Archives for September 2011

Free Southwest Airlines Points For Email Sign-Up, Watching Video

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Southwest Airlines is offering 500 Rapid Rewards points if you sign up for their e-mail subscriptions for a monthly statement and deals newsletters. Relatively easy, and if you’re already signed up, try unsubscribing for a day or two and then signing up again at the link.

If you have a Southwest Airlines-affiliated credit card, you can get another 1,000 points by visiting this page and watching a 2-minute video. You’ll need to enter your RR number and the last 4 digits of your credit card at the end. Thanks for reader Brian for the tip. (Update: May be targeted to specific cardholders.)

Pay Your Mortgage, Insurance, and Utility Bills With Credit Cards – Western Union Speedpay

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Western UnionI was paying some bills online and noticed that my electricity bill had a new option for paying via a credit card through something called Western Union Speedpay. I’m not sure if this is universal, but for my utility company it accepted MasterCard, Visa, or Discover with a $4.95 convenience fee per payment for residential accounts. The maximum payment allowed is $1,000 per month.

I decided to charge the full $1,000, because that makes the fee only 0.5%. Even if I pay with a card that gets 1% back, I’d end up ahead over my usual online banking billpay. Of course, you can do better than that with one of these best rewards credit cards. Actually, I put it instead on my wife’s Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to quickly reach the $3,000 spending required in order to qualify for the 40,000 point bonus ($400 value!). I don’t mind paying extra because I never have any problems with my electricity bill, and future bills will just reduce the credit over time.

Anyway, the take-away here is to check if your existing bills have such a similar option. I remember checking before and the only option charged some sort of onerous 5% fee. There are mortgage companies, insurance companies, and more listed on the Speedpay site. For some reason, my company is not listed online (so I suspect many other aren’t either), and I had to call into a telephone bot to pay my bill.

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Why Emergency Funds Can Provide The Best Return On Investment

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Many recent articles and surveys have illustrated how many American are basically living paycheck-to-paycheck, with no significant savings cushion:

  • Most Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency expense – “A majority, or 64%, of Americans don’t have enough cash on hand to handle a $1,000 emergency expense, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.”
  • Many don’t have $2,000 for a rainy day – “A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows 50% of Americans would struggle to come up with $2,000 in a pinch.”
  • Survey – “Forty-two percent of workers in the survey of more than 5,200 workers say they usually or always live paycheck to paycheck”

Along the same lines, a reader introduced me to an interactive poverty “game” called Spent, in which you try to make it through one month as an unemployed worker looking for a job and housing with their last $1,000. Try it out, and you’ll have to make some touch choices.

In just one month, I managed to get sick, need dental work, receive an undeserved traffic ticket, my best friend gets married and I can’t go, my mom needs money for medicine, my landlord raises the rent illegally, and my child refuses to eat the government-subsidized lunch. Seems a bit unlikely, yes. But a combination of a streak of bad luck and lack of support is exactly how you might end up in such a scenario.

In addition to the societal issues this brings up, from an individual point-of-view, I found that this simulator shows how living close to the edge is often significantly more expensive than someone with a cash cushion. Being poor can cost more than being rich. Consider the following:

  • If you don’t have enough money for a security deposit, you’ll have a hard time renting an affordable apartment. Many renters are thus forced into long-term motels that actually charge more on a monthly basis.
  • If you can’t afford a car repair, you can’t make it to work and face the prospect of losing your job.
  • If you don’t pay for preventative medicine, you can end up needing more expensive treatment later.
  • If you have a low balance on your bank account and overdraft by just $10, you’ll get hit with a $35 overdraft charge.
  • If you just don’t pay the bill, you’ll get a late fee charge.
  • If you don’t pay the bill for consecutive months, you’ll get your gas/electricity service shut off and be subject to an additional $250 deposit to get it back on.
  • If you charge any of this on a credit card and don’t pay off the balance each month, you’ll owe 15-25% interest. That’s if you have the credit history to get a credit card. If you go with a payday loan instead, you’ll owe more than 100% annualized interest.

For this reason, one of the first financial steps a person should take is to save up a cash cushion. That emergency fund can easily save you more money than a 20% increase in the stock market. I would tell my own child to forget saving for retirement until you have a least a couple months of expenses saved up. Luxuries like smartphones, alcohol, cable TV, and dining out should be off-limits until then as well.

One should expect “unexpected” expenses. Even though I have a relatively high income, I place great value on my emergency fund.

Build A Complete Stock Portfolio With Just Two ETFs: Vanguard Total US (VTI) and Total International (VXUS)

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If you are constructing your own portfolio and like the idea of low-cost, passively-managed index funds, you should definitely be aware that just two ETFs that can provide you diversified exposure to stocks worldwide and all at rock-bottom fees. Given how many choices there are out there today, I can’t assume that everyone knows about these already.

The Vanguard Total US Stock index fund invests in over 3,000 stocks that represent the entire U.S. stock market, from small-cap to large-cap companies. The smallest company on their holding list is 100 shares of Qualstar Corp, worth a mere $200. The entire company is worth about $20 million. Compare that to the largest holding of Apple, worth $380 billion (that’s 19,000 times larger). The ETF and Admiral shares have a mere 0.07% expense ratio ($7 annually per $10,000 invested), which is taken out in tiny amounts daily out of the fund’s net asset value. That’s just 6% of what the average mutual fund charges. There are three versions:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI)
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VTSMX)
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTSAX)

The Vanguard Total International Stock index fund invests in over 6,000 stocks that covers 98% of the world’s investable markets excluding the US (“ex-US”). This includes 44 countries from the “European, Pacific, and emerging market regions, as well as Canada.” The fund also includes both small-cap and large-cap companies from these countries. The ETF and Admiral shares charge a 0.20% expense ratio. Three versions as well:

  • Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS)
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares (VGTSX)
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTIAX)

This graphic shows you how these two funds relate to other Vanguard ETFs you may already be aware of:

(Source, brighter red text is added by me)

(I should also mention that there is the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT), which covers the entire world in one tidy fund. However, it only holds 2,904 stocks total, which is nearly 2/3rds less than a VTI/VXUS combo. On top of that, it charges a 0.25% expense ratio, which is nearly double how much a VTI/VXUS combo would cost when weighted appropriately. I personally think the added diversification and lower cost is worth the hassle of owning two separate funds.)


As of August 31, 2011, the world market value breaks down to about 42% US and 58% Ex-US. For simplicity, I chose to own VTI and VXUS in a simple 50/50 ratio as part of my target asset allocation. I rebalance back to 50/50 regularly using new cashflows, and also at least once annually. Bonds are a separate discussion.

Side note: The reason I thought of writing this is that I previously held Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF (VEU) as my primary international holding, which as you can see above is a subset of VXUS, but realize that VXUS only arrived earlier this year. I’ve shifted most things over already, but I have been hesitant to sell some of my taxable holdings because I’d owe capital gains taxes. I noticed yesterday that I am actually at slight loss now (yay?), so I am able to do some tax-loss harvesting by selling my VEU and swapping it for VXUS. Since they are not “substantially identical” funds, I am not subject to wash sale rules.

15-Year Mortgage Refinance Experience and Thoughts 2011

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Over the weekend, we signed the closing documents for our refinancing into a 15-year fixed rate loan. It’s hard to believe that less than four years ago we bought our first house with a 30-year loan at around 6%. Thanks to additional principal prepayments and lower interest rates, our new monthly payment is actually lower than the payment from our original loan. Our lender sounded swamped with loan applications, and we basically closed on the 45th day of our 45-day interest rate lock. Here are some thoughts about the process.

Mortgage Rates Still Dropping
Here’s a chart of the historical mortgage rates, courtesy of It includes the 30-year fixed, 15-year fixed, and the 5/1 30-year adjustable. I’ve stopped trying to predict future rates, and just try to take advantage of what happens. National averages since 2010:

Since 1986:

It may be hard to believe, but the new appraisal for our house actually came in at 6% above our purchase price in late 2007. We have made several improvements to the house, including adding a small amount of square footage. But the main reason is simply that the prices in our neighborhood have held up well during the national price declines. Real estate is definitely local. As a percentage of our original purchase price, we have 35% equity.

Closing Documents
The new final HUD-1 settlement forms seemed to be clearer than what I remember last time. Charges are broken down more clearly, and the form compares side-by-side what was presented on the Good Faith Estimate (GFE) and what you were finally charged at closing. You can view a copy of the form at

Mortgage Offset Account
Some people prefer 30-year mortgages because borrowing at low rates for a long period can act as a hedge against higher inflation. I personally would rather minimize my interest costs now and worry about higher rates if and when they come along. When the day arrives where I can invest in safe bonds or bank CDs that pay higher rates than my mortgage rate, then I plan on creating a mortgage offset account where I buy those CDs instead of paying down my mortgage. But either way, I’m still not satisfied with a 15-year payoff, our goal is to pay it off in 5-10 years.

Compare rate quotes from and Quicken Loans.

Vanguard Allows Same-Day Trades With Bank Transfer Funding

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If you have an account with Vanguard, you may have noticed them rolling out improvements to their online interface this month. If not, try logging in and see if you notice anything different. Today, I received an e-mail that they are also improving their funds availability rules when buying mutual funds with online bank transfers:

Same-day trades with electronic bank transfers
Now you can get today’s trade date if you use our electronic bank transfer service to buy a Vanguard mutual fund. Just submit your request on business days before the close of regular trading on the NYSE (generally 4 p.m., Eastern time) and you’ll receive that day’s closing price.

Finally! I placed at trade and it appears to have worked. The previous rule was that if the purchase was before 10pm Eastern of Day 1, then you will get the purchase price as of closing on Day 2. So even if I wake up at 6 am in the morning on Thursday and place a trade, I would get the price as of market close at 4pm Eastern Friday. Your bank account is debited on Day 3.

Others have reported receiving this notice weeks ago, and while I’m happy to see it in my account, I also think it was long overdue. You can already get the same-day closing price if you exchange from another mutual fund already in the account, like a money market fund. So basically what they were saying is that they don’t trust that your bank funds would clear. However, it takes 3 business days (T+3) for things to clear anyway, so it’s not like you could run off with the money. I have been able to initiate a money transfer into my Scottrade account and start buying stocks seconds later for years. This way, I don’t have to keep money sitting around in a money market fund earning zero interest.

You could argue that if I’m not timing the market then I shouldn’t really care when the trade clears. But the way I see it, I am rebalancing my account and buying what has been dropping. I would be highly annoyed if the stock market bounced up 5% the next day, meaning I shouldn’t have rebalanced at all.

CreditSesame: Would You Like Me More If I Showed You My Credit Score?

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CreditSesame just launched a “credit badge” that is intended for random folks on the internet to show how big their… I mean how high their credit score is. Instead of wearing Armani or driving a Porsche, I can show off my CreditSesame badge. It’s supposed to help me find a job, find a mate, and find an apartment to rent. Really? I thought I was the only one who thought paying bills on time was hot.

Why should I share my badge?
The Credit Sesame Credit Badge™ program is designed to give you a competitive edge in life and helps you to develop your personal brand by promoting your financial responsibility and showcasing your good or excellent credit. You’ve worked hard to maintain your good or excellent credit and your shared badge allows you to stand out from the crowd as a creditworthy and financially responsible individual.

The Good badge requires a 640+ credit score. An Excellent badge requires 740+. The Guru badge requires 740+ and you must “maintain an optimized level of debt so that Credit Sesame cannot find you more ways to save.” Basically you have to sign up for one of their offers. Well, I decline since it also requires you to reveal your last name, first initial, and city of residence. However, I’ll take the free monthly score updates.

All jokes aside, consider this a reminder that you can get a free FAKO credit score estimates from each of the three major credit bureaus. There is CreditSesame for Experian, CreditKarma for TransUnion, and Equifax Score Card for Equifax. All free, but obviously you do have to provide your Social Security Number.

This is all in addition to the government-mandated free credit report available from As of July 2011, lenders are required to provide a free credit score to anyone who is denied or given worse terms because of their credit. I see no reason to pay $100+ a year for credit monitoring or other credit score products.

Free 9/20 Only: Incorporation & LLC Formation Service From MyCorporation

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If you’ve been considering making your side venture a formal separate entity, MyCorporation is offering their LLC formation and incorporation filing services for free for one day only 9/20/11 until 11:59 PST with the coupon code MYFREE (regular price $99). Also included is a copy of Quickbooks Simple Start (though I think this is always free…) and a free domain name registration. You must still pay shipping and the applicable filing fees charged by each state. I’m sure they’ll also try to upsell you some additional services, but you can decline them.

MyCorporation is owned by Intuit, makers of TurboTax and Quicken. Accordingly, you can view such online incorporation services as similar to TurboTax for taxes. Yes, you could fill out your 1040 tax forms all by yourself, but it’s much easier to go through a question-and-answer software that walks you through it and explains the steps. You could also incorporate yourself as well, may prefer some guidance. However, if you’re doing something complex or out of the ordinary, then you should hire a professional to handle it (accountant for taxes, lawyer for incorporation).

When I formed my S-Corporation years ago, I used one of their primary competitors LegalZoom and paid about $150 for the service – not including the state filing fees and shipping. It was good to have someone look over the forms before submitting, while avoiding the $1,000+ fees from a lawyer.

The decision between staying a sole proprietor/partnership or forming an LLC/corporation is not always simple. If you’d like to dig into the details on your own, I recommend the book LLC or Corporation? How to Choose the Right Form for Your Business from Nolo Press. I chose to go the S-Corp route primarily for the income tax savings. You can even have a LLC and chose to have it taxed as an S-Corp, as if things weren’t confusing enough!

Rising Rents, Flat Home Prices, and Owning REITs In My Portfolio

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The NYT Economix blog points out that rents are rising again according to inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The chart included doesn’t have zero on the y-scale, but a value of 100 corresponds to rent from 1982-1984. Rents nationwide are about 40% above their values in 2000. I recently saw the last house I used to rent on Craiglist and the rent was up 15% from 4 years ago.

Credit: NY Times, Bureau of Labor Statistics, IHS Global Insight

There is definitely an increase in the number of renters, and perhaps there is also an overall psychological shift in that less people think homeownership is a part of the American Dream. Perhaps this means it’s a better time to be landlord? Home prices are still hanging around 2003 levels:

Credit: Marketwatch, S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices

Although I know many successful people who are landlords, I don’t now if I’m cut out for it. However, I do like buying real estate investment trust (REITs), which allows me to collect rent like I collect stock dividends. (Not familiar with them? Here’s a post all about REITs.) I even did a comparison post of rental property vs. REZ, a residential ETF. I see REZ has done quite well recently.

Now, I’m not pushing REZ, and don’t own it myself. I continue to get my real estate exposure through the low-cost, passively-managed Vanguard REIT Index Fund, available both as a mutual fund and ETF. It tracks the MSCI US REIT Index and includes all kinds of real estate, currently holding 20% in residential ETFs that own things like apartment complexes. It like the diversification of this fund, even though it can be a rough ride, and in a struggling economy things like commercial properties will be harder to rent out.

Here’s the growth of $10,000 chart of both the Vanguard REIT Index Fund and the S&P 500 index, from mid-1996 to today. This type of chart accounts for total return, including dividends.

The REIT fund has done better than the S&P 500, which some may find surprising (or not) given the housing bust. As you can also see, they don’t always move together, which is good. Including REITs and rebalancing has offered a way to achieve better returns even if you like a simple buy and hold portfolio. I can’t guarantee that this type of helpful diversification will continue in the future, but I’m happy with my current portfolio right now, and am glad to be a lazy “landlord” in this manner.

Social Security, Ponzi Schemes, and Realistic Expectations

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Recent political debates have brought up comparisons between Social Security and Ponzi schemes. (Have you read the book about the real Ponzi?) Even though seemingly every single economist on Earth has weighed in, this discussion has been around for so long that the Social Security website already has an entire page dedicated to addressing it. To summarize, yes Social Security shares some traits with Ponzi schemes in that money from new participants goes to earlier participants. However, it relies on a rather straightforward transfer and does not depend on an exponential growth of new participants to be sustainable. It is, however, sensitive to demographics.

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system. What I pay into Social Security today goes straight to a current retiree’s Social Security check. When I retire, my paycheck will be supported by a younger worker’s taxes. It is not an investment. It is not a savings account. The problem is, that the ratio of workers to retirees is getting rather low. In 1950, there were 7.3 working-age people for each person over 65; now, the ratio is 4.7 to 1, and it is scheduled to drop to 2.7 to 1 by 2035. [Source]

Since people are living longer as well, the reality is that for a 30-something like me, the math works out that there is little chance that we will get the same level of relative benefits that current retirees get. However, there will be no sudden Ponzi-like implosion. Now, the government could smooth this transition out even more if they do the hard thing and do some combination of higher taxes, extending retirement ages with higher life expectancy, or lowering benefits. But politicians are usually reactive as opposed to proactive, so don’t count on it. That’s too bad, because people are more dependent on Social Security than ever. 70% of all eligible folks can’t even wait until 65 to start taking benefits, many as early as 62, even though that means lower payments and likely a lower total benefit. This is why in general financial experts say you should wait as late as possible to get a higher payment for the rest of your life.

Of course, Medicare is even worse. Take this analysis via this WaPo article:

Consider an average-wage two-earner couple together earning $89,000 a year. Upon retiring in 2011, they would have paid $114,000 in Medicare payroll taxes during their careers. But they can expect to receive medical services – including prescriptions and hospital care – worth $355,000, or about three times what they put in. […] The same hypothetical couple retiring in 2011 will have paid $614,000 in Social Security taxes, and can expect to collect $555,000 in benefits.

Jack Bogle Makes Market Prediction For Next Decade

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I don’t usually post market forecasts, but I just wanted to jot this one down for posterity. Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, is interviewed in a WSJ article Why a Legendary Market Skeptic Is Upbeat About Stocks where he makes a prediction of 7% annual returns for stocks for the upcoming decade. He correctly predicted 10%+ gains for the 1990s, and also low single-digit returns for the 2000s. Let’s see if he’s correct for the 2010s.

Over the next decade, Mr. Bogle said stocks are likely to generate an average annual return, including dividends, of around 7%. “Your money will double in 10 years,” he said. “How bad is that? People ought to get over the illusion [of higher expectations] and realize that they may have to invest for longer time periods, start earlier and save more.”

There other good observations in the article, although they won’t surprise any Bogle followers. I previously wrote about Bogle’s future return prediction methodology where total stock returns are the sum of earnings growth (aligns with GDP growth), dividend yield, and P/E ratio changes. The diagram below is reproduced from his 2007 book Little Book of Common Sense Investing, which also shows us a 7% forward prediction at the time. Well, we’ve got some catching up to do…


Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund vs. Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund

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There’s a ways to go, but we’re still aiming to retire within the next 10 years. As such, I’ve been thinking about what happens when we want to live off of withdrawals from our retirement portfolio. According to the passively-managed Target Date funds by Vanguard, if you reach retirement you’re directed to the Vanguard Target Retirement Income fund. Another popular option for retirees is the Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund, which has been around for over 40 years, and is actively-managed by Wellington Management Company, an advisory company that has been around since the Great Depression. Let’s take a quick look to see how these two funds compare.

Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund (VTINX)

This fund seeks to provide “current income and some capital appreciation”. The approximate asset allocation is 30% stocks, 65% bonds, and 5% cash. It is a fund of funds, holding the Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund, Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund, Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund, and Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund. Here is the current asset allocation per Vanguard as well as the equity and bond style boxes from Morningstar.

Number of stocks held: 9,958 (3,323 US + 6,635 Foreign)

Number of bonds held: 4,486 (4,450 nominal bond + 36 TIPS bonds)

Expense ratio: 0.17% ($170 a year on a $100,000 balance)

Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund Admiral Shares (VWIAX)

This is an income-oriented balanced fund, which is another way of saying the same thing as above. The approximate asset allocation is 35% stocks, 65% bonds. I am choosing the Admiral shares as opposed to the Investor shares because the great majority of people using this for their retirement will reach the $50,000 minimum balance. Here is the current asset allocation per Vanguard as well as the equity and bond style boxes from Morningstar.

Number of stocks held: 60

Number of bonds held: 559

Expense ratio: 0.21% ($210 a year on a $100,000 balance)


The overall asset allocation of the two funds is very similar, especially since you could consider cash/short-term reserves as bonds. However, how they are constructed is very different. Target Retirement is passively indexed on a market-cap weighted distribution and holds nearly 10,000 stocks from around the world. Wellesley is actively-managed to include only 60 selected dividend stocks from primarily large, US companies.

As for bonds, Target Retirement follows another market-weighted index of the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Float Adjusted Bond Index. There is a large chunk of US Treasury, US Treasury Inflation-linked, and US Agency mortage-backed bonds. Wellesley is mostly in corporate investment-grade bonds.

Wellesley is produces more of it’s returns as income through stock dividends and the higher bond yields from corporate bonds, with a current SEC yield of 3.28%. This allows the psychological benefit of possibly spending only the dividends that the fund distributes every quarter. However, there is the concern that 60 stocks is not enough diversification, or that their bond analysts might drop the ball. Here is the growth chart of $10,000 (click to enlarge):

At least historically, the managers of Wellesley have added value. Will it continue? Unknown. The good news is that with such low costs, there’s one less reason to expect underperformance in the future. These are just an example of what is out there, although on some early retirement forums I see folks simply holding a 50/50 split of these two exact funds. Sometimes I think everyone should just start with these kind of low volatility funds in the first place, and just reinvest dividends.