LearnVest 50/30/20 Budgeting Pie Chart

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LearnVest is (yet another) online financial advisor, but they are more focused on money management and life planning than nitpicking asset allocation details. Founder Alexis Von Tobel’s book Financially Fearless is on my (long) reading list, and here is one reason why – Per this Businessweek article, their budgeting advice is based on splitting up your take-home pay into three major categories with their 50/20/30 plan:

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  • 50% towards Essentials, which includes housing, transportation, utilities and groceries.
  • 20% towards Savings, which can be retirement accounts, emergency funds, or debt payments.
  • 30% towards Lifestyle Choices, which are whatever things you value and make you happy. Eating out, shopping, childcare, cell phone plans, entertainment, and so on.

This is an interesting way to make people streamline their budgets. I don’t recall any other personal finance book breaking things down like this. 20% is a pretty good starting point for savings, and I like that there is explicit room for the fun stuff. (Though the fact that “childcare” is under Lifestyle Choices may be somewhat controversial. If you pay for daycare, it is not uncommon for that to be a huge chunk of your expenses.)

LearnVest has several free features and mobile app, including a Mint.com-like app that tracks your spending and matches it up with their 50/20/30 pie chart. However, they will try to upsell you a more personalized advice packages with Certified Financial Planners. Their target demographic is young professional women, but I didn’t really notice when using it briefly so far. Anyone else use them for longer?

Statistical Proof of Lifestyle Inflation!

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The idea that as people earn more, they tend to spend more as well has been termed lifestyle inflation. Derek Thompson in this Atlantic article illustrates this concept using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A family led by a high-school graduate has average annual spending of $35,000. A family led by a Bachelor’s degree holder earns and spends nearly double that at $63,000. Yet both groups spend about 50% of their income on housing and transportation, much like the average household:

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Families with radically different incomes—from lawyers and doctors down to high-school dropouts—all spend about half of it on homes and getting around, which suggests an historically tight relationship between marginal income growth and marginal spending growth on real estate and transportation. You get a raise, you shack up with roommates. You get another raise, you get nicer studio. A bigger raise and you move out to the suburbs and buy a house—commensurably increasing your spending on transportation (bigger car + gas).

We earn more, and we use that extra money to buy bigger houses, nicer cars, and more gas. This blog talks a lot about financial independence, and for most people early retirement is all about your savings rate. Most people spend over 95% of what they earn (source). Early retirement involves spending closer to 60%.

However, we tend to hang out people of similar income and thus we are pulled into “keeping up with the Joneses”. Even if you earn a comfortable income that is well above average, lifestyle inflation can kill any dreams of early retirement. Focusing on managing the big targets, housing and transportation costs, can help.

See also: Your Entire Financial Life in One Deceptively Simple Chart

AT&T Mobile Share Value Plan Discounts

AT&T Wireless has changed the pricing on their Mobile Share Value Plans, with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 2 GB of shared data across all lines now costing $40 + $25 per line if you are off-contract. That’s means two lines with 2 GB of shared data would cost just $90 total (off-contract old phone or bring your own used phone), competing more closely with T-Mobile and Straight Talk. If you do sign a contract, the cost is $40 + $40 per line ($120 total for 2 lines) because you need to pay back the value of your subsidized new phone.

In addition, AT&T will let any customers who signed a contract on March 8th, 2014 or earlier get this pricing even if you are still in contract, provided you switch to a qualifying Mobile Share Value plan. This means that a 2-line plan formerly running $135 can now just be $90. The 2GB, 4GB, and 6GB data tiers all offer a promotional rate. If you upgrade to a new phone on contract in the future, the rate will go back to $40 per phone.

Bring on the price wars. Good news for the consumer! As always, see if you can stack an employee or student discount as well.

More: AT&T website, Verge, Engadget

15-Minute Resolution: Save More For Retirement Today

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The problem with most New Year’s resolutions is that they just take a moment to make but to actually accomplish it you’ll need to re-make that decision hundreds of times. If you’re trying to be healthier, every single day you’ll have to choose the grilled chicken with steamed vegetables instead of the bacon cheeseburger with fries. Walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Willpower is like a muscle, and it gets fatigued after a while.

The good news is that if you want to save more, automation technology allows you to make a decision now and never be asked about it again. If you can, consider simply increasing your 401(k) contribution rate by 1% (or more). Just log into your account today and make the change. Today being the operative word! Let’s see how much 1% is for a household with a single earner making $50,000 gross per year. For simplicity, let’s say they live in a state without income tax. If you are paid bi-weekly, putting away $500 pre-tax annually (1%) into a Traditional 401k amounts to an additional $19 per paycheck.

Alternatively, it is quite easy to set up recurring online transfers from your checking account to either a savings account or IRA account ($100 a month, $50 a week, etc). Once set up, it will happen automatically and you won’t have to think about it. I like the idea of opening a online savings account, as it gives you a separate “savings jar” that psychologically you’ll be less likely to raid.

If you do it this week, you’ll already be done with your 2014 resolution!

Chart: What Percentage of Your Budget Goes Towards Food? Should You Spend More?

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Here’s another interesting chart from a Businessweek article about a food-delivery start-up called Blue Apron. It shows how food costs have decreased dramatically as a percentage of total U.S. consumer spending from 1959-2013.

I’ve seen similar stats before, usually to support the argument that food really isn’t that expensive and people can pay for higher-quality, healthier, more wholesome food. (Often by the people selling it.) Does allocating less than 10% of your budget to food mean that you are choosing to eating crap? Looking at this chart in isolation, I can see how you get there, but it isn’t that simple if you look at the bigger picture.

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Ooma Telo Phone Service Discounts + Long Term Review

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Updated, now only $99 with free shipping via referral below. The Ooma Telo is a VoIP system that creates a home phone service through your broadband internet. Just plug in your regular landline phones and go. Features include unlimited domestic long distance, 911 service, caller ID, voicemail, and call waiting. In addition to the one-time purchase price, new customers must pay a share of government taxes and regulatory fees that works out to around $5 a month. Consumer Reports rated it their #1 home phone service in their June 2012 issue. Here is the Consumer Reports “Claim Check” video:

My Long-Term Review

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Cheapest iPhone Plan with Unlimited Data? Virgin Mobile $30 a Month

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Price drop! You can now buy an 8GB iPhone 4 for only $199.99 from Virgin Mobile. Even after learning about the new iPhone 5S, in my opinion the iPhone 4 is still not that outdated and still works fine with nearly every app out there.

Their Beyond Talk plans at just $30 a month will get you 300 voice minutes, unlimited text messages, and unlimited data (throttled after 2.5 GB each month). To get the $5 discount, you must sign up for automatic monthly payment with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. No contract.

Virgin Mobile is a Sprint MVNO which means your coverage is coming from Sprint towers. Compared to a regular Sprint plan, paying $200 + $30 a month can save you more than $500 dollars over a 2-year contract when compared with paying even $0 for the phone and $60+ a month for service.

For $50 a month, you can get unlimited minutes. Here are all the plans:

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State Farm Insurance Payment Plan (SFPP) Review

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Ever since we started cutting back our work hours in order to share childcare duties, Mrs. MMB and I have kept a closer eye on our monthly spending patterns. One of the headaches for budgeters is dealing with large lump-sum payments like those for home/car repairs, healthcare bills (human repairs), and home/car/life insurance. Our homeowner’s insurance is due annually (we don’t use mortgage escrow anymore), life insurance is due annually, and auto insurance is due semi-annually.

We use State Farm for all of these insurances due to our positive claim experiences in the past and their multi-line discount. When I asked about payment options, they told me about the State Farm Payment Plan (SFPP). I’m sure that most other major insurers have a similar program.

Pros

  • Steady monthly bill. With this plan, all your insurance bills get averaged into equal monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual payments. We chose monthly as that is how we visualize our spending.
  • Float. Let’s say your total bill is usually $1,200 once a year. If your policy is renewing today, then instead of paying $1,200 upfront now, with SFPP you pay $100 per month spaced out over the next 12 months. So you’re gaining some additional float time on your money. If you’re already paid up then you have to wait until renewal to start an SFPP.
  • Pay with credit card. You can use a credit to pay most bills already, but some auto-pay plans require a linked checking account. SFPP allows you to pay with a recurring charge on any Visa/Mastercard (no American Express). This is good news for those earning credit card rewards.
  • Chose payment due date. I don’t use this, but if you find it convenient you can select your specific payment due date each month (any day except 29th, 30th, or 31st).

Cons

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Mint.com Budgeting Tips & Tricks

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While I don’t believe everyone necessarily needs a tracked-down-to-the-dollar budget, I do think a major problem is that many people simply don’t know where their money goes. That makes it quite hard to know if your spending habits match up with your priorities. I’ve been using Mint.com (free, ad-supported) to track our household spending for a while. (I used to be a Yodlee guy, but they’ve been left behind with slow and clunky updates.) For those starting out, here are some practical tips that may be useful.

Using Credit and Debit Cards
The primary advantage of using a service like Mint.com is that if you pay for things with a linked credit or debit card, then important stuff like the date, merchant, and amount are immediately recorded so you don’t have to do it manually. No receipts, no typing, no writing. That’s a lot of time and mental energy saved.

Auto-categorization Training
After Mint imports your transaction information, it will provide its best guess as to the proper spending category. McDonald’s will be “Fast Food”, for example, but it also thought my water company was a clothing store. You can correct the category, and also create a rule that always changes the category to what you prefer. For example, I always set Sam’s Club and Costco as “Groceries” because that’s mostly what I buy there.

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Household Cashflow Diagram with Automated Savings & Bill Payments

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As part of our transition to parenthood (less time) and part-time work (less income), Mrs. MMB and I have been trying to get more organized with our finances. I’ve eased up on my control-freak ways and we’ve shifted as many bills as we can to auto-pay status. I still try to pay everything I can with credit cards in order to make things easy to track and of course, maximize credit card rewards. Here’s a rough diagram of our current situation:

Household Cashflow Diagram with Automated Payments

We’re still trying to stick with our existing simple budgeting system and only putting money into our checking account that we are willing to spend. That way we basically force ourselves to meet a minimum savings rate for the year by “paying ourself first” with a good chunk of our paychecks into savings-type accounts (401k’s, separate bank accounts, brokerage accounts, etc). If the checking balance still grows past a certain point (hasn’t been happening much lately!), then we skim off some and transfer it over to savings.

I would note that I don’t put the credit cards themselves on auto-pay, as I still want to spend the time and look over those statements each month. I know some folks do this as well to reach nearly full-automation.

Another backup use for this chart is for reference in case something happens to me, as I usually keep track of all the bills. This fits into our 2013 resolution to get our crap together.

Which Fuel-Efficient Cars Are Worth The Extra Money?

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Recently, the NY Times had an article about how many models of fuel-efficient cars may take years to justify the extra cost. Here’s a graphic from the article with data from TrueCar:

(I note that the NY Times compares the Prius with the Camry. I still think the Corolla is closer in size. You can see from this side-by-side comparison that in terms of length, width, interior passenger volume, shoulder room, and leg room, the Prius is closer to the Corolla than Camry. Also, does the Lincoln MKZ hybrid really only cost $1,400 more than the regular model and is 15+ mpg better??)

Consumer Reports also had a similar article which discussed how the ultra-efficient “40 mpg” models which were upgrades to the normal versions. The Ford Focus SFE, Honda Civic HF, and Chevrolet Cruze Eco all cost between $495 and $800 more, but the breakeven time when using real-life mpg varied widely between 3 and 38 years.
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Manilla.com Review: The End of Paper Bills?

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Most people still elect to receive paper bills, even though almost every vendor is pushing paperless. Why? Personally, my e-mail inbox is so much more cluttered with crap compared to my post office mailbox. It’s very easy for me to forget about a short e-mail saying “you have a bill waiting” with 86 other unread e-mails shouting at me. But then again, I do end up paying the bills online, so perhaps there is a better way? This is where Manilla.com comes in.

Making Paperless Billing Better

All your bills are organized in one central place. You give Manilla your login information*, and they handle the rest. If you need to look up an old bill, you don’t need to open the filing cabinet or reset your password (again) to that archaic water department website designed in 1995. You can just view or print out the .PDF from Manilla. They promise to store your bills for free, forever. I do wish there was a way to download all your stored bills at once, perhaps in a .zip file.

You may find that Manilla may not list some of your local vendors, although you can suggest future account providers for them to add. I couldn’t find my local water utility. You can also add magazine subscriptions, frequent flier mileage programs, and hotel rewards programs.

Easy-to-manage bill reminders. You can request e-mail or text message reminders to 7 days, 3 days, and/or 1 day before the due date. I need these repeated reminders, and it’s nice that they turn off automatically after they see that the bill has been paid.
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