University of Berkshire Hathaway: Notes From Annual Shareholders Meeting (Book Review)

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If you are a Buffett & Munger follower, you should be intrigued by University of Berkshire Hathaway: 30 Years of Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger at the Annual Shareholders Meeting by Daniel Pecaut and Corey Wrenn. Anyone can buy all the old BRK shareholder letters, but there are very few transcripts from the live shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska (1986–2015). There is definitely overlap, but these live interactions sometimes provide a peek into their less-publicized opinions (especially Munger’s). Here’s how the authors describe the book:

This book isn’t for the first-time investor. It’s for the informed investor who sees the value of being able to get deep into the mindsets of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. If you want to walk around in their shoes for the past three decades, absorb what works, and then apply it to your own investments, then this book is for you.

The current price is only $0.99 in Kindle format. At that price, it should be an easy decision on whether to own the entire book forever, but here are my personal notes and highlights to give you an idea of the contents:

How Berkshire Hathaway differs from other actively-managed stock mutual funds:

The public has long viewed Berkshire as a sort of mutual fund with large stock holdings. This view underestimates or ignores 1) Berkshire’s insurance companies’ impressive generation of low-cost float, 2) Berkshire’s impressive and growing stable of cash-generating operating businesses, and 3) Berkshire’s ability to orchestrate value-enhancing deals.

Classic quote on stock market prices:

Buffett noted that many investors illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and are downcast when they fall. This makes no more sense than if you bought some hamburger one day, returned the next day to buy more but at a higher price, and then felt euphoric because you had bought some cheaper the day before. If you are going to be a lifelong buyer of food, you welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. So should it be with investments.

Luck and the Ovarian lottery:

Buffett launched into an intriguing thought problem he called “the ovarian lottery.” You are to be born in 24 hours. You are also to write all the rules that will govern the society in which you will live. However, you do not know if you will be born bright or retarded, black or white, male or female, rich or poor, able or disabled. How would you write the rules? Buffett said how one comes out in this lottery is far more important than anything else to one’s future. He and Munger were huge winners having been born American (“in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be worth a damn”), male (at a time when many women could only be nurses and teachers), white (when opportunities for minorities were slim) and good at valuing businesses (in a system that pays for that like crazy). Buffett noted it is important to take care of the non-winners of the ovarian lottery. Therefore, some sort of taxation is in order. Given that few people with money and talent are turned away from free enterprise under the current system, the 28% capital gains tax is probably okay.

Investing in yourself:

Buffett asserted that the very best investment you can make is in yourself. Buffett shared that, when he talks to students, one of the things he tells them is what a valuable asset they have in themselves. Buffett would pay any bright student probably $50,000 for 10% of their future earnings for the rest of his life. So each student is a $500,000 asset just standing there. What you do with that $500,000 asset should be developing your mind and talent.

State-sponsored legal gambling:

Buffett asserted that to a large extent, gambling is a tax on ignorance. You put it in, and it ends up taxing many that are least able to pay while relieving taxes on those who don’t gamble. He finds it socially revolting when a government preys on its citizens rather than serving them. A government shouldn’t make it easy for people to take their Social Security checks and waste them by pulling a handle. In addition, other negative social things can flow from gambling over time.

Read, read, read:

Buffett agreed that he is big on reading everything in sight and recommended good investors should read everything they can. In his case, he said that by the age of 10, he’d read every book in the Omaha public library on investing, some twice! Fill your mind with competing ideas, and see what makes sense to you.

Investing with real money:

Then you have to jump in the water—take a small amount of money, and do it yourself. He joked that investing on paper is like reading a romance novel versus doing something else. Munger shared that Berkshire Director Sandy Gottesman, who runs a large, successful investment firm (First Manhattan), asks interviewees, “What do you own, and why do you own it?” If you’re not interested enough to own something, then he’d tell you to find something else to do.

Book recommendations, including The Richest Man in Babylon:

We have often recommended to our friends and clients George Clason’s classic, The Richest Man in Babylon, so we were delighted to hear Charlie speak of it. He said that he read the book when he was young and that the book taught him to under-spend his income and invest the difference. Lo and behold, he did this, and it worked.

Munger also suggested that it is very important to learn how to avoid being manipulated by lenders and vendors. He strongly recommended Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, for the task. He also recommended Cialdini’s newest book, Yes, noting that Cialdini is the rare social psychologist who can connect the world of theory and daily life.

Note: This a dated quote, and Robert Cialdini’s newest book is actually Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, published in 2016.

Work for yourself an hour each day:

He got the idea to add a mental compound interest as well. So he decided he would sell himself the best hour of the day to improving his own mind, and the world could buy the rest of his time. He said it may sound selfish, but it worked. He also noted that if you become very reliable and stay that way, it will be very hard to fail in doing anything you want.

Simple career advice:

“Do what you enjoy the most. Work for people you admire. You can’t miss if you do that.”

Investing in stocks (equity) vs. bonds (debt):

Buffett noted that the analytical hurdle for buying a bond requires answering the question, “Will the company go out of business?” while buying an equity requires answering the more difficult question, “Will the company prosper?” This is why Berkshire bought the 15% notes of Harley Davidson rather than the stock. He had no question the company would stay in business, quipping, “You have to like a business where the customers tattoo your name on their chests!” But gauging Harley’s long-term prosperity was much more difficult, especially during the throes of the crisis.

Also see my earlier posts on appreciating your absolute standard of living and why you should maintain some optimism.

Bottom line. If you’re a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, this is a nice addition to your collection. Lots of familiar wisdom but also includes some additional perspective. If you’re not a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, I might start elsewhere, for example with Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules if you’re not ready for the original shareholder letters. Here’s to hoping the authors will do a similar book on the Wesco Financial meetings with Charlie Munger.

College Majors: Job Availability vs. Average Salary

gradcapThe American Enterprise Institute used newly-released New York Fed data in their article Major matters in the job market for college graduates. (They probably could have tried harder in their title choice.)

More specifically, they found that high employability doesn’t always match up with higher earnings. In the following chart, the plotted the percentage of recent college graduates with jobs requiring a college degree against the median wage of those recent graduates.

wage_employ

Here are some sample majors for each of the four quadrants:

  • High rate of “full” employment, higher earnings. Chemical Engineering, Nursing, Economics, Accounting, and most majors in the STEM fields.
  • High rate of “full” employment, lower earnings. Education-related majors.
  • Low rate of “full” employment, higher earnings. Political Science, Marketing, and International Affairs.
  • Low rate of “full” employment, low earnings. Theology, Criminal Justice, Performing Arts, English Literature, History, and Philosophy.

Solely following your passions sounds nice, but consider these survey results stating that English majors have the highest rate of regret. I plan on showing my kids this handy Venn diagram along with asking them the Three Questions That Will Guide You Towards The Right Job:

caddell620

Bottom line. The AEI article concludes with “Your college major matters. But it matters in more ways than one.” The data suggests the following warnings:

  • Just because there are lots of jobs in your chosen field, that doesn’t mean your job will pay well.
  • Just because your major has high average income, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find a job in that field.

Does Cash Make You Happier Than Income or Paying Down Debt?

happyfaceThe growing appreciation of behavioral psychology in investing is basically us admitting that we aren’t perfectly rational. When you make people automatically opt-in to 401(k) plans and make their contributions increase automatically, they save more. We value stocks more simply because we own them (“endowment effect”). We hate losing money more than we enjoy winning (“loss aversion”).

A recent research paper tells us (in my own words) that having liquid cash has a stronger correlation effect to happiness than having a bigger retirement portfolio, a higher income, or paying down your debt. This is coming from the NYT article Yes, Numbers Matter in Money Decisions, but So Do Emotions linking to the Kitces post Buying Happiness And Life Satisfaction With Greater Cash-On-Hand Reserves linking to academic paper How Your Bank Balance Buys Happiness: The Importance of “Cash on Hand” to Life Satisfaction. Here’s the abstract:

Our results suggest that having a buffer of money available in checking and savings accounts confers a sense of financial security, which in turn is associated with greater life satisfaction. The strength of this association was comparable to the effect of investments—which may themselves be liquid assets (e.g., money market accounts)—and slightly greater than the effect of debt status. By contrast, higher income and spending—the amounts going into or out of a person’s bank account—were not associated with increased financial well-being after liquid wealth was included in the model. This finding suggests that people with low liquid account balances may feel more economically distressed—and thus less satisfied with their lives—than their peers with higher balances, even if their incomes and spending, considered separately from their account balances, would predict high financial security.

Michael Kitces took the numbers from the paper and created this useful graphic:

cashlife

I dug up some more specific numbers from the paper:

To put our results into context, we found that going from having £1 to having £1,000 (a 3-log increase) in one’s bank accounts each month—not rags-to-riches, but merely rags-to-sufficiency—is associated with an average gain of 2 points (10% of a 20-point scale) in life satisfaction by virtue of feeling more secure about one’s finances. However, because liquid wealth was log transformed, further increasing liquid assets from £1,000 to £10,000 (a 1-log increase) was associated with an expected increase of just 0.7 further points on the same scale.

There are diminishing returns with accumulating cash reserves past a certain size. Going from $1 to ~$1,500 in your bank account improves your life satisfaction more than twice as much as going from ~$1,500 to ~$15,000.

This is similar to the findings that happiness increases with higher income until $60,000 to $75,000 per year. Above that level, happiness still increases but at a much lower rate.

On a certain level, this is common sense. Having a hunk of cash available for emergencies should make you feel more secure. However, in purely mathematical terms you should feel the same if you put $1,500 into your retirement account or if you paid down $1,500 of debt. Money is fungible. But your mind doesn’t necessarily agree, and perhaps it is better to work within that bias rather than fight it.

Bottom line. It may not be rational, but putting money towards a modest cash cushion can make you happier than putting every last penny towards paying down debt or your 401(k) retirement account. After a certain point this “cash is king” effect diminishes. (I might carve out an exception for 401(k) matches that effectively double your money at no risk.)

A Semi-Retirement Update, Father’s Day 2017

okaydadI’ve been told that my blog isn’t personal enough. Father’s Day seemed like an appropriate time to share how our efforts towards financial freedom have altered our day-to-day lives.

Guiding principle. When I first started chasing the idea of “early retirement”, it was mostly about escaping the chains of a 9-5 corporate job for the next 40 years. These days, I am driven primarily to avoid the most common deathbed regret:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This is beautifully phrased, as it will mean something different to everyone. You have to push away the expectations and noise coming from society, your co-workers, even your friends and family. Some people call it mindfulness or meditation, I just call it that quiet voice inside you. Another good take on this from Anthony Bourdain:

It’s a quality-of-life issue with me. Am I having fun? Am I surrounded by people I like? Are we proud of what we’re doing? Do we have anything to regret when we look in the mirror tomorrow? Those things are huge to me.

Choosing semi-retirement over daycare. Up until 2012, my wife and I were dual, full-time earners with a healthy savings rate used to steadily accumulate assets. We spent our free time eating at new restaurants, traveling, hiking, skiing, and playing with our two dogs.

When our first child arrived, we weren’t quite ready to live off our investments but we still wanted to spend a lot of time raising our kids. We decided that we would both work roughly 20 hours a week (“half-time”) and share the stay-at-home parenting duties between us. Technically, we both semi-retired at age 33. At the same time, it was nothing to brag about because many families have a single income parent and a stay-at-home parent. We just happen to split it up. Today, we continue as 50/50 parents and somehow accumulated three kids: a 6-month old, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old.

For a many couples, it is simply financially efficient to keep working full-time and pay for daycare. For others, both individuals want to maintain their career trajectory. Both are a valid options and we don’t pass judgment. For us, giving up essentially one full income was also a big decision. We were concerned that we would be giving up current income now and likely stall our future career growth.

Ever since growing up as kid with a dad working long hours, I made a promise to be different when I had children of my own. I never want to utter the words “I wish I spent more time with my kids”. As a direct result of our aggressive savings rate in our 20s and early 30s, we felt comfortable taking an unconventional path. We are thankful every day that we don’t have to drop off our baby at 7am, work all day, come home, and only see them for an hour before bedtime.

Snapshot of our daily lives. We are not the most frugal family, but again we try to live aligned to our values. Our home is not overly big – two girls already share a bedroom and eventually all three will share one bathroom. We cook dinner at home more often than not. We rarely eat out. Our frequent flyer points are mostly idle nowadays, but we did take our 1-year-old and 3-year-old to visit the UK and France last summer. One of the highlights was feeding free-ranging reindeer in Scotland.

reindeer

Is semi-retirement all sunshine and rainbows? Yes, we’ve never had to deal with daycare or hire a nanny. Either my wife or I have been there for every single bathtime and bedtime. One of us has been present for all the first laughs, first words, first crawls, and first steps. But we also feel physically exhausted at the end of every day. I’m definitely more worn out now than our time as DINKs (dual income, no kids).

You really start to appreciate working with adults again after wrestling with three little tyrants children under the age of 5. Yesterday, my oldest child decided to stick her finger down the youngest’s throat. Guess who got to clean up projectile vomit off a shockingly-high blast radius? I’m pretty sure the comic Fowl Language installed a hidden camera inside my house (check out the book as well):

used

There is a huge difference between doing something difficult and aligned with your personal values, and doing something difficult and not aligned with your personal values. Sure, we could spend our free time doing a million other easier things. But perhaps happiness is being able to choose your hard thing and then spend your time working on it. For now, parenting young children is my hard thing. I’m not terribly good at it, but I try… This is a precious time and I want to savor it before it ends.

You may think I’m crazy. That’s okay. Remember, the point is to live a life true to yourself and ignore what other people think. Now excuse me while I clean the vomit stain off my shorts.

How Much Do Other Parents Help Pay For College Tuition?

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As the school year ends, I am reminded that my children are another year closer to college. I still remember paying off my own $30,000 in student loan debt, and now I am worried about saving up for their tuition. While I still maintain that parents should secure their own retirement needs before worrying about their kid’s college bill, what if you are doing okay and want to help out?

Priceonomics and student loan marketplace LendEDU did a survey of over 1,400 college graduates between the ages of 25 and 54. They found on average, people graduated college initially with roughly $40,000 in student loan debt and currently still maintain a balance of roughly $30,000.

Of these college graduates, how many people receive financial help from their parents? How much assistance did they get? Here are the results.

whopays

The survey also asked questions about gender, race, and the extent to which debt hindered their ability to cover daily expenses, save for retirement, or start a small business. The article focused on the differences, but overall I saw more similarities than differences. In all the cases, between 50% and 71% of people felt that their student loan debt hindered them in all three scenarios.

There are many (terrifying) projections about how much college will cost in 2035. I’ve seen numbers over $100,000 per year for private tuition/housing and $50,000 per year for public tuition/housing in today’s dollars. However, according to this survey only 9% of parents paid for most and 11% paid for half of their kid’s tuition. 80% of parents either paid nothing or “a little”. It’s hard to reconcile these two stats. Are students in 2035 really going to graduate with $100,000 of debt? Something is going to have to give.

Big List of Free Consumer Reports (2/2): See Your Confidential Housing, Insurance, & Employment Data

magUpdated and checked for 2017. Here is the second part of my big list of free consumer reports from over 50 different reporting agencies. The first part included your credit, banking, and subprime lending-related information. This part includes your housing, insurance, and employment history. Request a free copy every 12 months of what these databases have stored about you and are telling prospective landlords, insurers, or employers.

Again, you may not need to check all of these, and many may not even have a file on you anyway. But for example if you are a renter then you’d want to make sure your rental history is clean and correct, because if I was a landlord I’d avoid anyone with previous blemishes on their record.

Rental History

Realpage Consumer Report. Provides tenant screening through their LeasingDesk product, including “the industry’s largest rental payment history database.”

CoreLogic SafeRent. SafeRent provides both tenant and employment screening data, including information regarding landlord tenant and criminal public court records. One free report every 12 months.

Experian RentBureau Rental History Report. “Every 24 hours, Experian RentBureau receives updated rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies and makes that information available immediately to the multifamily industry through our resident screening partners.”

First Advantage Resident History Report. Tenant and employment background checks. One free report every 12 months.

Contemporary Information Corp. CIC provides background checks on prospective tenants and/or employees and contractors for landlords and management companies. Keep records of any rental evictions.

Tenant Data. Provides tenant history reports, including any reported damages, unpaid balances, evictions, lease violations, noise complaints, or unauthorized pets.

Screening Reports, Inc. A national provider of background screening service to the multi-family housing industry.

TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions, Inc. SmartMove provides tenant credit, eviction, and background checks.

  • MySmartMove.com FAQ page
  • To verify your identity and obtain a copy of your report(s), please contact customer service at 866-775-0961.

Auto and Property Insurance

C.L.U.E. Personal Property Report. A division of LexisNexis, CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, which collects information that is used to calculate your insurance premiums. This report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name. This also means you can find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

C.L.U.E. Auto Report. This report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

Verisk Analytics aka ISO aka A-PLUS Loss History Reports. ISO stands for Insurance Services Office, A-PLUS stands for Automated Property Loss Underwriting System. Auto and property loss claim history.

Insurance Information Exchange (now owned by Verisk). Provide reports including your motor vehicle records and driver history, including any traffic violations or related criminal history. May require proof of adverse action to obtain free report.

Drivers History. Provides reports to its insurance clients containing information and data collected from open public sources and governmental agencies regarding driving violations issued to specific individuals.

Utilities

National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange. NCTUE is a “membership of companies that provide services (telecommunication, pay TV, and utilities) […] to aid in risk mitigation.” Basically they track when people don’t pay their phone, cable, or utility bills. One free report every 12 months.

Medical History

MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau). Run by 470 insurance companies with a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” like medical conditions or hazardous activities. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Milliman IntelliScript. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. “Milliman IntelliScript will have prescription information about you only if you authorized the release of your medical records to an insurance company and that company requested that we gather a report on you.”

Employment History

The following companies all offer background screening services for employers. Most will not have any information about you unless you authorized a potential employer to run a background check on you (probably during the application process). Some will not provide you information unless there was adverse action. Otherwise, you can get one free copy every 12 months.

The Work Number. (division of Equifax) They also keep historical income records.

Accurate Background, Inc.

American Databank, LLC.

Backgroundchecks.com.

EmployeeScreenIQ.

General Information Services.

HireRight.

Info Cubic.

IntelliCorp.

OPENonline.

Pre-employ.

Professional Screening & Information, Inc.

SterlingBackcheck (formerly Sterling Infosystems)

Trak-1 Technology.

Reminder: Also see Part 1: Big List of Free Consumer Reports with Your Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data.

Sources: ConsumerFinance.gov, FTC.gov, Wikipedia

Grit, Early Retirement, and Financial Freedom

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I joined the bandwagon and finished reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. (It’s not like I could just give up in the middle…) You’ve probably heard of this NYT bestseller. Either the book, the MacArthur fellow author, or the research discussed has been profiled in nearly every major media outlet. This makes sense due to its broad appeal, from dating/marriage to professional/career to parenting.

Instead of a traditional book review, I’ll try to relate the major conclusions from the book to the pursuit of financial indepedence and retiring early (FIRE).

Grit is both perseverance and passion. Perseverance is the act of trying or continuing to do something, even if it is difficult. Passion is a strong interest that aligns with your values, beliefs, and self-identity. This second part is sometimes overlooked or dismissed. You need both determination and direction. Sometimes it takes time to develop a passion, but nobody works doggedly on something they don’t love.

One test for passion is to ask yourself – Are you excited about the minutiae? I’m not sure how many people find themselves lost in though about withdrawal rate statistics, IRS publications on tax strategies, or optimal asset allocation. 🙂

Grit predicts success more reliably than talent. Research has also shown that talent is not correlated with grit. Talent is certainly still important. However, grit is just as, if not more important, than talent when it comes to success. While grit alone won’t make you an Olympic athlete, talent alone certainly won’t get you there either. When people idolize the idea of natural talent, it lets them off the hook in terms of achievement. “I couldn’t do that because I wasn’t innately talented enough, so it’s not my fault.”

Effort counts twice. Instead of the theory that talent produces achievement, Duckworth presents this alternative model.

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill x Effort = Achievement

Talent is how quickly we can improve our skill. But you still need to apply effort to build that skill. Think of skills like cooking, throwing a football, writing, coding, or mathematical analysis. Next, effort makes that skill productive. You need effort again to become a successful chef with multiple restaurants, a quarterback with a record number of touchdown passes, an author of several books, or an engineer that designed important products. Effort counts twice.

Now, in terms of financial freedom, I would say the closest analogue to skill is income. To increase your net worth, you need to first make money. Your talents may or may not naturally align to making money. Applying effort with your talent creates income. Next, it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep. That takes saving, which is a different kind of effort. Thus, we can rewrite the equations as follows:

Talent x Effort (Working) = Income

Income x Effort (Saving) = Financial Freedom

Researcher Catharine Cox analyzed high-achieving historical figures and came to the conclusion that “high but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.” Perhaps we could also extend this to say a high (above-average) income but not the highest income combined with more grit is better than the highest income and less grit.

Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare. Nearly everyone thinks the idea of financial independence is great. Who wouldn’t want that? Only a fraction of people actually follow through with it. I really liked this quote from the book… “A high level of achievement is often an accretion of mundane acts.”

Goal hierarchies. Set a top level goal first, which lets you develop sub-goals, which leads to specific actions. Don’t spend your limited time on other unrelated and/or conflicting sub-goals. If a related sub-goal is not working, replace it with something different. Here’s a figure taken from a US Army whitepaper on Grit [pdf]:

grit_er1

Now, financial freedom may not be your top-level goal. But it might be related if you aren’t able to work on your top-level goal because you’re working 40 hours a week to pay the mortgage.

In any case, I think this diagram does a good job illustrating the concept that there are many ways to get closer to FIRE. You could advance in your career and grow your salary. You could build up a collection of rental units. You could move into a smaller house with a shorter commute. You could buy index funds. You could max out your 401(k). You could buy dividend stocks or REITs. You could create websites that create semi-passive income. If one way doesn’t work, you can try another.

You can improve your grittiness. Your grit isn’t fixed. Here are some ways you can get better:

  • Explore different interests. A passion doesn’t just appear instantly. Read some different perspectives. See which one fits you. Some people focus on entrepreneurship and starting a successful business (make more money). Some focus on frugality and controlling household expenses (spend less money). Some focus on investing (make the difference grow faster).
  • Deliberate practice. You should force yourself outside your comfort zone. It should be at least a little hard! Focus on your weaknesses, try to improve, get feedback, try to improve some more. Acquire a habit of discipline.
  • Focus on a higher purpose. Cultivate meaning. To reach FIRE, you need a good job that you find worth doing. You need purpose. If you don’t like your job, try to reflect on your existing work can help society. Are you a bricklayer, or someone building a school to teach children or a church to serve God? Alternatively, change or alter your work to match your own interests and values.
  • Find a good role model or mentor. Someone you can talk to and get constant feedback from is best, but sometimes you have to settle for books or blog authors. Ideally, they should also inspire hope.
  • Use group conformity and the power of culture to your benefit. Merge your goals with your self-identity. Join local groups or online forums with people with similar interests. Each has a different culture, be it Early Retirement Forums or Mr. Money Mustache Forums or Bogleheads.

Bottom line: When people think of early retirement, they often think of the 20-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a big inheritance, or the lottery ticket winner. This focuses on luck and talent – things you can’t control – and thus thinking you’ll never be able to do it yourself. In most cases, achieving financial freedom requires a lot of mundane acts over many years. Over time, you develop working skills that create an above-average income. Then you develop saving skills that create a large net worth. Luck and talent still matter, but you really need grit – the combination of perseverance and passion. The good news is that grit is something you can control and improve.

For more on this topic, take her Grit Scale test and also watch her TED Talk.

Open Enrollment Season: Maximizing Your Employee Benefits

maxbenAs open enrollment season is around the corner, Morningstar offered up an 10-minute video interview with Christine Benz discussing tips on maximizing your employee benefits. (Is it just me, or does open enrollment too often seem to be a game of “Guess What Benefits We Trimmed This Year?”)

Here are the five topics that were discussed:

  • Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The tax advantages can be better than a Traditional or Roth IRA. Contributions are effectively tax-deductible (you put in pre-tax money), the money can compound for decades tax-free, and even your withdrawals are tax-free when put towards qualified healthcare expenses. However, you have to be enrolled in a qualified high-deductible health plan, which means this works best if you are “healthy and wealthy” meaning you don’t really have big healthcare expenses and you have enough cash that you don’t need to use your HSA money now.
  • Free and/or discounted investment advice with your 401(k) plan. You may be eligible for customized investment advice, or at the very least you should compare your personal rate of return with the performance of your target date mutual fund option.
  • Employer-sponsored disability insurance. It may be both easier to qualify for and cheaper to buy disability insurance through your employer rather than with your own individual insurance plan.
  • Tax-savings perks like commuter benefit programs or dependent-care programs. There are often smaller side-programs that can be helpful.
  • Student loan repayment assistance programs. These are not very common, but are growing in popularity.

These five areas are fine suggestions, although you may prefer to buy your own portable disability insurance. First of all, it may not be cheaper to go with your broad employer plan. In addition, if you switch jobs for any reason, you might lose your disability insurance at the same time. Finally, specialized workers can purchase riders that will pay out as long as you can no longer perform your specific occupation (as opposed to any lower-paying job). However, in my experience it is easy to put this off, so getting some employer-sponsored disability insurance can be a good first step.

7 Essential Money Questions from The New York Times

green_questionThe NY Times has a new essay called 7 Essential Money Questions Sure to Start a Conversation:

What follows are the seven best queries that I could find that tend to stop people cold and get them to open up about whatever money they have and the emotions that wrap themselves around their personal finances.

I found myself answering them in my head, so I figured why not share my answers.

What lessons about money did you learn from your parents?

I would say that I remember frugality being a part of everyday life growing up. We would live in apartments and duplexes, while some of my friends would live in big houses. We rarely ate in restaurants, except on birthdays when I got to go to Olive Garden or Red Lobster. I remember being scolded when I used a paper towel for a task that could have been done with a cloth towel. I was taught to use no more than a dab of shampoo. To this day, I have a visceral dislike of wasting food.

Another thing that stuck with me was that my dad worked hard at a career that he enjoyed, but he could have made more money elsewhere. I didn’t like that he seemed to work all the time, but at least he seemed passionate about what he was doing. Together, I feel like I have combined these characteristics. If you can control your spending, you can be more flexible in your work situation.

What does the word “money” conjure up for you?

Well, for starters money means survival. Food, housing, and personal safety. I am a conservative person that enjoys a feeling of security. By making clear what is need vs. want, I can be confident that I have enough in the bank to “survive” for a very long time.

Above that, money means freedom. Freedom to quit a job with management that cares about short-term profits or metrics more than long-term value or people. Forget you money. Freedom to have more kids without worrying.

How many children would you like to have when you retire?

Three. This is such a personal choice. What’s worse, with fertility problems and adoption hurdles you may not even be given a choice.

How do you think your children feel about that?

I think they’ll be fine. They may have to share clothes, books, toys, and later vehicles. They’ll have to share rooms. Every kid doesn’t need their own room… What’s wrong with bunk beds? I hope they appreciate having siblings.

Raising kids is both so more much difficult and enjoyable than I thought it would be. I used to idealize some ideal “future with kids”. Nowadays, instead of long-term planning, I just try to enjoy the process. Every day usually has a few precious moments and a few difficult ones that test our patience.

Tell me about your financial situation when you first met.

My wife and I met when we were both 18 years old and freshmen in college. Her parents had taken out home equity loans to help fund her education. My parents were also paying for a good chunk of my education, and in addition I was accruing what would end up being $30,000 in student loans. We both had part-time jobs (that’s actually how we met, while I was on the job). Our combined net worth was negative.

What are the most important things in your life?

Family, then friends, then community.

What does the prospect of retirement look like to you?

Here’s my ideal “early retirement” weekday from roughly age 40-60. Wake up early. Prepare kids and send off to school. Work at any job that I enjoy until noon. Eat lunch with spouse and run any errands. Pick up kids and play with/teach/chauffeur them. Have the time and energy to be present with them. Cook at home and eat dinner as a family. Put kids to bed. Read. Go to bed early-ish. On weekends, add in hiking, sports, backyard cookouts, festivals, etc. Travel together as a family for 3-6 weeks at a time in the summer.

Infographic: Income vs. Cost-of-Living For All 50 States

The NY Times has an article called What $100 Can Buy, State by State. You know I can’t resist a good 50-state infographic. The first chart is basically a cost-of-living comparison. The findings shouldn’t be too surprising.

nyt_100buy1

  • Stuff and services cost the most in District of Columbia, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, California, and Maryland.
  • Stuff and services cost the least in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, South Dakota, and Kentucky.

You would expect the states with higher cost-of-living to also have higher incomes. But the correlation isn’t always perfect. I found the second chart to be more interesting, as they adjusted for incomes. Some places had low-to-average income and high prices, while some states had average-to-high incomes and low prices.

nyt_100buy2

  • The states where per capita incomes have the most purchasing power were North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Wyoming, Massachusetts, and Nebraska.
  • The states where per capita incomes have the least purchasing power were Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, and Hawaii.

Lifetime Allocation Pie Chart: Learning, Earning, and Returning

You always see pie charts used to illustrate asset allocation for portfolios. Stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate, etc. How about a pie chart for deciding how to allocate your lifetime:

life_aa

This was one of the “life lessons” provided by entrepreneur Tristan Walker in his Bloomberg profile:

Spend the first third of your life learning, the second earning, and the third returning. I try to shorten earning so I can maximize returning.

Your time on earth is a finite resource. Let’s say you put your life expectancy at 84 years. That works out to:

  • From birth until 28 years old, you are Learning. You are building up your knowledge, skills, and experience. You are building human capital.
  • From 28 to 56 years old, you are Earning. You are converting your human capital to traditional capital – money!
  • From 56 onwards, you are Returning. Once you have enough, it is your turn to give back to your community.

Learning isn’t always done in school. For example, many people will tell you that in your early years, you should take on risks before you develop too many other responsibilities. Start a business, switch careers, or travel the world. Don’t worry about the money in your 20s; your basic food and shelter expenses can be barebones. Invest your time into yourself.

Along the same lines, you won’t stop learning completely at 28 years old, but your focus and priorities may change. As I get close to 40, I feel the growing pressure of providing security for my kids and the pressure of caring for aging parents. In practical terms, you’ll need to invest more of your time into making money. Well, I might change that to earning money and then saving a big chunk of it.

Then one day, hopefully sooner than later, you can move on to giving back in a way that aligns with your personal philosophies. Invest your time towards helping your family, friends, the local community, and the world.

This is a related concept to the Earn, Save, Grow, Preserve lifecyle.

Infographic: The Best Paying Job In Each State, Relative To National Average

Business Insider mined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and compared the state average salary and the national average salary for each job occupation. The single occupation with the largest percent difference is listed in the infographic below:

bi_jobpay

The income numbers are not adjusted for cost-of-living, but as that would apply to all jobs, you are still looking at the greatest outlier and thus some interesting outcomes. For example:

  • The average annual salary for welders and cutters in Alaska is roughly $72,000. That’s 80% more than the national average of $40,000.
  • The average annual salary for tile and marble setters in Massachusetts is roughly $75,000. That’s 70% more than the national average of $44,000.
  • The average annual salary for physical therapists in Nevada is roughly $128,000. That’s 52% more than the national average of $84,000.
  • The average annual salary for judicial law clerks in New York is roughly $111,000. That’s 104% more than the national average of $54,000.

I’m sure there are some economic (or “freakonomic”) explanations for some of these variations. It would also be interesting to run the same numbers for the worst paying job in each state, relative the national average.