the content was aimed at relatively wealthy parents and thus their relatively wealthy kids. Lieber recognizes this:

We may not be in the same category of wealth, but many of us have enough to give our kids everything they need and much of what they want. And even if we have less than many people we know in our communities, we have more than most in our country and our world. We know this, but our kids probably don’t quite yet. So how do we make them aware of just how good they have it, without preaching to them or making them pity others who have less? And how do we remove them from their life of relative ease every so often and expose them to people and places that are not like the ones in their everyday lives?

I guess kids just don’t do much these days besides try to get into college and travel on sports teams:

The Stanford expert on adolescence, William Damon, writes matter-of-factly of the many children “who have privileges that were once reserved for royalty.” […] So start the job in the home, where we can help our kids act on […] a drive for competence. “They avidly seek real responsibility and are gratified when adults give it to them,” he wrote in Greater Expectations, his book about how far our expectations for our children have sunk in recent decades. Indeed, in many urban and suburban families, the chores that we assign them don’t add up to much.

Getting our own children to do more, and earlier, in the way of preparing, cooking, and cleaning up after meals isn’t easy. It takes practice and persistence, in the same way we may need to hover over them during the first months of music lessons as they whine and complain when things don’t come out quite right. Still, failure should not be an option. Every child is capable of contributing to meals in a significant way, and we shouldn’t need to pay them to set the table, boil the pasta, or clean it up. It’s not as if we lack leverage: We control dessert, first and foremost. But playdates, screen time, and car privileges are all tools we can use if our kids need more than a gentle nudge to finish their regular work around the house and in the kitchen.

I’m making the case for a broad-based “Lands’ End Line.” If we adopt it, that means we’d pay whatever Lands’ End (my definition of a suitably mid-priced merchant that sells quality clothing) would charge for any clothing needs, even if an item comes from some other designer or shop. Anything with a price to the right of the Lands’ End Line would be a want. And if our daughter craved that item, she could pay, out of her Spend or Save containers, the difference between its price and the price of a similar item at Lands’ End.

Yikes, I think Land’s End stuff is pretty darn nice. That would mean my allowance-receiving kid is going to use her extra money to buy North Face or Patagonia stuff. We’ve been trying to buy most of our clothes second-hand up until now… I wonder how long that will last.

In any case, I liked the book and will refer back to it for various ways to financially educate my kids. Teaching them good core value and character traits are more important than 401k matches, Roth IRA contribution limits, or finding the lowest mortgage rate. I really hope they can learn that money isn’t everything:

If you want to feel rich, just count all the gifts you have that money can’t buy.

But money and stuff aren’t the only ways to define rich. Ask kids if they have any other ideas for what the word means to them, or try some prompts if they’re not sure. Perfect health? Living grandparents? Tons of cousins? Friends within walking distance? An amazing park nearby? Teachers and administrators who care deeply about helping the kids in their school? A god that they believe in?

Finally, my favorite quote from the book:

There’s no shame in having more or having less, as long as you’re grateful for what you have, share it generously with others, and spend it wisely on the things that make you happiest. It’s true for our kids, but it’s true for us, too.

Disclosures: I borrowed this book for free from the library in Kindle format. I will probably buy a physical copy to keep in the future. If you buy a copy through my Amazon link, I will earn a small commission.

How To Cook Everything Fast, Reviewed By a Slow Cook

cookfastAs part of my ongoing effort to Cook It Yourself in 2015, I’ve been trying out new cookbooks. (So far I’ve managed to lose over 20 pounds by cooking at home and eating less of what I cook at home. 😉 ) I bought How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food because Mark Bittman has been a long-time advocate of cooking at home and it received positive reviews including a 4.4/5 average rating on Amazon.

This cookbook is the size of a large phone book (for those of you young enough to remember phone books). At over 1,000 pages and 2,000 recipes (including suggested variations) crammed inside, you probably won’t be bringing this to the grocery store with you. It cost me $21 shipped from Amazon, so if you measured cookbook value by recipes per dollar or pounds per dollar, you’d be a happy frugal camper. But don’t expect nice pictures, as color pages are expensive.

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There are some good techniques to streamline your home cooking. Here are some general observations on how this cookbook tries to differentiate itself from the many other cookbooks out there.

  • Clearly indicate whether it will take 45, 30, or 15 minutes to make.
  • Every recipe is laid out so you can see the entire thing with the book open on a stand (see image below)
  • Streamline recipes down to critical ingredients, or substituting easier ingredients when possible.
  • Do things in the right order, like preheating oven, preheating pans, or boiling water first.
  • Use techniques like grating or slicing things so they cook faster, using the food processor, or mincing multiple ingredients all at once.
  • Assign specific prep work to be done during natural downtimes in cooking.

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For the most part, these techniques work and you start looking for ways to apply them to your other recipes. But sometimes doing the prepwork while something cooks doesn’t work out if you are slow with your knife skills. It took me closer to 10 minutes to do the slicing and mincing that I was given 5 minutes to do, and meanwhile the meat got overcooked. You can turn down the heat, but that doesn’t always work and you might not realize in time either. Many times I found myself wishing for a slower pace and less stress rather than save 5 or 10 minutes.

Sample recipes. Here are some YouTube videos which include recipes from this book. These are definitely some of the better recipes and makes the food come alive much more than the blue and black text in the cookbook.

Overall impressions. In the end, this book certainly delivers as a large reference book on “how to cook everything fast”. It covers everything. It is fast. Now, in many of his videos, Bittman somehow manages to come off as both slightly goofy and a bit condescending. (You may notice this in his videos above.) In the book, everything is much more subdued. There just wasn’t much personality in reading the recipes – I’d even prefer arrogance over blandness.

For me, having a bajillion recipes on hand was not a benefit. If I wanted access to 10,000 recipes, I could just run a search on AllRecipes. I now realize that what I want are the best recipes, dishes with a little flare that a home cook (not restaurant chef!) has made hundreds of times and ideally passed down through at least two generations. With any book with 1,000+ recipes, I would expect some great, some okay, and some disappointing. That’s exactly what I found with this book.

The best part of the book was learning a few techniques to optimize other recipes. If you are more of a visual learner like me, I would start by watching his YouTube videos as they are usually “The Best Of” his recipes before diving into the book.

Disclosures: I bought this book with my own money at Amazon.com for $21. If you buy this book using my Amazon link above, I will receive a small commission.