Archives for May 2017

How Much Do Other Parents Help Pay For College Tuition?

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As the school year ends, I am reminded that my children are another year closer to college. I still remember paying off my own $30,000 in student loan debt, and now I am worried about saving up for their tuition. While I still maintain that parents should secure their own retirement needs before worrying about their kid’s college bill, what if you are doing okay and want to help out?

A Priceonomics survey of over 1,400 college graduates between the ages of 25 and 54 found on average that people graduated college initially with roughly $40,000 in student loan debt and currently still maintain a balance of roughly $30,000.

Of these college graduates, how many people receive financial help from their parents? How much assistance did they get? Here are the results.

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The survey also asked questions about gender, race, and the extent to which debt hindered their ability to cover daily expenses, save for retirement, or start a small business. The article focused on the differences, but overall I saw more similarities than differences. In all the cases, between 50% and 71% of people felt that their student loan debt hindered them in all three scenarios.

There are many (terrifying) projections about how much college will cost in 2035. I’ve seen numbers over $100,000 per year for private tuition/housing and $50,000 per year for public tuition/housing in today’s dollars. However, according to this survey only 9% of parents paid for most and 11% paid for half of their kid’s tuition. 80% of parents either paid nothing or “a little”. It’s hard to reconcile these two stats. Are students in 2035 really going to graduate with $100,000 of debt? Something is going to have to give.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Best Interest Rates on Cash Savings – May 2017

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The WSJ article Bank of America Pays Peanuts for Deposits, but the Money Keeps Flowing In (paywall) outlines how BofA gets away with paying less interest on its deposits than nearly any other US bank (not that the other mega-banks are that much better). BofA only pays an average of 0.08% on $796 billion of cash deposits, including certificates of deposit:

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Keep your savings somewhere else! Even if you have a BofA account for the ATM network, you can avoid fees on their basic checking accounts with either a monthly direct deposit, a minimum balance of $1,500 with no direct deposit, or by keeping $20,000 in stocks/ETFs at Merrill Edge with no direct deposit and no minimum balance. Anything above that can easily earn more interest with a companion account like Ally Bank Savings that now has 1-day transfers between linked accounts.

On that note, here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Rates checked as of 5/11/17.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, the online banks with a history of competitive rates offer online savings accounts clustered around 1% APY. An important feature to note with savings account is that their interest rates can change at any time.

  • As I’ve been “bait-and-switched” a few times and there are no lucrative rates that make it worth taking another risk, I am currently sticking with Ally Bank for their reliably competitive rates and overall good user experience. Their online savings is currently at 1.05% APY.

Money market mutual funds
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been inching upwards. It may be worth the effort to move your money into a higher-yielding money market fund.

  • The Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund has increased their SEC yield to a half-decent 0.95%. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which only has an SEC yield of 0.69%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.

Short-term guaranteed rates (under 1 year)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, inheritance). Honestly, I wouldn’t get fancy or take unnecessary risk. Just keep it safe in a short-term CD or online savings account that in insured under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • Palladian Private Bank has a 6-month promotional rate of 1.30% APY guaranteed (maximum initial deposit of $100k) for new accounts. After the first 6 months, the rate reverts back to their normal rate (currently 0.90% APY). Since the initial promo rate is fixed, this makes it the highest guaranteed 6-month CD rate available.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought through the end of April 2017 now will earn a 1.96% rate for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. While that next 6-month rate is currently unknown, at the very minimum the total yield after 12 months will around 1% with additional upside potential. More info here.
  • In mid-October, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with high interest rates. The risks are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The other catch is that these good features may be killed off without much notice. My NetSpend card now only has an eligible balance up to $1,000.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last.

  • Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although 3.09% APY on a $10k balance might be easier to achieve unless you satisfy a long list of requirements. Note that the 4.59% APY requires you to apply and get approved for an additional credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month on after-tax benefit). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.

Certificates of deposit
If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. One option is to keep your money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay a reasonable early withdrawal penalty. Alternatively, you could create a CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Connexus Credit Union is offering a 1-year Share Certificate at 1.50% APY (90-day early withdrawal penalty) and a 3-year Share Certificate (180-day early withdrawal penalty) at 2.00% APY. Both have a $5,000 minimum deposit. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization Connexus Association for a one-time $5 fee.
  • Hanscom Federal Credit Union is offering a 4-year Share Certificate at 2.50% APY (180-day early withdrawal penalty) if you also have Premier Checking (no monthly fee if you keep $6,000 in total balances or $2,000 in checking). HFCU also offer a 3% APY CU Thrive “starter” savings account. HFCU membership is open to active/retired military or anyone who makes a one-time $35 donation to the Nashua River Watershed Association.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? Did you know that you can buy certificates of deposit via Vanguard’s bond desk? These “brokered CDs” still offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, you can get a 10-year non-callable CD that pays 2.75% APY. (Unfortunately, current long-term CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.) Prices will vary daily.
  • How about two decades!? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). You could view as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. Too long for me.

All rates were checked as of 5/11/17.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Best Places to Find a Decent Used Car For Under $1,000

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I suppose my pre-Uber generation might be the last one to equate having your own car with fun and freedom. In high school, I would comb through the “Under $2,000” section of the newspaper classified ads every day. How it looked didn’t matter as long as it meant I could go places without my parents. More recently, I bought a cheap beater car on Craigslist in order to learn how to drive a stick shift. Goofing around in that thing was great nostalgic fun, although I sold it soon after.

This Car and Driver article compares the various places that you can find your own cheap-yet-decent car:

  • Impound lots
  • Junkyards
  • Airport Auctions
  • Public Auctions
  • The Spare Car on Facebook
  • Government Auctions

The author Steven Lang has been an “auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction for nearly two decades”. Amazingly, even after inflation the target price point is under $1,000.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: To spend less than $1000 on a car, you have to be willing to risk that money and spend maybe $500 to $1000 more to get it back into tip-top mechanical shape. So do yourself a big favor and don’t be lazy in your pursuit. Go where you can have the least uncertainty and invest in the automotive beauty that lies within.

While I still enjoy learning tips about the “hunt”, these days you will find me driving around in a comfortable and reliable Toyota Minivan. My philosophy is now “buy new and drive it for at least a decade”.

See also: Top 10 Best Dirt Cheap Beater Car Models?

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

If someone promises to pay you back, they probably won’t pay you back.

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Back in the stone age of P2P lending (aka 2006), I used to read through Prosper loan listings one-by-one. Borrowers would outline their monthly budgets showing how they could afford their loan payments, along with explanations of why they needed the money (credit card debt, home improvement, etc.) and why they would pay you back (steady job, good credit history, etc). I’m not sure if this is even an option anymore, but in any case, I wasn’t very good at it.

The New York Magazine article How to Predict If a Borrower Will Pay You Back (excerpted from the new book Everybody Lies) discusses an academic paper that actually analyzed keywords within past Prosper listings against their default history. Consider the following 10 phrases:

  • God
  • promise
  • debt-free
  • minimum payment
  • lower interest rate
  • will pay
  • graduate
  • thank you
  • after-tax
  • hospital

Half of them are used by people most likely to pay back the loan. The other half are used by people who are least likely to pay back the loan. Care to venture a guess which are which?

Generally, if someone tells you he will pay you back, he will not pay you back. The more assertive the promise, the more likely he will break it. If someone writes “I promise I will pay back, so help me God,” he is among the least likely to pay you back. Appealing to your mercy—explaining that he needs the money because he has a relative in the “hospital”—also means he is unlikely to pay you back. In fact, mentioning any family member—a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother or father—is a sign someone will not be paying back. Another word that indicates default is “explain,” meaning if people are trying to explain why they are going to be able to pay back a loan, they likely won’t.

The phrases used by folks who are most likely NOT to pay back their loans are God, promise, will pay, thank you, and hospital. If someone promises that they will pay you back, they probably won’t pay you back. The more emotions are involved, the less likely they are to pay you back.

This is an interesting wrinkle as lending is such a huge part of the investing world – mortgages, bonds, insurance, and so on.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Buffett and Munger: S&P 500 vs. Berkshire Hathaway

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. Thank you for your support.

brk2016letInstead of watching the entire 6-hour Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) annual shareholder’s meeting, I first read through the WSJ highlights and then watched selected parts of the Yahoo Finance replay which interested me.

One interesting topic was about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s directions to their heirs. Buffett has famously directed his wife to put 90% of her assets into a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund and 10% into US Treasuries. In contrast, Munger has told his family “not be so dumb as to sell” their Berkshire stock. Why do they differ?

You can see this question at the 1:39:55 marker in the video. Here are my notes:

  • Buffett initially tries to deflect this question by stating that 100% of his BRK stock will be given to charity. However, there would be nothing stopping her from buying BRK shares (or any other investment) at a later time, so that doesn’t really answer the question.
  • Both Buffett and Munger have previously stated that they believe that Berkshire will likely perform better than the S&P 500 in the future.
  • Buffett’s wife will have more money than she needs. Maximizing upside is not important. Downside protection is most important.
  • In terms of investment performance, both are quite unlikely to suffer permanent loss, but the S&P 500 is still a little bit more reliable than BRK. There is still some chance that there could be a change in culture or executive leadership that might damage the company. Someone might succeed in breaking up Berkshire into parts.
  • The 10% in short-term US Treasuries (essentially cash) goes even further, in case there is long severe depression or even if the stock exchange is closed, there will be cash on hand to handle things.
  • In terms of human issues, it would be a news event if she had BRK shares and sold them. The media would care. Talking heads would offer alternatives. However, if she holds the S&P 500 index fund, that is so boring that it is quite likely nobody will ever bother her again. From all that I have read, never being bothered again sounds like something she would enjoy. (Most people don’t even know her name or what she looks like.)
  • Munger concedes that the S&P 500 as well-constructed as a diversified portfolio of large companies. In terms of performance, it is “all but impossible for most people [to beat].” However, he’s still telling his family to stick with Berkshire.

Buffett and Munger are exceptionally rational as opposed to emotional. Therefore, both answers will most likely work out fine. Sometime in the next 50 years, the stock market will probably drop 50% again. The fact that Buffett thinks the S&P 500 is safer than even Berkshire is something to remember the next time there is a stock market crisis.

At the same time, Munger’s comments should make a current BRK shareholder feel more secure in holding shares for decades to come. Even with Buffett’s shares going to charity, there will still be a large chunk of shareholders with a long-term view.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Free eBook on Reducing Smartphone Data Usage

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tingdataTing Mobile has a free Cut Your Data eBook (PDF) about lowering your cellular data usage. The eBook is a nice collection of data cutting tips that ideally don’t reduce your actual enjoyment. Examples include:

  • How to turn off background data usage.
  • Disabling auto-play videos or auto-downloads in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat.
  • Data compression in Google Chrome and Opera Mini web browsers.
  • Offline downloads of music, maps, Netflix, and other media.

Worth a download if you are trying to maintain a lower tier on your cellular data bill. You don’t need to be a Ting customer (I use them for my parents’ phones – see my Ting Review).

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

My Portfolio Asset Allocation Thought Process

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A reader asked me to expand on the thought process behind my asset allocation choices. I don’t have a highly scientific answer, but here’s how I would explain it to a friend over drinks. Prepare yourself for some rambling…

I know that I could run simulations and backtest return data to figure out exactly which mix of assets have produced the best risk/return characteristics historically. I’ve also looked at various model portfolios based on such analyses. However, perfection can only be seen in retrospect and it is constantly changing. I just try to take away the big nuggets.

The overall goal is to hold 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.

Stocks Breakdown (Benchmark Ticker)

  • 38% US Total Market (VTI)
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value (VBR)
  • 38% International Total Market (VXUS)
  • 7% Emerging Markets (VWO)
  • 10% US Real Estate (VNQ)

To put it briefly, I am taking the total markets and increasing the portion of one additional asset class which I think has the highest diversification benefits. For example, Small Value is a subset of Total US market, and Emerging Markets is a subset of the Total International market.

38% US Total Market. Instead of “stocks” or “equities”, I prefer to call it “owning businesses”. It’s not just a ticker blip going up and down. I am buying a diversified mix of real businesses that are a critical part of a huge economy. A single company or even a handful of big companies might go bankrupt, but as a whole they are not going anywhere.

The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) holds 3,600 stocks to represent the entire US publicly-listed market from Apple ($770,000 million) to Bridgford Foods Corp. ($100 million). It is market-cap weighted, which means that the amount of each stock held is directly proportional to the total market value of the company. See my VTI review for details.

7% US Small-Cap Value. Historically, small-cap value stocks have produced a higher risk-adjusted return than the entire market. You could also argue that small companies a more representative of the private business market. Therefore, I choose to hold a little more of this asset class via the Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR).

You probably haven’t heard of 99% of the stocks in the Small Value index, which is kind of the point. Someone who invests in individual small cap stocks must be wary of that company going bankrupt (or effectively bankrupt). But by owning 828 of these stocks at the same time, I don’t have to worry about VBR ever going to zero (although it can be relatively volatile). Will VBR outperform VTI by a huge margin? Maybe, maybe not, but it probably won’t lag the overall market greatly either.

VTI can be roughly broken down into 85% Large-Cap companies, 10% Mid-Cap companies, and 5% Small-Cap companies. My blend of 85% VTI and 15% VBR is still roughly 72% Large-Cap and 19% Small-Cap. I have “tilted” the amounts, but it’s still predominantly composed of huge businesses like ExxonMobil, Google, and Johnson & Johnson.

International Total Market. The United States is not the only place where businesses create value. Many brands that you deal with every day are listed in foreign countries – Nestle, Shell, Samsung, Toyota, GlaxoSmithKline, Anheuser-Busch InBev. (Bud Light is a foreign company!) The Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) holds over 6,000 stocks from around the world according to market-cap weight. See my VXUS review for details.

I also keep to close to the world market-cap split with 50/50 US/non-US. If you want to go 70/30 or 60/40, that’s perfectly fine with me. Again it’s more important that you stick with it than any specific ratio.

Emerging Markets. Within the foreign markets, I choose to put extra money towards Emerging Markets – countries that currently include China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Again, this asset class is more volatile but also has higher historical returns. The Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) allows me to track this asset class in an efficient and low-cost manner. If there were better options for International Small Value stocks, I would have been open to that.

VXUS is 43% Developed Europe, 30% Developed Pacific, 19% Emerging Markets, and 7% Canada. My blend of 85% VXUS and 15% VWO is 37% Developed Europe, 26% Developed Asia, 31% Emerging Markets, and 6% Canada. Again, it’s not a huge tilt.

(Exit option: If something happened to me and my wife wanted to simultaneously simplify the portfolio, reduce the overall risk level, and generate cash, she could simply sell off my US Small Value and Emerging Markets positions that make up ~10% of the entire portfolio. The resulting portfolio would still be diversified.)

Real Estate. The Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) holds publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) which hold things like office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, nursing homes, self-storage units, and shopping malls. I choose not to be active in residential real estate other than owning my own home, so I like the diversification and income that this asset class provides.

I am sticking with domestic REITs for both simplicity and lower costs. REITS only make up about 7% of my overall portfolio. I might include foreign REITS if it was a larger holding, but I’m going to bother splitting up 7%.

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I keep roughly 30% of my portfolio in bonds. This is meant to be the stable ballast of my portfolio, but it should also generate some level of interest income. Bonds are debt, so I only lend money to the places that I think will pay me back most reliably:

  • US government, which can both tax residents and print the world’s reserve currency. This includes US Treasuries, FDIC-insured bank accounts, and US Savings bonds. Treasury Inflation-Protected bonds also offer an interest rate that adjusts with inflation.
  • Local municipalities, which can tax residents. If you don’t pay your property taxes, they take your house. “Muni bonds” currently offer the best tax-effective yield for my situation. I hold them through low-cost, actively-managed funds like Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund Investor Shares (VWITX). See, I’m not only about index funds!

I exclude investment-grade corporate bonds because I don’t see enough benefit in taking on extra risk in this manner. I’d rather get 3% dividend yield through stock ownership (which includes unlimited upside potential) than get paid 3% interest (with no upside potential). Corporate bonds don’t have the company interests aligned with you – they want to appear stable and pay as little interest as possible. I’m not overly trusting of bond rating agencies in general.

I also exclude international bonds because what’s the point of diversifying to get a significantly lower interest rate? Vanguard US Total US Bond Market ETF (BND) has a current SEC yield of 2.43%. Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX) has a current SEC yield of 0.74%. Blech!

Recap. At a basic level, I own baskets of US businesses, international businesses, real estate, and high-quality debt. I plan to eventually spend the dividends from the businesses, rent from the real estate, and interest from the loans. I expect the stock dividends and rent to increase faster than inflation. I expect that the bond interest will at least keep up with inflation. This mix makes sense to me and I believe I can hold it through the ups and downs. It is not perfect but it is good enough.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.