Yale Professor Subtly Threatens High-Cost 401(k) Plans

Speaking of how to deal with bad 401(k) plans… Yale Professor Ian Ayres decided to write letters to thousands of 401(k) plan sponsors that have high costs and fees according to data from website Brightscope. I’m totally paraphrasing and adding humor (although I already found it amusing), but Ayres basically wrote:

“Hey.

I’m a Yale Law prof. Your 401(k) plan ranks among the most expensive. I’m writing a paper about how expensive plans suck money from employees. You do know that you have are required by law to act solely in the interest of participants, right? Oh, by the way, I’m going public with your company name in Spring 2014. You might want to make some changes to your plan before then.

Have a nice day!”

You can read a PDF scan of one of the letters here. Here is a draft of his paper titled “Measuring Fiduciary and Investor Losses in 401(k) Plans”.

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MyMoneyBlog.com in Economics Textbook!

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Years ago I was contacted by an author named Gary Clayton who wanted permission to feature me in the next edition of his book. I said certainly, and pretty much forgot about it as it wasn’t published yet. The book was (is?) the bestselling high-school economics textbook in the country – Economics: Principles and Practices published by McGraw-Hill. Then a couple weeks ago a student named Cameron from South Adams High School in Berne, Indiana left a surprise comment on my blog:

So our economics class just read about your money blog in our book and we wanted to see if blog still existed. It does! You should definitely give a shoutout to our class in your next update!

Again, I said certainly, and asked for a scan or photo of the sidebar article as I’d never seen it before. Well, here is the blurb mentioning MyMoneyBlog.com and picture of Cameron’s Economics class!

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Billboard #1 Song In The US is about Frugality?!?

For the 4th week in a row, the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz. It’s also currently the #1 download on Amazon MP3 Top 100. The song is about… frugality? …buying clothes from Goodwill? …how paying $50 for a brand-name t-shirt is stupid? From Wikipedia:

Macklemore spoke to MTV News about the meaning of the song: “Rappers talk about, oh I buy this and I buy that, and I spend this much money and I make it rain, and this type of champagne and painting the club, and this is the kind of record that’s the exact opposite,” he explained. “It’s the polar opposite of it. It’s kind of standing for like let’s save some money, let’s keep some money away, let’s spend as little as possible and look as fresh as possible at the same time.”

Here’s the YouTube version (some explicit NSFW lyrics!) and also a link to the clean version. Is this a sign? Or is it just a catchy beat like Gangnam style?

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Book Review: Bossypants Memoir by Tina Fey

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I have a goal this year to read and review more books, ideally a book per week on average. Recently, I’ve been into reading biographical books about interesting people pursuing their passions. Feel free to send me some suggestions.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants seemed like a funny auto-biography about someone who grew up in a “normal” working-class family and took a little while to become a respected writer, actor, producer, and comedian. Wealthy, too: Fey reportedly makes $500,000 per episode of 30 Rock and has an estimated net worth of $45 million. I should add that I have never seen a full episode of 30 Rock, although I have seen some SNL Weekend Updates, all the Sarah Palin skits, and a few of her movies.

The book was definitely Tiny-Fey-style funny and a quick read, but it wasn’t very revealing. I should have known, as the book is crosslisted under both “Humor & Entertainment” and “Biographies & Memoirs”. Indeed, I get the impression that she’s actually quite a private person and is reluctant to share anything truly intimate. She considered herself an ugly, unpopular nerd in high school. Well, that applies a lot of people. She worked a menial job at the YMCA while supporting her improv education. Eh, okay. Besides the funny bits, here are my highlighted quotes:

On being a leader:

It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.

On discrimination:

When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way.

On teamwork:
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How Do I Tip The Trash Collector?

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Ah, holiday tipping. This little post still gets a steady stream of comments, even several years later…

Invariably this time of year, all the “tipping experts” of the world unite and tell us ignorant folk what to do. Is it just me, or is it a cushy job to tell other people how they should spend their money? I think they all just secretly copy each other. I’ve made a little collection of links below, and all of them say that you should tip the trash collector if your municipality allows it:

I appreciate the idea of tips as an annual “Thank You”, but my question is how do I tip the trash collector? I’m never around during pickup. Tape an envelope to the bucket and hope it doesn’t blow away or get overlooked? Nobody even gets out of the truck these days, it’s just a driver and a robotic arm. Am I supposed to wait around for when they come, which varies from 6 am to 1pm on a weekday and jump out when they finally arrive? Sorry, but I don’t like them that much.

I’ve read conflicting reports about USPS mail carriers. According to USPS.com, they aren’t allowed to receive cash or cash equivalents, although physical gifts worth less than $20 are okay. Technically, gift cards that are not redeemable for cash and only good at a single store are also acceptable. Now I’m thinking lottery tickets (if they win, they’ll have broken the rules, but then they don’t need the job anymore :)). I don’t really have anyone else – nannies, gardeners, personal trainers…

Where I used to live, people left out a case of beer or soda for the trash collector. No idea why, but maybe because it’s pretty easy to spot. People have never heard of it here. Does anyone else do that?

Ally Bank Commercial With Nobel Prizer Winner

Ally Bank has an amusing new commercial using Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Sargent to promote their Raise Your Rate CD. Currently the 2-year CD pays 1.05% APY but has the uncommon feature that allows you to bump up the rate once during the term if rates rise. They also have a 4-year CD at 1.30% APY that allow two bump-ups during the term. Via MR, it’s short and sweet:

I actually prefer their 5-year CD with short early withdrawal penalty, which offers a higher rate but no rising rate protection.

Dilbert Teaches You About Investing

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The Dilbert comic often dispenses good investing advice, but sometimes it’s either so spot on or so subtle that I think it’s worth repeating to makes sure everyone gets the lesson behind the joke.

Perils of market timing explained:


Alternate title: Momentum investing explained, via Abnormal Returns

Survivorship bias explained:


This actually happens!

Financial advisors with high costs and bad incentive structures explained:


Buyer beware…

Subprime mortgage crisis explained:


Diversification!

On a more serious and practical note, don’t forget about Dilbert’s One-Page Guide to Everything Financial.

This Is What I See When I Look at Shopping Mall Directory Maps

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Here’s my attempt at humor that came to mind while being dragged shopping again, in the name of baby gear research. (I get really whiny when made to shop…)

500 stores, and nothing to buy. Am I the only one?

WSJ on Lowering Your Cable Internet Bill Through Negotiation

Looking for some financial improvements in the New Year? Why not get rid or lower a monthly expense that you don’t need? Do the yard yourself – it’s good exercise too! Sell that extra car (and the insurance payment with it)? Or trim that ever-growing cable bill? It appears the Wall Street Journal has caught onto what many people (including me) have been doing for years with it’s article Customers Say to Cable Firms, ‘Let’s Make a Deal’.

Want cheaper cable television? Try asking for it. Every three to six months, when his most recent promotional deal expires, Carey Anthony blocks out an hour of his day to negotiate with his cable company. Each time, the president of a software company in Los Angeles says he can knock $20 to $30 off his monthly bill. “Negotiating works every time,” says Mr. Anthony, 46, who estimates he has saved more than $350 a year over the past decade. “Sometimes you have to threaten to cancel service, or switch to another provider, or sit on hold for an hour, but I’ve never failed to get a discount,” he says. “You just have to be diligent.”

This sounds just like my own experiences in cable bill and internet haggling since 2005 with updates from Comcast (2007) and DirecTV (2009). Similar to Mr. Anthony, I’m probably ahead hundreds of dollars using this tactic, although I’ve moved around a bunch and thus taken advantage of new-customer perks as well.

In behavioral finance terms, what Comcast and other businesses are doing is called price targeting. If Jane is willing to pay $50 a month and Jill is willing to pay only $30 a month for my product that only costs me $15 a month – I would love to have both Jane and Jill paying me whatever they are willing. But if Jane finds out I’m offering Jill the same thing for $20 a month less, she’ll get mad even though she was fine without that knowledge. So, Comcast waits until Jill complains and offers her the $30 a month plan quietly:

Many providers offer less-expensive packages with fewer channels but don’t advertise them widely. Providers often will allow customers to continue cost-saving promotions well after they expire. Other providers will cut you a new deal every six months—but you have to call and ask. Often, if customers threaten to cancel service, they are transferred to the “retention department” staffed with representatives who are trained to offer customers deals to stay put.

Now, some people are offended by these tactics. I suppose that is partially cultural; in many countries such negotiations and haggling are a part of daily life. Price tags (and thus common prices for all) were an invention of the chain store as it grew from small shops.

Verizon Wireless $2 Payment Fee: Another Public Relations Fail

On December 29th, Verizon Wireless announced via official press release that “Starting January 15, a new $2 payment convenience fee will be instituted for customers who make single bill payments online or by telephone.”

A day later, on December 30th, after a barrage of consumer complaints and a possible FCC investigation, Verizon retracted their fee.

Verizon said it listened to its customers and made the decision based on customer input after many complained and some threatened to leave the service if the fee was instituted. A spokesman said that the company had just wanted to encourage consumers to pay their bills via different methods such as autopay, where they give Verizon permission to charge their credit card or bank account automatically each month.

Sigh, Verizon. You do realize you’re charging us to pay you, right? Just like Bank of America wanted to charge people $5 to access their own money? Maybe read one of the 17 behavioral economics books on the shelves right now. Suggestion: reward customers with a $2 discount for enrolling on monthly autopay instead. Yes, you could quietly jack up the monthly bill by $2 later on, but at least that way it’s easy to see when comparison shopping between carriers.

Practical Gift Guide: A Few Of My Favorite Things

Not done shopping yet? December 16th (today) is Free Shipping Day for many merchants who are offering free delivery by Christmas Eve. Also, the last day for things bought with Amazon’s Free Super Saver Shipping to arrive before Christmas is Monday the 19th. I’ve noticed they spring for 2-day air more often this time of year.

In that spirit, I’ve seen a lot of silly gift guides floating around, so here’s a few things in different price ranges that I actually own and found to be good value:

Quality Jackets With Lifetime Warranty ($50-$200)
Given how long good outerwear can last, I don’t see why you wouldn’t spend a little more for the good stuff. I have a mix of different jackets that have all lasted over 10 years and also have lifetime warranties in case they don’t last another 10. First, I had a soft fleece jacket from REI that went 10 years before the zipper broke. I took it into the store and they fixed it for me free of charge. I have an outer jacket from L.L. Bean that is now 15 years old and hasn’t given me any cause to return it. (I’m actually more proud that it still fits since it’s a graduation present from high school, but still.) Finally, I have a Gore-Tex jacket from North Face that has gone 10 years and still repels snow and water. Even their own fabric instructions say you can just wash them like anything else.

Sales are everywhere, but I noticed that REI currently has 30% off any REI-branded item with promo code REISAVE. Also don’t forget your favorite cashback shopping portal.

Enamel Dutch Oven ($45)
We got a Le Creuset dutch oven as a gift, and we think it’s a great product even though they retail for $200+. You get all the benefits of cast-iron (great heat retention, works on stove, works in oven) but with a nice, durable enamel coating (easier cooking, easier cleanup, looks nice). Did I mention it lasts forever? However, you should know that the respected magazine Cook’s Illustrated did careful testing of various competing products and found the $45 Tramontina dutch oven to be of comparable quality at a fraction of the price. Seems like a great value. If anything, replace the plastic knob with a metal one for high-temperature baking.

Travel Underwear & Socks ($10-$20)
Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? Frequent travelers always talk about packing light. When packing for a longer trip, I found it hard to fit everything in a carry-on if you’re packing 7 pairs of socks and 7 pairs of boxers. The trick is to buy quick-drying underwear and socks, so you really just need a minimum of two pairs – one to wear while the other is trying. (Or theoretically even just one pair if you like sleeping commando…) I like the ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Boxer Brief and these J.B. Expedition Adventure Travel Quick Dry Socks. (Ladies’ versions available as well.) I actually pack 3 pairs as they are also lighter and thinner than my regular clothes.

Drying tip: Wash them in the sink with your soap of choice. Wring dry by hand. Now place a dry towel flat on a bed, and then place the damp clothing onto the towel. Roll the towel up with the clothes inside, and then wring the towel again tightly. You should have removed enough of the water to finish hang-drying overnight.

What practical gifts do you recommend?

Capital One Bank Really Doesn’t Like Inactive Checking Accounts…

Banks aren’t as wildly profitable anymore, and thus are looking for ways to bring back the bucks. They’ve added new “features” like debit card fees, and are dropping unprofitable customers. For example, people with zero balances and little activity still cost money in the form of generating statements, 1099s, and such. Well, MMB reader Mike experienced firsthand how much Capital One Bank doesn’t like inactive checking accounts.

Even though he has biweekly direct deposits into his account, his account suddenly disappeared one day from online banking. It’s the primary fear of online-only accounts; what happens if they simply say my money doesn’t exist? After contacting them, what was the reason given for closing without notice? A $0 balance for just five consecutive days. Here are some excerpts of his exchange with customer service:

We understand you are inquiring about the status of your checking account. Your checking account ending in XXXX was closed on 08/19/2011 after an extended period with a zero balance. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. To have your account reactivated, please confirm you mailing address and phone number by secure message.

In regards to your question of $2,000 deposit once a month, our records indicate this last deposit made into the account was on 08/12/2011 for $2,278.44. Following this deposit on 08/12/2011 there was a withdrawal of $2,278.44, followed by a $20.00 ATM withdrawal on 08/15/2011 leaving the balance of this account at $0.00. Once the account has a zero balance for five consecutive days, it will close automatically and no longer appear in your online banking profile.

In the past, banks like EmigrantDirect also closed zero balance accounts without warning, but only after at least a month of inactivity. Watch out, banks are becoming even less friendly than before.