Happy Fantastic Friday (I Wanted to Up the Ante From Last Week)!

I was looking for a picture of destruction. I found this picture of hurricane damage. It will do. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Holy cow are we in some suddenly dark days! I’m seeing some genuinely good people and businesses getting hurt and some being taken down altogether and it is all happening so quickly. And this, of course, only intensifies my problems. I’ve seen this recession coming on paper (or at least screens, the 2019 equivalent) for a couple of years now and while I may have made some early calls, I would much rather have been early than late. And more importantly, I believe we are now almost definitely in it. I see more real world signs of it every day and I hear similar reports from my contacts all over the country. If you haven’t started preparing yet, I strongly recommend doing so right now because you won’t get a better opportunity. Anyway, mercifully, another Friday is upon us and here are some random observations and anecdotes from the week.

Don’t Let Car Dealerships Take Advantage of You Because You’re Lazy

In spite of what I wrote above, I have been quietly watching the market for my next vehicle for a while. I’m not saying I will pull the trigger any time soon, but as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I typically watch the market for months before I so much as set foot on a dealer’s lot. I don’t just want to take the internet’s word for it; I want to know for a fact whether a price is good or not. Plus, I predict some amazing recession discounts on cars this time around. Plus, I enjoy the research. Yes, because I’m weird like that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that these “no haggle” dealerships have gotten very popular. I’ve also noticed something else; their prices are absurdly high! I’m talking 10-15% higher than average in most cases! After doing a little googling and perusing some forum posts, I’ve confirmed that this is exactly what it appears to be – another example on the long and growing list of times American companies have had the balls to fairly openly exploit laziness for profit – and succeeded at it. Two quick notes on this.

One – and I know this doesn’t apply to all of them, but only some of the very most millennial-ly ones that may as well be throwing in a year’s supply of avocado toast with their overpriced cars – but any dealership that will not let you inspect a car in person first at a minimum, needs to be avoided at all costs. Cars, particularly used ones, are not commodity items. If you aren’t going to test drive one before you buy it, you deserve whatever you get. And if you’re not willing to spend a hundred bucks or so to have a qualified mechanic check a used car out, you’re taking an awfully huge risk. Sure, you may get lucky. But you could also wind up out thousands and thousands of dollars. And sure, some of these “dealerships” allow returns. But do you really want to stake that kind of money on these policies being honored? Better you than me if you do. But then, I’m just a car freak who has done extremely well with car purchases over the years. Not only have I had to do almost zero repairs beyond preventative maintenance, I have even pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of selling one car for a profit after driving it over a year and another for exactly what I paid after driving it for several months. But then, I don’t like to toot my own horn…

Two, these dealers literally believe they can overcharge people by thousands of dollars because the average person either doesn’t even have the courage to sit and talk to a salesman (or woman), or is too lazy to do so. Are you really willing to validate that theory for them? For the sake of all of us, I hope not. But based on the fact that some of these companies appear to be extraordinarily successful, it would appear the mob has already spoken. In any case, at the risk of sounding like your parents, do you want to get ripped off just because a million other people have been?

Aldi Now Accepts Credit Cards

This could be old news, I don’t know. I stopped going to these stores years ago because I didn’t like playing roulette with the possibility of getting stuck waiting in line for fifteen minutes because there was one employee in the entire store. Also because I don’t do business with anyone who doesn’t accept credit cards outside of incredibly rare, possibly life threatening circumstances. Anyway, I stopped in to an Aldi for the hell of it recently and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company has joined the rest of the civilized world in accepting credit cards. Someone must have had a eureka moment and realized that not accepting by far the most popular payment method on earth to save a few nickels per order, which could easily be accounted for in the pricing of everything (again, like the rest of the civilized world does it), might not be quite the brilliant business tactic they had once thought it was. No, no sarcasm here at all. And by the way, speaking of spare change, I genuinely believe the quarter deposit thing they do with their carts is brilliant. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one freely roaming a parking lot en route to damaging someone’s several thousand dollar vehicle because someone else is a lazy, entitled asshole. My goodness, I’m in an interesting mood today. But I promise this is happy, if cynical. Remember, Friday.

Anyway, the line thing still happened. As it turned out, the only employee in the store was in the bathroom. There was a line about half the length of the building when he came out. I probably won’t repeat this experiment anytime soon. But if you’re looking for absolute bottom line grocery prices, this store may be worth a visit for you – especially now that you don’t lose out on 3% of the purchase price (it’s actually 5% until the end of June with Chase Freedom) because management doesn’t believe in pricing its products according to the costs of doing business with the vast majority of all possible customers. Seriously, charging credit card users extra is basically like installing pay toilets in the bathrooms since a few people may have a phobia of using public bathrooms or something. Or in the case of shady gas stations, who tend to discount their cash prices by several times anything approaching a possible credit card merchant rate, putting up a giant “IRS, please audit me!” sign outside one’s place of business. And not accepting them at all? Well, it’s their business, not mine. Yes, as old fashioned as I can be, I get incredibly irritated when people fail to adapt to the overwhelming convention of the times in this particular area. We are all hypocrites; the only difference is that some of us are at least willing to admit it. Anyway…

Time to Make a Dietary Change

Sugar is the devil. We all know it deep within our sad little souls and just in case we’re intentionally ignorant anyway, there are about forty million studies rightly screaming it. Recently, I finally accepted that I’m weaker than I need to be at standing up to its cocaine-esque charms. So I’m cutting it out. No, not all of it. We all have to find a balance that works for us in life. In this case, I need to be somewhere between excessive, gluttonous consumption at will, where I have been for much of my life, and eating only what I grow on my isolated, non GMO (if that is even possible given the selective breeding that has gone on with just about all crops for hundreds, if not thousands of years – but I digress), 100% organic farm in the middle of some God forsaken backwater town no one ever visited, let alone lived in, on purpose.

The logical choice seems simple. I’m not going to try to police every gram of sugar out of my life. Cutting out only the stuff that is primarily sugar (cookies, my beloved Nutella, my even more beloved Freddy’s chocolate custard concrete mixers with various mix ins, etc) will amount to a major improvement for me. I recall reading somewhere that habits take seven weeks to form so I’m going to do two months for good measure. I started on Tuesday so that means I’m going until July 28. I’m hoping that by then I won’t even want the stuff anymore. But we’ll see how it goes.

Happy Friday, Everyone! Have a wonderful weekend!

Why I’m Not Afraid of the Health Insurance Boogeyman

These probably won’t help…then again, you only live once! – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I occasionally hang out with early retirement minded people. Some of them have already taken the plunge, some are thinking about it more and more as I am, and some are much earlier in their financial journeys but are intrigued by an alternative to the “work till you’re either dead or wish you were” program that has been the standard for far too long. Easily the most common question I hear being asked of the people who have already retired ten, twenty, or even thirty years before the traditional age, is “what about health insurance?”

And I admit that was one of my first questions as well. Most people I’ve met answer this question in one of a few disappointing ways. Some were able to negotiate some sort of arrangement with their final employers, some have a spouse that is still working, and many are structuring their incomes in such a way as to be eligible for subsidies on individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act. None of these is workable for me. My current employer will likely be neither willing, nor able, to make any deal with me, I don’t have a spouse who can keep working so I can “retire,” and I can’t stomach exploiting badly written legislation for personal gain – particularly not when I’m currently paying a substantial share of the associated bill.

After I recently learned of some significant challenges my current employer is facing, which threaten not just my job and those of many of my colleagues, but the company itself as a going concern, I’ve been thinking a lot about my options. I could find a similar job at another company. Since I started my latest job search, there have certainly been some encouraging signs that this will be a viable option – although nothing has come to fruition just yet. But aside from maintaining the status quo as an employee/entrepreneur hybrid, I’ve been looking at other, more adventurous options. One common thread among many of them would be stepping out from under the umbrella of having an employer at all. And this has brought the health insurance question back to the forefront.

But as I’ve begun to explore the issue, I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by what I’ve learned. It turns out individual health insurance is both fairly straightforward and less expensive than I had anticipated. I acknowledge that things would likely be different if I had dependents. But at roughly $15k per child, per year, for as long as one is willing to keep the financial umbilical cord intact, having children is one of the most expensive financial decisions a person can make. That is one of several reasons I’ve personally opted out.

Anyway, I searched around and Blue Cross Blue Shield appears to be king of individual health insurance in my neck of the woods. By simply entering my birth date, non-smoker status, and zip code, I was presented with a menu of options ranging from the most minimalist plan at roughly $320 per month to something approaching the top of the line plan I have now at nearly $700. I didn’t see an annual payment option but if one is offered with a decent discount, it would amount to an awesome churning opportunity. One nice thing that I believe came out of the ACA is that it appears all plans now cover the one annual preventative appointment we should all be going to. Of course, that is priced into the premiums. But I digress. Beyond that, as a relatively healthy young adult, I’m almost certain to spend somewhere in the $0-1500 range per year on health care expenses, meaning paying an extra $400 a month for a high end plan that would cover most of that doesn’t make sense. I will note that there are subsidies offered for people with surprisingly high income limits. Sadly, I’m in the group that pays handsomely for those subsidies to be offered, and don’t anticipate that changing, so I’m paying full freight for my own coverage no matter what. But your results may be different – particularly if you have kids. And as the birth rate continues to decline, it is very likely that we will all see the government using more mechanisms like this to force people like me to subsidize your procreation efforts. For what it’s worth, that will likely offset at least a portion of the additional costs you would face in areas like this.

Ultimately, my choice would be a plan that costs $332 per month because it is the cheapest HSA eligible option. With a deductible of $6k, an out of pocket limit of $6650, and no prescription coverage until the deductible is met, I would almost definitely be paying all of my costs beyond the annual preventative appointment. In most cases, I would probably not even use the insurance, instead opting to negotiate directly with doctors since my insurance would effectively cover nothing anyway. I’ve heard there is often significant room on the pricing if you aren’t forcing the provider to deal with an insurance company.

But this is where it becomes important to calculate things out for yourself. If you tend to spend a lot in health care costs, it may make sense for you to go with a plan with higher premiums but more coverage. One thing to consider is that it’s not necessarily the end of the world if a plan doesn’t offer prescription coverage (it can’t if it is HSA eligible). Thanks to a wonderful website called Good RX, anyone can pay much less than retail prices for prescriptions whether or not they have insurance. Don’t ask me what kind of sorcery makes it possible, but this can be an absolute godsend if you don’t have prescription coverage and yes, I did use it back when I worked for an employer that offered a very minimalist coverage option.

I’ve mentioned “HSA eligible” twice now. Why? HSA stands for health savings account and it’s a hidden financial gem. Unlike an FSA, which is garbage unless you have health care costs you can forecast very reliably, an HSA is a tax advantaged account that can be built into quite an asset. To put it simply, it is a miniature Roth IRA for health related expenses only. This year, an individual can contribute $3500 into one. The money can be invested in whatever you want, provided you’ve chosen a good provider, and as long as you don’t spend it, it will grow tax free just like a Roth IRA. It does ultimately have to be spent on health care expenses, but given the state of the industry, I don’t believe any of us will have too much trouble accomplishing that. In fact, remember that quarter million dollars the media is always screaming about you having to pay for your health care expenses during your traditional retirement years? Well, if you contribute the max to a Roth IRA for twenty or thirty years and don’t use any until you retire, that is more or less covered – without dipping into your other assets. As usual, a little knowledge can go a long way towards putting out the fires of mainstream ignorance. The important thing to keep in mind with HSAs is that only certain more minimalist health insurance plans are eligible for them. If you have a lot of health care expenses now, you may be better off with a “Cadillac” plan paired with an FSA. No one can tell you definitively without specific information; I recommend that you run your specific numbers yourself to figure it out.

But in my case, a disaster only health insurance plan and an HSA are a home run combination. The only problem is that pesky “Cadillac” plan I have now. But given that I’m kicking in well under $100 a month for it, and that’s tax deductible by the way, it’s obviously the best option available to me as long as I’m with my current employer. However, once that relationship runs its course, likely by the end of this year, it’s nice to know I will have some great options available to me and that they won’t be nearly the financial disaster the media would have folks believing they are.

Living Intentionally: A Much Better Alternative to Both Financial Ruin AND Frugality

These are shrimp boats, but any boat would be more effective than a car in Houston right now! – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I wasn’t always where I am now with money. As a newly minted adult with a full time income that seemed substantial at the time, I thought the world was my oyster. I had zero respect for the value of the dollars in my possession. If I saw something I wanted, even a little bit, I bought first and asked questions later. If my friends and I were bored, dinner and/or drinks would solve the problem – maybe with a movie or a round of golf thrown in for good measure. And if I had a bad day, setting some money on fire for any reason, or even no reason at all, seemed to ease the pain. I probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars on almost literally nothing productive in just a year or two. Had I continued along that path, my financial life would be an unmitigated disaster today and I would have been part of the multitude of people who are woefully unprepared to retire in spite of living in the richest country in the history of the world.

Of course, this wasn’t healthy behavior and after I realized I had been working for a few years and had virtually nothing to show for it aside from some stuff that was mostly worth pennies on the dollar I had paid for it, I wised up pretty quickly. But as a relatively wealthy, still young adult, I’ve noticed that most people seem to have either missed that lesson or skipped it intentionally. Maybe they weren’t blessed (seriously) with the harsh reality of financial scarcity when they were kids like I was. Maybe they simply can’t bear to admit the truth about what they’re doing to themselves. Or maybe they simply prefer the bird in the hand of doing what is easy today to a much more prosperous future that isn’t 100% guaranteed, even if it is extremely likely. I really like the way my new Houston real estate mogul friend explained the concept in this post.

Whatever the reason, I see people driving their financial cars with the e-brake on almost everywhere I look. I’ve long since learned not to be “that guy” so I neither give unsolicited advice, nor ask any questions that might lead anyone to the unpleasant experience of looking in the figurative mirror. In my experience, if people want help, they ask for it and if they don’t ask for it, they don’t want it. But I often have to stifle a strong urge to try to help people anyway when I see them destroying their financial futures because I know how much pain it will cause them in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider myself even remotely frugal and I hate everything about the term. There are very few aspects of my life where I’ve chosen to spend the absolute minimum possible, or even close. I live in a luxury apartment that costs more than double what a bare bones living arrangement would. My car has leather seats, almost 300 horsepower, more electronics than the spacecraft that took the first astronauts to the moon, flashy 18 inch rims, and so much more; and I’m probably going to make a huge upgrade from that in the next year or two. I eat and drink what I want, when I want, where I want. If I wanted to take a vacation, there would be no practical limits to where I could go or what I could do and given how difficult it is to find the time, I wouldn’t be likely to waste the opportunity by going cheap. I could go on and on but the point is that I’m in no way deprived of anything I could imagine wanting in life.

So how am I different than my young adult self in the way I handle my money then? Aside from having tons more at my disposal, everything I do is intentional. Spending money is a means of accomplishing some specific purpose – not a pastime or a figurative drug I use to tamp down unpleasant emotions. If I get the notion to spend money, I think about it first. Is it necessary? If not, it’s a want, not a need. If it’s a want, is it something that will truly contribute to my life in a positive and meaningful way? If so, what, exactly, is my goal in spending this money? What is the best way to accomplish it? What is the most cost effective way? Where does it make sense to be on that spectrum in this particular context (between maximum utility and maximum cost efficiency)? Sometimes, I buy the best. Other times, I go with the cheapest option that accomplishes everything I want it to. On very, very rare occasions, I go with the absolute cheapest option. The important thing is that if I’m spending money, I know why I’m doing it and why I’m making the specific choices I am about it. And the good news is that while it may have seemed tedious when I was starting out, over time, this thought process has become almost automatic for me.

This may sound pretty obvious and to some of you, it probably is. But there are tons of people out there who seem to have no clue why they’re making the financial decisions they are. And there are tons of people who are totally broke. And both groups are large enough that there is almost definitely substantial overlap between the two. For anyone who resides in both, you need to make some dramatic changes if you want to improve the situation. Being intentional with your financial decisions, both large and small, will almost definitely help. Not only will your finances improve, but you will probably find yourself feeling calmer and happier. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! And if you’re in Houston, hopefully you either have a boat or know someone who does – because that’s what it’s going to take to get very far down the road pretty soon if this rain doesn’t let up.

The Real Reason the Media is Flipping Out About Tax Refunds This Year

You’ve probably seen some of the articles talking about people screaming and stomping their feet because their tax refunds are smaller this year. There have been plenty of them. Unfortunately, a lot of people simply don’t understand how the federal tax system works and the mainstream media, which makes its money by fanning up any potential controversy into a firestorm, is all too happy to spread the ignorance around as usual rather than doing the responsible thing and explaining the reality of the situation. So I guess it falls on my shoulders to put out their fire by spraying it with facts. This is not a political post. My goal is not to change anyone’s opinion about the tax reform package that took effect in 2018. I just want to do my part to combat the apparently widespread ignorance.

Let’s say you go to the store and buy a candy bar for $.75. You pay with a $1 bill and the cashier hands you a quarter. Did you just gain 25 cents? No, you simply overpaid and got the change you had coming to you. That is exactly what happens when you file your tax return. In the case of most people, your employer has been withholding a portion of your pay all year. The tax return is a reconciliation. It determines how much you were legally obligated to pay, compares that to the amount you actually did pay, and either gives you your “change” in the form of a refund if you paid too much, or demands that you pay more if you paid too little. You are not gaining or losing anything except cash flow. And if you’re getting a refund, it’s technically bad news since it means you gave the government an interest free loan for an entire year. If you don’t know why that is a bad thing, google “time value of money” and get ready for the most important lesson you’ve learned in a while. Simply put, it’s how people like me use our money to create more money. It is also how people who don’t understand the principle fall further and further behind. Ignorance does not exempt anyone.

In 2018, most people actually paid less in taxes than in previous years, assuming important factors like income, dependents, etc didn’t change. The main category of people who paid more are people who itemized previously. Roughly 30% did so for the 2017 tax year and that number is expected to drop by about half for 2018. This is because the standard deduction, the alternative mechanism to itemizing, was increased at the same time as certain deductions were limited. But the important point here is that most people paid less.

However, most payroll software (and most employers use the same handful of payroll vendors) updated to account for the changes in 2018. Almost everyone who was getting a tax cut got it spread out over every paycheck – just as they would have if they had gotten a pay raise. It wasn’t a lot; for most people, it was $500 or less over the course of the year. If you’re high income, then it was probably more but also a proportionally small amount. A lot of people probably didn’t even notice their paychecks were $10 or $20 higher. Unfortunately, some of the payroll software was a little more optimistic than it had been in previous years and as a result, many people’s 2018 refunds got smaller. However, this simply means that instead of getting their interest free loans back a few months into the following year, they simply never made them in the first place or made smaller ones. In actual financial terms, that’s a gain.

So why all the howling if the majority of people are paying less in taxes? First off, as I already mentioned, there are a lot of people who don’t understand the situation. And it doesn’t help when the media has no interest in doing anything but amplifying that effect. But aside from ignorance, most people are negligent with their finances. They save little or nothing throughout the year and as a result, their tax refunds are found money in their eyes – and usually found money they’re mentally counting on. This is why car dealerships, furniture stores, and tons of other businesses tend to have tax refund themed sales around this time of year; it is the only time a lot of people will have any money in hand. If you’re in this group, it’s time for some tough love. You’re put yourself in a difficult position and I encourage you to take a good, honest look at what you’re doing with your money. If you don’t know how to do that, ask a wealthy person you know to do it for you and give you some tips. Or email me at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Everyone has to start somewhere and I will be happy to help anyone who is serious about improving.

There are people who legitimately paid higher taxes in 2018 but a lot of the people who are complaining about their refunds are not in this camp. For anyone a tax refund is a big deal to, I encourage you to use this as a wake up call. Keep reading this blog and others like it. Evaluate the way you handle your money and make changes. Even little ones will make a big difference if you’re in rough shape, just like how people who don’t exercise regularly will typically get huge results from just getting started in the gym. Turn a negative into a positive. I’m here willing to help and there are a lot of others like me. But at the end of the day, all the information and advice in the world won’t do an ounce of good if you aren’t honest with yourself and/or don’t make the necessary changes. But regardless of what you do, please stop complaining, particularly when the thing you’re complaining about actually benefited you. It’s not a good look.