Archives for June 2009

Assorted Links and the Tuesday 10

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

The Accidental Slumlord
A writer whose lives in Massachusetts buys a two-unit rental property in Pocatello, Idaho for $62,750 during the housing boom. Read what happens when he actually visits his house and deals with his tenants.

OptionsHouse Brokerage – $3.95 Stock Trades
Another new discount online brokerage with cheap trades, but actually won #1 in Trade Experience in recent Barron’s Broker Survey, beating out E-Trade. Offers flat-rate pricing at $3.95 for stock trades regardless of number of shares, and $9.95 flat for options (no per-contract fee). $1,000 to open, $100 balance needed to trade. Anyone try them?

New research sheds light on the habits of successful savers
Includes a lot of expected characteristics, but worth a skim to see how you compare.

AMC Theatres A.M. Cinema
“A.M.Cinema, a new program providing early-morning guests the opportunity to see first-run movies at the best ticket price of the day. The program invites moviegoers to visit their local AMC theatre before noon Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays to enjoy ticket prices of $4, $5 or $6 depending on the theatre and market.”

F*** my job, Selling Everything!
Found in the Best of Craigslist section. Have you ever had the urge to simply sell everything you own, cash out your investments, quit your job, and just travel the world until the money runs out? This guy did.

Credit Bailout: Issuers Slashing Card Balances
People are haggling directly with credit card companies to lower their amount owed. However, the articles neglects to go into detail about the impact on credit scores. I suspect that there will still be significant damage to your credit if you “settle” in this way.

Tuesday 10: Good stuff from other personal finance blogs

myFICO Promotional Codes

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I am not a big fan of purchasing credit scores. I can understand why a lender would pay to get a calculation of your likelihood of defaulting on your loan, but if it’s based on our data, why do we have to pay just to see it? Even if I am declined for a loan, I can only see my report, not the numerical score that supposedly defines my financial life.

There are plenty of “fake” credit scores out there, but there is no way to get your real FICO scores anywhere but myFICO. If you must order your score, use the promotional code CPPSAVINGS to get 20% off all credit report and monitoring services orders. It’s the best coupon I found that worked:

Whenever you do buy a score, I would recommend trying to correlate your score and the current information on your report. Then you can start to learn beyond the generic rules they spit out, and see how changes really affect your score. I’ve applied for 12 credit cards and canceled 5 with almost no affect to my scores – despite all the “rules” – only to have a huge balance on my mom’s credit card (with me as authorized user) show up and drop it by 30 points.

An possibly cheaper alternative is to sign up for a free 30-day trial of ScoreWatch, which includes two free Equifax scores and reports. Just remember to cancel as soon as you decide you don’t need it anymore.

* Experian no longer allows Fair Isaac to sell FICO scores to consumers at all (even though lenders still buy and use them). But they’ll happily charge you money for their own attempt at a credit score.

A Bad Argument Of Why Buy-And-Hold Is Bad Advice

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

A regular reader Don sent me a post entitled Long Term Buy And Hold Is Still Bad Advice. Okay, fine, everyone and their mom has been telling me this recently. But I read it, and it was such a bad analysis that I had to rebut it here. I think Mish writes a lot of useful and thought-provoking stuff on his popular blog, but he really missed a big error here.

First, a recap of the post. Basically, a guy called “TC” has the idea of comparing S&P 500 returns vs. that of 6-month CDs. I’ll ignore the fact that this has been done many times already. But wait! He comes up with a startling conclusion. For long periods of time, the S&P 500 has actually lagged or been about equal to the returns of safe and steady 6-month CDs. (!!!) His graph:

Keeping my parents in mind, you’re probably wondering how someone did by simply investing in 6 month CDs. The answer is for any holding period of less than 25 years, a stock market investor who made regular and equal contributions has actually underperformed a CD investor! Yes, you read that right for time periods of 1 – 20 years a CD investor outperformed the stock market by 1.6 to 20.1 annual percentage points.

Additionally, if one extends the time window to 50 years (clearly “long term”) CDs again have outperformed the stock market by 0.3 annual percentage points. Even when one extends out the time period to the full 59+ years (the start of the S&P 500 index); the stock market has outperformed short-term CDs by a mere 0.2 annual percentage points – not much of an equity premium.

The sky is falling! Oh wait, there’s a little fine print.

TC is ignoring dividends

Let’s bold that. The analysis and data above completely ignores the dividend return of the S&P 500. This is like buying an investment property and ignoring the rent payments coming in. What? There are checks coming in every month from the tenants? Nah, let’s not cash those.

Let’s take a look at the historical dividend yield of the S&P 500, courtesy of Bespoke Investments:

For the periods compared above, the a true owner of the S&P 500 has earned 2-6% annually from dividends alone, with a long-term average of 3-4%. Now, if you add another 3-4% to the analysis above, you see again the long-term equity premium. Instead of 8% vs. 8%, it’d be more like 12% vs. 8%. That’s an enormous difference.

(I also wonder where TC got his/her data for historical 6-month CD rates. Are these averages, since every bank offers vastly different rates, and doesn’t report them to a central bureau? How does one get the average 6-month CD rate across the country in 1959? Usually studies like this use 6-month US Treasury Bill rates instead, as the data is reliable and widely-accepted.)

Massive Conflict of Interest?
Another argument given as to why buy-and-hold is bad is because there is a conflict of interest between investment advisors and their clients, as they have a “vested interest in keeping clients 100% invested 100% of the time, even if they know it is wrong.”

Actually, brokers get paid the more you trade than anything else. They earn money based on total assets, but a huge chunk is from commissions. This means convincing you to buy stocks when they’re hot (tech stocks)…. and then sell them (cash!)… and then buy others (mortgage-backed securites)…. and then sell them (cash!)… and then buy new ones. Like right now, they’ll happily sell you gold or some non-scary bond funds!

True buy-and-hold means very little trading. At Vanguard, I buy-and-hold(-and rebalance) for a total cost of about 0.20% of assets annually. That’s $20 a year per $10,000 invested. Guess what the average expense ratio of a money market fund is? According to Lipper Inc., it was 0.60% at the end of 2007. The Vanguard Prime Money Market fund (VMMXX) has an expense ratio of 0.28%. The S&P 500 fund (VFINX) charges 0.18%. Even at Vanguard, they actually get less money from me if I hold stocks instead of cash.

Same Old Story
In any case, I grow weary. Bonds have outperformed Stocks both recently and other times in the past, even if people ignored it. This is why investors need to have a balance of both stocks and bonds/cash, not just 100% one or the other. If you needed the money soon, then you should have been at the most 60/40 in stocks/bonds, if not even more conservative. In that case, your portfolio would have dropped about 15% over the last couple of years up until today, and you’d be worried but not broke.

If you use the correct numbers (ahem), stocks still have higher historical returns over extended periods, with many rocky patches. We balance this knowledge with the also-historically steadier but lower returns of bonds and cash. That’s really about it. As for the future, nobody knows, as much as they’d like to suggest they do.

VanguardAdvantage: All-In-One Checking Account At Vanguard?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I saw that Vanguard has a new account called the VanguardAdvantage account. On the surface, it looks great. In addition to having full brokerage features (buy individual stocks, ETFs, options, and even brokered CDs), you also get full checkwriting abilities, ATM access, and online billpay. Since I have most of my retirement assets there, this would be good tool for added convenience and simplicity.

But then I found the catch. You need to have $500,000 invested at Vanguard to even be eligible for the account. Even at $500,000-$999,999 in assets, you have to pay a $30 annual fee for the privilege of getting what is basically a checking account, and you must pay $4.95 per month for Online Billpay service. No ATM refunds either (free at PNC banks only).

Vanguard seems to have an overall policy of grudgingly offering services that their customers ask for, but only if the less-wealthy are willing to pay a premium. I feel like they don’t want to stray from their basic roots of low-cost mutual funds, or maybe they just don’t want the hassle, but their competitors are leaving them behind.

Checking account features. For example, I can get the brokerage + checkwriting combo for free at Fidelity or Schwab, with no minimum balance requirements and ATM rebates. I don’t know about Chuck, but Fidelity has as-good if not better customer service reps than Vanguard.

Commission costs. The Vanguard Brokerage Services (VBS) account still charges $25 for an online trade + a $30 annual fee if you have less than $100,000 invested. Contrast that with 100+ free trades annually at only $25,000 in assets at both Zecco and Wellstrade.

I guess I’ll have to wait until I have a million dollars to get free checking at Vanguard. Doesn’t that just sound odd?

Discover Miles Card: Rewards / Travel Credit Redemption Info

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Well, looks like I’ve squeezed all the free money out of another credit card offer. This time it is the Miles Card by Discover. It used to have a good 12-month no-fee 0% balance transfer offer, but has recently added a balance transfer fee. However, it does offer 0% on purchases for 6 months.

In addition, this card still offers a sign-up bonus of 12,000 Miles. You get 1,000 Miles each month you make a purchase for 12 months. A mindless way to get the points is to sign the card up for automatic billing of your cell phone bill (or similar bill).

Discover Miles Redemption Options

However, the Miles you earn with this card are not affiliated with any airline. So what’s one of these special Miles worth? The wording is very vague, and not until you already have the card do you get the details. So here they are…

The most efficient way to redeem is for travel credit. You can redeem 10,000 Miles for a $100 cash credit towards any travel purchase (airfare, hotel, car rental, cruise) from any vendor or website. Now that I’ve actually done the redemption with my Hotwire purchase, I am happy to report that it was hassle-free.

You simply charge the purchase to your card, and request the credit online. The system automatically checks that you have a travel purchase, and approves the request. In a few business days the $100 shows up in your account:

Other redemption options
The alternatives are not that great. If you travel at all, I would wait and go with the travel credit.

  • Gift cards. 7,000 Miles gets you $50 gift card at stores such as Macy’s, Gap, or Shell gas stations. You can also redeem 4,000 miles for a $25 gift card.
  • Cash. 5,000 Miles gets you $25 deposited into your bank account.

Double Miles & Other Promos
For most purchases, you get 1 Mile per dollar spent. The default feature of the card is that you get 2 Miles per dollar on the first $3,000 in travel and restaurant purchases each year. There is also a rotating category each month. For example, you get double miles on up to $500 in purchases at gas stations throughout June and July.

Even with the double miles here and there, this is not a top rewards card. However, you can still extract $100+ out of it with no annual fee, plus you get 0% interest for 6 months.

Here are additional credit cards with sign-up bonuses of $100 or more.

5-Step Guide to Finding The Lowest Rate For Hotel Rooms

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Whenever I’m not traveling on the company dime, I usually run through a checklist to find the lowest price on hotel stays. Let’s say you’re like me and need to find a room in New York City for a few nights, checking in August 30th. I’d like to stay somewhere near Times Square in Manhattan, close to all the sights and action. I’m also leaning towards something reliable and not bargain basement – this is NYC and I don’t want a Hotel Carter experience involving bed bugs, roaches, and urine smells. (Note this for later: At their website, they charge $99 a night.)

1. Check the hotel’s direct website.
If you have some favorite chains due to corporate agreements or loyalty points, then this narrows your search down and you can try and check directly with their website. For example, there is Hilton.com, IHG.com, and StarwoodHotels.com for Sheraton/Westin/W Hotels. Here are some quotes (all prices not including taxes):

Hilton Times Square, $195
Hilton New York, $169
W NY Times Square, $272
Westin NY Times Square, $232
Sheraton Manhattan Times Square, $189
Four Points Midtown, $157

This gives me a benchmark to work from. Another benefit here is that they usually have some form of “Best Rate Guarantee”. Starwood will beat a competing vendor’s price by either 10% or give you 2,000 Starpoints.

2. Try to use loyalty program points.
An extension of the above, at times it is better to redeem your points, or some combination of cash and points. For example, the Westin NY Times Square would only cost 12,000 Starpoints per night, or 48,000 points for 5 nights (avg. 9,600/night). Keep in mind the point redemption even covers taxes, which would turn the $232 listed above to $268 per night. Too bad I’m low on Starpoints after visiting Madrid.

You can earn Starpoints faster and get up to 25,000 bonus Starpoints with the Starwood co-branded American Express card.

3. Use the travel search engines. Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, etc.
You know the drill. Actually, you can search most of these all at once through Kayak.com. Sometimes one site like Expedia may have special rates for a block of rooms that aren’t available on other sites.

From Kayak, I note that the prices for the Starwood and Hilton hotels were basically the same. After sorting by price, I see that the Holiday Inn NYC is slightly cheaper at $160/night + taxes. A bit farther away in Midtown East there is the DoubleTree Metropolitan at $149. Not too bad. Oh look, Hotel Carter is discounted at $67. Too bad it doesn’t include the cost of burning your clothes afterwards!

4. Use opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline.
Finally, there are what are called “opaque” travel sites, because you don’t know the name of the hotel until you’ve paid for the non-refundable room. You must decide only based on the star quality rating and general neighborhood of the hotel, which means you can’t look up reviews easily either. Priceline is done using a reverse auction format, while Hotwire just gives you the price.

On Hotwire, I find that I can get 2-star hotel (examples given are Comfort Inn, La Quinta, Days Inn) for $93+tax ($112 total) in a large and vague area that basically covers everything south of Central Park.

5. Using database sites to reverse engineer the hotel information. Sites like BiddingForTravel and BetterBidding gather information from successful purchasers to remove some of the mystery.

For example, what exactly might be a 3.5 star hotel in the Midtown area? Does Hotwire call the Westin Time Square 4 stars, or 3.5 stars, or 4.5 stars? What if Priceline disagrees? What one site calls Midtown West might be Midtown Central to another.

Well, here is a list of hotels in NYC that Hotwire and Priceline has sold rooms for, complete with star rating and neighborhood. From this list, the only 2* in Central Park listed is WooGo Lincoln Center. Of course this might not be the hotel you end up with, but it is a good possibility and you get a sense of quality (mixed reviews).

In addition, you can find a list of winning bids posted by users, and BetterBidding even has a calendar for easy searching. Here are the applicable ones for my situation:

Hotwire Winning Bids
4*, Central Park, Empire Hotel, $139
3.5*, Midtown Central, Sheraton Times Square, $119
3.5*, Midtown East, Millennium UN, $116

Priceline Winning Bids
4*, Midtown Central, Sheraton NY Towers, $125
4*, Midtown West, Sheraton NY Towers, $115, $110, $126
4*, Times Square, Westin TS, $169

Putting things together, if Hotwire is offering me a 3.5* hotel in Midtown Central on these dates, it is most likely be the Sheraton Times Square. Or, in the same price range, I could likely get the Sheraton NY Towers. After reading some reviews, I chose the Times Square location. The prices keep fluctuating, but when I was searching it was at $113. That’s a pretty good price for a solid hotel.

To be the most aggressive, I would go onto Priceline and bid about 20% below the Hotwire price for a 3.5* hotel in the Times Square region, say $95. I don’t want to bid too low, because each time I get rejected, I must change a search parameter (star rating, neighborhood) to bid again. Also, I run the risk of getting another 3.5* hotel that I don’t like as much.

So I held my breath, used Hotwire… and got it. Whew! In the end, I got what I wanted at 40% off the “guaranteed” low price, $113 vs. $189 per night at the Sheraton Times Square.. Over few nights, that’s hundreds of dollars in savings.

To think, if you did no research, you might end up with the Hotel Carter for $99/night! If you have tips to improve this process, please leave a comment below! I know I could try hostels or even couchsurfing and such, but that’s not what I was looking for on this trip.

Create a Balanced & Simple Portfolio With Five ETFs

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

In a recent Money magazine article about ETF Investing, there is a nice illustration of a simple and diversified portfolio made entirely of ETFs by author/money manager Rick Ferri:

Put simply, ETFs are essentially mutual funds that trade like stocks. (Note the ticker symbols included above.) Hence the name Exchange Traded Funds! You tend to get lower annual expense ratios than mutual funds, but you must also pay a stock commission on each and every trade. They also tend be better in taxable accounts because they often don’t shed as many capital gains. Since there are now a million types of ETFs out there, it’s good to remind everyone about the great portfolio building blocks out there.

If you trade large amounts at a time or have cheap enough trades, then ETFs can be a good option. Otherwise, even $10 a trade can really add up. If you have $25,000 of total stock value, you can move your account to Zecco Trading for 10 free trades per month, or to WellsTrade (by Wells Fargo) for 100 free trades per year (special PMA checking account required).

Done this way, the total cost of this portfolio would be under $20 a year for every $10,000 invested. Less money in a broker’s or manager’s pocket means more for you.

* Update: Here are 8 more model portfolios that you can replicate with ETFs these days.

Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction on Rental Property

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

As pointed out by reader Jason, another consideration when evaluating the cashflow potential for a rental property is whether you can deduct the mortgage interest on your taxes. To see what the rules are, I always like to start directly at the source, which meant a stroll through those fun IRS publications.

First, I started with IRS Pub. 936, Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. There is the basic definition of a “qualified” home:

For you to take a home mortgage interest deduction, your debt must be secured by a qualified home. This means your main home or your second home. A home includes a house, condominium, cooperative, mobile home, house trailer, boat, or similar property that has sleeping, cooking, and toilet facilities.

Then there is the question of how much you live in the second home:

Second home rented out. If you have a second home and rent it out part of the year, you also must use it as a home during the year for it to be a qualified home. You must use this home more than 14 days or more than 10% of the number of days during the year that the home is rented at a fair rental, whichever is longer. If you do not use the home long enough, it is considered rental property and not a second home. For information on residential rental property, see Publication 527.

If you live in it enough, it is treated as a “vacation” property and you can deduct the mortgage interest. In general, you are limited to the interest paid on the qualified loan limit of $1,100,000 for “home acquisition debt” combined for both first and second houses.

However, for a full-time rental, we are led to IRS Pub. 527, Residential Rental Property, which states:

Generally, the expenses of renting your property, such as maintenance, insurance, taxes, and interest, can be deducted from your rental income.

Interest expense. You can deduct mortgage interest you pay on your rental property. Chapter 4 of Publication 535 explains mortgage interest in detail.

Okay, now I’m off to IRS Pub. 535, Business Expenses, specifically the section on Interest.

You can generally deduct as a business expense all interest you pay or accrue during the tax year on debts related to your trade or business. Interest relates to your trade or business if you use the proceeds of the loan for a trade or business expense. It does not matter what type of property secures the loan. You can deduct interest on a debt only if you meet all the following requirements.

* You are legally liable for that debt.
* Both you and the lender intend that the debt be repaid.
* You and the lender have a true debtor-creditor relationship.

There are special rules for the capitalization of interest if you actually build the home yourself.

Summary
I am not a tax professional, but from reading the above publications, it appears that mortgage interest on a 100% rental home is not tax-deductible as an itemized deduction as your primary house may be.

However, chances are that it is an eligible expense that can offset your rental income and still reduce your tax burden in a similar manner. If you made $10,000 in annual rental income but paid $8,000 in mortgage interest, and ignoring other factors like depreciation, you’d only owe income taxes on the difference of $2,000. (Dealing with writing-off rental losses is for another post.) The amount paid that lowers your loan principal is not an eligible expense.

As long as you have adequate rental income, this would make the mortgage interest as an expense better than just an itemized deduction, since everyone gets the standard deduction. For 2009, the standard deduction is $5,700 for single filers, and $11,400 for married filing jointly. Only total itemized deductions above that amount would provide added savings.

MyPoints: Earn Points For Reading E-mails & Visiting Websites

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Well, I just burned a few minutes and grabbed another $25 Amazon.com gift certificate from MyPoints. It’s one of the few surviving “read e-mails for money” websites from the dot-com boom, and is a great example of Bored Money – ways to earn some money on the side that aren’t really high-paying on a per-hour basis, but you can usually do them at your convenience with no commitment or responsibilities.

The Payout
For the most part, you get 5-30 points for visiting websites that pay MyPoints an advertising fee. Many of them come by e-mail (BonusMail), so I would recommend either adding a special filter that automatically moves emails from MyPoints to a separate folder, or using a separate free e-mail for this program. You often get bonus points for signing up for e-mail newsletters or registering as a member, so having a separate e-mail would be best in that regard.

You can also earn points by taking surveys, playing flash games, using specific grocery coupons, using their Search toolbar, shopping through their online mall portal, and other activities. I primarily just stick to the e-mails, and run through them in batches when I’m waiting for some process to run.

As for redemption options, you can swap the points for the usual variety of gift cards – Barnes & Noble, Macy’s, CVS Pharmacy, etc. I usually just stick to Amazon.com since they are the easiest to use. 3,750 points = $25 Amazon.com gift card. Again, you’re not going to get rich doing this, but the points don’t expire as long as you have any activity within 12 months. Like today, I noticed that I was at 3,600 points and picked up another 150 in about 15 minutes so I could cash out.

Finding an Investment Property with InvestorLoft and PropScout

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

CNN Money recently listed 5 new tools for homebuyers, one of which was InvestorLoft.com. At first glance, it looks like a Zillow for investment properties.

I decided to run a quick search using their PropScout tool for an investment property in California for under $300,000. I sorted by cashflow, as I that would be a primary requirement were I ever to get into a rental property. One of the top results was a little ski chalet in South Lake Tahoe for $269,000. With a estimated positive cashflow of over $50,000 per year, I was starting to think InvestorLoft was in serious “Beta”, but decided to keep looking further. Besides, I’ve spent a good deal of time up there, so I was intrigued. Could I swing a nice little ski cabin for myself?

Cashflow Breakdown: InvestorLoft vs. My Numbers

You have to register (free) to see details, but here is the property link. Click on the “View Financials” tab to see the breakdown.

Expenses
InvestorLoft’s default mortgage numbers have you putting 20% down, and financing the remaining 80% with an interest-only loan. I’d probably go with a 30-year fixed fully-amortized loan, and these days investment property have much higher interest rates. At 20% down and 7% interest, I got $1,400 for an estimated mortgage payment.

This chalet is really a townhouse, so it comes with HOA fees. Property management costs look to be estimated at 10% of gross rent, although as you’ll see below I don’t agree. No maintenance costs were estimated, but as a vacation rental with high turnover, I put in $200 per month. Here are the final numbers side-by-side:

Income
Here’s where that crazy cashflow number comes from: The expected monthly rent was $6,700 a month. (This is also why the property management cost above was $670 a month.) “Rental estimates based on 26 comparable rental listings with matching number of bedrooms and size in a 1.5 mile radius. ” Hmmm. First of all, there’s no way a month-to-month tenant would pay $6,700 a month for this wood shack. It has to be a vacation rental, and I can only guess that they are assuming 100% occupancy.

For some comparisons, I looked up similar properties at VRBO.com – Vacation Rentals by Owner. This chalet does not have the nicest interior, but the location is above average and is near the main highway.

Roughly, it would seem like I could charge $100 a night (taxes not included) for this chalet during May-November, along with a $75 cleaning fee per stay. It could go up to $150 a night during peak ski season (December-April). Occupancy rates would have to be a conservative 50% during the offseason and 75% during peak season. If I assume that I break even on the cleaning fees, that would work out to an average monthly rental income of $2280.

(I wasn’t quite sure how much a property manager would charge for managing a vacation property with people coming and going, especially if bookings were made online, so I estimated it around 20% of gross rent.)

Results
Too bad, it looks like I’m not going to get rich by buying this chalet. The InvestorLoft estimated monthly cashflow was a positive $4,094 a month, while my own rough numbers have me about $200 a month in the hole. I know I am being conservative in some areas, but I think that’s how you have to do it, especially for something optional like a vacation rental. The numbers actually aren’t horrible, though, it might warrant some more investigation…

InvestorLoft looks to be another one of those internet tools that you’re happy exists because you’ll play with it, but you can’t rely on them as there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Income-Based Repayment of Federal Student Loan Debt Starts July 1st

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

If you have a student loan debt balance that is close to or exceeds your annual income, this is for you. Income-Based Repayment (IBR) is a new way to lower your federal student loan payments starting July 1, 2009. It caps monthly payments and forgives remaining debt and interest after 25 years. And if you’re a teacher or work in government, nonprofit, or other public service jobs, you could have your federal loans forgiven after just 10 years.

Here’s an animated video about the topic from IBRinfo.org:

Under IBR, most borrowers will have a monthly payment that is less than 10% of gross income. This includes single borrowers with less than $50,000 in income and married borrowers with two children who have less than $100,000 in income. This is only available to federal student loan programs, so those with private student loans are not eligible.

An example from this USA Today article:

Suppose you have $30,000 in student loans, and you estimate that your 2009 income will be $25,000. Assuming your loans have a fixed interest rate of 6.8%, your monthly payment under the income-based repayment program would be $110, vs. $345 under a standard 10-year repayment plan. […] If your income rises in the future, your payments will, too. […] However, any amount you owe after 25 years of qualifying payments will be forgiven.

To see if you qualify for a lower payment, enter your info into this IBR qualification calculator. To enroll, you’ll have to contact your lender directly about income-based repayment once it become available July 1st, 2009.

Microsoft Money Discontinued, Transfer Your Data To Quicken

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

If you use Microsoft Money to manage your finances, you should know that Microsoft will no longer be selling MS Money after June 30th, 2009. From the Microsoft product page:

With banks, brokerage firms and Web sites now providing a range of options for managing personal finances, the consumer need for Microsoft Money Plus has changed. After suspending annual updates of Money Plus in 2008, Microsoft is announcing today that we will no longer offer Microsoft Money Plus for purchase after June 30, 2009.

But more importantly, your online services will also be discontinued soon. This means stock and mutual fund quotes, tax rate updates, and banking services like their billpay.

For Money Plus Deluxe, Premium and Home & Business customers, online services expire two years after initial activation or Jan. 31, 2011, whichever is earlier; for Money Plus Essentials it is one year after activation or Jan. 31, 2011, whichever is earlier. You can verify your expiration date in Money Plus by selecting Help / About Microsoft Money; it appears to the right of the serial number.

Ditched by Money, but Quicken Wants You
I suppose that this means Intuit wins the desktop personal finance software war. Indeed, it looks like Microsoft has really given up, as their last step is to make it easy for users to move to Quicken.

We’re working closely with Microsoft to develop an easy way for Money users to transfer data into Quicken desktop products. We’re assessing how we can make this capability a reality in conjunction with the release of Quicken 2010 in the fall.

An Intuit representative e-mailed me saying that they are working quickly on making a conversion file that would seamlessly move data from Money to Quicken.

In the meantime, Quicken is directly targeting the Money orphans by offering up to a $50 discount on Quicken products until the end of June: $20 off Quicken Deluxe, $30 off Quicken Premier and Home & Business, and $50 off Quicken Rental Property Manager.

Free Quicken Online & Others
But wait, MS Money says the primary reason they shut down is that many banks and brokerages are offering free aggregation services which provide a similar service. Indeed, there are also standalone aggregation sites like Yodlee, Mint, and Geezeo. And if you want a free desktop finance software with double-entry accounting, there is the open-source GnuCash, though it certainly lacks some polish.

But wait, why didn’t they just do their own online version? Intuit introduced Quicken Online, which is now free and tries to add a little Quicken flavor to the usual aggregation model. More competition would have been good. I guess they spent all their energy on Bing.