Reading List: Low-Risk Investing, Free Accounting Software, Limited Willpower, Flexible Withdrawal Rates

I run across a lot of articles that may not merit an entire blog post but are worthy of sharing. Let me know if you like this format with short summaries or if you’d rather me just tweet links.

Playing It Safe as a Long-Term Strategy
For a while, Professor Zvi Bodie has written books and articles about low-risk investing and encouraging the purchase of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) and I-bonds. If you bought them when he was first saying that, you’d have TIPS paying 3%+ real yield and doing quite well. But now you’re looking at 0% or negative real yield unless you go decades out to eek out 1%.

He still says that stocks are too risky regardless of time held and should not be bought unless you already have enough assets to cover the bare necessities. You won’t like the alternative options: spend less, save more; plan on retiring later; work a second job. He and Taqqu have a new book called Risk Less and Prosper.

Berkshire Hathaway Letter to Shareholders
Warren Buffett sent out his annual letter to shareholders over the weekend. As usual, the letter contains some of his insights and opinions on issues like the housing market recovery, investing in gold, and the current dangers of bonds. He also lays out his argument for why owning equities (at least BRK) is actually low-risk over a long time horizon.

There has never been a better time to be an individual investor
From the Abnormal Returns blog. I agree that there are better tools out there now at a lower cost, but with the death of pensions there will also be a lot more responsibility and pressure placed on individual investors. If they mess it up, it’s not going to be pretty. That makes it a stressful time to be an individual investor!

Wave Accounting: Free online accounting software for small businesses
The price is right at free, as they intend for it to be ad-supported. Includes free import of transactions from your bank account. I signed up but haven’t taken it for a test run yet. I currently use Intuit Quickbooks and haven’t had to upgrade for 5 years.

Your Mistaken Belief in Financial Willpower
I have come around to support the idea that willpower is more of a finite resource, or at least it has to be built up like a muscle. Don’t use it up when you don’t have to. Carl Richards of the NY Times points out ways that we can conserve our willpower for other things using automation for paying bills and savings.

Should Your Retirement-Portfolio Withdrawals Fluctuate With the Market?
What is the best way to withdraw from your portfolio in retirement in order to make sure it lasts? This Morningstar article looks at the research on ways to implement flexible withdrawal rates. I agree that numbers like 4% withdrawal rates should be a guideline and not a rigid rule.

Labor Day Weekend Links: Insurance for Freelancers, Google Looks For Money Advice, Vanguard Canada, and More

I hope that everyone managed to have a relaxing and refreshing long weekend. I managed to catch up on some Instapaper reading, and here are some links worth sharing:

Freelancer’s Union
Independent workers make up 30% of the nation’s workforce, and the FreeLancer’s Union is trying to help organize them into a stronger community. The primary reason I found this interesting is in limited geographical areas, they offer ways to get affordable health, dental, and disability insurance to freelance workers. Finding non-employer-linked insurance is a big concern of mine in the future, and perhaps more localized freelancer groups can help.

The best investment advice you’ll never get (San Francisco Magazine)
In 2004, when Google’s IPO occurred and made hundreds of young multimillionaires that quite possibly had no idea how to handle that money, their management team did something very clever. Instead of just shunting them to Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley “predators” :), they brought in a series of speakers to talk about investing. This included names like Bill Sharpe, Burton Malkiel, and Jack Bogle. Read this (long) article to see what they were shown.

Vanguard Is Coming To Canada (Marketwatch)
I did not know this, but according this article Canadian investors are not able to buy Vanguard mutual funds offered in the US. They can, however, buy the same Vanguard ETFs. Well, Vanguard has recently announced that it plans to open 6 low-cost index ETFs for the Canadian market, including an MSCI Canada ETF, a Canada Aggregate Bond Index ETF, a CAD-hedged US Total Market ETF, and a CAD-hedged EAFA Index Fund. It may also open corresponding open-ended mutual funds. This development should put significant pressure to lower costs across the industry.

Intuitive Probabilities – Blackjack and Loss Rebates (Kid Dynamite)
There was some buzz recently about a guy playing high-stakes blackjack that walked away with another $1 million winning session. It was revealed that to entice his play, the casino actually rebated 20% of his losses. Basically, he got to keep whatever he won, but if he lost $1 million, he would only have to pay $800k. This may sound like a sweet deal, but this article shows that with as little as 100 hands played in a session, the casino is still theoretically ahead. The house still wins. Kind of like a lot of hedge funds. You give them your money to invest/gamble, and if they win, they keep 20% of the winnings. If they lose, hey, it was your money. 🙂

Create Time to Change Your Life (Zen Habits)
Making clear priorities allows to you see what you need to do, but you also need to cut out some existing things as well. You may think you can just cram it all in, but you really can’t without burning out eventually.

Chase British Airways Card: $50 off two meals at Michelin-starred restaurants
If you got this card from the previous 100k mile bonus offer, they are offering two $50 off $50 purchases at fancy-schmancy restaurants with Michelin stars. A nice perk, although a meal at these places can easily run a lot more than fifty bucks. I’m sad to say I have never eaten at any of these fine establishments. Le Bernardin would be top on my list.

Refinancing While Underwater (NYT)
Includes different options on how to refinance your mortgage if your home’s value has dropped such that you owe more than your house is worth.

If your loan is owned by Fannie or Freddie, you may qualify for the Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP. Some 2.5 million to 3 million homeowners may be eligible to use HARP, according to government estimates — provided, among other things, that they have not been late on their payments more than once in the last 12 months.

Savings Growing at a Glacial Pace?

Hello from Alaska! I’ll be back to regular posting shortly.


Reading: Calorie Labels Fail, Family Income Growth is Deceiving, Law School Economics

Here’s some articles that caught my eye this week:

Calorie counts don’t change most people’s dining-out habits – Washington Post
Apparently, telling people the amount of calories on menu items doesn’t change their eating habits, cheap or not. Now, I know that I personally do find it helpful, because many times I’m eating out primarily to hang out with friends and the food is not the goal. But in general, we must fight our human nature:

Experts say that for most diners, the issue is not about having information but about lacking self-control. Behavioral economists have for years zeroed in on a logical hiccup: We are unable to balance short-term gains with long-term costs. Many humans are simply really, really impatient. With eating out, the gains are immediate (yummy giant burrito!) and the costs are delayed (staggering bills for heart disease!).

Overtime, Not Wage Increases, Drive Income Growth – WSJ

Working families’ incomes have grown in recent decades. But the gains came mostly because they worked longer hours than because of wage increases, according to new research by the Brookings Institution‘s Hamilton Project. […] Among two-parent families, median earnings did rise by an inflation-adjusted 23% from 1975 to 2009. But the parents’ combined hours worked increased by 26% during the same period–accounting for most of the income gains.

The median income for two-parent families rose to $70,000 in 2009, for working 3,500 hours a year on average, compared with working about 2,800 hours in 1975 to earn $56,600 (in 2009 dollars). Hmm.

Law School Economics: Ka-Ching! and Reactions – NYT
Law schools have the power to raise prices and increase enrollments without any decrease in demand… even as the job market worsens for lawyers. Result: Law school tuition rises 4x faster than even overall college tuition costs, which are already skyrocketing. Are law schools abusing this pricing power?

Tinkering With Site Design

I changed up some of the design of the website last night, not really sure why, I had some free time and have been meaning to try some things out. I don’t have the motivation to do a complete redesign, but wanted to update things slightly to account for modern screen sizes and resolutions. I’ve made the content a bit wider (this also allows for larger embedded images), widened the sidebars a bit, made the text a bit bigger, and changed the spacing a little. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

Weekend Reading: The American Dream, Dollar Coins, Fidelity Problems, and United/Continental Merger

Happy Birthday America! Here’s some of what I’ve been reading over the long weekend:

The Death of the American Dream I
A good long-ish editorial from the The American Interest magazine about the “American Dream”. The American Dream used to be owning your own family farm. “In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked on farms. Today fewer than 2 percent do.” The updated Dream became lifetime employment (plus a pension of lifetime income) plus owning a home through a 30-year (half a lifetime) mortgage. There is no longer lifetime employment these days, and perhaps the government-subsidized 30-year mortgage is up next. Also see Part II.

$1 Billion That Nobody Wants
An NPR investigative article about how the US government keeps making billions of dollar coins, even though most people prefer paper bills. I suppose this answers why you can buy coins from the US mint with a credit card, enabling people to rack up credit card rewards, and also a good way to meet minimum spend requirements for the big bonus cards. I think the two options should be to either stop making paper bills, or stop spending so much money pushing dollar coins on us. Until then, since the coins exist already, we are essentially getting paid by the government to distribute them.

Fidelity’s Experience Proves Bigger Doesn’t Mean Better
Morningstar article outlines reasons why Fidelity is having some issues with their actively managed funds. One issue is manager turnover; Their average manager tenure is 3.2 years, ranked 24th out of the 25 largest firms. They also have too many funds and not enough talent for all those positions. For example, Fidelity has 17 large-growth funds geared toward retail investors alone. As they earn a big chunk of profits from retirement plans, they will be much less likely to allow unconventional managers who take risks for big returns. Also see my review of Fidelity’s Portfolio Advisory Service product.

United and Continental Merger Updates
If you haven’t heard, United and Continental are merging, and you can link your accounts and transfer miles between the two frequent flier programs at your convenience. Combine your two balances to make one award flight, for example. I’m a United Elite and I heart my Economy Plus seats. Thanks reader Michael for the tip.

The Continental OnePass Plus credit card is still offering 30,000 miles + $50, and will still work after the merger.

Crunching The Numbers & Looking Into The Crystal Ball

While catching up on some reading over the weekend, I found two articles that both dealt with large issues that we’ll have to face over the next few decades. Predicting the future is always difficult, but sometimes the numbers can seem very compelling.

Oil & Commodities
Jeremy Grantham is co-founder of GMO, an investment management firm with $107B in assets. That doesn’t mean he necessarily knows the future. But in his April 2011 quarterly letter titled Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever, he does manage to put together a convincing argument that we are using up our natural resources very quickly, and we can’t continue on at this rate. It’s mathematically impossible.

Will we find other energy sources to replace cheap oil? Will technology allow us to do more with less? Probably, but I doubt the transition will be a smooth one. I think learning to be less dependent on natural resources (read: be frugal, efficient, and less wasteful) will even more important financially than it is now.

Medicare & Taxes
Paul Krugman is a Nobel-winning economist with a popular blog at the NY Times. In a recent Op-Ed titled Seniors, Guns and Money, if you strip out all the political stuff, you’ll find this: In the coming years, there will be either significant cuts in Medicare, or tax increases to pay for the rising heath care costs.

One, our population is aging, with more retired seniors being supported by fewer workers. Two, health care costs keeps rising on their own. As he says, “It’s just a matter of arithmetic.” Either the government will raises taxes to pay for all this, or there will be major cuts in benefits. My guess is both.

Link Dump: Tiny Apartment, Kindle eBook Sharing, Stripper Loans, Seasonal Sales, Law School Bait

Today, I find myself staring at a bunch of links that are mildly interesting, but nothing that inspires much additional research or spewing of opinion. Maybe I’m just tired and cranky. In any case, I think they are worthy of sharing.

Tiny Transformer Apartment
A fellow in Hong Kong has created an apartment with sliding walls that transforms what is basically one big room into many – a bathroom, kitchen, living room, or a bedroom simply appears with a bit of pushing. Quite cool in only 344 sq. ft. It’s easiest to watch the video to really understand it.

Lendle, eBookFling, BookLending
Apparently you can lend eBooks on Amazon Kindle now, but it’s not really built for easy sharing. If a publisher allows their eBooks to be sharable, you can lend out each book only once to another user for 14 days. If enough Kindle users sign up with a regular stream of books, it might actually be useful.

Mortgage Brokers Argue Over No-Doc Stated Income Loan For Stripper
Read the thread of emails from the bottom up. An exotic dancer in North Carolina applies for a stated income loan (no income or bank statements) based on an income of $140,000 a year. An excellent example of the keen underwriting skills shown across our great land in 2007.

Calendar of deals: What’s on sale when
Consumer Reports provides a general guide to what items tend to go on sale at the same time each year. For May, we’re looking at athletic apparel, camping gear, and lawn mowers.

Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win
The NY Times reports that some law schools are awarding more merit scholarships in order to attract better students. The catch is that the scholarships require you to be on the top third of the class, which if you give enough scholarships means some are guaranteed to promptly lose those scholarships and get hit with the full bill. Lesson to prospective law students: read the fine print.

PenFed Adds New Ways To Join – Red Cross Donors

Kind of hidden at the bottom of my last post was that discovery that there are new ways to join Pentagon Federal Credit Union, known commonly as PenFed. There are several reasons to join this credit union, including at-times competitive certificate of deposit (CD) rates, a credit card that gives you 5% cash back on gas, and low interest rates on mortgages and auto loans. (Their 5/5 ARM mortgage is relatively unique.)

In general, membership is open to the military, US government employees, or the family or household of existing members. Previously, the most open way to join was with by paying $20 to join the National Military Family Association. (I didn’t realize this was tax-deductible.)

However, recently two new ways have popped up on their eligibility page. First, you can become eligible by joining the Voices for America’s Troops group for a $15 one-time fee (not tax-deductible). Second, you can join by being a Red Cross blood donor (blood or money). I’ve donated both blood and money to the Red Cross, and many of you probably have as well so it may be a good time to join. You’ll need to keep $5 in a share account. Maybe somebody new can apply and tell me how they verify this, but I bet they are using the honor system. Thanks to reader Paul for the tip.

American Red Cross Employees and Volunteers. A volunteer is defined as anyone who provides wealth, wisdom, or work. Wealth can include a blood donation or a financial donation.

My Money Blog on FaceBook – Gift Card Giveaway

I’ve finally caught up to 2009 and created a Facebook Page for, with a little nudge from reader Amy. With this page, my hope is to be able to share links and other quick news that might not make it into a blog post, as well as interact with readers. Additionally, if you are a regular Facebook user and “Like” the page you’ll get all these things plus new post updates fed into your regular news feed.

To promote awareness for this bribe you into checking it out, I have set up a quick giveaway for a $15 eBay gift card that I bought from Groupon yesterday. Just visit the page and look on the left for the “Sweepstakes” tab. All you need is your e-mail. I am using the third-party app Wildfire to manage this giveaway, so you’ll need to approve a Facebook app. Contest ends Sunday night 4/3 at midnight Pacific.

You don’t need to “Like” the page to enter, but it would definitely provide me a nice ego boost. 😉

Bought A Pre-Made Emergency Bug-Out Bag

(As I publish this post, I see that California and Hawaii are on a tsunami watch after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan. Goodness.)

Earlier this week, my brother-in-law sent me a link to a post on the Art of Manliness blog on How to Make a Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Emergency Evacuation Survival Kit by a wilderness survival instructor. He knows that I have a fascination with survival gadgets in case of disaster or “revolution”.

From what I’ve read about governmental emergency response, in a real mass disaster, average citizens should not expect assistance for at least 72 hours if not a week. Chances are that it will be chaos and only the seriously ill will be attended to. You’ll be on your own for a while, so you should be prepared.

Ever since reading the book Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, I have been collecting bits and pieces of emergency gear. I went on a flashlight binge, buying a solar-powered flashlight, LED headlamps, big D-cell maglites, tons of cheap LED flashlights, and stocking up on batteries. I bought a couple big pump-style water filters, and small hiker-style water filters. I have other basics like a first-aid kit, and the standard case of water bottles on rotation.

But as a highly analytical person, I think I really just like spending hours and hours reading reviews and weighing the pros and cons of different brands of devices. As a result, I don’t actually have a fully equipped “bug-out bag“, and all my stuff is definitely not in a backpack ready to grab-and-go. Since the pursuit of perfection is often the enemy of good-enough, yesterday I went out and spent $100 on this pre-packaged Emergency Kit.

Yes, I already have a lot of the stuff inside already and yes, I probably could have made something better myself for cheaper, but I feel better already. (After I get the bag, I’ll see if I really can make something better for cheaper.)

Low Cost Stock Broker Alternatives 2011

If you’re thinking about switching online stock brokers, perhaps due to a price increase, here are some low-cost options. To avoid the common $50 to $75 ACAT transfer-out fee for moving your entire portfolio somewhere else, you can sell all your positions, transfer out the cash, and then have them close the account. You may be subject to capital gains taxes. Otherwise, look for a broker that will cover your transfer-out fee.

Still want free trades? WellsTrade still offers 100 free trades per year with assets of at least $25,000. They may be feeling squeezed as well, but with the ability to cross-sell with other Wells Fargo products like checking accounts and credit cards, they are probably still making money. Bank of America also offers free trades, but with a $25,000 cash balance only.

If you’re looking to build a low-cost, index fund portfolio, I would recommend opening a Vanguard Brokerage Services account with their unlimited free trades for all Vangaurd ETFs. Indeed, many other brokers offer some sort of free trades on a limited list of ETFs including Fidelity, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade. I personally like the selection at Vanguard the best.

If you want to trade individual stocks, the rock-bottom low-cost broker appears to be Just2Trade at $2.50 a trade. They never seem to do any promotions.

I also have an account with OptionsHouse at $3.95 a trade which uses the same Penson clearing firm. A FW member TheHimalayas posted that they were allowed to switch over to OptionsHouse with no ACAT fees because of this, but I haven’t verified this myself. I am happy with my OptionsHouse account, and the fact that they grandfathered us existing members at $2.95 a trade doesn’t hurt.

OptionsHouse also has a bunch of promos going on. If you open a new account with at least $3,000 and use the code FREE100, you’ll get 100 commission-free trades for stock or option trades executed within 60 days of funding the new account. Alternatively, you can get up to $100 in ACAT fees rebated to you when you transfer your account with a minimum value of $3,000 with the promo code ACAT100REFUND. They also have a 100 free trades + $125 in transfer fee rebates offer for IRAs with the promotion code IRAFREE.

Finally, another solid option at the $4.95 price point is TradeKing. TradeKing will credit your account transfer fees up to $150 charged by another brokerage firm when completing an account transfer for $2,500 or more when you send them a copy of your account statement with proof of the transfer charge.