Archives for March 2017

S&P 500 Histogram: Annual Returns Are Negative 1/3rd Of The Time

“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.”

prepyourAs we stand today in early 2017, the performance of the US stock market since 2009 has been pretty impressive with only a few minor hiccups. I am not calling a market drop, but the best time to prepare is before an emergency or crisis occurs. Humans have a well-documented loss-aversion bias. We react to losing money much more severely than positive returns. Therefore, it is wise to remember that historically, the annual return of the S&P 500 index is negative approximately 1 out of every 3 years.

Here’s a histogram that organizes into “buckets” the historical annual returns of the S&P 500 Index* from 1825-2014. We see that negative returns occurred 29% of the time. Legend: DotCom bubble (grey), Great Depression (yellow), Housing bubble (blue). Source: Margin of Safety.

sp500_hist2014

(* For periods before the S&P 500 existed, the S&P Market Index is used. Before that, I have no idea!)

Here’s a similar chart that shows the annual percentage change of the S&P 500 index from 1927-2016. I counted that 28 out of 89 periods were negative (31.4%). Source: Macrotrends.

sp500_returndist

We should expect and accept that negative returns will come 1/3rd of the time. The drops are part of the package. Just like having a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake preparedness plan, you should have a market drop plan. Do you have a cash cushion so you don’t feel the need to sell temporarily-depressed shares? Do you have a high-quality bond or cash allocation that you can use to rebalance and buy even more stocks when they reach lower valuations?

The Full Spectrum of Financial Advisors

“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.”

spectrum2Do you recommend Wealthfront? Betterment? WiseBanyan? Schwab Intelligent Portfolios? Vanguard Personal Advisor Services? The upstarts like to bash on the competition, making it seem like they are your digital savior while everyone else is evil. The truth is that they are more similar than different.

Morgen Beck Rochard of Origin Wealth Advisors recently created the helpful infographic below on the wide range of possibilities you can get when you hire a “financial advisor”. Found via The Big Picture. Click for full source image.

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What does it mean? The term “financial advisor” tells you nearly nothing about:

  • Their level of training or years of experience.
  • The type of investment products that they sell (individual stocks, active funds, passive ETFs, whole life insurance, complicated annuities?)
  • How they are compensated (flat fee, percentage of assets, commissions).
  • Whether they are a fiduciary (legally required to always act in the client’s best interest)

Wealthfront, Betterment, WiseBanyan, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, and Fidelity Go are all in the space of “Fee-only Passive Management” near the top. They are all Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs), which amongst other things are fiduciaries legally required to act in your best interest. They all manage a diversified portfolio of low-cost, passively-managed funds. They all charge a fee based on assets managed. They all provide limited financial planning, mostly using software with inputs that you adjust yourself.

Avoid everything below! Stay away from the yellow, orange, and red boxes. Complicated universal life insurance and equity-indexed annuities. Expensive mutual funds with expense ratios of 1% or higher. Using the principle of inversion, by simply avoiding these products you’re already doing above-average (with below-average fees).

Meanwhile, at the very top is what I cynically call “unicorn land”. Who doesn’t want a qualified human advisor that puts your interests first, provides comprehensive financial planning, and charges a reasonable fee? The paradox we get is that if a high-touch human financial advisor is good at what they do, chances are that they won’t look at your account unless you have over $1 million. Also, they tend to be more expensive. Looking at the Form ADV of Origin Wealth Advisors for example, over 75% of clients are “high net worth” and the portfolio management fee is 1.5% annually unless you have more than $5 million. There is nothing wrong with targeting high net worth clients and charging a premium fee for premium service. A human advisor that keeps you on course and prevent market timing or panic selling could create “advisor alpha“. But 1.5% annually is expensive, any way you cut it.

There are qualified, reasonably-priced human advisors out there, but you won’t find them on every street corner. In contrast, anyone with $500 can click on over the Betterment or Wealthfront and get a solid portfolio built and rebalanced regularly for them. At 0.25% annual fee, a $100,000 portfolio will cost $250 a year. Most people don’t even have $100,000 saved up.

If I had to start all over from the beginning, I’d probably do this. First, save up cash until you get $1,000. Then buy and keep investing in a Vanguard Target Retirement mutual fund. At the same time, learn about investing, behavioral psychology, and market history. Read, read, read. Then manage my own portfolio. But that’s not for everyone.

If you can keep putting money into your Target Retirement fund even during market panics with no other authority figure (robo or human) to help you out, then you could just keep your money there indefinitely. Give it a decade or three, and it will work fine. If you want to hire a low-cost robo-advisor to manage your portfolio, that will also work fine (if you also let it be). The more complicated robo-portfolios might create a slightly-higher risk-adjusted return, and automated tax-loss harvesting could offset part or all of the advisory fee. Remember that you are picking between different shades of blue on the above spectrum. You’re doing pretty good. Don’t become a victim of paralysis by analysis. The enemy of a good plan is a perfect plan.

Money Diaries: Anthony Bourdain, Spike Lee, Kylie Jenner, and Other Interesting People

“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.”

wsmoneydiaryIt’s been more than a decade since I started this site because I had no other outlet to talk about financial independence. Talking about your money in public remains a mostly taboo topic. The idea of financial freedom through an aggressive saving rate remains a niche interest. I suppose the anonymous nature of the internet makes it the ideal place for like-minded people to share information and experiences.

Robo-allocator WealthSimple runs a series called Money Diaries, in which “interesting people tell the unvarnished truth about their financial lives”. I don’t really know if I would call it completely unvarnished (can it be if you have a publicist?), but at least they’re sharing something personal about money! It can be reassuring to hear other people talk about how their childhood experiences or other struggles with money have shaped their lives.

I’ve been gradually working my way through them. Here’s a sampling:

  • Anthony Bourdain

    Before he was the guy from Parts Unknown, he was 44, never had a savings account, hadn’t filed taxes in 10 years, and was AWOL on his AmEx bill.

    […] Since that time, I am fanatical about not owing anybody any money. I hate it. I don’t want to carry a balance, ever. I have a mortgage, but I despise the idea. That was my biggest objection to buying property, though I wasn’t in the position to pay cash.

  • Spike Lee

    Here’s what I’ve learned, though: It only takes one yes. No matter how many people say no, you only need that one yes and you’re off and running. You can’t let the nos defeat you. Because that’s all it takes—just one yes.

  • Kylie Jenner

    That’s not to say I don’t splurge from time to time. The money I spend is mostly on cars. I have six of them right now. Six is probably too many, I know. But my number one jam this summer is this cherry red Rolls Royce Wraith that I’ve been driving all over the place. What can I say? I love it.

  • Jay Allison (NPR, All Things Considered)

    I went into college as an Engineering Major and came out with a Theater degree. This was 1973. My family didn’t love me any less, but they clearly thought I was making a foolish choice. But I’d bought into a sort of ‘60s Peace Corps-style idealism. I wondered, “What does wealth have to do with personal fulfillment, with happiness, with a well-chosen path through life?”

  • Brett Loudermilk (Professional Sword Swallower)

    Here’s the thing: I know nothing about money. I just know how to monetize this weird thing I do. I often joke that I want to be making a living while doing the least amount of work possible. But it’s not really a joke—it’s a real thing. There are tons of people in the world who do very little work and make more money than I can ever imagine, and I want a piece of that. And the reason is, with my free time I want to create art and performances that will make people happy. I love gigs where I can do 15 minutes of work and make a ridiculous sum of money that I can live off of for six months while I explore my own passion projects and weird fanciful ideas.

  • Maria Bamford (Comedian)

    There’s so much shame attached to discussing finances. I don’t totally understand it. Why can’t we all know what everybody’s earning? When I get booked to do a stand-up show, I can gross $20,000 or more in a night. That’s my current market rate.

    […] That’s when I found a 12-step group dealing with money. L.A. is the 12-step capital of the world, so it wasn’t hard. I love 12-step programs—any kind. I started going to them when I was younger and struggling with eating issues. I think that there’s huge power in a group of humans coming together, getting out of isolation, and helping one another think of new ideas. It’s a weirdly miraculous thing. And there’s always free coffee!

RealtyShares Review 2017: Wisconsin Apartment Loan One-Year Update

“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.”

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Here’s a one-year update on my $2,000 investment through RealtyShares, a partial interest in a loan backed by a 6-unit apartment complex in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. RealtyShares is restricted to accredited investors only. Here are the highlights:

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

rs_okeefe1

Property details. I chose this property because it is different from my other past “experiments”. I have never lived in or visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have never invested in an apartment complex. Where I live, parking spaces have sold for more than $200,000. All units are 2 bed/1 bath, currently fully rented for ~$600 a month each. I don’t know all the numbers, but this place earns roughly $43,000 in gross annual rents with a purchase price of $220,000. Annual property taxes are $3,000 a year. Even if half of the rent is spent on expenses, that is still a cap rate of 10%. To be honest, I have had some second thoughts about this borrower (after a few late payments) that s/he is juggling too many investment properties using crowdfunding websites.

Initial experience. This specific investment was not “pre-funded” by RealtyShares. That meant that I had to wait until they secured enough committed money before the deal can go forward. I committed to this loan on 12/21/15 and $2,000 was debited from my Ally bank account on 12/29/15. However, the funding goal was not reached until 1/13/16 (before which I earned no interest) and I didn’t receive my first interest payment until 3/4/16 (for interest accrued 1/13-2/10). There was essentially a 3 month period between the time where they first took my money and I received my first interest check. I did receive my second month of interest shortly thereafter on 3/17/16.

Since my initial investment, RealtyShares has started offering investments on a pre-funded basis. You should also know that you don’t have to deposit any money into your account first before investing in any deal. You should link an account, but you can sign the papers and they will debit the funds when the investment closes.

What if RealtyShares goes bankrupt? RealtyShares investments have a bankruptcy-remote design. RealtyShares, Inc. is the platform. Your investment is held within a separate special-purpose LLC with a designated trustee which would continue to operate even if RealtyShares, Inc. goes bankrupt.

Payment history. I’ve been earning my 9% APR interest on my $2,000 initial investment, which works out to $15 a month. Below is a screenshot of my interest payments, which I have elected to by deposited directly into my bank account. You can see that I have received 12 payments over the last 12 months (March 2016 to March 2017). The borrower has had a few late payments, but always seems to catch up eventually. There was a mention of late charges potentially being charged, but none appear to have been paid out to my account. I need to follow-up on that (I assume it was within the allowed grace period).

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 3.53.47 PM

realtyshares1703b

Recap and next steps? My real-estate-backed loan through RealtyShares is now a year old, designated my Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #3. I have received my 9% interest as promised, and the loan is current although some past payments have been late before becoming current again. The borrower has exercised the 6-month extension option and the loan now has an expected maturity of 5/20/17, so it remains a continuing experiment to see how/if/when the borrower pays off the loan in full. I definitely like that my loans are backed by hard assets, and a small part of me is still curious as to what would happen if the borrower just walked away.

Please don’t take any of my experiments as recommendations as the entire point is that I don’t know all the angles. I am sharing and learning. Also, I don’t know your situation. If you are interested and are an accredited investor, you can sign-up for free and browse investments at RealtyShares before depositing any funds or making any investments.

Experiment #1 was with Patch of Land and single-family residential property in California, which was paid back in full with a 12.5% annualized return. Experiment #2 is ongoing with the Fundrise Income eREIT, which holds a basket of commercial property investments and has been paying quarterly distributions on a timely basis.

Fidelity Brokerage and IRA Bonuses for New Asset Transfers

“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.”

fidelity_logoFidelity Investments has a few different bonuses if you transfer a certain levels of new assets over to them. These are handy if you want to move money out of an old 401(k) plan or are looking to try out a new broker. Besides a cash deposit, you can also do an in-kind transfer and move over your existing investments without incurring any capital gains. Please note that for some you must register soon by March 31st, 2017. You can register now and still have 60 days to move over assets.

You must register first using one of the links below. Compare and pick your favorite bonus; you can only pick one per rolling 12 months. Net new assets means external new money in minus money out, and you must keep it there for 9 months or they will clawback the bonus. (This not a guarantee, but I can report that I did not receive a 1099 for my past Fidelity bonus.)

United MileagePlus Bonus Miles

  • Link: Fidelity.com/United
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”).
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) at Fidelity for nine months from the date on which the reward is received. Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

American Airlines AAdvantage® Bonus Miles

  • Link: Fidelity.com/aa
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Delta SkyMiles Bonus

  • Link: Fidelity.com/delta
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Cash Bonus (IRA or Taxable Brokerage Account)

  • Link: https://rewards.fidelity.com/offers/depositbonus
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Nonretirement (individual or joint) or Fidelity IRA (rollover IRA, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA) brokerage accounts.
  • Bonus amount: $200 for $50k+, $300 for $100k+, $600 for $250k+, $1,200 for $500k+, and $2,500 for $1M+ net new assets. Rollovers from a former employer’s Fidelity-record kept workplace savings plan are not eligible for this offer.
  • New accounts or designated eligible accounts must be funded within 60 days (“the qualification period”). Please allow 2-4 weeks after the qualification period for the bonus award to be credited to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • No stated expiration date. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Apple Store Gift Card

  • Link: Fidelity.com/apple
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: $300 gift card for $75k+ and $500 gift card for $150k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 4-6 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires July 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Dollar Shave Club vs. Dorco USA Razor Price Comparison

“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.”

dsc-vs-dorco

Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are supposedly “disrupting” the shaving industry. Honestly, I don’t get it. Buying a razor is like buying shampoo, soap, or toilet paper. In other words, I buy them in bulk when Costco has a coupon for it. 😉 Last time, I bought this set for $1 per 3-blad razor and it lasted me two years. However, after doing some research, I decided to try a different product for 2017 and 2018. (I already tried Harry’s razors and decided it wasn’t for me.)

Did you know that Dollar Shave Club doesn’t even make their own razors? Well, now that they’ve been bought for $1 billion by Unilever, this might change, but for now their 4-blade and 6-blade razors are made by a company named Dorco. Dorco also sells razors directly to US consumers at DorcoUSA.com. Which is the cheaper option?

Dorco USA has regular sales and coupons. There’s always some sort of sale or coupon, so you should never pay full price. You can sign up for their newsletter for updates, although it is a bit annoying to get weekly e-mails when you only buy razors once a year. You can also check the usual coupon sites. In my opinion, I would wait until I see a discount of 40% to 50% off with free shipping. (Maybe I’ll refresh this post once a year when a good sale hits.)

Use a cashback shopping portal too. You can also stack additional savings via cashback shopping portals. Specifically, both BeFrugal and TopCashBack offer 10% cashback at the time of this writing and I can confirm that I got the cash back credited through TopCashBack.

Example deal with 4-blade razors. Right now until 3/25/17, you can get $20 off $50 order with free shipping with code MMadness20. Here’s an example of what you could put together. I’m doing Men’s razors but they have equivalent Women’s razors as well.

The Pace 4 Starter set includes 1 handle and 2 cartridges for $6. The Pace 4 refill set has 4 cartridges and costs $7.15. Buying 1 starter set + 7 refill sets = $6.50 + $50.05 – $20 coupon = $36.05. That’s 30 cartridges total at $1.20 per Dorco 4-blade razor. If you use a 10% cashback portal, that’s $1.08 per razor.

The Pace 4 looks nearly identical (see top image) to the “4X” blade from Dollar Shave Club, which runs $6 for 4 cartridges per month. This works out to $1.50 per Dollar Shave Club 4-blade razor. If you count the $1 first month promo, over a year you’d pay $1.40 per razor.

Example deal with 6-blade razors. The Pace 6 Plus has 6 blades + beard trimmer blade. The Pace 6 Plus starter set with 1 weighted handle and 2 cartridges cost $6.50. Pace 6 refill sets are $9.65 for 4 cartridges. Buying 1 starter set + 5 refill sets = $6.50 + $48.25 – $20 coupon = $34.75. That’s 22 razor cartridges total at $1.58 per 6-blade Dorco razor. If you use a 10% cashback portal, that’s $1.42 per razor.

The Pace 6 Plus looks nearly identical to the “Executive” blade from Dollar Shave Club, which runs $9 for 4 cartridges per month. This works out to $2.25 per 6-blade Dollar Shave Club razor. If you count the $1 first month promo, over a year you’d pay $2.08 per razor.

The specific numbers may change as the promotions vary, but the Dorco razors usually still come out ahead. You may see $10 off $30, $20 off $40, Buy 1 Get 1 Free, etc.

Bottom line. If you are okay buying in bulk (20+ razors), buying directly from Dorco USA can be cheaper than getting what appears to be the same razor from Dollar Shave Club. In the examples above using frequent sale pricing, the savings were roughly 30% off. You also avoid a recurring subscription (always try to automate savings, not spending).

(How are the Pace 4 razors? In my non-fussy opinion, they are fine. They are slightly nicer than my 3-blade razors from Costco, but that’s about it. So far, it appears they will last about the same length of time as well.)

Fundrise Income eREIT Review 2017: One Year Update

“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.”

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Here’s an update on my $2,000 investment into the Fundrise Income eREIT. Fundrise is taking advantage of recent legislation allowing certain crowdfunding investments to be offered to the general public (they were previously limited only to accredited investors). REIT = Real Estate Investment Trust. This specific eREIT initially sold out of its $50 million offering, but Fundrise has since opened regional eREITs called the West Coast, Heartland, and East Coast eREITs. The highlights:

  • $1,000 investment minimum.
  • Quarterly cash distributions.
  • Quarterly liquidity window. You can request to sell shares quarterly, but liquidity is not always guaranteed.
  • Fees are claimed to be roughly 1/10th the fees of similar non-traded REITs. Until Dec 31, 2017, you pay $0 in asset management fees unless you earn a 15% annualized return.
  • Transparency. They give you the details on the properties held, along with updates whenever a new property is added or sold.

Why not just invest in a low-cost REIT index fund? I happen to think most everyone should invest in a low-cost REIT index fund like the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) if they want commercial real estate exposure. I have many times more money in VNQ than I have in Fundrise. VNQ invests in publicly-traded REITs, huge companies worth up to tens of billions of dollars. VNQ also has wide diversification and daily liquidity. But as publicly-traded REITs have grown in popularity (and price), their income yields have gone down.

Fundrise makes direct investments into smaller properties with the goal of obtaining higher risk-adjusted returns. They do a mix of equity, preferred equity, and debt. Examples of real-life holdings are a luxury rental townhome complex and a $2 million boutique hotel. From their FAQ:

Specifically, we believe the market for smaller real estate transactions (“small balance commercial market or SBC”) is underserved by conventional capital sources and that lending in the market is fragmented, reducing the availability and overall efficiency for real estate owners raising funds. This inefficiency and fragmentation of the SBC market has resulted in a relatively favorable pricing dynamic which the eREIT intends to capitalize on using efficiencies created through our technology platform.

Here’s a comparison chart taken from the Fundrise site:

fundrise_ereit1

Quarterly liquidity. As noted, the investment offers the ability to request liquidity on a quarterly basis, but it is not guaranteed that you can withdraw all that you request. In addition, you may not receive back your full initial investment based on the current calculation of the net asset value (NAV).

Update: I tested out the quarterly liquidity window and was able to withdraw my funds in a simple process and without issue.

Dividend reinvestment. I chose to have my dividends paid directly into my checking account. However, you can now choose to have your dividend automatically reinvested across currently available offerings.

Tax time paperwork? All you get at tax time is a single 1099-DIV form with your ordinary dividends listed in Box 1a. That’s it. Every other box is empty. This is much easier than dealing with the 10-page list of tax lots from LendingClub or Prosper.

Dividend income updates.

  • Q1 2016. 4.5% annualized dividend was announced. This was the first complete quarter of activity, so the dividend was not as large as when funds became fully invested. The portfolio had 13 commercial real estate assets from 8 different metropolitan areas, with approximately $31.5 million committed.
  • Q2 2016. 10% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-July. Portfolio now includes 15 assets totaling roughly $47.25M in committed capital.
  • Q3 2016. 11% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-October.
  • Q4 2016. 11.25% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-January. Portfolio now includes 17 assets and all of the $50 million has been invested.

Screenshot from my account:

fundrise1701

Recap and next steps? It has now been over a year since my initial investment in the Fundrise Income eREIT, designated my Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #2. I’ve earned $183.01 in dividends on my initial $2,000 investment. The quarterly dividends have arrived on time, I get regular e-mail updates, and it has been nearly zero-maintenance. I still accept the possibility of wide price fluctuations, as with any real estate investment.

Update: I tested out the quarterly liquidity window and was able to withdraw my funds in a simple process and without issue. Fundrise is still accepting direct investments into some of their eREITs, but I am now looking to re-invest into their new Fundrise 2.0 system, which has a new $500 minimum and allocates across multiple eREITs. You can sign-up and browse investments at Fundrise for free before depositing any funds or making any investments.

High-Cost Index Funds and Low-Cost Actively Managed Funds

“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 a Vanguard Blog post called Mind fund details, not labels by Frank Kinniry that includes some good reminders about the mutual fund and ETF industry:

  • Low-cost vs. high-cost is more important than actively managed vs. passively managed.
  • Index funds can have high expense ratios.
  • Actively-managed funds can have low expense ratios.
  • You should also evaluate based on “managerial talent”, although that is much harder to judge than costs.
  • Therefore… look under the hood at the asset allocation and expense ratio!

Did you know that the average Vanguard active fund is actually cheaper than the average non-Vanguard index fund or ETF?

vg_lowcosts

A consistent history of low costs and solid, conservative management is why I have overall positive opinions of the Vanguard Wellington and Vanguard Wellesley mutual funds. If you accumulate enough assets to qualify for Admiral Shares, they only cost 0.18% and 0.15% respectively. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to my family as my #1 choice, but I wouldn’t tell them to switch out either. I would certainly pick Wellington/Wellesley in a 401(k) plan over a similar allocation towards expensive index funds or an expensive target retirement fund.

Bottom line. There are a lot of expensive index funds out there. Watch out.

More Experience = Less Complexity?

“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 we had our first child, it seems like we were prepared for the apocalypse whenever we stepped out the door. Below is a visualization taken from Pinterest, while we actually had this $60 SkipHop diaper bag filled to the brim.

babybag1

Compare that with what I grabbed as my “diaper bag” for our youngest baby this morning:

babybag2

If I am going to be out for no more than a few hours, this is all I really need.

– 99 cent reusable grocery bag
butt everything wipes
– two diapers
– poop bags (also used for dogs)
– food/drink (if breast milk unavailable)

If you aren’t experienced, then you want to be prepared for every possible situation. Over time, you realize what you really need and leave everything else at home. Instead of more stuff, you are instead mentally prepared with the various improvisations you can perform in unexpected situations. (I also keep a bag in the car with an extra change of clothes for everyone.)

A similar example is packing luggage. What used to just be for “backpackers” is now for everyone. Websites about packing light abound. My first few trips, I packed myself a huge, cheap Wal-Mart suitcase at maximum-weight along with another maximum-size carry-on. Something like this:

packing1

After many flights (and an experience with delayed luggage), like many others I found myself with just a carry-on travel backpack for a month-long trip (or even longer).

packing2

I feel like this trend should apply to investing as well, but it seems like the ultra-wealthy tend to have a more complex mix of investments. Perhaps the very wealthy like to spread their money across various asset classes like real estate, private equity, and hedge funds because it reduces the chance of catastrophic loss. For example, sometimes I want to buy a rental property as it seems it would offer additional diversification to a stock and bond portfolio, but I really don’t want to deal with bad tenants or mediocre property managers.

I do like the idea of simply transferring over some of my bond interest payments and stock dividends to my checking account every month in retirement. However, a part of me is uncomfortable having so much of my net worth in investments where the only tangible evidence is paper and ink via monthly statements.

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USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards Visa Signature Card Review: 2.5% Cash Back

“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.”

usaa_limless

(Update: The card application page is no longer available. USAA is not longer offering this card to new applicants.)

USAA, which serves members of the U.S. military and their immediate families, has a new cash back rewards card called the USAA Limitless™ Cashback Rewards Visa Signature® Card. This card is currently in an online pilot program and is only available for residents in (a growing number of) eligible states. To check your eligibility, visit the USAA credit cards page and select your state of residence. If you see the card listed at the top, your state is eligible. If not, the list has been gradually expanding, so check again later.

The headline feature of this card is flat 2.5% cash back on all purchases, subject to a few hurdles. Here are the highlights:

  • Earn 2.5% cash back on credit card purchases when you have a free USAA Bank checking account with a qualifying direct deposit of at least $1,000 every month.
  • No sign-up bonus.
  • Enjoy unlimited cash back on the amount you can earn.
  • Earn 1.5% cash back on credit card purchases without a direct deposit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No annual fee.
  • You must be a USAA member to apply for this card.

Here’s the fine print regarding the $1,000 direct deposit requirement:

Within 90 days of opening your credit card account, you must establish a monthly qualifying direct deposit of at least $1,000 to your USAA Bank checking account. A qualifying direct deposit is a single electronic transfer of at least $1,000 that you initiate with your employer, a government entity or an external financial institution. Funds transfers between USAA accounts are not qualifying direct deposits.

USAA membership eligibility. USAA is focused on serving members of the U.S. military and their immediate families. Here are their membership groups:

  • Active Military. Individuals who are currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines or Navy.
  • Former Military. Those who have retired or separated from the U.S. military with a discharge type of Honorable.
  • Family. Widows, widowers and un-remarried former spouses of USAA members who joined USAA prior to or during the marriage and individuals whose parents joined USAA.
  • Cadets and Midshipmen. Cadets and midshipmen at U.S. service academies, in advanced ROTC or on ROTC scholarship, officer candidates within 24 months of commissioning.

List of eligible states. Here is the current list as stated on the application page, last updated in March 2017. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, so it appears the pilot program is going well and it will be available nationwide eventually. I currently count 26 states.

This product is currently available to members residing in the following states: AL, AR, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, KS, LA, MD, MI, MN, ND, NM, NV, NY, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX and WA. It will become available in additional states at a later date.

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington

Reader experience. Reader JD shares her positive experience with this card over e-mail. Note that you can redeem with just $1 in rewards.

So far, very easy to use (just started using it 2/22/17). There is a simple button you press (view and redeem rewards), which transfers you to the rewards web page. The rewards are posted almost immediately and you can redeem the rewards at any time as long as you have at least 1 dollar in available rewards. You can then transfer the money as a statement credit or into your USAA checking account (which you must open).

Bottom line. The USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards card offers 2.5% flat cash back on all purchases, which is one of the highest flat rewards percentages currently available. Note that you must (1) be a USAA member, (2) have an open USAA checking account, and (3) maintain a $1,000 direct deposit every single month to maintain the 2.5% cash back rate. If you don’t meet the $1,000 direct deposit requirement, you default back onto 1.5% cash back. USAA membership is limited to members of the U.S. military and their immediate families.

  • USAA Limitless™ Cashback Rewards Visa Signature® Card application link

2017 IRS Federal Income Tax Brackets Breakdown Example (Married w/ 1 Child)

“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.”

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In a continued attempt to better explain the 2017 federal income tax brackets, here is a graphical breakdown of a simple scenario for a married filing joint couple with 1 dependent. See also my previous examples for a single filer with no dependents and married filing joint with no dependents. I will try to explain the differences in terms such as gross income, taxable income, marginal tax rate, and effective tax rate.

Here is a chart of 2017 federal income tax rates for married joint filers, based on the official IRS tax tables:

2017tbrac_mfj

Simple example. Let’s say your combined gross income is $100,000 a year. You are a married couple with one child under 16, and both earn $50,000 gross income. You are both employees that receive W-2 income only (i.e. neither are self-employed). You don’t have any additional income sources like interest, capital gains, rents, etc. You don’t have any extra deductions like IRA/401k contributions or mortgage interest. You live in a state with no state income tax.

Gross income. Let’s start with your annual $100,000 gross income. You each get a personal exemption of $4,050 in 2017, including your dependent child. That’s $4,050 x 3 = $12,150. You also get something called the standard deduction which is $12,700 for married filing joint in 2017. Since you don’t have a lot of itemized deductions, you fall back onto the standard deduction.

2017t_brackets_mfj1kid

The first 24,850 of your gross income is not taxable. Without doing anything special at all, your $100,000 in gross income is now only $75,150 in taxable income after personal exemptions and the standard deductions. If you’ve already done your taxes, your taxable income should be line 43 on Form 1040, line 27 on Form 1040A, and line 6 on Form 1040EZ.

The first $18,650 of taxable income is subject to a 10% tax rate. Shave off 10% of $18,650 and put that on your tax bill ($1,865). The remaining $56,500 of taxable income is moved onto the next tax bracket.

The next $57,250 in taxable income is subject to a 15% tax rate. However, we only have $56,500 left. So we shave off 15% of $56,500 ($8,475) and add that to the existing $1,865. The total tax bill is now $10,340.

In this example, this 15% is your marginal tax bracket. If you earned another $1, it would be taxed at this marginal rate of 15%. Even with a six-figure income, a couple with at least one kid can still land in the 15% marginal tax bracket (pre-tax 401k or IRA contributions would reduce taxable income even more).

Federal Child Tax Credit. As this income doesn’t exceed the phaseout limits and your child is 16 or under, you also get the full $1,000 Child Tax Credit. A tax credit lowers your tax bill dollar-for-dollar as opposed to a deduction that only lowers your taxable income. Thus, your tax bill is reduced from $10,340 to $9,340.

2017t_compare_mfj1kid

Payroll taxes. These aren’t technically federal income taxes, but you must each pay a Social Security tax (OASDI) of 6.2% and Medicare payroll tax (HI) of 1.45% of your gross income. That’s $3,100 a year for Social Security and $725 a year for Medicare. You both earn $50,000 gross and don’t exceed the income caps. (Your respective employers pay the same amount.)

Overall effective tax rate. You paid $9,340 in federal income taxes on $100,000 of gross income, for an average or overall effective tax rate of 9.34%. Again, you also paid 7.65% in payroll taxes. Your average tax rate is lower than a couple without kids due to the combined effects of the additional personal exemption and the child tax credit. In this specific example, having a kid reduced your tax bill by $937.50 + $1,000 = $1937.50.

Here’s a chart from OurWorldinData.org that shows how the average tax rate changes with taxable income (2016, married filing joint with no kids).

2017taverage

Vanguard ETF vs. Mutual 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.”

Building My Portfolio BlocksAllan Roth has a new ETF.com article called Why ETFs Won’t Replace Mutual Funds. Inside, he offers the following reasons why if you are buying Vanguard funds, he typically recommends the Admiral Shares mutual fund over the ETF.

Vanguard Mutual fund advantages

  1. Can buy fractional shares
  2. No premium or discount—all transactions are at net asset value
  3. No spreads between bid and ask
  4. Less cash drag, as dividends are reinvested more quickly
  5. Can do a tax-free exchange from mutual funds to ETFs, but not the reverse
  6. Can do automated dollar cost averaging

In the interest of fairness, I will offer up the following:

Vanguard ETF advantages

  • Lower minimum investment amounts. Usually one share is only about $100, and some brokers even offer fractional shares.
  • No purchase or redemption fees. No short-term trading fee. Vanguard has these on a few mutual funds, for example the Vanguard Global ex-US Real Estate Fund Admiral Share charges a 0.25% fee on both purchases and redemptions.
  • You can easily hold, buy, trade Vanguard ETFs at any brokerage firm. The cost to trade will be as with any stock. (Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs trade free with a Vanguard brokerage account.) You might prefer the customer service of another firm, or you might prefer the convenience of having everything together if you hold non-Vanguard investments. You might already have free trades anyway, for example with the Robinhood app.

Expense ratio is a tie with Admiral Shares. I don’t know if it an official “written in stone” polcy, but Vanguard has a long history of keeping the expense ratios of ETFs and Admiral Shares mutual funds the exact same (mostly $10,000 minimum investment). The Investor Class usually has a slightly higher expense ratio (mostly $3,000 minimum).

Tax-efficiency is a tie. I will add in this reminder that in the case of Vanguard (and only Vanguard as far as I know), the ETF and mutual funds share the same underlying investments and thus the same level of tax-efficiency, utilizing the benefits of both where possible. From the Vanguard ETF FAQ:

Are there any tax advantages to owning a Vanguard ETF®?
Because Vanguard ETFs are shares of conventional Vanguard index funds, they can take full advantage of the tax-management strategies available to both conventional funds and ETFs.

Conventional index funds can offset taxable gains by selling securities that have declined in value at a loss. In addition, they tend to trade less frequently than actively managed funds, which means less taxable income gets passed on to shareholders. Vanguard ETFs can also use in-kind redemptions to remove stocks that have greatly increased in value (which trigger large capital gains) from their holdings.

My money. I hold most of my portfolio in Vanguard mutual funds (Admiral Shares). One reason is that I am old and have a good amount of capital gains in the mutual funds bought before ETFs gained traction. I also hold some Vanguard ETFs, mostly bought back when ETFs were cheaper because I didn’t have enough money to qualify for Admiral shares. (Prior to 2010, the minimum for Admiral funds was $100,000! These days the minimums are mostly a more reasonable $10,000.) These days, I don’t have a strong preference, but I slightly prefer the simplicity of buying mutual funds.

Vanguard ETF tool. If you really want to pick at the details, Vanguard offers their own ETF vs. mutual fund cost comparison calculator. It’s pretty good and even includes things like historical bid-ask spreads.

Bottom line. There are certainly differences between ETFs and mutual funds. It is worth comparing the advantages and disadvantages before making your decision. However, in terms of the big picture, we are talking about relatively small differences. Being low-cost, transparent, and diversified are more important features. Given that both have their relative advantages, both ETFs and mutual funds will be around for a long time.

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