Robinhood (Not a) Checking Account 3% APY: SIPC Insurance Mean?

“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 don’t know who does PR for Robinhood, but they are good. I don’t ever recall this many media articles in a single day for a pseudo-checking account. Techcrunch, Barron’s, Business Insider, Bloomberg, USA Today, CNBC, Marketwatch… All coming the day after they deactivated some user accounts without notice and halted all options trading mid-day.

Robinhood announced a new Checking & Savings Cash Management account to expand their existing (required) brokerage account product. Robinhood is not a bank, and this account is not FDIC-insured. They did partner with Sutton Bank to provide a debit card, but deposits are not held at Sutton Bank. After reading through all their materials, here’s what is included:

  • 3% APY, subject to change at any time.
  • No minimum balance, no monthly fee, no overdrafts allowed.
  • ATM/Debit card with free access at 75,000+ ATMs (Allpoint and MoneyPass ATM networks). Only 4,000 of those ATMs accept deposits, and you are limited to depositing up to $1,000 per day and $5,000 per month.
  • “Pay bills, send and receive checks, transfer money, and set up direct deposit–all from the Robinhood app.”
  • “This process will not affect your credit score.” (I assume this means no credit check.)
  • No physical checkbooks. You request a check via app and they will send a physical check via USPS First Class mail the next business day. Limited to $2,500 per day and $10,000 total per month.
  • Mobile check deposit (take pictures on your smartphone) is limited to $2,500 per day and $10,000 total per month.

What does SIPC insurance mean? As with any other US brokerage account, Robinhood has SIPC insurance. This covers up to $500,000 by the SIPC in cash and securities, of which $250,000 can be in cash. SIPC does not cover changes in value to securities. However, you may be surprised to know that per the SIPC website, the following are considered securities:

  • Money market mutual funds.
  • Treasury bills and Treasury bonds.
  • Certificates of deposit.

Is your money earning 3% APY at Robinhood cash? securities? Robinhood is being rather vague about this. They say “we only use the safest assets, such as US treasuries”. Well, short-term US Treasuries are securities and they don’t even earn 3%. They call it a “cash management account”, but many cash management accounts have an FDIC-insured sweep (i.e. Fidelity CMA). Are they keeping it as pure “cash” and just crediting you money on the side somehow? Are they just creating another money market mutual fund? Money market mutual funds are securities, and tightly regulated ones, especially after 2008 when the Reserve Primary Fund did “break the buck”. Is the SIPC going to let them offer a loss-leader money market fund that pays out more interest than it earns?

(Update: The SIPC has some concerns.)

(Update 2: Looks like Robinhood got a phone call and they have to change the name from “Checking & Savings”. Seems like they will still try to work this in as a cash management account.)

In my opinion, if this is just a hyped-up money market mutual fund, the worst case scenario is that start-up Robinhood runs out of venture capital giving away free trades and crazy interest and both the brokerage fails and the money market fund has issues. This means you may not have access to your money for a while. The Reserve fund mentioned above gave back 99 cents on the dollar, but it took over a year (!) for all the money to be distributed. No interest was paid during that lost time. Following that history, you will probably get most of your cash back eventually (up to the limits) since money market mutual funds must only hold relatively safe assets. Then there is the hassle from losing potentially your primary checking account and all the bill payments, direct deposits, etc.

In contrast, I feel that the FDIC has a more streamlined process to handle bank failures. Several banks fail every year. As long as you are within the limits, you’ll get every last penny back. Nearly all of the time, another bank will take over the deposits immediately and your transactions will keep posting as usual.

I see a lot of internet comments that are either “OMG I’m moving all my money here!” or “OMG you’d be stupid to keep any money here!”. I’m in the middle. I am signing up on the waitlist (that’s my referral link so I move up the waitlist) since it’s free and will read through the application fine print when the dust settles. Right now, Robinhood is just in hype mode. By the time they actually start accepting money, 3% APY might not be all that special.

In any case, I don’t plan to move all of my money or my daily transactions over there. I just don’t trust them enough as a young start-up with barebones customer service that discourages phone calls. With all of the various deposit and withdrawal limits, I would definitely consider maintaining a full-service checking account somewhere else.

If you like how this sounds but don’t have a Robinhood brokerage account yet, you should get your free share of stock first since you need that opened first anyway. WeBull also offers new users free trades and a free share of stock.

Fundrise Starter Portfolio eREIT vs. Vanguard REIT ETF Review – Updated December 2018

“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 December 2018. This post tracks my experiment comparing a Fundrise eREIT portfolio and the Vanguard REIT ETF. In Fundrise, we have a start-up that bought a concentrated basket of roughly 20 properties chosen from the private market. In Vanguard, we have a one of the largest real estate ETFs in the world that owns a passive slice of 184 public-traded REITs. I invested $1,000 into both in October 2017 and plan to let them run for 5 years.

Fundrise Starter Portfolio background. Despite the name, the Fundrise Starter Portfolio is actually a simple 50/50 mix of their two longest-running eREITs: the Fundrise Income eREIT and the Fundrise Growth eREIT. This private eREIT works within recent crowdfunding legislation that allows all investors to own a basket of individual real estate properties (not just accredited investors with high net worth). The minimum deposit is $500. You must buy shares directly from Fundrise, and there are liquidity restrictions as this is meant to be a long-term investment. Here’s a recent map of locations for the holdings. Most are apartment complexes, condominiums, and hotels.


Vanguard REIT ETF background. The Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) is one of the largest index funds to invest in publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs). You can purchase it via any brokerage account. You have the liquidity of being to sell on any day the stock market is open. A single share currently costs about $76, not including an trade commission. You are holding a tiny slice of (tens of?) thousands of office buildings, hotels, nursing homes, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and so on. Here are the recent top 10 holdings:


Expenses. The Fundrise Starter Portfolio has an 0.85% annual asset management fee and a 0.15% annual investment advisory fee (waived during 2017). The Vanguard REIT ETF has an expense ratio of 0.12%, with each public REIT having their own internal costs to manage their properties. Due to scale, I would expect the net effect of fees to be significantly higher for the Fundrise assets than for the Vanguard ETF. We will see if Fundrise can provide higher net returns for this concentrated holding.

Five-year time horizon. Both Fundrise and VNQ usually announce dividend distributions on a quarterly basis. Vanguard updates the NAV daily, but Fundrise only updates their NAV quarterly. Fundrise NAVs are only estimates as there is no daily market value available (similar to your house). Therefore, I plan on holding onto this investment for 5 years at the minimum. This will allow the investments to “play out” and also avoid any early redemption fees. I will withhold final judgement until both investments are cashed out, but will provide quarterly updates.

Fundrise Portfolio performance updates. Screenshot of my most recent statement:

  • 10/20/17: $1,000 initial investment – 50 shares @ $10.00/share Income eREIT and 48.78 shares @ $10.25/share Growth eREIT.
  • 1/9/18: 2017 Q4 dividends of $17.98 received and reinvested.
  • 4/11/18: 2018 Q1 dividends of $16.13 received and reinvested.
  • 7/11/18: 2018 Q2 dividends of $17.60 received and reinvested.
  • 10/10/18: 2018 Q3 dividends of $19.10 received and reinvested.
  • 11/30/18: Total Fundrise value $1,112.85 (includes reinvested dividends).

Vanguard REIT ETF performance updates. I own VNQ and the mutual fund equivalent VGSLX (same underlying holdings) in my retirement portfolio, but will be using Morningstar tools to track the performance of a $1,000 investment bought on the same date of 10/20/17.

  • 10/20/17: $1,000 initial investment – 11.9545 shares at $83.65/share.
  • 12/27/17, VNQ distributed a gain of $0.012 per share, return of capital of $0.37 per share, and a dividend of $0.88 per share.
  • 3/26/18: VNQ dividend of $0.71 per share.
  • 6/18/18: VNQ dividend of $0.73 per share.
  • 9/24/18: VNQ dividend of $1.14 per share.
  • 11/30/18: Total VNQ value $1,023.15 (includes reinvested dividends).

Here is the historical chart with monthly data points. Again, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the short-term movements as the accuracy of the Fundrise NAV is inherently limited, but this is the best information that I have available.

Every month or so, Fundrise sends me an e-mail with an update on a new property that they have acquired, or a property where they have exited. Both Fundrise and the ETF are completely passive holdings.

Bottom line. I’m doing a buy-and-hold-and-watch experiment where I compare investing in real estate via Fundrise direct investment and the largest REIT index ETF from Vanguard. I’ll provide occasional updates, but more important is what happens over 5+ years.

You can learn more about all Fundrise eREIT options here. This is the second time I have invested with Fundrise. Last time I decided to test out a withdrawal in my Fundrise Liquidity and Redemption review.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – December 2018

“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’s my monthly roundup of the best interest rates on cash for December 2018, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much extra interest you’d earn if you are moving money between accounts. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 12/3/18.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, getting higher rates is as easy as transferring money electronically from your checking account to an online savings account. The interest rates on savings accounts can drop at any time, so I prioritize banks with a history of competitive rates. Some banks will bait you and then lower the rates in the hopes that you are too lazy to leave.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
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, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple and take your time. If not a savings account, then put it in a flexible short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • No Penalty CDs offer a locked-in rate with no early withdrawal penalty. That means your interest rate can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) if you want to use it elsewhere. Ally Bank 11-month No Penalty CD is at 2.25% APY for $25k+ balance, Marcus Bank 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.15% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, and the CIT Bank 11-Month No Penalty CD at 2.05% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • Live Oak Bank has a 1-year CD at 2.85% APY ($2,500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 90 days of interest.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, beware that many brokers pay out very little interest on their default cash sweep funds (and keep the money for themselves). The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 2.30% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.19%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 2.64% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.74% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is a little more interest rate sensitivity.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.66% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 2.75% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Treasury Bills and Ultra-short Treasury ETFs
Another option is to buy individual Treasury bills which come in a variety of maturities from 4-weeks to 52-weeks. You can also invest in ETFs that hold a rotating basket of short-term Treasury Bills for you, while charging a small management fee for doing so. T-Bill interest is exempt from state and local income taxes.

  • You can build your own T-Bill ladder at or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 11/30/18, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.30% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.69% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.18% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.07% SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.

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 between November 2018 and April 2019 will earn a 2.82% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2019, 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 exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. There is a long list of previous offers that have already disappeared with little notice. I don’t use any of these anymore.

  • The only notable card left in this category is Mango Money at 6% APY on up to $2,500, but there are many hoops to jump through. Signature purchases of $1,500 or more and a minimum balance of $25.00 at the end of the month is needed to qualify for the 6.00%.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with unique risks. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop to near-zero quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. I don’t use any of these anymore, either.

  • The best one left is Consumers Credit Union, which offers 3.09% to 5.09% APY on up to a $10k balance depending on your qualifying activity. The highest tier requires their credit card in addition to their debit card (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases just above the $100 requirement, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on cash back rewards elsewhere. Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • If you’re looking for a non-rewards high-yield checking account, MemoryBank has a checking account with no debit card requirements at 1.60% APY.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash reserves. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider building a CD ladder of different maturity lengths (ex. 1/2/3/4/5-years) such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account. When one CD matures, use that money to buy another 5-year CD.

  • Mutual One Bank has a 19-month CD at 3.04% APY ($500 min). 6 month early withdrawal penalty.
  • Greenwood Credit Union has a 5-year certificate at 3.75% APY ($1,000 min). Early withdrawal penalty is 6 months interest. United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.63% APY ($60k min), 3.57% APY ($20k min), or 3.51% APY ($1k min). Note that the early withdrawal penalty is a full year of interest. Anyone can join this credit union via American Consumer Council.
  • You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 2-year non-callable CD at 3.10% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.55% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs listed by Fidelity.

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

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy long-term certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 3.60% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity. Matching the overall yield curve, current CD rates do not rise much higher as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • 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). I view this 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. As of 11/30/18, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 3.19%, so this EE bond is no longer offering a huge premium.

All rates were checked as of 12/3/18.

Vanguard Lowers Minimum for Index Fund Admiral Shares

“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.”

Vanguard has announced that it is lowered the minimum required investment on the Admiral Shares of its index funds to $3,000, down from $10,000. Basically, if you owned the Investor Shares of one of their 38 index funds, you will own the cheaper Admiral Shares with no effort and no tax issues. You can perform this conversion manually if you don’t want to wait for them to do it for you. Good deal.

Alternatively, you may use this as an opportunity to spread your money across more funds due to this change. This would be bigger news, but a lot more people now own the ETF versions. I still remember in 2010 when Admiral Shares went from a $100,000 minimum investment down to $10,000. Note that this does not apply to Vanguard’s actively-managed funds, which are still at $50,000 for Admiral Shares.

In early November, Fidelity removed all investment minimums on their mutual funds. They also gave every investor in their funds the lowest expense ratio available in any share class, usually the ones for their institutional customers. For example, the Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund (FIPDX) now has an annual expense ratio of 0.05% with a $0 minimum investment, even lower than the Admiral Shares of Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX) at 0.10% which still requires a $50,000 minimum investment as it is an actively-managed fund.

I still have the majority of my investment portfolio held at Vanguard, but it appears that Fidelity has finally woken up from it’s “Let’s Pretend Index Funds Don’t Matter” slumber. (See Bloomberg interview.) Vanguard may deny it, but I think the current asset-chasing, expansion-minded Vanguard does respond to competition.

The trend continues. Anyone today can build a dirt-cheap index fund portfolio with Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, and iShares, and those portfolios keep getting cheaper and cheaper. The hard part will be sticking with your portfolio when you’re balances start shrinking.

Bonds For The Long Run? Long-Term Bonds vs. Stock Returns (1823-2013)

“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.”

When it comes to news, the headline “man bites dog” will get people’s attention, not “dog bites man”. Similarly, a new research paper that questions the idea of “Stocks for the Long Run” will create headlines like the WSJ article Sometimes, It’s Bonds For the Long Run (paywall?) by Jason Zweig.

Prof. McQuarrie has compiled a new database of US bond prices dating all the way back to 1823, including longer-term federal, municipal, and corporate bonds. During this early period, he found that bond returns were much closer to stock returns than from 1900 onward. The WSJ included this chart of rolling 30-year average returns:

Assuming the data is accurate, the returns between US stocks and US bonds from 1823-1900 do look very similar, even somewhat correlated. I don’t know what it was like in the 1800s to buy a share of a company vs. buying a debt instrument. I imagine the environment was very different and that very few average households participated.

However, I also noticed how the 30-year average returns for stocks rarely dipped much below 4% real return over the past 200 years. If you’re telling me to look back at history, that’s also a crazy finding in my opinion. In contrast, holding onto bonds that averaged a negative real return over 30 years? Yikes.

The WSJ article also points out that 30-year Treasury bonds outperformed stocks as recently as from 1981 to 2011. But then I looked up this chart of historical 30-year Treasury yields:

The 30-year Treasury had a yield of about 14% back in 1981. Check out this 1981 NY Times article 30-YEAR U.S. BONDS HIT 15%. The decades-long bull run for bonds fueled by continuously dropping rates doesn’t have much room to go lower. The 30-year Treasury today is 3.35%.

Now, look at the first chart again and notice where the bond returns were negative from 1950 to 1980. The 30-year Treasury didn’t exist in 1950, but the 10-year Treasury equivalent yield in 1950 was about 2%. In 1950, corporate bonds yielded about 3%. Sound familiar? That’s about the same rates as today, so it’s hard to get too excited about long-term bond returns at this point.

It’s an interesting paper to read, but I don’t see anything that would change my portfolio outlook overall. I hold 2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds, which is probably a lot more bonds than is usually recommended for someone my age, but I am also much closer to living off of my portfolio than most people my age. Bonds and cash are important components and everyone should probably own some. Still, if you made me pick, I’d bet on “Stocks for the Long Run”.

Real Estate Crowdfunding: Realtyshares Foreclosure Process Example 2018

“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.”

Final update. I’ve invested in multiple real estate crowdfunding websites, including $2,000 into a single debt investment at RealtyShares. Unfortunately, this loan backed by a multifamily unit went into foreclosure and I outline what happened. There are risks in every investment, and my loss is your learning opportunity!


Initial investment details.

  • Property: 6-unit, 6,490 sf multifamily in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • Interest rate: 9% APR.
  • Amount invested: $2,000.
  • Term: 12 months with 6-month extension option.
  • Total loan amount $168,000. Purchase price $220,000 (LTC 76%). Estimated after-repair value $260,000. Broker Opinion of Value $238,000.
  • Loan secured by the property in first position. Personal guarantee from borrower.
  • Stated goal to rehab, stabilize, and then either sell or refinance.

Brief recap.

  • January 2016. Funds committed. Loan closed.
  • July 2016 to May 2017. Sporadic payment history for over a year. They would be on-time for a while, then there’d be a late payment, then things would brought back current, etc.
  • May 2017. Borrower stated that the property was under contract for $225,000 with final walk-through completed and expected close within 30 days.
  • June 2017. Borrower stopped paying. I guess the sale fell through (or they lied). Foreclosure process initiated by RealtyShares.
  • September 2017. Judgment granted in Wisconsin court. By law, there will be a 3-month redemption period where the borrower can still keep the house if they pay foreclosure judgment plus interest, taxes, and costs.
  • January 2018. The foreclosure sale was held and property ownership was reverted to RealtyShares. A judge still needs to confirm the sale.
  • February 2018. The judge confirmed the foreclosure sale, and RealtyShares is officially the owner of the property. Property can now be assessed and fixed up before sale.
  • April 2018. Property listed for $134,500 as per new BPO (Broker Opinion of Value).
  • June 2018. Property is under contract for sale. Exact price unknown.
  • July 2018. Property sold. Final disbursement of $1,133.73 received.

Final numbers. I invested $2,000 and got paid $210.84 of interest and $1,133.73 of principal for a total of $1,344.57. This means I only got back 67% of my money after more than 2 years. On the other hand, I have made over 50 different real estate-backed loans now, and it was only a matter of time before I got a full default. This was my first investment that finished foreclosure, but it won’t be my last.

The question is how often that happens and the size of those losses. When it came to Prosper or LendingClub, the interest rates might be higher but when a loan was 60 days late you were pretty much done. As an unsecured loan, you had nothing to fall back on if the borrower broke their promise (besides hurting their credit score). Sending it to collections typically only got you pennies on the dollar. In this case, I got back 57 cents on the dollar when you exclude interest.

Beforehand, RealtyShares told me that the foreclosure process in Wisconsin typically took about 12 months. That turned out to be a good estimate, as it was 12 months between foreclosure initiation and the property being under contract for sale.

Lessons. First, don’t put too much weight on a BPO (broker opinions of value). A broker thought this property was worth $238,000 in January 2016. Another broker thought the same property was worth only $134,500 in April 2018. The final sale price was probably closer to $100,000. That is a big gap.

Second, you should consider the local economic situation. This area is hurting, and if you do some digging you’ll see foreclosures all over the place. I didn’t know this at the time, but the low-income rental market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was profiled in the NYT Bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (my review). Many of the properties mentioned in this book were literally down the street from this unit.

Third, you need to diversify. If this was my only investment, I might have an overly negative opinion of the asset class. If my successful Patch of Land loan was my only investment, I might have a overly positive opinion. Instead, this is one of 50+ investments for me (mostly at PeerStreet) and while I maintain a positive return higher than cash across my investments, there is the occasional foreclosure like this. Basically, when you read about my experience or someone else’s, you must take into account sample size.

Finally, I believe that some marketplace/crowdfunding sites may be better at sourcing and underwriting loans than others. As of November 2018, Realtyshares has stopped accepting new investments (they will continue to service existing investments). Even before that, they abruptly stopped doing residential loans to “focus” on commercial properties. I knew their specialty was more commercial real estate, but I didn’t want to commit $25k to a single commercial investment, so I went with this smaller residential loan. Since then, I have shifted my residential debt investing to PeerStreet as they allow me to split my investments into $1,000 minimums and they also have a slightly different model.

Communications quality. I would grade the online updates from RealtyShares as acceptable/good. They are relatively detailed and consistent, providing me a look inside the foreclosure process. Here are some sample updates:

October 9, 2017 We have identified a real estate broker to sell the property. The broker spoke with the previous property manager who was at the property a couple of weeks ago and who may be available for property preservation. The broker is going to take a contractor to the property to try and get an accurate cost estimate to complete the renovation.

September 21, 2017 Judgment was granted at the hearing. We expect the filed judgment from the court in approximately one week and will process it upon receipt. We should be able to schedule the sale in late October and it will be held after the redemption period expires—sometime in December. As soon as we receive the filed judgment order from the court we will have the exact 3 month redemption date. Sale cannot be held until the redemption period has expired.

September 8, 2017 The partner has declined to go forward with the purchase of the property. On the foreclosure front, the judgement hearing is scheduled for September 18th. If the judgement is successful, there is a 6-month right of redemption period during which the property can not be sold. During this period we will identify a property preservation firm and a commercial broker to sell the property.

August 25, 2017 A minority partner has stepped forward and has asked for a week to visit the property with the idea of making a paydown in exchange for an extension. We have agreed to speak next week after his inspection.

August 22, 2017 Service has been completed on the foreclosure. The defendants were personally served with the summons and complaint on August 2, 2017. The statutory answering time will expire on August 22, 2017. The judgment hearing will be scheduled at that time.

June 29, 2017 Due to the borrower’s inability to stay current, we have decided to start the foreclosure process for payment default. The foreclosure will run parallel with the sales process, meaning if the sponsor can sell the property and pay us off before the foreclosure is complete we will stop the process, if not we will take over the property. Typically, foreclosures in Wisconsin take up to 12 months.

Bottom line. Investing in real-estate backed loans means that if the borrower doesn’t pay up, you can foreclose and take over the property. But what is that really like? The purpose of this post is to provide real-world dates and numbers for a completed foreclosure on a marketplace real-estate investment site. I haven’t seen any other similar resources.

My current active investments are at PeerStreet ($1,000 minimums, accredited-only, debt-only) and Fundrise eREIT ($500 minimum, open to everyone, equity and debt).

Morningstar Top 529 College Savings Plan Rankings 2018

“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.”

Investment research firm Morningstar has released their annual 529 College Savings Plans analyst ratings for 2018. While the full research paper appears restricted to paid premium members, this is still useful as while there are currently over 60 different 529 plan options nationwide, the majority are mediocre and there is really no reason to put your hard-earned money into them since anyone can invest in any state’s 529 plan.

Here are the Gold-rated plans for 2018 (no particular order). Morningstar uses a Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating scale for the top plans and Neutral or Negative for the rest.

All 4 of these plans were Gold last year as well. There were no new additions or subtractions.

Here are the consistently top-rated plans from 2011-2018. This means they were rated either Gold or Silver (or equivalent) for every year the rankings were done from 2011 through 2018. These were also the same as last year. No particular order.

  • T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, Alaska
  • Maryland College Investment Plan
  • Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, Nevada
  • CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan, Ohio
  • CollegeAmerica Plan, Virginia (Advisor-sold)
  • My529, formerly the Utah Educational Savings Plan

The “Five P” criteria.

  • People. Who’s behind the plans? Who are the investment consultants picking the underlying investments? Who are the mutual fund managers?
  • Process. Are the asset-allocation glide paths and funds chosen for the age-based options based on solid research? Whether active or passive, how is it implemented?
  • Parent. How is the quality of the program manager (often an asset-management company or board of trustees which has a main role in the investment choices and pricing)? Also refers to state officials and their policies.
  • Performance. Has the plan delivered strong risk-adjusted performance, both during the recent volatility and in the long-term?
  • Price. Includes factors like asset-weighted expense ratios and in-state tax benefits.

State-specific tax benefits. Remember to first consider your state-specific tax benefits via the tools from Morningstar, SavingForCollege, or Vanguard. Morningstar estimates that an upfront tax break of at least 5% can make it worth investing in your in-state plan even if it is not a top plan (assuming that is required to get the tax benefit).

If you don’t have anything compelling available, anyone can open a 529 plan from any state. I would pick from the ones listed above. Also, if you have money in an in-state plan now but your situation changes, you can roll over your funds into another 529 from any state. (Watch out for tax-benefit recapture if you got a tax break initially.)

My picks. Overall, the plans are getting better and most Gold/Silver picks are solid. If your state doesn’t offer a significant tax break, I would recommend these two plans to my friends and family:

  • Nevada 529 Plan has low costs, solid automated glide paths, a variety of Vanguard investment options, and long-term commitment to consistently lowering costs as their assets grow. (It is not the rock-bottom cheapest, but this is often because other plans don’t offer much international exposure, which usually costs more.) This is only plan that Vanguard puts their name on, and you can manage it within your account. This is the keep-it-simple option.
  • Utah 529 plan has low costs, investments from Vanguard and DFA, and has highly-customizable glide paths. Over the last few years, the Utah plan has also shown a history of passing on future cost savings to clients. This is the option for folks that enjoy DIY asset allocation. Since I like to DIY, I have the majority of my family’s college savings in this plan.

Morningstar offers their own additional insight into the Gold-rated plans. I feel that a consistent history of consumer-first practices is most important. Sure, you can move your funds if needed, but wouldn’t you rather watch your current plan just keep getting better every year?

Savings I Bonds November 2018 Interest Rate: 2.32% Inflation Rate, 0.50% Fixed Rate

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Update 11/1/18. The fixed rate will be 0.50% for I bonds issued from November 1, 2018 through April 30, 2019. The variable inflation-indexed rate for this 6-month period will be 2.32% (as was predicted). The total rate on any specific bond is the sum of the fixed and variable rates, changing every 6 months. If you buy a new bond in November 2018, you’ll get 2.82% for the first 6 months. See you again in mid-April 2019 for the next early prediction.

Original post 10/14/18:

Savings I Bonds are a unique, low-risk investment backed by the US Treasury that pay out a variable interest rate linked to inflation. You could own them as an alternative to bank certificates of deposit (they are liquid after 12 months) or bonds in your portfolio.

New inflation numbers were just announced at, which allows us to make an early prediction of the November 2018 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a October 2018 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New inflation rate prediction. March 2018 CPI-U was 249.554. September 2018 CPI-U was 252.439, for a semi-annual increase of 1.16%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 2.32%. You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be very different than one from recent years.

Tips on purchase and redemption. You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an 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. If you miss the cutoff, your effective purchase date will be bumped into the next month.

Buying in October 2018. If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.30%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 2.52% for the next 6 months (0.30 + 2.22). For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.30 + 2.32 = 2.62%.

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario, where you hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on October 31st, 2018 and sell on October 1, 2019, you’ll earn a ~2.09% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. If you held for three months longer, you’d be looking at a ~2.20% annualized return for a 14-month holding period (assuming my math is correct). Compare with the best interest rates as of October 2018.

Buying in November 2018. If you buy in November 2018, you will get 2.32% plus a newly-set fixed rate for the first 6 months. The new fixed rate is unknown, but is loosely linked to the real yield of short-term TIPS, which has been rising a bit. The current real yield of 5-year TIPS now about ~1.00%. My best guess is that it will be 0.50% or 0.60%. Every six months, your rate will adjust to your fixed rate (set at purchase) plus a variable rate based on inflation.

If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate (set at purchase) + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%).

Buy now or wait? In the short-term, these I bond rates will not beat a top 12-month CD rate if bought in October, and probably won’t if bought in November unless inflation skyrockets. Thus, I probably wouldn’t buy in October. I haven’t bought any savings bonds yet this year, and will wait until November to see what the new fixed rate will be. If it greatly lags the real yield on short-term TIPS, then I will probably just buy TIPS instead. However, if it is close, I will probably buy some savings bonds as a long-term investment given the unique benefits below.

Unique features. I have a separate post on reasons to own Series I Savings Bonds, including inflation protection, tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and educational tax benefits.

Over the years, I have accumulated a nice pile of I-Bonds and now consider it part of the inflation-linked bond allocation inside my long-term investment portfolio.

Annual 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. You can also buy an additional $5,000 in paper bonds using your tax refund with IRS Form 8888. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

[Image: 1946 Savings Bond poster from US Treasury – source]

Household Equity Ownership Percentage vs. Future Stock Market Returns

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Below is a chart that tracks two simple numbers over the years, each with their own vertical scale (click to enlarge):

  • The average household’s equity ownership share, as a percentage of total equity and credit (bond) assets. (Left-axis)
  • The subsequent 10-year average annual return of the S&P 500 index. (Right-axis)

Kind of eery, right? As the relative demand for stocks goes up, their future return goes down. This is the most up-to-date version of the chart that I’ve seen – credit @TihoBrkan via Abnormal Returns. The first time I recall seeing this chart was 5 years ago in this in-depth Philosophical Economics article.

Since then, this 2016 academic paper by Yang and Zhang found that “Household Equity Share” was a better predictive tool than the CAPE or PE10 ratio. Most recently, OfDollarsandData had a thoughtful piece on why using this correlation to time the market would be very difficult (you’d have to be out of the market for a long time, and during some great bull markets). Here’s another way to show this relationship:

(I’m not sure the x-axis labels on this last chart are correct, as it doesn’t agree with the first chart that tops out at 55% household equity share.)

This will be an interesting chart to track over time. Overall, it is yet another indicator that points to the average return of US stocks for the next 10 years to be rather muted (in the low single digits!). But again, anything could happen – both higher or lower – in the short-term.

Bond Market Risks: Keeping It Short, Simple, and Safe

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A recurring theme in my asset allocation philosophy is to stick with simple and safe bonds in your portfolio. The problem is, there will be other bonds that outperform safe, shorter-term US Treasury bonds and you might start to question your decision. I try to remind myself to consider how they fit into your entire portfolio. I would rather take on risk with stocks due to their big upside potential and use bonds for stability in times of stress.

Here is an older WSJ article The Case for Minimizing Risk in Your Bond Holdings by William Bernstein on the subject. If you run into a paywall, I discuss the article here.

Recently, there have been more articles about the riskier bond options out there.

Corporate bonds – hidden risks? Credit ratings agencies continue to have the conflict of interest where they are paid by the bond issuers themselves – remember the financial crisis and those AAA-rated subprime bonds? These days, companies are loading up on debt, but they still really really really want their bonds to be rated as “investment-grade”. More than 50% of the corporate bond market is now rated BBB, just barely “investment grade” as opposed to “junk”, according to the Bloomberg article A $1 Trillion Powder Keg Threatens the Corporate Bond Market:

That’s a lot of borderline debt that will eventually have to be refinanced at higher rates.

Actively-managed bond funds – what’s really inside? In addition, I recommend reading this Forbes interview with bond manager Jeffrey Gundlach: The Bond King Speaks: Doubleline CEO Jeffrey Gundlach Offers His Best Investing Advice. There are many interesting insights, and here are some excerpts on bond index funds and the active bond fund competition:

On the fixed-income side, active bond managers have by and large outperformed the intermediate-term bond benchmark, the Barclays Bloomberg Aggregate Bond Index (the “Agg”).

What helps the active manager to outperform the index is that it’s quite possible in bonds to do things very differently from what’s in the traditional bond indexes. The Agg has no foreign bonds, certainly no emerging markets bonds, no below-investment-grade bonds, no bank loans, no structured finance to speak of like ABS or CMBS, all of which are viable asset classes. But the index doesn’t include them. Active bond managers can buy these things and increasingly over the last couple of decades have done so.

Active funds are being measured against an investment-grade U.S.-only index. The active funds can own tons of emerging markets, junk bonds, bank loans — some of them even own 10 or 15% equities. Obviously, if a manager is allowed to own equities against the bond index in a world where bond returns over the last two years are nearly zero on a total return basis, you can see there’s a lot of ways that bond managers can game an index more than a stock manager.

Is a stock manager really going to measure themselves against the S&P 500 and own 50% bonds? I doubt it. The industry’s evolved in a way that has given us an advantage.

That’s probably going to turn into the opposite soon, where these activities outside of the boundaries of U.S.-only, intermediate-grade only bonds will start hurting. Junk bonds are getting crushed. Investment-grade corporate bonds are doing horribly over the last year. Typically, these are systematically overweighted by the majority of active bond managers. Not us, not Doubleline.

You could categorize the industry fairly accurately with a broad stroke by saying most firms are perpetually overweight corporate credit, underweight treasuries and they even have some stocks with below-investment-grade ratings. When you get to a world where the lower quality material like junk bonds or emerging markets are starting to come under stress due to falling equity prices, and perhaps a slowing global economy, well, suddenly, these games that are often played don’t help.

As noted recently, Total Bond ETFs that track the AGG index have 60-80% of their holdings that are backed by the US government, and the rest are investment grade US corporate bonds. Overall it is mostly high-quality stuff. Meanwhile, an actively-managed bond fund can include riskier corporate bonds, complex asset-based securities, or bonds from Emerging Markets countries with much higher yields. Basically, bond managers can take on a lot of extra risk and get paid for it while the party lasts. This will make them look like they are beating the AGG benchmark, while their holdings are nothing like the benchmark.

With actively-managed bond funds, it’s always a question of the manager adding enough value to compensate for the higher expenses. Bill Gross used the be “Bond King”. Now it’s Gundlach. Maybe Gundlach will continue to successfully time his purchases in and out of various bonds. I choose not to depend on a specific manager’s skill. Instead, I stick with US Treasury bonds, investment-grade municipal bonds from a conservative bond manager, or FDIC-insured bank certificates of deposit for the bond portion of my portfolio.

My Money Blog Portfolio Income – October 2018

“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.”


For a young person making a plan to reach financial independence at a very early age (under 50), I think using a 3% withdrawal rate is a reasonable rule of thumb. For someone retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65), I think 4% is a reasonable rule of thumb. However, life is less stressful when you are spending just the dividends and interest generated by your portfolio. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market.

Therefore, I track the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar, which the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. (Index funds have low turnover and thus little in capital gains.) I like this measure because it is based on historical distributions and not a forecast. Below is a very close approximation of my portfolio (2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds).

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 10/21/18) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.71% 0.43%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 1.96% 0.10%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.86% 0.72%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.56% 0.13%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.30% 0.26%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.90% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 3.30% 0.56%
Totals 100% 2.69%


The 2.7% trailing income yield is up slightly than in recent updates, mostly due to increased bond interest. The fact that interest rates are now reliably above inflation across the yield curve is good in my opinion, even if it means some of my bond prices drop. The relative contribution of US stocks is down, as US stock prices are slightly up. The relative contribution of International stocks is up, as International stock prices are down. In this way, tracking yield adjusts in a very rough manner for valuation.

We are a real 40-year-old couple with three young kids, and this money has to last us a lifetime (without stomach ulcers). This number does not dictate how much we actually spend every year, but it gives me an idea of how comfortable I am with our withdrawal rate. We spend less than this amount now, but I like to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. If we both lose our jobs, we should have manageable expenses such that we still won’t need to spend more than 2.7% to 3%. For now, we are quite fortunate to be able to do work that is meaningful to us, in an amount where we still enjoy it and don’t get burned out.

Life is not a Monte Carlo simulation, and you need a plan to ride out the rough times. Even if you run a bunch of numbers looking back to 1920 and it tells you some number is “safe”, that’s still trying to use 100 years of history to forecast 50 years into the future. Michael Pollan says that you can sum up his eating advice as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can sum up my thoughts on portfolio income as “Spend mostly dividends and interest. Don’t eat too much principal.”

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, October 2018

“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’s my quarterly portfolio update for Q3 2018. These are my real-world holdings and includes 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excludes our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our household expenses. As of 2018, we are “semi-retired” and have started spending some dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it tells me exactly how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

Here is my more specific asset allocation broken down into a stocks-only pie chart and a bonds-only pie chart, according to my custom spreadsheet:

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

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

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I personally believe that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than US Large/Total and International Large/Total, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

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

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, as Treasury rates have risen, last quarter I sold my shares of Vanguard High-Yield Tax Exempt and replaced it with Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury. I liked the slightly higher yield of that (still pretty high quality) muni fund, but as I settle into semi-retirement mode, I don’t want to worry about the potential of state pension obligations making the muni market volatile. In addition, my tax bracket is lower now and the Federal tax-exempt benefits of muni bonds relatively to the state tax-exempt benefit of Treasury bonds is much smaller now. On a very high level, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds). These are all investment-grade and either short or intermediate term (average duration of 6 years or less).

No real changes on the stocks side. I know that US stocks have higher valuations, but that’s something that is already taken into account with my investment plan as I own businesses from around the world and US stocks are only about 30% of my total portfolio. I have been buying more shares of the Emerging Markets index fund as part of my rebalancing with new dividends and interest. I am considering tax-loss harvesting some older shares with unrealized losses against another Emerging Markets ETF.

The stock/bond split is currently at 68% stocks/32% bonds. Once a quarter, I reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest that were not spent. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment.

Performance commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio now slightly down in 2018 (-2.7% YTD). I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has gained 5% (excludes dividends), Foreign (EAFA?) stocks are down 8.2%, and the US Aggregate bond index is down 2.4%. My portfolio is relatively heavy in international stocks which have done worse than US stocks so far this year.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +0.07% YTD (as of 10/16/18).

I’ll share about more about the income aspect in a separate post.