Vanguard ETF vs. Mutual Fund Admiral Shares

Building My Portfolio BlocksAllan Roth has a new article called Why ETFs Won’t Replace Mutual Funds. Inside, he offers the following reasons why if you are buying Vanguard funds, he typically recommends the Admiral Shares mutual fund over the ETF.

Vanguard Mutual fund advantages

  1. Can buy fractional shares
  2. No premium or discount—all transactions are at net asset value
  3. No spreads between bid and ask
  4. Less cash drag, as dividends are reinvested more quickly
  5. Can do a tax-free exchange from mutual funds to ETFs, but not the reverse
  6. Can do automated dollar cost averaging

In the interest of fairness, I will offer up the following:

Vanguard ETF advantages

  • Lower minimum investment amounts. Usually one share is only about $100, and some brokers even offer fractional shares.
  • No purchase or redemption fees. No short-term trading fee. Vanguard has these on a few mutual funds, for example the Vanguard Global ex-US Real Estate Fund Admiral Share charges a 0.25% fee on both purchases and redemptions.
  • You can easily hold, buy, trade Vanguard ETFs at any brokerage firm. The cost to trade will be as with any stock. (Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs trade free with a Vanguard brokerage account.) You might prefer the customer service of another firm, or you might prefer the convenience of having everything together if you hold non-Vanguard investments. You might already have free trades anyway, for example with the Robinhood app.

Expense ratio is a tie with Admiral Shares. I don’t know if it an official “written in stone” polcy, but Vanguard has a long history of keeping the expense ratios of ETFs and Admiral Shares mutual funds the exact same (mostly $10,000 minimum investment). The Investor Class usually has a slightly higher expense ratio (mostly $3,000 minimum).

Tax-efficiency is a tie. I will add in this reminder that in the case of Vanguard (and only Vanguard as far as I know), the ETF and mutual funds share the same underlying investments and thus the same level of tax-efficiency, utilizing the benefits of both where possible. From the Vanguard ETF FAQ:

Are there any tax advantages to owning a Vanguard ETF®?
Because Vanguard ETFs are shares of conventional Vanguard index funds, they can take full advantage of the tax-management strategies available to both conventional funds and ETFs.

Conventional index funds can offset taxable gains by selling securities that have declined in value at a loss. In addition, they tend to trade less frequently than actively managed funds, which means less taxable income gets passed on to shareholders. Vanguard ETFs can also use in-kind redemptions to remove stocks that have greatly increased in value (which trigger large capital gains) from their holdings.

My money. I hold most of my portfolio in Vanguard mutual funds (Admiral Shares). One reason is that I am old and have a good amount of capital gains in the mutual funds bought before ETFs gained traction. I also hold some Vanguard ETFs, mostly bought back when ETFs were cheaper because I didn’t have enough money to qualify for Admiral shares. (Prior to 2010, the minimum for Admiral funds was $100,000! These days the minimums are mostly a more reasonable $10,000.) These days, I don’t have a strong preference, but I slightly prefer the simplicity of buying mutual funds.

Vanguard ETF tool. If you really want to pick at the details, Vanguard offers their own ETF vs. mutual fund cost comparison calculator. It’s pretty good and even includes things like historical bid-ask spreads.

Bottom line. There are certainly differences between ETFs and mutual funds. It is worth comparing the advantages and disadvantages before making your decision. However, in terms of the big picture, we are talking about relatively small differences. Being low-cost, transparent, and diversified are more important features. Given that both have their relative advantages, both ETFs and mutual funds will be around for a long time.

Personal Capital Review 2017: Automatically Track Net Worth and Portfolio Asset Allocation


Personal Capital is free financial website and app that links all of your accounts to track your spending, investments, and net worth. You provide your login information, and they pull in the information for you automatically so you don’t have to type in your passwords every day on 7 different websites (similar to Mint). Investment-specific features include tracking portfolio performance, benchmarking, and asset allocation analysis.

Net worth. You can add your home value, mortgage, checking/savings accounts, CDs, credit cards, brokerage, 401(k), and even stock options to build your customized Net Worth chart. You can also add investments manually if you’d prefer. I have a habit of accumulating bank and credit union accounts, so I find account aggregation quite helpful.


Cash flow. The Cash Flow section tracks your income and expenses by pulling in data from your bank accounts and credit cards. This chart compares where you are this month against the same time last month. If you hate budgeting, you may find it easier to view a real-time snapshot of your spending behavior. Their expense categorization tool is not as advanced as, as you can’t for example tell them to always classify “Time Warner Cable” as “Utilities” and not “Online Services” or whatever they do by default. The default is usually pretty accurate, but if it isn’t you have to change it manually.


Portfolio. This is where Personal Capital is better than many competing services, by analyzing my overall asset allocation, holdings, and performance relative to benchmarks. They also analyze your investment fees to see if you can get them reduced. I first signed up for Personal Capital four years ago, and since then my investments have gotten spread out even further. I now have investments at Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, TransAmerica (401k), and Merrill Edge. It’s nice to be able to see everything together in one picture.



For comparison, Mint does not allow manual input of investments and it did not break down my asset allocation correctly based on my linked accounts. In fact, all it shows is a big orange pie chart with “99.9% Not Sure” and “0.00 Other”. Not exactly helpful.

Personal Capital considers the major asset classes to be US stocks, International stocks, US Bonds, International Bonds, and Cash. The “Alternatives” classification includes Real Estate, Gold, Energy, and Commodities.

If you have one bank account, one credit card, and a 401(k), you may not need this type of account aggregation service. Life tends to get messy though, and this helps me maintain a high-level “big picture” view of things.

Security. As with most similar services, Personal Capital claims bank-level, military-grade security like AES 256-bit encryption. The background account data retrieval is run by Envestnet/Yodlee, which partners with other major financial institutions like Bank of America, Vanguard, and Morgan Stanley. Before you can access your account on any new device, you’ll receive an automated phone call, email, or SMS asking to confirm your identity.

How is this free? How does Personal Capital make money? Notice the lack of ads. Personal Capital makes money via a optional paid financial advisory service, and they are using this as a way to introduce themselves. (People who sign up for portfolio trackers have money…) Their management fees are 0.89% annually for the first $1 million, which is rather expensive to my DIY sensibilities. They are a legit, SEC-registered RIA fiduciary and currently manage over $3.6 billion. In my opinion, this status improves their credibility as an entity with access to my sensitive information.

Note that if you give them your phone number, they will call you to offer a free financial consultation. If you answer the phone or e-mail them that you don’t want to be contacted anymore, they will honor that request. However, if you simply ignore the phone calls, they will keep calling. Know that you can keep using the portfolio software for free no matter what happens. Therefore, if you aren’t interested, I would recommend simply being upfront with them. A simple “no thank you” and you’re good.

Bottom line. It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep that counts. The free financial dashboard software by Personal Capital helps you track your net worth, cash flow, and investments. I recommend it for tracking stock and mutual fund investments spread across different accounts. I’d link your accounts on the desktop site, but interact daily through their Android/iPhone/iPad apps for optimal convenience (log in with Touch ID or mobile-only PIN).

New Year’s Checklists: What Is Your Financial Priority List?


Updated for 2017. You’ve worked hard and you have some money to put away for your future self. What should you do with your money? There is no definitive list, but each person can create their own with common components. You may also want to revisit it again every year.

You can find some examples in this Vanguard blog and see what I had down in this 2006 blog post. Here’s my current list:

  1. Invest in your 401(k) or similar plan up until any match. Company matches typically offer you 50 cents to a dollar for each dollar that you contribute yourself, up to a certain amount. Add in the tax deferral benefits, and it adds up to a great deal. Estimated annual return: 25% to 100%. Even if you are unable to anything else in this list, try to do this one as it can also serve as an “emergency” emergency fund.
  2. Pay down your high-interest debt (credit cards, personal loans, car loans). If you pay down a loan at 12% interest, that’s the same as earning a 12% return on your money and higher than the average historical stock market return. Estimated annual return: 10-20%.
  3. Create an emergency fund with at least 3 months of expenses. It can be difficult, but I’ve tried to describe the high potential value of an emergency fund. For example, a bank overdraft or late payment penalty can be much higher than 10% of the original bill. Estimated return: Varies.
  4. Fund your Traditional or Roth IRA up to the maximum allowed. You can invest in stocks or bonds at any brokerage firm, and the tax advantages let you keep more of your money. Estimated annual return: 8%. Even if you think you are ineligible due to income limits, you can contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then roll it over to a Roth (aka Backdoor Roth IRA).
  5. Continue funding your 401(k) or similar to the maximum allowed. There are both Traditional and Roth 401(k) options now, although your investment options may be limited as long as you are with that employer. Estimated annual return: 8%.
  6. Save towards a house down payment. This is another harder one to quantify. Buying a house is partially a lifestyle choice, but if you don’t move too often and pay off that mortgage, you’ll have lower expenses afterward. Estimated return: Qualify of life + imputed rent.
  7. Fully fund a Health Savings Account. If you have an eligible health insurance plan, you can use an HSA effectively as a “Healthcare Roth IRA
    where your contributions can be invested in mutual funds and grow tax-deferred for decades with tax-free withdrawals when used towards eligible health expenses.
  8. Invest money in taxable accounts. Sure you’ll have to pay taxes, but if you invest efficiently then long-term capital gains rates aren’t too bad. Estimated annual return: 6%.
  9. Pay down any other lower-interest debt (2% car loans, educational loans, mortgage debt). There are some forms of lower-interest and/or tax-deductible debt that can be lower priority, but must still be addressed. Estimated annual return: 2-6%.
  10. Save for your children’s education. You should take care of your own retirement before paying off your children’s tuition. There are many ways to fund an education, but it’s harder to get your kids to fund your retirement. 529 plans are one option if you are lucky enough to have reached this step. Estimated return: Depends.

I wasn’t sure where to put this, but you should also make sure you have adequate insurance (health, disability, and term life insurance if you have dependents). The goal of most optional insurance is to cover catastrophic events, so ideally you’ll pay a small amount and hope to never make a claim.

What If You Invested $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years? 2007-2016 Edition


Instead of just looking at one year of returns, here’s an annual exercise that helps you look at the bigger picture. You may know the 10-year historical return of the S&P 500, but most of us didn’t just invest a big lump sum of money in 2007, and most of us don’t just invest in the S&P 500.

Investment benchmark. There are many possible choices for an investment benchmark, but I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. This all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly-diversified, and available in many employer retirement plans as well open to anyone with an IRA. In the early accumulation phase, this fund is 90% stocks (both domestic and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice where you could easily do worse over the long run.

Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. (It was $4k in 2007, but has been $5k or higher since.) That means a couple could put away at least $10,000 a year in tax-advantaged accounts. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark.

A decade of real-world savings. To create a simple-yet-realistic scenario, what would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years. You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the handy tools at Morningstar and a quick Google spreadsheet, we get this:


In this case, I would say that ending up with a gain of over $50,000 for every $10k annual investment is nothing to sneeze at. If you put in $20k every year, your gains would have been over $100,000. Some of that money was invested right before the crash in 2008, and some has only been in the market for a few years. Not every year will have turned out to be a great year to invest, but taking it all together provides a more calm, balanced picture.

Investment Returns By Asset Class, 2016 Year-End Review


Although I am not always successful, I’ve been trying to pay less attention to the daily, weekly, even monthly movements of the markets. Once every few months, I will update my portfolio spreadsheet and make sure that I am investing new money towards my target asset allocation, but that’s about it. That said, I do enjoy a good year-end review. Here are the trailing 1-year returns for select asset classes as benchmarked by passive mutual funds and ETFs. Return data was taken from Morningstar after market close 12/30/16.



Commentary. If anything, I think 2016 reminded us that although many people are paid essentially to make predictions, most of them aren’t very good at it. Indeed, the more important skill is explaining why things actually turned out the way they did in hindsight. That way, you have a reason to believe their next prediction…

As 2016 ended, I was a bit surprised to see that every asset class listed above had positive returns. Accordingly, most people who owned a diversified portfolio in 2016 had decent returns. The Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (90% diversified stocks and 10% bonds) was up about 8.9% in 2016. My personal portfolio (overall 70% stocks/30% bonds) was up about 7.8% in 2016.

As I get closer to having to live off of my portfolio, I am increasingly focused on the amount of dividends, interest, and rental distributions that my portfolio gives off. (This is in the low 2% range.) I know that total return is more important, but seeing the cash come in makes me more comfortable. I like the analogy to an investment property. If you get a reliable $2,000 in rent coming in every month like clockwork, you care less about the market value of the house itself.

Grit, Early Retirement, and Financial Freedom


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

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

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

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

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

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

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill x Effort = Achievement

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

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

Talent x Effort (Working) = Income

Income x Effort (Saving) = Financial Freedom

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

More Charts: Withdrawal Rates and Portfolio Longevity

Here’s another pair of tidy charts about safe withdrawal rates, or the amount you can safely withdraw from your retirement portfolio without running out. They are taken from this Blackrock page, specifically their “one-pager” 2-page PDF.

First up, this chart shows how a $1 million portfolio would have done over a 30-year period, given withdrawal rates between 4% and 8%. They specifically chose a start date of December 31, 1972 because it was right before a large drop in the stock market. Click to enlarge.


No matter what the withdrawal rate, the total balance dropped from $1,000,000 down to roughly $600,000 in the first three years. The hypothetical portfolio was 50% stocks and 50% bonds. That must have been quite stressful. The chart gives you a feel of how a lower withdrawal rate can extend the longevity of your portfolio.

The second chart uses Monte Carlo probabilistic modeling to show you the percent chance that your assets will last for retirement, given several variables. You can adjust the time period (20 to 30 years), the portfolio asset allocation (from 20% to 100% stocks) and your withdrawal rate (1% to 10%). Click to enlarge.


I wouldn’t use these as definitive numbers, and there are other similar scenario generators out there. Just consider them another data point to add to the collection. Note that all the scenarios above assumed a fixed withdrawal strategy as opposed to a more flexible dynamic withdrawal strategy.

Vanguard Advice on Dynamic Retirement Spending Rules

eggosThere is a lot of focus on how to accumulate a big nest egg, but possibly even more complicated is how to spend it down. Vanguard Research has released a new whitepaper called From assets to income: A goals-based approach to retirement spending [pdf] (companion article). The three major topics covered are (1) spending rules, (2) portfolio construction, and (3) tax-efficient withdrawal ordering in retirement. This is a long, dense paper covering a lot of ground, so here are my highlights of just the dynamic spending rules.

The two major competing goals of spending strategies are:

  1. You want your nest egg last for the rest of your life. Well… yeah. If your portfolio drops 25%, your stress level goes way up.
  2. You want a consistent level of income. Everyone likes a reliable stream of income, especially if you’re used to a reliable paycheck during your working years. Having income drop by 25% on year can also be quite painful.

One major consideration is your initial, or target portfolio withdrawal rate. Here’s a figure showing how four primary factors can affect this choice: time horizon, asset allocation, flexibility in annual spending, and how certain you want to be that your portfolio won’t be depleted.


Another major consideration is how to adjust your withdrawal each subsequent year. Vanguard supports a hybrid solution called “dynamic spending” that is a compromise between someone who completely ignores market performance (reliable income most important) and someone who is completely dependent on market performance (portfolio lasting forever most important).


Here’s how dynamic spending works.

  1. Once a year, multiply your current portfolio balance by your (initial) target portfolio withdrawal rate. This is your unadjusted target spending for the year. For example, $1 million times 5% = $50,000.
  2. Determine your ceiling (maximum) and floor (minimum) based on last year‘s spending number. For example, you may say that it can only increase by 5% or decrease by 2.5%. If this is your first year, just stick with your existing number.
  3. Compare the two numbers. If your unadjusted number exceeds the ceiling amount, spend the ceiling. If your unadjusted number is below the floor amount, spend the floor. If unadjusted number is in between, the unadjusted amount becomes your final number.

For example, if last year’s spending was $50,000, then your upper and lower “bumpers” for this year will be $48,750 and $52,500. No matter what the market does, you’ll stay in between these two numbers. You can see a worked-out example using actual numbers in this previous WSJ article.

Your flexibility is rewarded with better portfolio survival odds. Here’s the results of an analysis with the following assumptions: moderate asset allocation of 50% stocks (60% U.S. equity, 40% non-U.S. equity) and 50% bonds (70% U.S. bonds, 30% non-U.S. bonds), a time horizon of 35 years, and initial portfolio withdrawal rate of 5%.


You can see that your portfolio success is improved significantly, even with a relatively high target withdrawal rate of 5%. You can see here that Vanguard picked the 5% ceiling and the 2.5% floor because it provided a portfolio survival rate of 85% over a 35-year time horizon.

Being flexible during periods of poor performance is most important. Vanguard found that a retirees’ ability to accept changes in their floor helps their portfolio more than increasing their ceiling hurts it. Here’s a modified chart from the paper that shows how your portfolio survival rate improves with a lower floor percentage.


You have to be careful, as having your withdrawals drop 5% a year for 5 straight years might be more than you can handle. You should carefully examine how much flexbility you have in your spending, taking into account other income sources like Social Security. In general, the numbers support Vanguard’s suggestion of a 5% ceiling and 2.5% floor as a good starting point.

Finally, here are some initial/target withdrawals that will get you 85% survival certainty for various time horizons and asset allocations. Click to enlarge. I’d prefer to see some numbers with a 95% survival certainty.


Since my time horizon is (hopefully) closer to 50 years and I want a significantly higher survival certainty, I am personally thinking about a 3% target withdrawal rate combined with a 5% ceiling and 2.5% floor.

Schwab Target Date Index Funds Review


Charles Schwab has announced Schwab Target Index Funds, a new series of “all-in-one” target date mutual funds that are made up entirely of in-house Schwab Index ETFs and a Schwab cash mutual fund. Their existing offering Schwab Target Funds differs in being significantly more expensive and including a mix of passive and actively-managed funds. Each fund will have a target date between 2010 and 2060, spaced in 5-year increments. Let’s take a closer look.

What’s inside? The portfolio for any given target year is composed of 9 different asset classes. Here is a graphical illustration of their “glide path”, or how the asset allocation changes relative to the target retirement date. (Source. Click image to enlarge.)


Here’s a 2016 snapshot of what every fund is holding by target date (Source. Click image to enlarge.):


Overall, the glide path conforms to industry norms, with high equity at younger ages and lower equity as you reach and pass retirement. Here are the ETFs and mutual funds that represent each asset class.

  • US Large Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Large-Cap ETF (SCHX)
  • US Small Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF (SCHA)
  • International Developed Equity – Schwab International Equity ETF (SCHF)
  • Emerging Markets Equity – Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE)
  • Real Estate – Schwab U.S. REIT ETF (SCHH)
  • Short-Term Bond – Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO)
  • Intermediate-Term Bond – Schwab U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ)
  • Inflation-Protected Bond – Schwab U.S. TIPS ETF (SCHP)
  • Cash – Schwab Variable Share Price Money Fund — Ultra Shares (SVUXX)

How much do they cost? What are the investment minimums?

  • Individuals can buy Investor Shares with an expense ratio of 0.13%. The minimum initial investment is $100.
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plans can access the Institutional Shares with an expense ratio of 0.08%. There is no minimum initial investment.

An interesting thing to note is that the mutual funds technically have an extra layer of management fees and “other fees” on top of the expenses from the underlying ETFs and mutual funds. However, Schwab has agreed to cap the expenses at 0.13% for Investor Shares and 0.08% for Institutional Shares. This is supposed to stay in place “for so long as the investment adviser serves as the adviser to the fund”… they might want to re-word that.

In any case, even with the cap, the Investor Shares still cost more than the expenses from the underlying investments. You are basically paying 0.05% to 0.08% for some simple asset allocation. That means you could build your own portfolio using the same Schwab ETFs at a lower cost. You could also get rid of the (unnecessary in my opinion) cash component, which currently only yields 0.43% with another temporary fee waiver as of 8/26/2016. Personally, that’s what I would rather do, but I will admit that some folks will do better with an automated asset allocation.

How does it compare with Vanguard Target Retirement Funds? This is the natural comparison, as Vanguard’s target funds have the most assets and they used to be the cheapest before Schwab came along. Across the series, the expense ratio for their retail fund varies between 0.14% and 0.16%. You can now see why Schwab has priced their funds just below that at the “sale price” of 0.13%. Schwab loves to be cheaper by a basis point or two.

In terms of asset allocation and glide path, here are some side-by-side comparisons:

  • Vanguard has a equity split of 60% domestic and 40% international. Schwab has a equity split of 67% domestic and 33% international (if you consider the 4% US REITs as US stock).
  • Vanguard starts at 90% equity max and reaches 50% equity at retirement age. Schwab starts at 95% equity max and reaches 40% equity at retirement age.
  • Asset classes that Schwab includes specifically, which Vanguard does not: REITs, inflation-protected bonds (TIPS), and cash.
  • Asset classes that Vanguard includes specifically, which Schwab does not: International bonds.

Commentary. Schwab is definitely serious about index funds. They’ve built their own set of low-cost index mutual funds and index ETFs to compete with Vanguard and iShares. They already have an automated portfolio “robo-advisor” called Intelligent Portfolios, which uses these index funds as well as some “smart beta” funds. They’ve added these Target Index funds to grab the 401(k) and individual markets including IRAs. Put another way, they sell flour and butter, and they also sell pre-made pies and cakes.

This is a long-term play for Schwab, as they’ve all but admitted that the index ETFs themselves are currently losing money, while hoping to either make up the difference in other fees, services, or products somewhere down the line (like when interest rates rise again). Schwab will surely grab much more assets from employer retirement plans as a result of this move. In my limited experience with them, I have found Schwab to have solid customer service, at times in fact better than Vanguard. If they can leverage their customer service and human component, I think this is a smart move on their part.

However, if given the choice, I’d recommend my family to buy Vanguard Target Retirement funds first because Vanguard is not a for-profit company and I trust Vanguard more to keep customer interests first over the long run. (I believe that Schwab includes cash where it isn’t necessary in order to increase their future fees from money market funds, which are an important contributor to profits. This isn’t as significant here as in their robo-advisor product, but it will matter more as interest rates rise. More importantly, Vanguard doesn’t play such games.) However, big-picture-wise they are very similar. I’d gladly recommend that they buy a Schwab Target Index fund in their 401(k) or 403(b) plan as they are likely the best options if available. This is a positive development overall for individual investors.

Using Your 401(k) and Roth IRA as Emergency Funds

savebuttonbankWe’ve all heard that you should keep an emergency fund in case of unexpected expenses or unemployment. But what if you don’t have the cash? Personal finance author Jonathan Clements presents a mathematical argument for using your 401(k) as an emergency fund in his recent article The Terrible Twenties. Here’s how the math works.

Let’s say you are in the 15% federal income tax bracket and you put $2,000 in your employer’s 401(k) plan. Your out-of-pocket cost would be $1,700, thanks to the initial tax savings. At the same time, your employer matches your contributions at 50 cents on the dollar, with the matching contribution vested immediately. Result: Your $2,000 investment gets you a $1,000 match, bringing your account balance to $3,000.

If you are then laid off and forced to liquidate your retirement account to pay living expenses, you might lose 15% to federal income taxes, plus another 10% to the tax penalty for making a retirement account withdrawal before age 59½. That combined 25% hit would still leave you with $2,250, well above your $1,700 out-of-pocket cost.

To be fair, this isn’t nearly as radical as it seems. Most prioritized lists of “where I should put $XXX?” will put a 401(k) up to the company match as the #1 priority, even above a cash emergency fund.. A company match gives you a way to earn a 50% or 100% instant, risk-free return on your money. This is a rare opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up.

However, not mentioned is that after you exhaust any 401(k) match, you could also consider contributing to a Roth IRA and using that as your emergency fund. The primary reason for this is that Roth IRA contributions can be taken out at any time, without penalty. Unlike Traditional IRAs, withdrawals from Roth IRAs are subject to ordering rules (see Chapter 2 of IRS Pub 590-B), which state that you always withdraw your own contributions first.

In either case, since you can only contribute a certain amount to 401(k) and/or IRAs every year, it would be wise to take advantage of this tax-sheltered space as much as possible. Don’t make a withdrawal if you can avoid it, but if you have limited options, it can make sense to contribute first and hope you can keep the money invested for retirement.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income, 2016 Mid-Year Update

dividendmono225I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income. Who doesn’t? The problem is that you can’t just buy stocks with the absolute highest dividend yields and junk bonds with the highest interest rates without giving up something in return. There are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking only at income. My goal is to generate portfolio income that will keep up with inflation.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar quote pages. Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 7/31/16) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.83% 0.44%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.98% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 2.71% 0.65%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 3.14% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.21% 0.19%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
20% 2.82% 0.56%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 0.82% 0.16%
Totals 100% 2.18%


The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.18%. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $21,800 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (I will note that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.) For comparison, the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.04%, taken 7/31/2016.

Both of those yield numbers are significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often quoted for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is even lower than the 3% withdrawal rate that I usually use as a rough benchmark. If I use 3%, my theoretical income would cover my current annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am still slightly short. I will admit that planning on spending only 2% is most likely too conservative. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years.

I still like this income yield calculation as very conservative lower bound that adjusts for stock market valuations (valuations go up probably means dividend yield go down) as well as interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future). As an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40 or even 50 years ahead of me, I like having safe numbers given the volatility of stock returns and the associated sequence of returns risk.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation, 2016 Mid-Year Update

portpie_blank200Here is a roughly mid-year 2016 update on my investment portfolio holdings. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401ks, IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation


I try to pick asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. In addition, I don’t have enough “faith” in their fundamentals to hold them through an extended period of underperformance (i.e. don’t buy what you don’t can’t stick with).

Our current target ratio is 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and income taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings


Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Since my last quarterly update, I’ve done the “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” thing and continued dollar-cost-averaging into the same investment mix. Nothing seems like a great deal, but I remain optimistic. I have not made any sell transactions. I still hold WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES) and WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS), as I still like the idea of holding a bit extra of those asset classes even though the ETFs available are not all that great.

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I really don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. (I should note that shares of TIP and VIPSX are up roughly 7% YTD, but the forward real yield is now negative). My taxable bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds. The average duration across all of them is roughly 4.5 years.

A simple benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of -0.87% for 2015 and +6.61% YTD (as of 7/31/16).

I like tracking my dividend and interest income more than overall market movements. In a separate post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio along with how that compares to my expenses.