Personal Finance: Recognizing Control and Using Your Time Efficiently

“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.”

Morgan Housel wrote a post called The Biggest Returns which really resonated with my outlook on investing and personal finance. The main idea was that you should consider the impact of your efforts in relation to the time and energy spent.

The idea that reducing your needs has the same impact as increasing your income – but the former is more certain and in your control than the latter, so it has a higher expected value – is as true for someone spending $15,000 a year as it is someone spending $15 million per year.

The hard part is becoming satisfied with spending less. […] For me it’s been realizing that what makes people happy is having options – doing what you want, with who you want, when you want, where you want. And options come from savings and assets, which are the opposite of spending.

Stock returns: Limited control. I decided on an asset allocation and invested my money in low-cost, low-turnover investments. Learning about investing and asset allocation initially was a good investment of time, but I still have limited control of the outcome. More importantly, this gave me the conviction and patience that it will work out in the long run. But I still might lose money in any given year, and I can’t just put in more effort and improve that return. I only check in on my portfolio quarterly.

Cash returns: Moderate control. About 1/3rd of my portfolio is in high-quality bonds, which in my definition includes cash and certificates of deposit. Here, I have some more control. For example, if I put money into a 5-year CD at 4% APY, I have high confidence it will do better than a 5-year Treasury bond at 2.50% yield. Sometimes there are such opportunities for the individual investor, sometimes there aren’t. Therefore, I track the best interest rates monthly.

Income: Moderate to significant control. Income is obviously important, and I while would rate it as more important than spending, that doesn’t mean spending in not also very important. There are plenty of people who earn $250k and spend $250k per year, while a $85k earner could spend $60k and save even more. But that same 250k earner has the ability to “see the light” and have their saving explode over the next few years. Unfortunately, there are no easy, foolproof ways to earn a high income. Of course, you should invest in yourself and improve your marketable skills and thus increase your human capital. Some people can move up the corporate ladder, others will do better with a more entrepreneurial route.

Personal spending: Significant control. Managing your spending is all about priorities, but there are two simple ways to attack your spending. First, you could start from the bottom and get rid of the more questionable “wants”: Expensive food habits (coffee, alcohol, snacks), monthly entertainment subscriptions, gambling, etc). Second, you could start from the top and pair down the big “needs”. I could have gotten a mortgage approval for a 3,500 sf house in my neighborhood. I live in a 2,000 sf house. I could pay cash for nearly any vehicle on the market. I bought a used minivan. I could have had fewer kids… Oops!

Credit cards, bank bonuses, and other “found money”: Significant control. You won’t get rich solely from taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses, maximizing your cash back, or picking up $10-$100 here and there each week, but I estimate that it adds up to $3,000+ each year for our household. $3,000 is a 5% increase to a $60,000 income, or a free annual vacation. You should pick and choose what works for you; for example I refuse to drive around town (to buy gift cards, redeem coupons, buy and resell, etc). I prefer deals that can be done with just clicks.

This is also a good reminder that even though I might not write about them repeatedly, your biggest returns on effort might be: get a better job, relocate to a city with greater relative opportunity (income vs. cost-of-living), move into a smaller house, and buy a cheaper car (or find cheaper transportation). On a daily basis, the things that catch my eye (and thus what I write about) are actionable ideas where I have control of the outcome.

Kindle Unlimited Promotion: 3 Months for $0.99 + Personal Finance Book List

“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 running Kindle Unlimited promotion of 3 months of unlimited reading for only $0.99. Redeem before 11:59 p.m. (PST), February 28, 2019. The standard offer is one 30-day free trial. Here, you can have been a previous Kindle Unlimited member (trial or otherwise), but you can’t be an existing paying member.

  • Enjoy unlimited access to over 1 million books.
  • Explore a rotating selection of popular magazines.
  • Listen to thousands of books with Audible narration.
  • Read anytime, on any device with the Kindle app.

You can cancel your membership early and it will let you keep your membership open until the end of the 3 months, and not renew automatically. (Mine is good from Feb 20th to May 20th, 2019.) If you don’t do anything, it will auto-renew at the end of 3 months at $9.99 per month. Remember that after you end your Kindle Unlimited subscription, you will lose access to all of the Kindle Unlimited books.

What personal finance and investing books are included? You can view all Kindle Unlimited books here. You can search Kindle Unlimited titles here after clicking the “Kindle Unlimited Eligible” box on the top-left. There are is a mix of a few bestsellers, some older classics, and a lot of independently-published titles of varying quality. Here are some finance-related titles that caught my eye:

Kindle Unlimited authors get paid per page that is read. Therefore, your reading actually pays authors for their work!

Merrill Edge Brokerage: Higher Interest Rate Options on Cash Sweep

“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 recently wrote about combining the Merrill Edge brokerage account with Preferred Rewards can get you higher credit card rewards, free stock trades, and cash bonuses for moving investments over. However, I didn’t say much about the interest rates on their cash sweep. That’s because their cash sweep options are horrible, and I always manually sweep my cash out of there. (First to my Bank of America checking via instant transfer, then out to a high interest savings account.)

After a nice conversation with a Merrill Edge rep, I will try to summarize all of the options available if you do want to keep your cash there.

Current rate sheet. You can always check current interest rates by scrolling to the bottom of any Merrill Edge page and clicking on the blue link “Deposit Account & Money Fund Rates”. Right now it links to this PDF.

Default cash sweep. Your default cash sweep interest rate is the one for “Merrill Lynch Bank Deposit Program – Tier 1 (<$250,000)". As of 2/15/19, it is a rather sad 0.14% APY. This is a FDIC-insured cash sweep. The bad news is that you can’t change it to anything else right now. The good news is that there are some other options available if you are willing to do a bit of work.

Preferred Deposit. The first page of the rate PDF only includes FDIC-insured options. You’ll note the highest rate is something called “Preferred Deposit”. As of 2/15/19, it is a much more competitive 2.07% APY. In order to use this option, you must open it with at least $100,000 in cash. However, once you establish that $100,000 position, you can then go below that amount while still maintaining future access (subsequent transactions have a $1,000 minimum). However, this is not a sweep (nothing goes in or out automatically). To move money, you must put in a buy/sell order over the phone, with same day settlement if the trade is placed by 5pm Eastern Time. No online orders.

Money market mutual funds. If you scroll down to the second page of the rate PDF, you will find a list of money market mutual funds. These are not FDIC-insured, but they are still regulated by the SEC and required to hold very safe investments of a very short duration.

Merrill Edge recently made it possible to place trades on money market mutual funds online. You must select “Mutual Funds” from the “Trade” Tab drop down menu, and then enter the fund symbol you are interested in. Many of these are institutional class shares, which means a $100,000 initial minimum investment. Here are the ones that aren’t:

  • Blackrock Liquidity Funds FedFund Cash Reserve Class (BFRXX). $1 initial minimum investment. 7-day yield of 1.89% as of 2/15/19.
  • Blackrock Liquidity Funds T Fund Cash Management Class (BPTXX). $5,000 initial minimum investment. 7-day yield of 1.76% as of 2/15/19.

Again, these money market mutual funds can’t be set as an automatic sweep; you must manually move money in and out of the product. This also means that if you want to for example buy new shares of stock, you would need to first put in an order to sell your money market mutual fund shares into cash (in order to have the funds available to buy that stock). The system won’t be able to automatically sell your fund. Watch out if you have a margin account.

Buying an outside ETF. If you have a Preferred Rewards relationship and thus free trades each month, you can also use those free trades to buy an ETF that is close to cash (ultra-short duration, high-quality bonds). These will not be FDIC-insured and carry a bit of duration risk, but if your ETF holds T-Bills then those are also fully backed by the US government. Here are a few ideas (with rates as of 2/19/19):

  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.30% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.21 SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.91% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 3.03% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Bottom line. Merrill Edge has a default cash sweep option with a very low interest rate. If you have significant assets with them, you might want to call your rep and tell them your opinion and try to create a change. Otherwise, I detail your available options if you want to keep your cash at Merrill Edge and earn a much higher interest rate.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – February 2019

“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 February 2019, 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 2/3/19.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, it’s easy to open a new “piggy-back” savings account and simply move some funds over from your existing checking 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.

  • Redneck Bank offers 2.50% APY on balances up to $50,000. CIT Bank Savings Builder is now up to 2.45% APY with a $100 monthly deposit (with no balance limit). There are several other established high-yield savings accounts at 2% APY and up.
  • Got a lot of friends or followers? You can 4.30% APY on up to $50,000 for 30 days via the Empower app, plus another 30 days for each friend that you refer to the. First month is free + 11 referrals = 4.30% APY for a year.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
A common question is what to do with a big pile 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.

  • Marcus Bank has 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, Ally Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD is at 2.30% APY with a $25k+ minimum, and CIT Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD at 2.05% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit. No Penalty CDs offer a fixed interest rate that can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) without any fees if you want to use it elsewhere. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • Sallie Mae 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 2.48% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.32%. 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 2.73% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.83% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.97% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 3.07% 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 TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 2/1/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.41% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.56% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.30% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.19% 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 personally recommend or 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 “credit” 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)
CDs offer higher rates, but some with a early withdrawal penalty. 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 to keep the ladder going.

  • NASA Federal CU has a 15-month certificate at 3.20% APY and a 25-month at 3.25% APY ($10,000 minimum). 182 day early withdrawal penalty. Anyone can join this credit unions with via membership in partner organization (see application). Ally Bank has a 14-month CD at 2.85% APY (no minimum). 60 day early withdrawal penalty.
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.53% APY ($60k min), 3.47% APY ($20k min), or 3.41% 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 2.65% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.10% 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 3.35% 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 1/9/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.86%.

All rates were checked as of 2/3/19.



Historical IRA Contribution Limits 2009-2019

“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.”

ira_heartIndividual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) are way to save money towards retirement that also saves on taxes. For 2019, the annual contribution limit for either Traditional or Roth IRAs increased to $6,000 (it is roughly indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $1,000 (for a total of $7,000). You can’t contribute more than your taxable compensation for the year, although a spouse can contribute with no income if the other person has enough income.

Historical limits. Since I enjoy visual aides, here’s an updated historical chart and table of contribution limits for the last 11 years. I’m happy to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Consistently saving for a decade can result in some fat nest eggs!

Year IRA Contribution Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $5,000 $1,000
2010 $5,000 $1,000
2011 $5,000 $1,000
2012 $5,000 $1,000
2013 $5,500 $1,000
2014 $5,500 $1,000
2015 $5,500 $1,000
2016 $5,500 $1,000
2017 $5,500 $1,000
2018 $5,500 $1,000
2019 $6,000 $1,000

 

Traditional IRAs. If you are covered by a retirement plan at work, deductibility of your contribution to a Traditional IRA is based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on IRA deduction limits. However, there are no income restrictions as to who can contribute to the full contribution limit for a Traditional IRA.

Roth IRAs. It doesn’t matter if you are covered by a retirement plan at work for the Roth IRA, and contributions to a Roth are never deductible (but they aren’t taxed on upon qualified withdrawal). However, the contribution limit and overall eligibility may be capped based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on Roth IRA contribution limits. But wait… high-income earners may be able to get around these income restrictions with a Backdoor Roth IRA (non-deductible Traditional IRA + Roth conversion). Yeesh, I really wish they would simplify all this stuff.

Saver’s Credit. If your income is low enough (less than $63,000 AGI for married filing joint), the Saver’s Credit can get you back 10% to 50% of your contribution (of up to $2,000 per person) when you file your taxes.

Also see: 401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]

401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

“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.”

401k_limitsEmployer-based retirement plans like the 401(k), 403(b), and Thrift Savings Plan are not perfect, but they are often the best available option to save money in a tax-advantaged manner. For 2019, the employee elective deferral (contribution) limit for these plans increased to $19,000 (it is indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $6,000 (for a total of $25,000).

Here’s a historical chart of contribution limits for the last 11 years (2009-2019).

Year 401k/403b Elective Deferral Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $16,500 $5,500
2010 $16,500 $5,500
2011 $16,500 $5,500
2012 $17,000 $5,500
2013 $17,500 $5,500
2014 $17,500 $5,500
2015 $18,000 $6,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000
2017 $18,000 $6,000
2018 $18,500 $6,000
2019 $19,000 $6,000

 

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the elective deferral limit. Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

For 2019, the maximum contribution limit when you include both employer and employee contributions is $56,000, an increase of $1,000. The employer portion includes company match and profit-sharing contributions.

The employee salary deferral max limit applies even if you participate in multiple 401k plans.

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF], IRS on multiple plans.

Webull App: Free Stock Trades + 2 Free Shares of Stock Referral Bonus

“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 Refer-A-Friend terms, in effect 1/18/19. Webull is a new brokerage app that has unlimited free stock trades with no platform fees, free real-time quotes, and no minimum balance requirement. (Similar to Robinhood.)

Webull also has a referral program where new users can get a free share of stock worth between $3 and $300 for opening an account (no deposit required), and then an additional, second free share of stock worth between $4 and $1,000 for depositing at least $100 within 30 days of account opening. I believe the referring user also gets the exact same shares of stock. It’s like a lottery, and most people will get two shares of stock worth about five bucks each.

Here are the full odds for the opening share bonus ($3 to $300 value) from their Terms and Conditions:

$3 to $5 value, odds are ~1:1.02
$10 to $50 value, odds are ~1:55.6
$50 to $300 value, odds are ~1:500

Here are the full odds for the opening share bonus ($3 to $1,000 value)

$4 to $8 value, odds are ~1:1.02
$8 to $100 value, odds are ~1:74
$100 to $200 value, odds are ~1:166.7
$200 to $1,000 value, odds are ~1:2,000

Here is my Webull referral link. Thanks if you use it! I received a free share of ABEV worth about $4.46. I have also seen SNAP and some lucky ones got AAPL. You will need to sign-up initially either with a phone number or e-mail address, and then open an account after downloading the app (Android or iOS). Webull is a real SIPC-insured broker, and the application is the same (name, address, SSN, work questions, investing experience questions, etc). I did not have to make any deposit, make any trade, or even link a bank account to receive my first free share of stock. My account was approved and I claimed my free share within 12 hours.

(Note: I opened a cash account. Margin accounts will require a minimum balance of $2,000. I believe this requirement is the same for all brokers.)

Robinhood vs. Webull.

  • Robinhood definitely has a sleeker user-interface, which should appeal to younger users and those who want a simple trading experience. Webull has a more “busy” interface with charting, news, technical indicators, and stock screeners. You may like having more information, or you may want a cleaner app.
  • Robinhood offers free options trading. Webull does not offer options at all.
  • Both are primarily apps, but Robinhood has a web trading option now. Webull does not that I know of.
  • Webull has customer service available via Live Chat or phone number. Robinhood only has an e-mail address.

Both will make money from normal users via interest on cash balances and selling order flow. Robinhood’s premium features basically let newbie users access a simple version of margin (flat fee instead of interest rate). Webull has traditional margin accounts that allow shorting, and makes money by selling premium subscriptions to advanced quotes so serious traders can get the absolute best bids and offers across any of 13 different stock exchanges.

Firstrade is a more traditional online brokerage firm that also recently started offering free stock trades and free options trades.

Bottom line. Webull is a new entrant to the world of free stock trading apps. The feel is more of a full-featured traditional brokerage account in app form as compared to competitor Robinhood. The commission-free trades are the real draw, but new users who open an account and deposit $100 can also grab a couple of free shares of stock worth up to $1,000 (but probably about $5 each). It’s like a couple of free lottery ticket, so why not?

Merrill Edge + Preferred Rewards = Free Trades and Up to $900 Bonus For Moving Assets

“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.”

Merrill Edge is the self-directed brokerage arm formed after Bank of America and Merrill Lynch merged together. They are currently offering an increased cash bonus of up to $900 for moving “new money” or assets over to them from another brokerage firm. This new bonus is linked to the BofA/Merrill Preferred Rewards program, which is another reason to consider using them as it gets you free stock trades and better credit card rewards. Here’s an overview along with my personal experience as I’ve had an account with them for a few years now.

Cash bonus. Brokerage firms love to collect assets. The good news is they don’t require cash that will be earning zero interest, and Edge has no management fees if you stick with DIY. If you are holding shares of stock, ETFs, or mutual funds elsewhere, you can simply perform an “in-kind” ACAT transfer over to Merrill Edge. Your 100 shares of AAPL will remain 100 shares of AAPL, so you don’t even have to worry about price changes, lost dividends, or tax consequences. Any cost basis should transfer over too.

This specific offer is for accounts opened by April 30, 2019 and offers the following:

  • $150 bonus with $20,000 to $49,999 in new assets
  • $225 bonus with $50,000 to $99,999 in new assets
  • $375 bonus with $100,000 to $199,999 in new assets
  • $900 bonus with $200,000 or more in new assets

For comparison, here is an expired offer that was slightly better but probably the highest I’ve seen. Here is the standard offer that has been around for a while.

This offer includes both IRAs and regular taxable (CMA) accounts:

1 Offer valid for new and existing individual Merrill Edge IRAs or Cash Management Accounts (CMAs) opened by April 30, 2019. Offer is limited to one CMA and one IRA, with no more than two enrolled accounts per accountholder. Eligible Merrill Edge IRAs limited to Rollover, Traditional, Roth and owner only SEP IRA. The Merrill Edge IRA or CMA may be a Merrill Edge Self-Directed account, Merrill Edge Advisory Account or Merrill Guided Investing account. You may be eligible for a different or better offer. Please contact us for more information.

Note that last sentence! It’s not just boilerplate. After I did this bonus once with a partial transfer (just enough to satisfy the requirements), a Merrill Edge rep contacted me and offered me a custom bonus to move even more assets over. (The bonus ratios were about the same, but higher limits.) Therefore, if you are considering this and have more than $200,000 to transfer over, you may want to give them a call and see if they can offer even more money.

You can even transfer in Admiral Shares of Vanguard mutual funds that they don’t let you trade there, but you can only hold or sell them. You can’t buy more shares. You can, however, buy more shares of the corresponding Vanguard ETF if you wish.

Preferred Rewards bonus. The Preferred Rewards program is designed to rewards clients with multiple account and higher assets located at Bank of America banking, Merrill Edge online brokerage, and Merrill Lynch investment accounts. Here is a partial table taken from their comparison chart (click to enlarge):

bofa_pref1

At the Platinum and Platinum Plus levels, Merrill Edge will give you 30 and 100 free online stock trades every month, respectively. Bank of America’s interest rates on cash accounts tend to be quite low, so moving cash over to qualify may result in earning less interest on your cash deposits. Merrill Lynch advisory accounts also usually come with management fees. The sweet spot is if you have brokerage assets like stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs.

Credit cards rewards. With the Preferred Rewards boost, you can get up to 2.6% cash back towards travel on all your purchases on the Bank of America Travel Rewards Card. You can also get up to 5.25% cash back (on up to $2,500 per quarter) on your choice of gas, online shopping, dining, or travel with the Bank of America Cash Rewards Card.

Keep in mind that it will take a while for your “3-month average combined balance” to actually reach the required level and officially qualify. (This may be obvious, but if you put in the minimum, it will take 3 months.)

My personal experience. In terms of Merrill Edge, I’ve had an account with them for a few years now and my lightning review is that they have a “okay/good” user interface and solidly “good” customer service. I would add that I am not an active trader and only make about 10 trades a year. I have been quite satisfied with the account. I can also move money instantly between my Merrill Edge and Bank of America checking accounts, making it easy to sweep out idle cash into an external savings account.

The biggest financial benefit to this BofA/Merrill Edge combo has probably been the 75% boost to their credit card rewards, allowing me to get 2.625% cash back on basically all my daily purchases. The second biggest benefit has probably been this cash bonus, but that’s because I don’t make 100 trades over the course of a few years, let alone a single month.

Bottom line. Merrill Edge is currently offering up to $900 if you move over a significant amount of assets to their self-directed brokerage. This can simply be mutual fund or ETFs shares currently being held elsewhere. When you keep enough assets across Bank of America and Merrill Edge, their Preferred Rewards program can offer nice perks like waived bank fees, free stock trades, and boosted credit card rewards.

Investing $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years, 2009-2018

“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.”

keepcalmInstead of just looking at one year of returns, I prefer taking a longer view. Most successful savers invest money each year over a long period of time, these days often into a target-date fund (TDF). Don’t get caught up in the daily news reporting the recent performance of the Dow or S&P 500.

Investment benchmark. There are many possible choices for an investment benchmark, but I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. This all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly diversified, and available in many employer retirement plans as well open to anyone with an IRA. In the early accumulation phase, this fund is 90% stocks (both US and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice where you could easily do worse over the long run.

Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable annual contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. The maximum allowable annual contribution for a 401k, 403b, or TSP plan has been over $10,000 per person. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark. Therefore, I’m going to use $10,000 as a benchmark amount. It’s easy to multiply the results as needed.

A decade of real-world savings. To create a simple-yet-realistic scenario, what would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years. You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the handy tools at Morningstar and a Google spreadsheet, we get this:

Investing $10,000 every year for the last decade would have resulted in a $57,000 investment gain. If, for example, you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, that would leave you with a gain of roughly $230,000 over the last decade (and a total balance of $630,000).

Timing still matters, but not as much as you might think due to the dollar-cost averaging and longer time horizon. More importantly, you can’t control that part. You have much more control over how much you save. Here are previous results for January 2007 to December 2016 and January 2008 to December 2017.

Work on improving your career skills (or start your own business), save a big chunk of your income, and then invest it in productive assets. Keep calm and repeat. Our path to financial freedom can be mostly explained by such behavior. The only “secret” here is consistency. We maxed out both IRA and the 401k salary deferral limits nearly every year since 2004. You can build wealth with something as accessible and boring as the Vanguard Target Retirement fund. We received no inheritances and don’t pay a brilliant hedge fund manager.

Chart: Stock Market Declines Are More Common Than You Think

“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.”

prepyourIf you invest in stocks, you know that they go up and down. Below is an S&P 500 histogram (source) showing the distribution of annual returns, which were negative 1/3rd of the time (and thus positive 2/3rd of the time). Not bad, you’ll take those odds, right?

sp500_hist2014

But as the last part of 2018 showed us, returns aren’t all about January to December. There can be big swings in a single month or two which leave people stressed or even panicked. Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) had an article about the recent market volatility which included an interesting chart tracking the largest intra-year gains and losses (defined as peak to trough, and trough to peak).

Bottom line. Stock market declines are more common than you think. Since 1979, the average intra-year decline was about 14%! At the same time, 33 out of out 39 years managed to end up with a positive annual return when measured from January to December.

Blooom Review 2019: Free 401k Analysis + Human CFP Financial Advice For $10 a Month

“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.”

Does the New Year have you motivated to give your retirement account a tune-up? As opposed to many other online advisors, Blooom.com (with three Os) focuses on providing advice for 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP accounts by offering both a free 401k analysis and charging a flat $10/month fee for ongoing portfolio management and CFP advice. They don’t require you to move any money over to them.

Free 401k analysis screenshots. Anyone can sign up for their free 401k analysis with no commitment. They don’t ask for last name or credit card information.

1. They ask you for first name, current age, and retirement age. You don’t need to be super-specific here, they just want some basic information to create your target asset allocation and time horizon.

2. They ask you short risk questionnaire. I’m still not convinced of the validity of finding your risk tolerance via a few multiple choice questions, but I suppose this is the most practical way to at least get you in the ballpark. They had me at 68% stocks and 32% bonds, which is actually really close to my actual stock/bond mix.

3. Provide your login credentials. Blooom will automatically pull in your 401k holdings and other information when you provide them your username and password. This is similar to how I track my own portfolio via Personal Capital. It took them a couple of minutes to crunch everything.

4. Analysis results and screenshots. They first give you an overall report card. Looks like I have a lot to work on:

Next, they told me about the fees that I am paying. It appears that because my fees were “difficult to identify”, they used an average number based on all of their clients. I’m guessing this is because I have a lot of non-mutual-fund holdings in my Solo 401k.

They then analyze asset allocation, identifying the mutual funds and assigning the proper asset class. They they compare with their recommended asset allocation for you:

Free 401k analysis review. My main concern about this analysis is that it only takes into account your 401k. If your 401k is your only retirement savings, then this is fine. However, my 401k is only a portion of my overall portfolio. In addition, I use tax-efficient asset placement, so my 401k mostly holds REITs and TIPs. While their asset allocation breakdown of my actual funds was mostly correct, I was never going to be close to their target mix. This prevented me from getting value out of this service.

Paid management service review. Here’s what the paid service includes:

  • Fee analysis. Each mutual fund you own charges an expense ratio that is quietly taken out of your balances daily. There may also be additional administrative fees charged by your provider.
  • Asset allocation advice. They will come up with a mix of stocks and bonds that are appropriate for your age, and time horizon. Their suggested asset allocation advice is in line with that of other robo-advisors.
  • Rebalancing service. Blooom will rebalance your assets periodically back towards your target values. They’ll help you maintain diversification across asset classes like US stocks, international stocks, safe bonds, etc.
  • Chat with Certified Financial Planners. You can e-mail or Live Chat with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) about any financial topic, not just 401ks.
  • Fiduciary advice. Blooom is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and pledges a fiduciary duty under the law to give advice in your best interest only. This is an important detail!

Blooom has settled on a flat $10 a month fee for ongoing 401k management and advice. This is the same if you have $10,000 or $10 million. Flat fees end up being a high percentage of small accounts though, for example on $10,000 that ends up being 1.2% a year. My personal opinion is that if you have few thousand dollars or less, you should buy the cheapest S&P 500 index fund (or a low-cost Target Date fund) in your 401k and focus on increasing your contribution rate. You don’t need to pay $10 a month for advice right now. Asset allocation isn’t that important yet. Of course, the financial advisor access may be worth more than $10 a month by itself (see below).

While flat fees don’t work out mathematically for small accounts, you will start to save money as your account grows when compared to a percentage-based fee. Once you reach about $50,000 in assets, paying a flat $10 a month becomes cheaper than paying 0.25% of your assets annually.

If you had a solid low-cost, diversified Target Retirement fund from Vanguard, Fidelity Index Series, or Schwab Index Series, you may not need to pay for extra advice either. The asset allocation, rebalancing, and growing more conservative over time is all baked-in. The problem is that there are a lot of bad Target Retirement funds out there that have added layers of fees, stuffed with expensive questionable funds, and chase performance.

The hidden deal? You can get ongoing financial advice from a human CFP for only $10 a month! I think the most overlooked feature of the Blooom paid service is that they include the ability to Live Chat (text) or e-mail with Certified Financial Planners with no minimum balance requirement. A real human CFP, not some AI bot!

DID YOU KNOW blooom clients have access to a CFP? Just ping us on chat, email, Morse code, singing telegram, Pony Express… well, you get the idea, we are accessible.

You are welcome to ask questions about topics outside your 401k:

Ask our advisors any financial questions you have… even beyond 401ks! […] We go beyond retirement advice. Thinking about how a puppy or new car might affect you financially? Give us a whirl! Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, we want all our blooom members to make smart decisions about their finances.

I don’t know of any other place I can get a CFP to chat with me for ten bucks. For example, Betterment won’t let you have CFP access until you have $100,000 held with them (and 401k assets don’t count). You could always pay $10 for the first month and see how you like their CFP advice, as there is no contract on the monthly plan.

Bottom line. Blooom is an online financial advisor that manages 401k/403b/TSP employer retirement accounts. This works out if the majority of your retirement assets are in such a plan. They offer a free 401k/403b analysis to try them out. Above that, they will manage your funds and provide chat/e-mail access to a Certified Financial Planner for a flat $10 a month. This is one of the cheapest ways I know of to chat and email with a human Certified Financial Planner.

Disclosure: I have an affiliate relationship with Blooom. If you try out the free 401k analysis, I get nothing. If you end up being a paid member of Blooom through one of the links above, I will get a commission at no extra cost to you. All content and opinions remain my own.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – January 2019

“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 January 2019, 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 1/9/19.

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 pile 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. Marcus Bank has 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, Ally Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD is at 2.30% APY with a $25k+ minimum, and CIT Bank has a 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.
  • First Internet Bank has a 1-year CD at 2.89% APY ($1,000 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 180 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 2.44% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.31%. 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 2.71% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.81% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.96% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 2.98% 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 TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 1/8/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.40% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.60% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.24% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.16% 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 personally recommend or 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.

  • INOVA Federal CU has a 14-month CD at 3.00% APY and a 20-month at 3.15% APY ($200 minimum). 180 day early withdrawal penalty. Premier America CU has 15-month CD at 3.10% APY ($1,000 minimum). Anyone can join these credit unions with via membership in partner organization (see application).
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.69% APY ($60k min), 3.62% APY ($20k min), or 3.56% 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 2.75% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.20% 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 3.45% 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 1/9/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.86%.

All rates were checked as of 1/9/19.