Archives for April 2012

Why Mutual Fund Fees Are Important But Often Ignored + More Vanguard Fee Savings

“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 often reminded when talking with friends and coworkers that most people don’t understand the important of low fees when it comes to investing. The Vanguard blog had a recent post exploring why a 1% expense ratio is much more significant than it appears. The problem is that expense ratios aren’t charged to you directly as a line item like an overdraft fee or a monthly bill – it is quietly taken away in tiny pieces from your returns which makes it easy to ignore.

For another, fees are expressed as a fraction of assets. A 1% equity management fee seems small and reasonable. “One percent” just sounds tiny – as in “there’s a 1% chance of rain tomorrow.” But suppose you reframe fees in other terms. Suppose you expect a stock fund to earn 8% over the long run. Assuming inflation of 3% and a tax rate of 25%, you’re in effect paying one out of every three dollars of future expected return in costs.* A fee of “one third of all of the money you make” sounds like a lot, especially when many money managers could do worse than the market averages.

Basically, if you are expecting to earn 3% a year above inflation after taxes, paying 1% to a manager is like paying 1/3rd of all your earnings. As you can see below, I could own the S&P 500 for as little as 0.05%. Things get even worse when looking at bond funds and their tiny yields.

Research has shown repeatedly that costs matter more than star ratings and past performance. The lower the expenses, the less headwind year in and year out.

With that knowledge, Vanguard has announced another round of fee cuts! Vanguard says the price drops are a result of them being client-owned and passing on any savings resulting from increased assets. Others speculate that it’s a reaction to competition from other low-cost ETF providers like Schwab. Either way, investors win. The drops are pretty small, but to me it’s like getting a little guaranteed boost in returns that will compound every year. A selected sample of funds with fee drops below:

Funds In My Personal Portfolio Old expense ratio New expense ratio
Vanguard 500 Index Fund (Admiral/ETF Shares) 0.06% 0.05%
Vanguard Total Stock Market (Admiral/ETF) 0.07% 0.06%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value Index Fund (ETF) 0.23% 0.21%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value Index Fund (Investor) 0.37% 0.35%
Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (Admiral/ETF) 0.11% 0.10%
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (Investor) 0.22% 0.20%

Admiral shares are now open in most index funds with a $10,000 investment, and you can always start like I did with the Investor shares at $3,000 and convert to Admiral when the balances grow. ETFs usually offer the same low expense ratios as Admiral shares, but you should also keep in mind the cost of trade commissions. Buying Vanguard ETFs and mutual funds directly with an account with Vanguard is free. TD Ameritrade also offers commission-free trades on a wide variety of Vanguard ETFs (along with other providers).

Over the last year or so, Vanguard has made several moves that lowered my portfolio costs. They added Admiral shares, removed purchase fees on their Emerging Markets fund, and dropped expense ratios again.

Earn 750 United MileagePlus Miles For Joining MyPoints.

“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.”

Just received this e-mail, does not appear to be targeted. Earn 750 bonus MileagePlus miles when you sign up for MyPoints at their link and keep your membership active for 30 days.

MyPoints is a program where you get points for reading marketing e-mails, taking surveys, and they are also a shopping portal like eBates. I used to use them but haven’t for a few years as the points have gotten even more devalued to the point that I don’t bother accumulating them.

But 750 United miles is worth taking 2 minutes to sign up with a temporary anti-spam e-mail address and forgetting about it. 750 miles is 3% of a 25k roundtrip award. 😉

Amazon Instant Video Free $3 Credit with Twitter Link

“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.”

Amazon is giving away a $3 credit towards Amazon Instant Video purchases if you connect your Amazon and Twitter accounts. Amazon will make you follow them @amazonvideo and tweet a message about the promo. It kind of worried me giving so much control over to Amazon, but you can always remove the link afterwards. Must tweet by May 1st, use credit by May 31st.

While you’re at it, follow @mymoneyblog as well. 🙂 I do share links and smaller deals on Twitter that you won’t see on the blog. Tweets are re-syndicated on my Facebook page as well.

Link Digest: Mixing Work & Passion, Invest in Memories, Stable Value Fund Warning, and More

“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.”

Here are some more links worthy of sharing:

The Overjustification Effect
A smorgasbord of behavioral psychology that questions the idea that there is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love. This is a very complicated topic but the article makes some good observations.

Memory as a Consumer Durable (Atlantic)
Another twist on the whole “buy experiences, not things” theory. What if you treated a memory as “consumer durable” good much like refrigerators, furniture, or a car? In similar ways, they provide constant satisfaction and/or pleasure, and they last a very long time. In that case, should we acquire them while we’re young so we can enjoy them the rest of our lives?

Stable value 2.0, fewer investor guarantees (Reuters)
If you own a stable value fund in your retirement plan, you should check to see if changes were made to any of its principal guarantees.

The 401(k): Americans ‘just not prepared’ to manage their own retirement funds (WaPo)
401k were designed to be a supplemental account to pensions, but now they are a replacement. If you know what you’re doing, it’s good, and it’s nice because you can take the money with you across jobs. But the total account balances are nowhere near what people need to retire as a whole. Maybe we need something else.

“If the 401(k) is supposed to be the primary retirement vehicle for the average American worker, then it needs to be consistent with the information and financial ability of the average American worker, who is just not prepared to manage funds like that over the course of a lifetime.”

GMO 2012 1st Quarter Letter
The most recent letter from Grantham talks some sense about why most managers can’t afford to have the proper long-term mentality for market-beating returns.

…ignoring the volatile up-and-down market moves and attempting to focus on the slower burning long-term reality is simply too dangerous in career terms. Missing a big move, however unjustified it may be by fundamentals, is to take a very high risk of being fired. Career risk and the resulting herding it creates are likely to always dominate investing.

CarrierCompare: The iPhone app your carrier doesn’t want you to see (CNN)
An iPhone app that takes data (signal strength, response time and speed) from users and analyzes it together to find which carriers have the best service and coverage for any given area. (Update: Apple has since removed it from the App Store.)

Creating Retirement Income Only From Dividends and Interest?

“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.”

What happens when you finally want to live off of your portfolio? Most withdrawal methods call for a combination of spending dividends and selling shares to cover the rest. But what if you wanted to live only off of dividends from your stocks and the interest from bonds? I was curious to see how this would have worked out historically.

Let’s say you had $100,000 invested in a mutual fund, and you had to live off the dividend income produced from those shares without any additional buying or selling. I found historical price data and dividend distributions for select funds from Yahoo Finance that went back to 1987-1990, and added up the trailing 12 months of dividends to see how much money they would have generated over a year’s time.

The Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund (VWINX) is a low-cost, actively-managed fund which has been around since 1970. It is composed of approximately 35% dividend-oriented stocks and 65% bonds (mostly corporate for higher yields). This conservative allocation is designed to create a steady income stream with less focus on capital appreciation. Let’s see how $100,000 invested in 1988 would have done in terms of income:

In 1988, interest rates were relatively high and $100,000 of Wellesley shares would have created nearly $9,000 of annual income. In 2012, that same set of shares would be worth $156,000 and your income would be about $5,400 annually. The income produced had some swings, but overall did not seem to track with inflation although the share price did better. According to the CPI, $100,000 in 1988 would buy as much stuff as $180,000 today.

The Vanguard 500 Index Fund was the first index fund available to the public and is now one of the largest funds in the world, passively following the S&P 500 index of large US companies since 1976 and thus always 100% stocks. Even though this is not a dividend-focused fund, it still does produce a regular stream of dividends from the companies it tracks:

In contrast, $100,000 of the Vanguard 500 Fund would have only created about $2,700 of income in 1988, but that income has grown over the next 24 years to about $8,800 today in 2012. Also of high significance is that the value of your $100,000 worth of shares from 1988 would be worth around $500,000 today.

This is just a limited snapshot of two funds, but it would suggest that you can’t just buy an income-oriented fund that has a large chunk of bonds and expect to sit back and spend whatever dividends are spit out. However, things would have turned out much better if one was reinvesting a big chunk of those Wellesley dividends when the overall yield was high. I can still envision a income-oriented portfolio, but I will have to set a reasonable withdrawal rate that isn’t too high and have the discipline to plow the rest back into buying more shares.

Financial Status Bar & Goal Updates

“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.”

This updated post explains my ratio-based method of tracking our financial progress towards early retirement (as shown by the status indicator on the top right of every blog page).

Cash Reserves / Emergency Fund

Our goal is to always have a full year of expenses in cash equivalents as our “emergency fund”. (This is not the same as a year of income. Our expenses are much lower than our income.) This is a cushion for a variety of potential events including job loss, health concerns, or other unplanned costs. It also allows us to take a more long-term view with our investment portfolio since we know we won’t have to touch it.

Since our emergency fund is relatively large, I try to maximize the yield. If we stuck it all in a money market fund, the yield would be barely above zero. With a bit of work, our cash earns a blended rate of over 2% annually without taking on extra risk. We use the same accounts to make money from no fee 0% APR balance transfer offers, but currently don’t play that “game”. Here are recent updates on where we keep our cash:

March 2013 Cash Reserves Update
June 2012 Cash Reserves Update
March 2012 Cash Reserves Update
May 2011 Cash Reserves Update
January 2011 Cash Reserves Update

Home Equity

I don’t think everyone should buy a house (or more accurately, take out a huge loan on a house), as it historically doesn’t necessarily work out to be a very good investment over short or even long periods. However, if you are geographically stable, I do think buying and eventually owning a house free and clear can be a solid component of an early retirement plan. My current forecast is to have our house paid off in 10-15 5-10 years. Housing is very expensive where I live, so once that mortgage payment is gone, the actual income my investments will have to produce will drop drastically.

There are many ways to define home equity, and I am sticking to a simple method of calculating home equity by taking 100% minus (outstanding mortgage balance / original home purchase price). As of 2011, our home price has rebounded to over the original purchase price according to a refinance appraisal and comparable sales. Overall, I’d rather enjoy having continuous progress without worrying about my home’s exact market value. Here are some previous mortgage updates:

April 2013 Mortgage Paid Off
November 2011 Mortgage Payoff Update
February 2011 Mortgage Payoff Update

Investment Portfolio

The goal of my investment portfolio is allow withdrawals to support our needed expenses in “retirement”. Again, income and expenses are not the same thing. After mortgage payoff, I expect our required expenses to be less than 25% of our current income. I like to assume a simple 3% safe withdrawal rate, which means for every $100,000 saved, I can generate $3,000 a year of inflation-adjusted income for the rest of our lives. I used to assume 4%, but since our target “retirement” age is in our 40s and not 60s, I feel that 3% is better. Even 3% is not guaranteed, but again it does provide a quick estimate of progress. Here are recent portfolio updates:

June 2013 Investment Portfolio Update
January 2013 Investment Portfolio Update
July 2012 Investment Portfolio Update
February 2012 Investment Portfolio Update
November 2011 Investment Portfolio Update
July 2011 Investment Portfolio Update

My initial goal was to try and keep the home equity and expense replacement ratio about the same so that both will reach 100% at the same time, but we’ll see. I am still (very slowly) researching shifting to a more income-oriented portfolio that yields about 3% and has a principal value that can grow with inflation.

The actual implementation of my plan will probably require more flexibility. At some point, I plan on using some of my money and invest in an immediate annuity for some income stability. I’ll also need to vary my exact withdrawal rates a bit with market conditions. Once I reach age 70 or so, Social Security will kick in something. I don’t think Social Security will disappear although I do expect means-testing, but who knows these days.

Blockbuster Express Kiosk Promo Codes – Free DVD Rentals

“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.”

Updated with new codes. Below is an easy way to get free promo codes good for a free $3 off coupon on DVD rentals at all Blockbuster Express kiosks. Their rental price structure has changed to $1 to $3 a day depending on how new the movie is, so these are again free rentals.

New method: You must text a special keyword to 39777 and receive a unique one-time use promo code back via text message that will expire in 10 days. The code takes $1 off any rental transaction. Active keywords (newest listed first), usually found via Slickdeals:
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Dilbert Teaches You About Investing

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

Perils of market timing explained:

Alternate title: Momentum investing explained, via Abnormal Returns

Survivorship bias explained:

This actually happens!

Financial advisors with high costs and bad incentive structures explained:

Buyer beware…

Subprime mortgage crisis explained:


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

Link Digest: Paying For Status, Nutella Class Action, Social Security Planning, Being Your Own Bank, and More

“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 Perils of Paying for Status
An article in Scientific American magazine about our desire to feel powerful and achieve social status affects our decision-making. If you’re feeling insecure, you’re more likely to overpay for products and/or buy more stuff than you need. Simply knowing this common weakness may help you spend more wisely in the future.

Nutella Class Action Lawsuit
Nutella calls itself healthy, when in fact the first two ingredients are sugar and vegetable oil (fat). Class action lawsuit ensues. Lawyers get rich. Regular folks who bought the stuff can get $20 with a claim, with no proof of purchase required. If you’ve ever bought Nutella spread since 2008, you should check if you’re eligible.

Social Security and Medicare: Proper Planning Pays Off Big
I’m not an expert on this stuff, but this Morningstar article seems to do a pretty good job of summarizing the ways to maximize your Social Security and Medicare benefits and minimizing any penalties.

I Quit My Passion and Took a Boring Job
A guest poster at GetRichSlowly shares his story of quitting a job he loved (teaching high school math) and taking on a job that pays the bills (accountant).

Bestselling book’s financial promises don’t add up
Allan Roth at CBS Moneywatch does a great job debunking a “bestseller” book that is one of many misleading scams that pushes whole life insurance as “infinite banking” or “make your own bank” as a good way to build wealth. It’s a great way to build wealth, but only when you’re the one selling the whole life insurance!

What Does the Prudent Investor Do Now?
WSJ article by author Burton Malkiel about his outlook on stocks and bonds. If you can’t read it directly, try here and click on the first result.

In today’s environment, the minimization of investment fees is more important than ever. A 1% investment management fee may appear to be very low when measured against assets. But when measured against a 7% equity return, that fee represents more than 14% of the return. Against a 2% dividend yield, the fee absorbs one half of the dividend income.

GMO Quarterly Letter Q4 2011 (pdf)
Another letter to investors that I have come to enjoy reading each quarter. Jeremy Grantham gives some good investment advice, and also some market opinions that may or may not be right. I don’t necessarily agree myself, but I like his style. Right now he only likes “high quality” US equities, and he hates going long on bond duration to reach for yield.

Savings I-Bonds March/April 2012 New Rate Prediction: 2.21%

“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.”

New inflation numbers for March 2012 were announced on April 13th, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update and rate predictions.

New Inflation Rate
September 2011 CPI-U was 226.889. March 2012 CPI-U was 229.392, for a semi-annual increase of 1.1032%. Using the official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 2.21%, depending on the upcoming fixed rate announcement (although really it’s highly unlikely to be anything but zero).

Purchase and Redemption Timing Tips
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur a interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April

If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 3.06% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 3.06 = 3.06%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.0 + 2.21 = 2.21%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th and sell on April 1, 2013, you’ll earn a 2.27% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. This is better than any 1-year bank CD that I can find right now, keeping in mind the liquidity concerns and the purchase limits.

Given the combination of current low rates and the fact that you lose the last 3 months of interest (again, for holding less than 5 years), it might be better to wait long enough to grab 12 full months of interest by holding for 15 months (14 buying late). If you buy on April 30th and hold until July 1st, 2013, you’d achieve a annualized return of ~2.26% over 14 months. After that, you can see what the new rates are and decide whether to keep holding them.

Buying in May

If you wait until May, you will get a new unknown fixed rate plus 2.21% for the first 6 months. I would bet my own money that that the fixed rate will be 0.0% again (any takers?), given current real yields for TIPS. The next 6 months will be based on an unknown rate based on future inflation. If there is high inflation for the next 6-month period, this may get you a higher rate sooner, but buying in April will eventually get you the same rate anyway.

My personal opinion is that you might as well lock on the guaranteed above-market rates for 12 months by buying in April instead of buying in May. You could always wait all the way until in October for the next rate announcement, but if you have the cash now you’ll have the opportunity cost of lower rates until then.

Low Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds. I’m keeping all of mine for the foreseeable future, due to their tax deferral possibilities and other unique advantages. Compare the rates on these savings bonds to what you’re earning on your FDIC-insured bank deposits, and you may start hoarding them like me.

The Morals of Epictetus: Stoic Philosophy and Personal Finance

“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’m still working my way through Poor Charlie’s Almanack about the teachings of Charlie Munger. The book is very dense with broad ideas and includes references to many scientists, businesspeople, and ancient philosophers I’ve never heard of before.

One of these ancient philosophers was Epictetus, who was born a slave but eventually became free and taught philosophy in Rome and Greece. I couldn’t find the “morals” found in the book listed in the same manner elsewhere, so I wanted to share them below. The bolded sentences are English translations of his writings, and after that are my personal notes and interpretations.

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. Don’t open your big yap unless you know what you’re talking about. This seems to have changed to “open your yap all day long without knowing anything, and you’ll get your own show on television.”

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. Appreciate all the many things you have before you complain about the things you don’t have.

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. Let others teach you. It’s better to look stupid for a while than actually be stupid forever.

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FutureAdvisor: Free Online Portfolio Management and Asset Allocation

“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.”

Another new online portfolio management tool is FutureAdvisor. I want to say they were invite-only for a while, but they appear to be wide open to new accounts now. Their basic account is free “forever”, and you can add 24/7 portfolio rebalancing alerts along with an annual videoconference call with an advisor for $49/year. The process of setting things up is pretty simple with the following steps laid out:

Personal Profile
Enter pertinent information such as current age, current income, desired retirement age, and desired retirement income. I like that they don’t just assume that you want to spend 80% of your current income in retirement. However, the total of your portfolio holdings entered here will be replace by whatever you share in the next step. I’m not really sure why they bother asking.

Financial Profile
You can either manually enter your portfolio holdings or have them import it automatically using your username and password. Most major brokerage companies including 401k accounts are available, but I did notice some that are currently not supported. The supported list includes Vanguard, Fidelity (w/ Netbenefits), Schwab, Merrill, and TD Ameritrade. The unsupported list includes TradeKing, Zecco, and Interactive Brokers.

Asset Allocation
Based on the information given and that same ole’ multiple-choice risk questionnaire, they will suggest to you a model asset allocation. You can tweak the target by picking between Conservative (60/40 stocks/bonds), Moderate (80/20), and Aggressive (90/10). Here’s the conservative asset allocation assigned to me:
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