The 10 Most Reliable Jobs, Lowest Unemployment Rates

If you’re a parent, student, or just someone looking to switch jobs, here’s a list of the professions where you’ll be least likely to become unemployed. Think of it as a career guide for the risk-averse or those who want the best odds.

The WSJ recently compiled a list of jobs and their 2011/2012 unemployment rates based on government labor data. In turn, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic used that data to screen for the jobs with the lowest, steady unemployment rates over that time period. The results:

Source: The Atlantic, WSJ, BLS

The professional-school medical positions – physicians, dentists, veterinarians, do well as expected. Engineers are also well-represented (yes!). Some would say this supports the idea that an STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skill set brings the best value. The medical positions also carefully manage how many graduates they produce each year (unlike law schools). But I’d also note that people should consider why septic tank repairers and animal breeders are also reliable professions (hard to be outsourced, can’t be replaced by machines, etc).

COBRA and Retroactive Health Insurance Coverage

Health insurance can be a complicated subject. This article is about the specific situation where you recently ended a job and haven’t yet started either a new job with benefits or alternative health coverage. Should you take the COBRA coverage, or not?

COBRA Quick Summary
COBRA stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986, which requires the option to extend health insurance coverage for up to 18 months (more in some cases) after a “qualifying event” under a “qualifying employer”. In general, a qualifying employer is one with 20+ full-time employees. A common qualifying event is when you lose your job due to either voluntary or involuntary reasons (things like gross misconduct are excluded). So it applies both if you’re laid off and if you quit on your own. You are required by law to receive a notice about your COBRA options within 14 days after the plan administrator receives notice of a qualifying event.

However, the employee must pay the paying the full cost of the premium (both employer and employee portions), plus up to a 2% administrative charge. This means that it can be expensive. I believe that the last time I quit, my single-person coverage cost over $800 a month. The bill for a family with kids could easily be over $2,000 month.

Continuous Coverage and Retroactive Clause
Due to this high cost, you may consider skipping it and taking your chances. However, if something happens and you have a gap in coverage longer than 63 days, then your next health insurance no longer has to cover any pre-existing conditions. This can be a really big deal, and may scare you into signing up for expensive COBRA benefits right away. But there’s a final wrinkle.

You have 60 days after you lose your benefits to elect to pay for COBRA coverage. However, even if you enroll on Day 60, your coverage is retroactive to Day 1. Of course, you’ll have to pay the retroactive premiums for that period. Thus, you could technically waive your COBRA coverage initially, and then wait to see if you incur any medical bills. If you manage to get on a new health plan on Day 30 or Day 55 with no medical bills, then you’ll still be guaranteed full coverage going forward and you won’t have paid anything during your gap. If you can’t find new coverage within 63 days or rack up medical bills higher than the premiums, then you can rescind your waiver and retroactively activate your COBRA benefits. Effectively, you get a do-over.

Bottom Line

Under current law, it is very important to maintain “continuous coverage” in order to guarantee that your future insurance can’t exclude pre-existing conditions. Otherwise, if for example you hurt your back during a gap, those back problems may be excluded from your future insurance provider for 12 months. That could be a lot of uncovered bills. However, if you expect your gap in coverage to be under 60 days, then you can use the retroactive clause under COBRA to try and avoid paying for COBRA during that time. If you are going to use this do-over, be very careful with your dates. You can wait 60 days to elect for coverage, and then you actually have another 45 days to make the payment to cover the period from the date of election to the date of lost coverage. If you send in a premium payment, make sure it is for the correct amount and use certified mail and return receipt to document everything. Legally, payment is considered to be made on the date it is sent to the plan. Don’t cut things too close.

I have read articles that recommend using these extra 45 days on top of the initial 60 days to allow you to wait 105 days before having to commit. Their reasoning is that most insurance companies will not pursue you (sue you, ding your credit, etc.) for the insurance premium if you simply never send it in and tell them you no longer want coverage. I don’t agree with this logic and it seems rather risky, but I think it is okay to use the 45 day period if you are tight on funds and need more time to pay the premium.

Sources: Wikipedia, Department of Labor COBRA FAQ, DoL Employee Brochure (PDF), DoL HIPAA FAQ.

Career History: List of Every Job I’ve Ever Had

Help Wanted SignI’ve been thinking about all the various jobs I’ve held during my life. I remembered that even as a 10-year old child, I dreamed about being financially independent in the way that I worked for money and could live on my own – I wanted to be like the kids in the Boxcar Children books. Looking back, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I would eventually dream about being financially independent in the way that I didn’t have to work for anyone. I often wonder how I turned out that way.

Here’s a list of all the paying jobs I can remember, in semi-chronological order. As you can see, I’ve always been firmly on the nerd/geek side of things. As a kid, I remember listing my future job as “scientist”.

  • Restaurant cashier/host
  • Fast food drive-thru window dude
  • Country club food server
  • SAT/ACT/math tutor (high school)
  • Undergraduate research summer intern
  • Engineering summer intern
  • Academic paper proofreader / chart maker / equation maker
  • Campus security staff
  • Parking lot attendant
  • Tennis instructor
  • University bookstore cashier
  • University psychology department test monkey
  • Math/physics/writing tutor (college)
  • Graduate student researcher
  • Graduate student instructor (physics, thermodynamics)
  • Engineering consultant
  • Freelance writer
  • Freelance web designer
  • Owner of various websites with advertising

Work has been good to me. My stints in restaurants taught me that lots of people work very hard for very little money, which made me study harder. Being an working graduate student taught me that I could eat and live quite happily on an income of less than $18k a year, something I might not have learned had I went straight into a corporate job. I met my wife while working for campus security. How many jobs have you had, and which ones changed your life?

Comfortable Retirement = Saving 11 Times Working Income?

Via the NY Times, benefits consultant Aon Hewitt released their 2012 Real Deal study about workers at large companies and their readiness for retirement. The study assumes that an employee will work at least 30 years with some large company, not necessarily the same one, and then retire around age 65 with Social Security kicking in. It does not reflect savings or other retirement assets outside of the employer-sponsored plans (IRAs, taxable brokerage accounts, etc). The key findings of the study are summarized below:

85% replacement ratio. Using various assumptions, they find that the average worker will need about 85% of their pre-retirement income to maintain their standard of living. I suspect that most of this number comes from the finding that you need to save about 15% of your income for retirement, and it assumes you spend everything else. Thus, after retirement you have the remaining 85% to cover.

Average employee needs to save 11 times pay. The amount needed at “retirement age” (~65) to cover retirement expenses through an average life expectancy (age 87 for males, age 88 for females) is 15.9 times pay. Social Security is estimated to cover 4.9 times pay. Therefore, the employer needs to save 11 times pay.

Average employee is expected to have 8.8 times pay. This is the sum of pension benefits, employer contributions to 401k/403b-type plans, and employee contributions to those plans. This leaves an average shortfall of about 2.2 times pay. 30% of people are on track or better, 20% are very far behind, and the rest are somewhere in in the middle.

I’m hoping that this study will have nothing to do with me as the idea of working full-time in a large corporation until 65 sounds quite horrendous. 🙂 The overall takeaway is that retirement will still happen for most people as long as they work until Social Security, even if it might not be as nice as they’d like it to be. 11 times final income seems a reasonable rule-of-thumb for this traditional definition of retirement, but using income as a multiplier is annoying to me because it locks you into the assumption of a 15% savings rate.

In terms of non-traditional early retirement, I still prefer the rough rule of saving about 30 times our annual spending for early retirement. Your savings rate will have to be much higher than 15%. If you spend $50k a year, you’d need to save $1.5 million. If you own your house and otherwise spend $2,000 a month, then you’d need to save about $720,000. Using this metric, lots of people could retire on less than a million dollars even today.

Maximizing Your Maternity and Paternity Leave Options

As new parents-to-be, we have been exploring our options for paid and unpaid family leave from work. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but I was pretty surprised by all the possible permutations that you could do. I would add that while knowing your legal rights is important, I also support the idea of working with your employer and co-workers to make the process easier on everyone.

Your Work Contract
Most employers offer their full-time salaried worker’s some length of paid maternity leave, and it’s usually spelled out clearly in the lawyer-ese language of your work agreement. A few employers even offer paid paternity leave. Making an appointment to discuss all your options with Human Resources can be time well spent. Keep in mind that you are subject to the laws of the state where you work, not where the company is based.

In addition, you may be eligible for a longer unpaid leave-of-absence. For example, a big company may allow you up to one full year of leave and your same job (or comparable) will still be yours when you come back.

Short-Term Disability Insurance
Depending on your insurance plan and local laws, being pregnant or taking time off to bond with a new child may be covered under short-term disability insurance. This means you may be eligible for an additional period after your paid maternity leave where you will get a disability benefit that is somewhere around 50% of your normal pay (subject to caps).

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The FMLA entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 workweeks of job-protected unpaid leave for the birth or placement of a child, to bond with a newborn or newly placed son or daughter, or to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition. You may or may not be required to use up your paid vacation days first. To be eligible for FMLA benefits, an employee must:

  • work for a covered employer;
  • have worked for the employer for a total of 12 months;
  • have worked at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months (~24 hours per week average); and
  • work at a location in the United States or in any territory or possession of the United States where at least 50 employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles.

Under some circumstances, employees may take FMLA leave intermittently – taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single qualifying reason – or on a reduced leave schedule – reducing the employee’s usual weekly or daily work schedule. If FMLA leave is for birth and care, or placement for adoption or foster care, intermittent leave is subject to the employer’s approval. To get that permission, you should approach your employer in a way that suggests that taking the leave in chunks would disrupt the office operations less than taking all 12-weeks at once. For example, you may propose a 4-day workweek over a period of several months to a year, as opposed to leaving entirely for three.

State-Specific Family Leave Laws
Each state can have their own separate family leave and/or disability laws that may grant you more time and/or pay. Running a Google search for “[Your State] Family Leave Act” or “[Your State] Family Leave Laws” should locate the appropriate information.

Let’s take the most populous state and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). Under federal law, any leave taken for a pregnancy-related disability is part of your FMLA 12-week limit. However, in California, an eligible employee who is disabled on account of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is entitled to take Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) for up to four months. In addition to that, an eligible employee could then take 12 weeks of family leave to care for and bond with a new child under FMLA/CFRA. That adds up to a total possible leave of 7 months.

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, CA Dept. of General Services, CA Fair Employment and Housing Commission

What Do People Regret The Most On Their Deathbeds?

Bronnie Ware was a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last weeks of their lives, and recorded her experiences in a blog. She wrote an excellent post about the most common regrets of the dying, which became so popular she expanded it into an entire book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing about how we can live better lives by addressing these common regrets. (The blog post has been reprinted in various places, I found it in an AARP magazine.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I used to think of this as people not doing all the things on their “bucket list”. But it is more nuanced than that. Most people aren’t even acting to pursue their dreams and live harmoniously with their personal values, let alone worry about not achieving them. Instead, we are worried about not being rich enough or having the neatest stuff or posting trendy things on Facebook.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. Ware says it best herself:

All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. My interpretation of this one is that you should not be afraid to cut out the negative influences on your life, and also be sure to nurture the positive influences. Life’s too short to deal with people that bring you down. Meanwhile, we should let the awesome people know how much we appreciate them.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. If I died today, this would be a major regret. Every time I move, I leave behind great friends that I lose touch with.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. Happiness is a choice. I remember reading this concept in the bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I prefer the phrase that life is a choice. Conscious living is pretty much the common base of any life improvement exercise, which includes all personal finance blogs.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: Wisdom of Charlie Munger – Book Review, Part 1

Charlie Munger is best known as the long-time friend and business partner of Warren Buffett, and officially as the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Even though he is Buffett’s partner in investing, Munger is different in that he does not enjoy the spotlight as much and is rather more blunt and cranky. For some reason that just makes me like him more. 🙂

Ever since I read more about him in the Buffett biography The Snowball, I have wanted to learn more about him via the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, which is mostly a collection of his speeches but also includes some of his own personal notes and reflections from his peers and family. From the website:

For the first time ever, the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger is available in a single volume: all his talks, lectures and public commentary. And, it has been written and compiled with both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s encouragement and cooperation. So pull up your favorite reading chair and enjoy the unique humor, wit and insight that Charlie Munger brings to the world of business, investing and life itself.

The first thing you should know about this book is that it is not meant to be an investing How-To book. Yes, there is a lot of investing advice in it, but the book is more about how to live a successful and fulfilling life more than the accumulation of money. Munger puts more emphasis on integrity and how to think correctly than how to calculate a company’s return on capital.

Financial Independence
One of the reasons that Buffett and Munger appeal to me is that their primary motivation for doing what they do is not simply to be rich, it is to to be independent. Here’s a quote from Buffett on why he wanted to make money: [Read more…]

Exploring the Connections Between Happiness, Stuff, and Money

The Daily Beast has an article Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less by Barry Schwartz (author of The Paradox of Choice) that serves as a nice compilation of various psychological and behavioral economics findings about money and happiness.

The first main topic is hedonic adaption. When things are awesome, we eventually get used to it (celebrities, lottery winners). When things are really awful, we tend to get used to that as well (disabled persons). This is why it’s hard for people to achieve a constantly higher level of happiness. We get a nicer car/house/toy, we get used it, and then soon we want an even nicer car/house/toy, never getting anywhere as if we are walking on a treadmill.

Simply knowing that the good feeling from that purchase is only temporary may help you cut back on your spending. In addition, author Dan Ariely suggests you deal with the hedonic treadmill by pacing yourself when it comes to experiencing pleasure, and (when needed) making painful cuts all at once. For example, you might not buy a entire home theater setup all at once, but perhaps upgrade one component and wait until the shine completely wears off before buying a new couch. If you need to cut costs, it may be better to make a big spending cut by downsizing your house rather than cutting things you’ll miss repeatedly like your daily coffee or selling your stuff on eBay piece-by-piece.

The second main topic is how most of us get more pleasure out of doing stuff than out of having stuff. This especially applies to activities with other people and/or activities that we find important and worthwhile. A nice result form this is that those activities often cost very little or nothing. I think this concept is related to the research by Daniel Kahneman that found that happiness did not increase past earning $60,000 a year.

Below 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat. […] Clearly money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery,” he said. But the real trick, Kahneman said, is to spend time with people you like.

We all need a certain amount of “stuff” (and thus money) to make us feel physically healthy and safe from harm. Past that, adding more stuff doesn’t seem to help. Schwartz suggests that at some point, one might even stop looking for a job that pays more, but instead go for a job that makes us feel valued and doing something important. Of course, more money can get you to early retirement faster if you’re into that sort of thing, so there is a balance to be made.

Crediting Hard Work vs. Innate Talent For Success

The conclusion from this Harvard Business Review article has stuck with me all day. Researchers looked into whether people think of their success as the result as either hard work or innate talent, and how it affected them later on. The distinction turns out to be important. Something to think about if you’re raising kids as well.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

On a related note, have you heard of the Dan Plan? Apparently a guy read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and decided that he wanted to go from never playing golf before to winning a PGA Tour event. He’s somewhere around 2,000 hours now. Even though I think I would have picked something different, I’ll definitely have to check back on his progress later.

Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Education on the Cheap

Over the long weekend, a few conversations rekindled my curiosity about gaining a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. Now, I really don’t want to be a financial planner. I’m quite happy with my current career right now. I primarily want the CFP knowledge to help me manage my own finances, but to be honest I might be willing to pay a little extra to put the initials after my name.

According to the CFP website, the three main steps are (1) the education requirement, (2) passing the exam, and (3) the 3-year experience requirement. The education requirement can be fulfilled by a $2,000 online course that takes 6-8 weeks, or can be skipped if you are a CFA, CPA, ChFC, or CLU already. The exam costs $595 to take. The 3-year experience requirement is the most difficult for me, as I won’t have time to rack up 6,000 hours of “experience in the financial planning process” unless writing this blog counts. Annual renewal fees are $325 a year.

What if I just want the education at the lowest cost? There are several online CFP Board-Registered programs each with their own curriculum, but they tend to share the same six overall course topics. Both Boston University and UCLA Extension make their textbook lists public. 6 courses times 6 textbooks times ~$110 a textbook = $660. But we all know that publishers like to simply do some light housekeeping and pop out a new edition every other year to force students to pay up. The older edition usually at least 95% the same, but at a fraction of the new price. I took the BU textbook list and went comparison shopping:

Introduction to Financial Planning
Personal Financial Planning Theory and Practice, Dalton
6th edition (2009) costs $125 new at Amazon
5th edition (2008) costs $30 used at

Risk Management and Insurance
Introduction to Risk Management and Insurance, Dorfman
9th edition (2007) costs $157 new at Amazon
8th edition (2004) costs $2.50 used at

Investments: An Introduction, Mayo
10th edition (2010) costs $183 new from AbeBooks
9th edition (2007) costs $7 used from

Tax Planning
Prentice Hall’s Federal Taxation 2012: Individuals, Pearson
2012 edition costs $155 new from Amazon
2011 edition is $55 used from

(I can see the benefit of having the most up-to-date tax book, but it’s not like I’m going to buy the latest version of this book every year. I’d just try to keep up with any changes.)

Retirement Planning and Employee Benefits
Retirement Planning and Employee Benefits for Financial Planners, Dalton
6th edition (2010) is $75 new from Amazon
5th edition (2008) is $18 used from Amazon Marketplace

Estate Planning
Fundamentals of Estate Planning, Fontaine
12th Edition (2010) is $67 used from AbeBooks. (Couldn’t find it new?)
11th Edition (2008) is $4.20 used from AbeBooks.

Adding up the used prices for these 6 books, the total comes to about $120 (plus shipping and taxes, used prices change regularly). This seems like a more economical way to achieve the knowledge for the DIY set. Chances are, you could even use them with an official course if you really wanted to.

I’d be willing to bet that I could read through these previous editions of textbooks and pass the CFP exam. It’s 10 hours long, but I read that it’s also all multiple-choice. I wish I could try. However, it appears that just to sit for the exam, I must pay for a $2,000 course that seems to primarily consist of some online videos. I can definitely see the benefit of videos for audio/visual learners though, as I’m sure the textbooks can be pretty dry stuff.

Life Planning Exercise: Creating My Perfect Day

I am currently reading The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau (review coming shortly). In one of the early chapters, he talks about an exercise where you write out how your perfect, idealized day would go in great detail, hour-by-hour. I’ve read about this method other places, but never actually write it down. As I go into it, I found myself getting really into it and making several changes throughout today. Here goes:

Early Morning
I wake up, naturally, after 8 hours of sleep. Many people don’t need that much sleep, but I do. I love waking up naturally, but will set an alarm as a backup, because… I have to wake up the kid(s) and get them ready for school. I still don’t have kids, but I really want them.

I make their lunch, and perhaps drop them off at school in my 10-year old Honda if it’s close enough. I take the dogs for a walk in the neighborhood park. I then do my exercise for the day. Most days it will be something active and fun, like swimming, bicycling, tennis, or running. To mix it up, sometimes with a buddy or group. Swimming in open water is fun, since I live by the ocean.

Morning to Early Afternoon
I shower and change into shorts and a t-shirt. I work at home and live in a temperate climate, so that’s what I wear every day. At the computer, I check the morning’s e-mails and do some work. Work consists primarily of reading books and online articles from thoughtful authors (not 24/7 cable news or superficial fluff), and then researching and writing on topics like personal finance, nutrition, web design, or graphic design. I actually only do specific jobs for clients occasionally, because I’m tired of dealing with customers. Writing is so much less stressful. I might also run a small e-commerce website, but nothing that requires constant attention. Part of the year, I teach something small at a local community college.

I only work 4 hours a day. I can do this because I’m smart with money and have saved up a big chunk. Mrs. MMB works half-time as well, still 9-5 downtown, but only 2-3 days a week. With a relatively simple lifestyle, our income still pays the bills with a little left over. Our portfolio is left to grow for “advanced” retirement once the kids are in college and Mrs. MMB quits completely around age 50. I feel like I’ll be doing something that earns income until at least 60.

I work until a late lunchtime, and then I take the dogs for another walk. If Mrs. MMB’s not working that day, we do this together. She loves to garden and much of our food comes from there. Some days, we walk to a local eatery with the dogs and dine al fresco.

I wait for the kids to come home from school or pick them up. We ate some snacks, then I help them with their homework. Next up: sports, 4-H, girl/boy scouts, or science club or whatever fills up the afternoon. I love being able to spend time with them. We shop every day at a local market for ingredients for that night’s dinner, before the after-work rush. Did I mention I never have to go to Costco or any megastores on the weekend?

Dinner is a family affair. Once a week, the grandparents come over for dinner or we go over to their place, since we live in the same city. After dinner and homework is finished, perhaps a DVD or pre-planned TV viewing. I could say “NO TV!!!”, and I’d still like to severely limit TV viewing in the house, but do think there is good content out there. Why not watch it together? Otherwise, we might play a board game or learn about that year’s Big Adventure. I am not a fan of video games at all, unless educational and done well.

I used to worry that once I had kids, I wouldn’t be able to travel anymore. However, I’ve been learning about parents who take their kids traveling around the globe for a year or longer. I don’t think that’s my style. I’d rather visit one single country/region for an entire month during the summer. I call it Big Adventure. Renting a house or apartment for the entire month would be more economical, and we could use that house as a base. During the rest of the year, we could research the country’s language and culture to plan out activities.

After the kids go to bed, I’ll probably be exhausted as well. If not, I’m sure I’ll poke around the internet some more before I pass out.

How would your perfect day go?

Poll: How Big Is Your Emergency Fund?

Below is a chart of the median duration of unemployment from July 1967 to December 2010, based on data supplied by the US Department of Labor. Things are bad out there, and remember, this is just the median!

According to this December 2010 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of the 9.4% unemployment rate, 44.3% of them are considered long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more). That means over 4% of the total US workforce – 6.4 million people – has been unemployed for over 6 months.

Which leads to the poll question of the week. How prepared are you for an extended period without a paycheck? In this case, by emergency fund I am talking about a cash (or similar) cushion that is accessible, not lines of credit.

How Big Is Your Emergency Fund?

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