Daycare Costs vs. In-State College Tuition

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There are many articles about rising college tuitions and how to best save for college. But according a recent study, in 31 states the annual cost of day care for an infant exceeds the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges. From this WaPo article:

We accept that it typically takes 18 years to sock away a sizeable-enough college nest egg. Considering that child care is an equivalent, if not greater, expense and that the average maternal age at first child birth is 26, this suggests that we should similarly start putting money away for day-care expenses when we’re roughly 8 years old.

Here’s the state-by-state breakdown:

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Do We Regret Paying Off Our Mortgage? One Year Update

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It has been a year since we paid off our mortgage early. I already discussed our reasons for doing so in that post, so I won’t repeat them here. I also wrote a really long post on every single facet I could think of in the Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement debate. So I won’t go into that here either.

But how do we feel a year later? Did we regret it? Let’s take a look at what happened from March 2013 to March 2014.

Mortgage rates bounced around a bit but in general look to be about half a percentage point across the board. (Source: HSH.com) I probably couldn’t get the same mortgage rate I had before anymore, but it would still be a pretty low rate historically.

hsh_march2013

Investment returns over the last year were quite robust. If I model my portfolio roughly with the Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) which is a low-cost index fund split roughly into 80% broadly diversified stocks and 20% broadly diversified bonds, my trailing 1-year return would be 15%.

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Bond interest rates in particular went up overall. The 10-year Treasury Bond rate went from 1.8% to nearly 2.8% over the last 12 months. (Source: FRED)

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(Note I don’t talk about the value of my home. This is because paying extra towards your mortgage early is not an additional investment in your house. You already own the house so you are already exposed to any change in home value regardless of your mortgage size. The mortgage is just another debt with an interest rate.)

So interest rates went up and we could have earned more money investing the money in my portfolio rather than pay down my 3% mortgage. Well, if I had a time machine maybe that would matter. But in reality it has been great. The lack of a mortgage reduced our monthly expenses significantly. We have been able to work less and got to spend an entire year watching our colicky baby grow into walking, talking, little person (meaning we are still more tired than ever before, ha) while still maintaining good cashflow and thus minimal financial stress. I’m not saying this applies to anyone else, but paying off our mortgage early has worked out well for us.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

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toughbookWhat makes children, or even adults, succeed? It’s commonly believed that cognitive skills, also known as intelligence, are a primary factor. Smart people are the successful ones, right? Tests like the SAT measure this stuff, skills like pattern recognition, reading comprehension, and math problems.

But in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, the author discovers a lot of evidence that doesn’t support that theory. Instead, non-cognitive “character” skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control may be even more important.

Tough weaves together various research studies and experiments to make this argument. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • GED vs. High-school graduates. Passing the GED test means you are proficient in the same academic areas as an actual high-school graduate. Yet people with GEDs are consistently less likely to graduate college, have lower incomes, and are more likely to be in jail. Why? Perhaps beings a high-school graduate requires additional traits – the inclination to persist at a often-boring task, the willingness to delay gratification for a long-term goal, or the ability to adapt to different social environments.
  • KIPP charter schools. KIPP schools are charter middle and high schools that take in lower-income students by lottery (no test screening) and use intensive educational efforts with the ultimate goal of a 4-year college degree. The first few KIPP classes improved their standardized test scores in middle and high school significantly. Yet the actual college graduation rates were disappointing, with a curious pattern:

    The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.

Further good news is that character skills appear to relatively malleable; you can learn to improve your level of grit and self-control. KIPP schools now provide their students with a “character report card” as well as traditional academic grades.

This book is a great read for parents and educators, but I would say that the conclusions extend to adults and even personal finance. We all need these skills to be good citizens. Being financially secure is simple on paper – spend less than you earn, invest the difference for the future, and keep it up every year. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like self-control, delayed gratification (and perhaps optimism :) ), and persistence.

I would argue that these character skills are more important than what you could learn in any book about Roth IRAs or modern portfolio theory. The question is how do we teach adults these traits, or is it too late?

Buffett’s Simple Investment Advice to Wife After His Death

The popular Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) Annual Letter to Shareholders by Warren Buffett is now available to the public. Download it here [pdf].

I’ve been haltingly working on making preparations for my family in case of my premature demise. I’ve done a number of things, but I’m still not sure if my wife can manage our investments when I’m gone. Should I try to teach her, even if she has little interest? Should I find an advisor? Should I hire him/her now, even though I am a control freak? Interestingly, Buffett addresses this issue partially in his letter.

First, Buffett repeats his advice that while he doesn’t believe in efficient markets, he does believe that non-professionals should invest their money in low-cost index funds.

My money, I should add, is where my mouth is: What I advise here is essentially identical to certain instructions I’ve laid out in my will. One bequest provides that cash will be delivered to a trustee for my wife’s benefit. (I have to use cash for individual bequests, because all of my Berkshire shares will be fully distributed to certain philanthropic organizations over the ten years following the closing of my estate.) My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors – whether pension funds, institutions or individuals – who employ high-fee managers.

Of course, I’m sure the sum set aside would be enough even if kept 100% in cash. But index funds were still a surprise to me given how many smart money managers Buffett knows. At the minimum, I figured he’d leave a big ole’ pile of BRK shares (managed by some of those smart people that he already hired). But I forgot that Buffett has already committed his BRK shares to charity.

Buffett’s simple advice made me think about my plans again. I would also leave my wife a relatively simple index fund portfolio and a paid-off house. My casual advice given to her so far is that she can spend 2-3% of the total balance each year without worrying about the money running out. With the life insurance proceeds, that 2%-withdrawal value is a bit more than what we spend now, so it shouldn’t be too hard.

If she needs help, she can contact the Certified Financial Planner that Vanguard offers clients ($50k in assets gets you access to a discounted plan from a CFP). I figure that even the cookie-cutter portfolios that they may recommend won’t be too bad in the big picture. I know this is not a complete plan, but well, I also don’t want my wife going to a high-fee manager.

Economic Mobility Studies: Will You Be Better Off Than Your Parents?

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The idea that you wanted to do better than your parents was a strong one in my family and community. Two major studies on economic mobility were recently released, with the following findings:

  1. Children growing up in America today have the same chance of moving up (or down) the income distribution ladder as children born in the 1970s. No more, no less. However, the overall numbers remain lower than other developed countries.
  2. Upward income mobility varies substantially based on geography. They describe the U.S. as a collection of “lands of opportunity” that have high rates of mobility across generations, whereas in other places few children escape poverty.

If you want to see how the place where you grew up fared (based on where you lived at age 16), check out this interactive map from WaPo which tracks the upward income mobility of children of parents with income at the nation’s 25th percentile, or about $30,000 per year. Dark blue means no change from parents, light blue means they moved up to the national average, and darker yellow means they moved higher than average.

More: Paper 1, Paper 2, WaPo, Atlantic

2013 New Year’s Resolution Follow-Up

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It’s time to check up on our 2013 New Year’s Resolutions, which I gave the eloquent theme “Get our crap together” (in case one or both of us dies). I will roughly follow this GYST checklist.

Will and trusts. We are fortunate to have a family friend who is an estate lawyer, and she was able to assist us with creating all of these legal documents. They included:

  • Designating a Durable Power of Attorney for financial and medical decisions, including backups.
  • Designating who would take care of our children, including backups
  • Distribution of assets and personal items. Mostly the money will go into a trust for the kid(s).

Living Will. In case one or both of us are incapacitated, this included:

  • Medical power of Attorney and backup in case of being physical incapacitated
  • Advanced directives
  • Discussions of our wishes with family.

If you can find a good estate lawyer, I would recommend that route as they should have the experience to explain all of the potential issues in your state including being prepared for future law changes. I may try to write about the general issues later once I learn more. I also meant to compare my documents with those produced by services like Legalzoom, but haven’t gotten around to that. As for costs, it will vary depending on how complicated your situation is and how many additional documents you need prepared and reviewed (power of attorney, trust, etc.).

Life insurance. We each have a $1,000,000 term life insurance policy. We think this number is more than adequate given our future expected needs and our existing savings. If one of us dies, the other will ideally not have to work anymore. If both of us die, there should be enough to cover all living expenses plus any educational expenses. To get an idea of cost, try Term4Sale.com.

Short-term disability. We both have short-term disability through our employers. I don’t feel it is necessary to buy an additional individual policy as we have sizable cash reserves.

Long-term disability. Mrs. MMB obtained an individual long-term disability insurance tailored to her profession. This was done through a recommended local insurance broker. I did not pursue buying a long-term disability plan. This is due to the fact that I felt our portfolio is large enough to provide a substantial cushion, and also due to the fact that the physical demands of my job aren’t very high and thus I worried it would be hard to qualify for benefits. Upon further thought, however, I do think I should at least price it out. Another thing to do in 2014.

Financial Education

  • Passwords. All major passwords are stored in an encrypted password manager, with most sites having a unique complex password such that one hacked database won’t affect the security of other accounts. My wife uses it all the time now and is familiar with it.
  • Cash reserves. We have one year of expenses in cash held in an FDIC-insured bank account. This will provide a cushion so that nobody will have to worry about money until life insurance proceeds arrive.
  • Spousal budget education. We did have a few discussions about our current monthly cashflow situation (income and expenses) and what spending levels could be supported with our current portfolio and with the addition of any life insurance proceeds.
  • Spousal investor education. Can my spouse manage the finances without me? Probably, but not as optimally as I’d like. I did very little in this area, and this will be the focus on our 2014 resolutions.

I think we did pretty good in terms of estate planning, but for 2014 I’ll need to be much more proactive in sharing my investing knowledge. I’d like to learn how to make some simple videos and share them on Youtube.

Part-Time Track Jobs For Mainstream Professionals?

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bwfatherBusinessweek’s cover story this week is about how fathers do the work/family balancing act. The article talks about how men want to be more involved in family life as well as women but face their own unique obstacles yada yada, but this part caught my eye:

When Trombley [research engineer at Ford Motors] was expecting his first child, he and his wife, who also works at Ford, weren’t thrilled with the child-care options available, and she wasn’t eager to become a stay-at-home mother. Trombley remembered that a colleague from several years back had worked out a novel solution with her husband, with both taking part-time schedules to allow them to split the week up and each be home with their kids for half of it. Ford didn’t offer paternity leave, but it did offer a part-time track so long as an employee’s manager approved it. When baby Dylan arrived, Trombley went to his bosses and told them he wanted to drop down to 70 percent and work from home two days a week. [...] There are now three other men in his department with similar part-time setups; there were none when Trombley started.

Is there a list of large, Fortune 500 employers that offer such a “part-time track” option? I only found some job board sites like 10til2 and FlexJobs. I did find this 2004 research paper Beyond the Mommy Track: The Influence of New-Concept Part-Time Work for Professional Women on Work and Family [pdf]. From the abstract:

Compared to their counterparts who worked full time, mothers who worked in these part-time positions reported significantly greater work/family balance and did not report significantly less career opportunity. The part-time group reported 47% fewer work hours and 41% lower income than the full-time group. These data support the notion that new-concept part-time work is a viable option to assist women in professional careers to successfully integrate their family career.

I’m selfishly fascinated by the idea of part-time work for salaried jobs (as opposed to hourly workers). I’ve met part-time doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers, even judges. For most of them it’s been a figure-it-out-yourself exercise, but hopefully the idea of breaking down the traditional “full-time” job into smaller pieces is gaining momentum in the corporate world. It would not only be great for mothers and fathers, but anyone who wants more control over their life.

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.

Charlie Munger on Parenting and Childhood

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I just started reading a biography of Charles Munger, Damn Right! Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger by Janet Lowe, originally published in 2000.

Charles Munger is best known as Warren Buffett’s long-time friend, business partner, and vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. I find him fascinating on many levels – as a thinker, investor, philanthropist, and even philosopher. One of my favorite tips from him is to Work For Yourself An Hour Each Day, something I found in Warren Buffett’s biography The Snowball.

Here’s a memorable quote from the book dealing with his childhood:

Like Warren Buffett, Munger inherited no wealth. [...]

“While no real money came down, my family gave me a good education and a marvelous example of how people should behave, and in the end that was more valuable than money,” explained Munger. “Being surrounded by the right values from the beginning is an immense treasure. Warren had that. It even has a financial advantage.”

Right now, there is a lot of focus on teaching “financial literacy” – which is good – but if you’re a parent of young children I feel that you have to think differently. It’s not critical to give your kid some fancy allowance iPhone app or online savings account to teach them how to manage money. What you should really be conscious of is how you act around them. Positive character traits like self-discipline, being dependable (keeping your promises), and frugality (not being wasteful) are often best taught by example. Watching you and learning such traits will help them to avoid credit card debt more than showing them how APR works. If only I could just buy them a book or something. ;)

Don’t Forget To Be Awesome

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Originally posted here on December 3rd, 2005:

Thinking about goals and the future some more, I have this picture in my head of our dream future in 5-10 years:

- I work at a job I enjoy for only 20 hours a week
- My wife also works at a job she enjoys for only 20 hours a week
- We both share responsibility for taking care of our kids with minimal, if any, need for daycare.
- Our combined incomes still make it possible for us to reach our financial goals. However, we’re not really interested in being filthy rich.

We are gonna make this happen. Check back with me on 12/3/2015

Done.

We both really wanted this, even though we are more tired now than when we were both working full-time. (Even though we sleep at 9pm now instead of 1am.) Although I write about money daily (at times it may seem like an obsession)… it certainly didn’t feel like 8 years had gone by since I made this goal.

I recently bought a new print that will be in my daughter’s room eventually, but for now hangs in my home office. It says Don’t Forget To Be Awesome. I think we all have own personal definition of “awesome” – whether it’s starting your own business to being active in your community to simply being a good parent (even though that is anything but simple). Now, we are still far from reaching our “awesome”. But I think the phrasing is perfect; it’s so easy to forget to pursue our unique dreams in today’s hectic, noisy world.

We Paid Off Our Mortgage: History and Commentary

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We paid off our mortgage. We contacted Provident Funding and requested the full amount due including any accrued interest, the money was sent via bank wire, and the loan is recorded as paid in full. As you might imagine, I spent many hours contemplating this move. In a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the letter below warning us we had to pay the property taxes ourselves was the first physical acknowledgement of the occasion. I found it amusing that it was addressed “Dear Homeowner”, as I never really felt like I owned my home until now.

A bit of history. When we first bought our home, we looked at the common rules of thumb regarding house affordability and ended up paying 20% down with a initial mortgage less than 3 times our combined income. Indeed, we qualified for the mortgage on my wife’s documented income alone. We thought about getting a 15-year note but went for the flexibility of the 30-year note, while paying it down at the 15-year pace. Over subsequent refinances, our interest rate dropped from 6% to 3%. Even though this made our required monthly payment much less, we kept up the higher monthly payments which had us on the pace of a 10-year payoff.

[Read more...]

2013 New Year’s Resolution: Get Our Crap Together

It’s already March, and I’ve yet to make a New Year’s resolution. Then along comes this NY Times article about a mother of two who’s young, healthy husband was killed while simply riding his bike:

In the many months of suffering after Mr. Hernando’s death in July 2009, she beat herself up while spending dozens of hours excavating their financial life and slowly reassembling it. But then, she resolved to keep anyone she knew from ever again being in the same situation. The result is a Web site named for the scolding, profane exhortation that her inner voice shouted during those dark days in the intensive care unit. She might have called it Getyouracttogether.org, but she changed just one word.

The site offers some basic financial advice, gives away free templates for a master checklist and provides starter forms to draft a will, living will and power of attorney. There’s also a guide to starting a list of all of the accounts in your life that someone might need to access and shut down in your absence.

Let’s be direct; The site is GetYourShitTogether.org. The site is okay, but I felt the story itself was more powerful.

After his death, this much was clear: The family with the six-figure income and the four-bedroom house that they had bought in the Mount Baker neighborhood one year before had a will with no signature, little emergency savings and an unknown number of accounts with passwords that had been in Mr. Hernando’s head.

I haven’t blogged about this as it brings up bad memories, but a few years ago a family situation resulted in us each hurriedly bought $1,000,000 of term life insurance. We didn’t comparison shop, I just walked into my State Farm agent’s office and asked to get the insurance as soon as possible. State Farm actually has some of the highest financial strength ratings available (AA S&P, A++ AM Best). The final rates we got were probably somewhat higher than I could have gotten with slightly lower-rated company, but I don’t regret the decision.

Having life insurance along with hefty savings gave me adequate peace of mind for a while, but now with a child I worry about the future differently. We have a lot left to do. We contacted a lawyer friend who specializes in estate planning and trusts to help us with our first will. We talked to family members about child custody if something should happen to both of us. We’re looking into long-term disability insurance beyond what is provided at work. I already track most of our passwords using software (1Password), but after reading this article I’ve been filling in the gaps in the database and quizzing my wife every day to make sure she knows the master password.

We are one of those households where one person takes on all the financial duties. I pay the bills, track our monthly budget, and manage our retirement investments. I need to teach her the essentials and lay out a simple plan for managing things if I’m not around one day. I don’t worry about the spending as she is a frugal and smart person, but I have nightmares of some high-cost, low-quality financial salesperson mismanaging her money. Lots of smart people end up trusting the wrong person. I thank Mrs. Reynolds for helping me make my 2013 resolution.