This Is What I Do When Conditions Change and I Start to (Gasp!) Lose Money

Can’t be getting paid subpar interest rates on savings if you want to visit the Texas themed lazy river cause there’s no way in hell admission is cheap! Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Recently I was taking my routine, virtual stroll through all of my financial accounts when I noticed something funny – and I most certainly don’t mean “ha ha funny”. My CIT savings account was only returning 2.4% APY. That’s odd, I thought. I’m almost sure that had been at 2.45. I did a little checking and sure enough, I was right. Now I don’t want to miscommunicate here; I understand why this happened and I don’t blame CIT Bank for it. Our long overdue recession has started and not only have rates stopped rising, but they’re actually already coming down slightly. Futures traders have even priced in one to two decreases by the FED by the end of the year. So I’m far from the only one making this call and it doesn’t surprise me in the least to see CIT Bank, a for profit business, doing what management feels needs to be done to protect the bottom line in changing conditions.

That said, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. When conditions change, I also re-evaluate what I’m doing to make sure it still makes sense. Here’s a recent example in case you think I’m making this up. So I spent a half hour or so on good ol’ Doctor of Credit doing a little research. It turns out that currently, the highest rate on online savings accounts that don’t require absurd shenanigans like 10+ debit card (yes, people apparently actually use the things; but they shouldn’t) transactions per month is currently 2.51%. However, interest rate isn’t the only consideration. Many bank accounts also pay bonuses up front, which can quickly shift the balance when we’re talking about such low numbers. After all, in the grand scheme of things, 2.51% is still an awful return on investment, even if I do feel that cash is king in current circumstances.

So ultimately, and somewhat coincidentally, I decided not to move my savings account money very far, at least from an alphabetical perspective. I’m moving it from CIT Bank to Citi Bank. Citi’s online savings account pays 2.36%, even less than the 2.4% that started this whole conundrum in the first place. However, by performing a little financial gymnastics, which basically just involves making sure I stay within the rules of the promotion, I can also get it to pay me a $400 bonus for keeping $15k in the account for sixty days – more than the CIT account would have paid on that amount in an entire year! And meanwhile, I’m collecting the 2.36%, virtually the same rate as CIT was paying, on top of it.

How does the math work out on this? With $15k in the CIT account, I would have made $364 in interest over twelve months. But with that same $15k in the Citi account, I will make $459…in two months! If left in the account for the same twelve months as the CIT Bank account for the purposes of making an apples to apples comparison, that figure becomes $758. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a win. The only downside here is that unlike credit card reward money, bank account bonuses are taxable income. But that’s more about credit card reward money being in an extremely privileged class of its own than it is about this being a bad deal; almost any income under the sun is taxable – even income that isn’t income at all in some cases (Ever hear of imputed interest? Look it up. It’s disgusting!).

The way I see it, there are two lessons here. One is that you should be regularly evaluating your available options, particularly when something changes with your current one. I preach that all day long. But the second lesson is one I need to be taking to heart myself going forward. Given our current economic circumstances, I’m not compromising on holding as much cash as possible until further notice. But with available interest rates on cash being as pathetic as they are, and with sign up bonuses being as large and plentiful, it could very well be worthwhile to move savings account money around two or three times a year. For example, if there were three options as good as the Citi bonus available (I don’t believe there are; but there are others that are close and again, conditions are always changing), I could make over $1500 in a year on $15k of cash – a damn good return considering it’s 100% risk free. Yes, it would be a little bit of work, but with emphasis on the “little” part. When all is said and done, I will have less than an hour into this little project. Would the extra $1200+ over and above what the CIT Bank account would have paid without any bonuses be worth three hours of my time? You bet your sweet ass it would! I do pretty well for myself (for now…) but I don’t make anywhere near $400 an hour…yet.

Good day to you all!

This Is How Much I Spend in a Year

My view of the famous Jerry Jones screen/dome from my trip to the 2017 Cotton Bowl, in which my Badgers narrowly defeated an over matched, but extremely motivated opponent with a bizarre team motto that was repeated almost nonstop by its fans – and yes, the expenses from this trip are included in the numbers below.

Words are all well and good. But without numbers, how much do they really mean? I’ve decided that in order to make this blog as valuable as possible for readers, I need to make it specific. As such, I’m going to give you a very intimate look at an important element of my personal finances. In particular, I’m going to show you what I spend on EVERYTHING. Obviously this is all specific to me, but to illustrate things more vividly, I’m going to go into detail on each of these “line items,” one post per week. Hopefully it will give some folks an idea or two on how to cut expenses without sacrificing anything that’s important to them.

Before I jump into the numbers, here is some basic information about me for context. I’m a male in my early thirties with no dependents (not even pets) and while I spend my share of time with certain young ladies, I live alone. The numbers below are average figures between what I spent in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I lived in an upper middle class Milwaukee suburb with a relatively moderate cost of living. But for most of 2018, I lived in the Galleria area of Houston, which is pricier than almost anywhere in Wisconsin, but still very reasonable for a wealthy part of a major city.

I work as an outside sales rep in the commercial finance industry. That affects a couple of areas of my spending. First, since I expense around half a dozen restaurant meals most weeks, I don’t have much desire to eat at restaurants in my personal life and as a result, I spend almost nothing in that category. This also cuts down on my grocery spending somewhat, although I like to cook and spend fairly liberally on groceries for the meals I do buy. Second, in spite of my employer’s generous vacation policy, actually taking advantage of it would cost me much more in income than in any other way. Plus, I travel a lot for work, resulting in general travel fatigue, and I’m single. So this is just not an area I spend much in. However, I consider both restaurants and vacations luxury spending categories and thus, if one were trying to live as economically efficiently as possible, these numbers would still be very low.

As I said above, I’ll get more specific about what I do in each area in subsequent posts. But in general, my lifestyle (note, I said lifestyle, not spending; the difference between the two is the foundation of my financial success) is somewhere between middle class and upper middle class and I save over half my gross income. In other words, there is plenty of fat in my expenses since I pretty much do whatever makes me happy. No economic constraints limit my spending besides my desire to increase my net worth rapidly.

The first number in each category is what I actually spent; the second is about what I would spend if I needed to live as economically as reasonably possible. I will note that the most advantaged living situation is two productive people under one roof, assuming they can trust one another and are on the same page financially. When I lived with my ex-wife and we were working on paying off a mountain of student loans, we spent more than my bare bones total figure below but didn’t come anywhere close to doubling it (keep in mind the figure is for one person, not two). So it is definitely realistically achievable. If you are astute, you will notice that I’ve omitted one very large expense: taxes and fees. In the interest of keeping things at least somewhat private, I’ve decided to leave that exact figure out, at least for now. I’ll simply tell you it is less than the total of all my other expenses but not by much. Plus, there is only so much one can do to limit that number when the majority of your income is W2. I’ve been investing more of my time into improving that situation and if I find success, I may post about it at a later date. Anyway, here we go!

My Average Annual Expenses Between 2017 and 2018

  • Auto maintenance/repairs: 1300 (500)
  • Cash donations: 2100 (subjective)
  • Clothing: 700 (100)
  • Food – groceries: 1700 (1200)
  • Food – restaurants: 500 (0)
  • Fun: 2100 (300)
  • Gas: 2800 (1200)
  • Gifts: 1200 (200)
  • Household expenses: 700 (300)
  • Housing: 12,600 (6000-10,000)
  • Insurance: 3000 (2000)
  • Medical: 900 (0)
  • Memberships: 300 (300)
  • Other: 2400 (0)
  • Supplements: 100 (0)
  • Technology services: 500 (350)
  • Utilities: 1100 (600)
  • Vacation: 300 (0)
  • Vehicle depreciation: 2100 (500)

Total: 36,400 (13,550-17,550)

How did I arrive at these numbers? And why the range in the housing category for the minimalist budget? You’re just going to have to stay tuned to find out…

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.

401k and Roth IRA Basics

My retirement will certainly involve more flights at more breweries. Sadly, this particular brewery did not live up to its hype in my opinion but it was still a great time!

Do you love paying taxes? Ok, stupid joke. But today I want to talk about a couple of great ways to pay a little less and help your future self out in the process. For those who ignore the almost nonstop reminders in the media, the United States has a massive retirement crisis in its not so distant future. It seems that in spite of this being the richest country in the history of mankind, nearly half of everyone living here HAS NOT SAVED A SINGLE FUCKING PENNY for retirement. Many of the people who have saved at least something are still woefully short of where they need to be. With obviously unsustainable pensions (otherwise known as defined benefit plans) mostly relegated to the history books, the criminals fine, upstanding people in charge realized they would have riots in the streets if they didn’t toss a little bread out to those pesky subjects citizens. And thus, some new tax advantaged retirement savings options were born. So far, they don’t seem to be helping much, but that’s why I and countless others are writing posts like this one. 401ks and Roth IRAs are the two most common tax advantaged retirement savings options and an overview of the basics of both is below.

Both of these offer tax breaks, but only to people wise enough to take advantage of them. In my opinion, they should both be maxed out if possible prior to investing in anything else excluding building an emergency fund – which is actually saving, not investing. And yes, there are other types of these but they are less common and I’m writing for a mass audience. And yes, there are various tricks and loopholes that entire posts could be written on but this particular post is just meant to be a general primer. Also, I am not a tax professional and I don’t know the details of your situation so nothing in this post constitutes specific tax advice. This is for information only. Here are the basics.

401k

  • Usually offered by an employer
  • Maximum contribution for 2019 is $19,000 + $6000 “catch up” for people 50 and older
  • Employers often match up to a certain percentage of your income if you contribute at a required level
  • No phase outs but HCEs (highly compensated employees) may potentially have their contributions limited
  • Contributions lower taxable income in the current tax year
  • Distributions are taxed when taken
  • Cannot take distributions prior to age 59.5 without being taxed and charged a 10% penalty

Roth IRA

  • Usually not offered by an employer
  • Maximum contribution for 2019 is $6000 + $1000 “catch up” for people 50 and older
  • Phase outs starting at $122k MAGI (modified adjusted gross income) and completed by $137k for single filers, or $193k and 203k for married filing jointly
  • Contributions are made using post tax dollars
  • Distributions are not taxed
  • Contributions can be withdrawn prior to 59.5 but earnings withdrawn prior to 59.5 will be taxed and penalized except in specific “qualifying” circumstances

I think the easiest general concept to remember about the difference between the two is this: 401ks are taxed on the back end, Roth IRAs are taxed on the front. To get the maximum benefit, you need to contribute $25k in 2019, assuming you are 49 or younger and not prevented from it by having a very high income.

If you can’t max out both, I would do the following in most cases. First, contribute whatever your employer requires to get the full match that is offered. For example, if your employer matches 3% of your salary if you contribute 6%, a fairly common setup, you would want to contribute 6% to avoid “leaving money on the table.” From there, I would work towards maxing out the Roth IRA unless you are phased out, in a high tax bracket, or have some reason to expect your income is going to go down significantly in the future. If you can do that, I would put any additional available money towards increasing your 401k contribution percentage. Anything you can do is better than nothing and slow progress is better than none. For example, you could start out contributing whatever you are comfortable with and set up an automatic increase of 1% a year on one or the other or both. If you get even a basic cost of living adjustment at the end of the year, you won’t feel any pain because you will still be getting a raise after taxes. This would particularly be the case if you’re talking about a 401k since you would be lowering your taxable income by increasing the contribution meaning the 1% increase wouldn’t cost you the full 1%.

Hopefully this will help some folks get a better idea of how to handle these accounts. If anyone would like me to get into more detailed subtopics on this, please let me know in the comments or send me an email at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Have a great day!  

My 50th Post Spectacular (Yes, That is a Play on the Title of a Simpsons Episode – Yes, From Back When the Show Was Still Worth Watching)

No, I’m not sure how this relates to the post. But it does strike me as one of those cool “only in Houston” sights and since I haven’t found an occasion to use it yet, I’m using it now.

With this post we’ve reached a milestone on Health, Wealth, Power. By my count, this is post number 50. So far, readership has been going up steadily and that has been very exciting. To those of you who have been coming here for a while, I’m glad to have you along on this journey. To anyone who has started reading more recently, welcome. Today I want to highlight both some of my most viewed posts and some of my favorites that haven’t been seen as much – in many cases because I posted them before many people were reading the blog at all. Thank you to everyone for reading and here’s to the next 50 posts (and many more) to come!

Most Viewed

How Do You Respond When Your World Comes Crashing Down (Again)?

A window into my raw thought process on a recent night when I got some seemingly devastating news about my career. I wrote this almost immediately when I got home so I would have a good record of my immediate reaction to look back at later. I’m still in the midst of dealing with this situation but I have a very exciting recent development that I’ll be sharing soon.

Bank Account Basics

A basic guide to how I use bank accounts to maximize income, minimize risk, and pay zero fees in the process

The Importance of Outlook – How I Still Struggle with the Scarcity Mentality of My Past

A discussion of how even though I am more financially fortunate than 99% of the world, I still haven’t been able to completely adopt that mindset over that of my much more difficult financial past

A Happy Night of Insomnia

This is one of my personal favorite posts so far. It is a nostalgic look at the way the most difficult event of my life so far has spawned so many wonderful changes. While I and my life will never be quite the same as before it happened again, that is mostly a good thing.

My New Diet Experiment

In this post I talked about time restricted eating and how I planned to implement what I had learned about it. It has been a very positive change for me and I wrote about that in a follow up post – Time Restricted Eating Update: There is Definitely Something to This!

My Favorites

The Most Important Investment

Health and fitness is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Medical science is keeping people alive longer and longer today. But what is it worth? My argument is that we’ve long since passed the point where quality is much more important (and elusive in many cases) than quantity. This post is my attempt to lay out the basics for anyone who feels similarly and wants to do something about it.

The Opportunities in Life’s Challenges

I’ve written a number of posts on this theme now – the value of finding the positives in situations that don’t seem very positive at face value. But this was one of the first. As someone who has put a ton of work into thinking more positively and seen firsthand how dramatically that mentality shift can change life in often unexpected ways, it is very important to me to share my experiences in this area.

Today I’m Going to Challenge You

I wrote this post for people who struggle with depression or have in the past. It’s not comprehensive and I’m no mental health professional, but it’s a discussion of some tactics and information that have helped me in the past when the weight of the world seemed to be crushing me with no sign of relief. If it helps one person, it was worth far more than the time it took to write it.

The Internet Game and How You Can Win It

I’m trying to be less of a bastard in life. But I do tend to temporarily suspend that effort when it comes to fighting back against what I view as unethical tactics. In this post, I illustrate how I’ve been mostly successful at keeping the shenanigans of those damn ISPs from succeeding in robbing me blind.

How to Spend a Fraction of What Most People Do On Electronics Without Having to Sacrifice Much

Simply put, the methods I described in this post have saved me five figures by this point in my life. One of the many benefits of living in the richest country in the history of the world, particularly at a time when technological advancement has been unprecedented as well, is that extremely marginal compromises can result in enormous savings. There is an almost constant chorus in the media about the retirement crisis in the United States. That means that for most of us, there is no excuse for not taking advantage of opportunities like this to get so much in return for so little.

How to Get an Awesome Deal on a New Car

For starters, probably don’t buy this one… – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

If you had asked me to write this post ten years ago, I would have refused to do it since advising anyone to buy a new car would have been a huge disservice. Why buy new when that same car will cost a quarter less in a year and about half in four or five? However, since then, prices have skyrocketed (but so have incentives), people have largely caught on to both that trend and how generally undervalued used cars had been, and depreciation has slowed considerably as a result to the point that today, buying a new car makes sense in some, but still not all cases. But under no circumstances does it make sense to go in uninformed and let some car salesman hit a home run off of you. So let’s see what we can do about that. This is only one of many perspectives on the matter but it should at least give you a good start. The dealership model, much like that of credit cards, is set up to screw customers en masse. However, just as with credit cards, the rules of that exact same game can be turned around and exploited by a savvy customer as well. Let’s get you on your way to being one!

Much like in any sport, preparation is a huge part of winning. Don’t ever go to a dealership without having done your homework. How do you know if you’re ready? Before you ever step foot in a dealership, you should know all of the following things: which make and model you want, the differences between different model years if there are multiple new model years available (for example, today you could buy a 2020, a 2019, or a 2018 in certain cases) which options you want and don’t want, which packages you need to buy or avoid in order to accomplish that, what those packages cost, the average pricing (what people are actually paying) of any car you want, what your current car is worth, and what the terms of your financing approval are. Yes, that is a lot. It usually takes me a month or so, chipping away an hour or two at a time.

There are tons of research sites available now. Edmunds.com and KBB.com are two of the best and most venerable but countless competitors have popped up in recent years. Most of the information you need is widely available so the important thing isn’t so much where you choose to get yours as that you get it somewhere and verify it somewhere else. I recommend working through the process on multiple sites until you basically have everything memorized. But don’t be afraid to make yourself a cheat sheet of key figures to take with you. Your mind can do funny things in the heat of the moment. Whatever you do, do not rely on a salesman to educate you about cars, pricing, or especially finance. Why not? First, there is a very low barrier to entry in the job and many of them are awful at it and incapable of doing so. By educating yourself, you will ensure that weakness on the part of a salesman can only get you a better deal and will cost you nothing. Second, information is power, plain and simple. If the salesman knows more than you do about any of the items I listed above, he has an advantage that he can capitalize on from the word go all the way through the signing of a deal – and that’s going to cost you thousands of dollars.

You also need to know about your end of the transaction going in. KBB.com will give you a pretty good idea what your current car is worth, especially if you cross reference craigslist, autotrader, etc to see what cars like yours are actually being listed for. Pay attention to the type of valuation you’re getting. Private party (if you sell the car yourself) is almost certainly going to be higher than trade in. But know the difference between these numbers because it will be important. Keep in mind that in most states, you’re not going to pay sales tax on the trade in portion of the deal. So weigh things out. For example, if your state charges 5% sales tax and your car is worth $5k private party and $3800 as a trade, you would be better off by $1010 if you sold it yourself ($3800 + 190 less tax liability = 3990, 5000 – 3990 = 1010). However, if the dealer ultimately ups his offer to $4800, and you are confident in the $5000 figure, you are now better off trading ($4800 + 240 = 5040, 5000 – 5040 = -40). However, watch out for over allowance here. This is when a dealer offers more than your trade is worth but then juices the hell out of the sale price of the new car to more than make up for it. Remember, “there is no free lunch.” And also keep in mind that selling a car usually involves investing your time into dealing with at least some “interesting” people so you have to decide what that is worth to you as well and factor it in.

Finally, there’s financing. Some hardliners will say you should never finance a vehicle because it’s a depreciating asset. I would say that technically they’re right in most cases, but that the declining pace of depreciation and still nearly historically low interest rates have made things a lot less definitive than they used to be. For example, I took a car loan in 2014 at a rate of 2.9%. Cash wasn’t worth that much at the time but investments were worth a hell of a lot more. So since I was confident I would be able to cashflow the loan for the life of the term, I feel I was making a pretty good choice. I still recommend sticking to a 36 month term or shorter, just like I would never advise anyone to take out a mortgage with a term over 15 years. Why? The term becomes a limiting mechanism against both paying excessive interest and buying more than you can afford. As long as you can cashflow the payments at 36 months or less, you are pretty unlikely to get hurt. Are you dooming yourself with a 60 month term on a car loan? No, but you are stretching yourself thinner than I would prefer if you genuinely need a term that long to afford the payments.

Whatever you do with the financing, do not make it into yet another profit item for the dealership. Get your best approval option directly from a lender prior to ever looking at any cars. Credit unions usually offer the best rates. This part will involve a little more legwork but there are two big payoffs. One, the dealership finance manager isn’t going to mark your quoted rate up by a point (or three). And yes, if you don’t find the financing for yourself, that is exactly what will happen. The exception would be when the dealer or manufacturer gives you a subsidized rate. However, keep in mind that in those cases, you can usually have either the subsidized rate or the incentives on the car but not both and you are usually much better off taking the incentives, which have ballooned more and more along with the pricing in general. So you are always better off knowing what the best available non-subsidized deal is at a minimum. Two, you will spend a lot less time in a room with that same finance manager – and make no mistake, he is the smartest and most ruthless guy on the payroll or they wouldn’t force almost every customer to go through him before leaving with a new car. He is probably going to try to push extended warranties and other bullshit whether you finance through him or not, but if you take the financing out of his hands, you’ve taken away his best weapon. He loves to say things like “we can give you all this additional coverage and it will only cost you x per month” because it puts thousands of dollars in his pocket without some people even realizing what he’s doing. Before you walk into that office, remind yourself that the only way to walk out without losing money is to say no repeatedly until the finance manager accepts that you’re not a rube and gives up.

That brings me to another key point. Any time anyone tries to talk about monthly payments, stop them in their tracks by telling them you’ll be basing any and all decisions on the total sale price only. As a finance guy, I can tell you that from your perspective as a customer, nothing good can come from conversing in the language of monthly payments. If you are a lion in an epic struggle for survival with a crocodile, this would be the part of the program where the crocodile tries to pull you off of the river bank and into the water, where you go from having a fighting chance to virtually none. Don’t let it happen. Fight the enemy on your terms only. Negotiate on total sale price only!

Now let’s get to that most fun part! What? Negotiating isn’t fun for you? I get it. You’re a normal person and you don’t like awkward, high pressure situations. But unless you want to donate at least a few thousand dollars to some “no haggle” (in other words, “take the easy road and just pay us a lot more”) dealership, this is a necessary evil. First off, shop at the right time. There is no one best part of the year although there are several good ones. Late summer is good because business tends to be slow and dealerships are hungry. Different parts of fall and winter are good for a variety of reasons. But by far the most important timing related factor is to shop when it’s good for you. This means you have a functioning vehicle and are under zero pressure to buy anything now. This is crucial because indifference is your best weapon.

Only visit a dealership if you are 100% ready and willing to drive away in the same vehicle that got you there. I can’t stress this point enough. The heart of the negotiation process is the power struggle. If a salesman (and by extension, the finance manager, who you are actually negotiating with through the conduit of the salesman) has any reason to believe you are not going to leave without buying something, you are going to get soaked. This is not to say you can’t let him think you’re serious about buying a car. But make sure he has no illusions about you being unable or unwilling to walk away. Bottom line, if he gets you to the point where you have to have his car, he wins. If you get him to the point where he is ready to let you walk away, you win. And that is exactly the metric I use to determine if I’ve pushed the deal to the limit.

The battle is usually going to rage for hours. Go in mentally prepared. Like it or not, you’re in the game and if you want to win, you have to want it more than your opponent. The salesman will use whatever his favorite tactics are, often just lowbrow emotional manipulation, but the structure is usually about the same; he first tries to build up the value of the car and your desire for it. Ideally, he will succeed in making you feel that this is not a negotiable situation and he’ll have you paying premium prices for both the car and every bullshit add on that has ever been dreamed up. But of course you don’t let that happen and say you want a lower price so it goes into the negotiation phase. He goes to visit his manager, who coaches him on his performance, talks to him about a sports team they both like, ogles that hot new receptionist, whatever. This is a game, after all. But you can play too. If the salesman is gone too long, you can smile as say something to the effect of “if you’re gone that long again, I think I’ll go see what kind of deal the guys across the street are offering while I’m waiting.” Bonus points for a sarcastic wink at the end of it. The manager visits will usually yield a few hundred dollars or so each on the total sale price – assuming you’ve been smart enough to force the conversation to stay focused on it. Keep in mind that they want to toss in other things – undercoating, extended warranties at reduced prices, various subscription packages to all the tech bullshit the cars are loaded with now, and anything else that costs them a fraction of what yet another of those expensive price reductions will. Think of it like you’re trying to dig a hole and every manager visit is another time pulling the shovel up and dumping it. You want that shovel to be full of dirt every time or it’s going to take you forever to get the job done.

The forever part is the dealership’s goal. The longer it takes you to get them down on the total price, the more likely you are to just give up and settle. Have fun with the process. Engage in whatever mental warfare amuses you. The key is to send the message that you’re here for the long haul and that doesn’t bother you in the slightest. If you do it right, they may just give up and make a big cut in the hopes of convincing you it’s their bottom line. But remember, my metric is whether the salesman will allow me to leave. If he says something is the best he can do, thank him for the information, tell him you will compare his numbers to some other dealerships you’re going to be visiting (it helps if you know which competitors are nearby so you can mention a name and make the threat more real), and act as though you’re preparing to leave. Gauge the reaction. He may say “this offer is only good if you sign now.” That’s bullshit. You can easily come back and renegotiate it anytime you want – maybe even a better deal. Keep moving. He may say “let me go talk to my manager and see if there is anything else I can do.” You’ve just caught him lying since he already said it was the best he could do. The negotiation phase isn’t over and you would have left money on the table if you had believed what he said just moments ago. Or maybe, just maybe, he’ll have nothing to say for the first time all day. If that’s the case, it means he actually has done all he can do.

Now this doesn’t mean you immediately change your mind and take the deal. Remember all that research you did? As part of that, you will undoubtedly know what the average person is paying for this particular car. Some sites even give you a range from low to high. So all this time, you will have that in your back pocket and be well aware of whether or not what’s in front of you is actually a good deal. So when the salesman bows his head in apparent defeat, it’s time for you to make a decision. Are you at or near the bottom of the range? Or below it? You should probably have a change of heart about leaving and sign the deal. If you aren’t where you want to be, it’s possible that this dealership is just particularly greedy and you’d get a better deal elsewhere. You’d certainly be more effective at the negotiation process with this one just recently under your belt.

One other fairly new phenomenon is the internet price. There are sites where you can choose exactly the car you want down to the particular trim, options, and even color. Use an email address you’re ok with getting spammed at, of course, because the next step is that area dealers will spam you with quotes. It will keep coming, and coming, and coming. But last time I tried this, I noticed something interesting. Some of the dealers’ offers improved over time. When I got one that looked almost too good to pass up, I went in. Of course, I’m a crazy person, so I worked the whole negotiation process without telling anyone I had the internet offer in my back pocket. When I got pretty close to it and the salesman seemed unwilling to move any further, I pulled the offer up on my phone and told him it had made me think it might be worth coming in since it was “in the ballpark.” The salesman was pissed. But after one last conference with his manager, he came back with a slightly better offer than the internet one and an assurance that he would go no further. My leaving ploy confirmed it and so did various websites.

So the internet price was pretty dynamite in that case as I was only able to get a little bit lower through negotiating. And my final price was almost off the chart in terms of the range of prices being paid on the websites. But I never would have known that if I hadn’t verified it by working to arrive at it another way. And just because that one internet price was good, it’s no guarantee that any others are. Dealerships aren’t suddenly going to stop wanting to make as much money as possible because the internet is here. I’m sure they will continue to innovate.

I see by the word count that this has been a longer journey than I had planned on. But I believe everything I’ve said has been necessary and probably still didn’t cover absolutely everything. A successful car negotiation often takes several hours (although I did have a very quick one once) and although it may seem very straightforward at times, there is actually a lot going on. I will leave you with two more general tips to keep in mind. One, the salesman is only going to present options that benefit him. Don’t assume they are the only ones that exist. Two, you are not in this to make friends. The salesman and finance manager will most likely get very frustrated if you are well prepared to get an extremely good deal and it may very well come out in some sort of emotional response. In this narrow context, being their friends means paying them thousands of dollars more than you have to. I don’t know about you, but those are the kind of friends I can do without.

Car Maintenance Basics: Today’s $400 Investment and Why It Was a Great One

My current car having its oil changed in a freaking hanger by an absolutely fascinating man!

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; I spend money, and plenty of it. But there are some key differences between how I spend that money and how most people do that allow me to live what I consider an upper middle class lifestyle for a lower middle class cost. One of these differences is that when I make a major purchase, I usually buy for the long term. I do a lot of research and I choose a high quality option I’m almost certain to love, both today and down the road. And then I take care of it so that I can keep it for a long time and it will stay in great condition. As a result, I’m able to own some very nice things while usually paying a lower overall cost than most people pay to own lower quality versions of them.

This is certainly my strategy with cars. It is not at all uncommon for people to buy a new one every three to five years. But that is an incredibly expensive form of vehicle ownership. For the last several years, used car pricing has been so stubbornly strong that one can make a pretty good case for buying new in many cases. I won’t argue with that and I’d be a hypocrite if I did since that is the conclusion I came to when I bought my current car – although even there I have some hacks – stay tuned. But regardless of whether you buy new or used, it is pretty indisputable that in general (there are certain exception situations), the longer you own your average car, the lower your annual cost is going to be. I owned my last truck for just over ten years and would probably still be driving it if I hadn’t failed to save it from a tragic end at the hands of black ice. Thankfully, it saved me in spite of this lack of consideration on my part. I walked away with barely a scratch from an accident that would have rendered most of today’s cars a pile of broken plastic, shattered glass, and twisted scrap metal. And in fact, the truck was still driveable. Built Ford tough indeed. Anyway, I’ve had my current car for almost five years now. However, and this is where it gets exciting, my vehicles are usually in as good of shape, both visually and mechanically, as just about anything else on the road and I almost never have any trouble with them.

How do I manage this when so many people start having problems before their loan is even paid off? Step one is to do the research and buy a quality product. For example, if you buy a Dodge, I can’t help you; you’re almost certainly going to pay a fortune to keep it on the road and the body is going to start coming apart and rusting before the new car smell is gone. I believe phrases like “you can’t polish a turd” or “trying to put lipstick on a pig” apply well here. This post I did about the best and worst brands is a good place to start and I will likely write plenty more about the ins and outs of car buying before long since it is a process I enjoy very much.

But once you own a vehicle, it is crucial that you maintain it properly. So today, at just over 60k miles, I spent a little over $400 on a handful of services: a brake fluid flush, a transmission fluid change (note the difference between the words “change” and “flush” here), new front brake pads, and the resurfacing of my front rotors to go with those pads. Before my minimalist, somewhat lazy new lifestyle, I would have done all of this myself and spent around a quarter of that much on parts and fluids only. And if you know how to work on cars or have an interest in learning, I highly recommend it as an extremely profitable hobby. But the important thing is that you get this stuff done, one way or another.

The day you buy your vehicle, I recommend you buy a repair manual for it as well. Haynes and Chilton are good options and shouldn’t cost more than $20-30, depending on the vehicle. If you spend even an hour or two reading that manual, it will more than pay for itself in the form of knowledge gained. And at a minimum, it will give you a comprehensive, realistic maintenance schedule. Don’t rely on the dealer or even your owner’s manual for this. The dealer will charge you substantially more than an independent shop for work that is no better than what a quality independent shop will do. Please note that I’m not talking about warranty/recall work here; that needs to go do a dealer. As for the owner’s manual that comes with your car, well, many of them now claim that transmission fluid is a “lifetime fluid.” Given that the transmissions in most modern cars are extremely complicated pieces of machinery that cost $5k or more to replace, I’m going to stick to changing the fluid at traditional intervals, thank you very much.

What is the payoff for the $400 and change I spent today? My brake system is now working as well as the day I bought the car – potentially a matter of life and death when you live in close proximity to as many attempted murderers horrible drivers as I do. My transmission will continue shifting smoothly for some time to come and is much less likely to develop any problems – any of which would cost easily several times what it costs to do the maintenance I did today. And I can continue to drive hundreds of miles from home without worrying about whether I might wind up stranded somewhere. Simply put, any money you spend on competently performed, fairly priced preventative maintenance is going to be a good investment.

What other maintenance do I do on my cars? Oil changes are a must. I am a big believer in Amsoil, ridiculously high price tag be damned. I have never had a problem of any sort while using it and I am confident that if I did, Amsoil is the kind of company that would stand behind its product. I only use K&N performance engine air filters and cabin filters. Instead of throwing them out, you clean/lube them and they will easily last the life of a car. So the $80-100 investment pays for itself in five cleanings (or roughly 100k miles) at most and provides slightly better performance every day the entire time you have the car. It is important to replace the coolant in your car at proper intervals as well to keep the engine running optimally. If you have a truck or an SUV, there is considerably more to be done – one of several reasons I don’t have a truck right now.

As for keeping a car looking great year after year, my program is pretty simple. I pay $20 a month for unlimited car washes at Mister Car Wash, a high quality local option in Houston, and I run my car through about once a week. These plans seem to be gaining popularity nationwide and can make even more sense in a climate that attacks car finishes with a hellish cocktail of snow, slush, salt, and more. But rather than opting for the more expensive upgraded plan, which costs about double, I spend about a half hour around once a month applying spray wax (any decent brand will do and it costs no more than $5 for at least a few years’ worth) using basic microfiber cloths (these are great to keep at home for other purposes as well since they are reusable and do a better job than paper towels at all sorts of things). And finally, I use those same microfiber cloths to apply Nu Finish, an awesome polish product, once or twice a year. As a bonus, the waxing/polishing process is a great way to routinely inspect every inch of your car for any potential issues, which are almost always cheaper to address if they’re caught early. The result? People often ask if my cars are new, even when they’re several years old.

They certainly look and run as if they were. But instead of spending $5-10k a year on depreciation (yes, it is still an expense if it doesn’t affect short term cash flow), I usually spend $1-3k and sometimes even less. Over a lifetime, that will save me well over $100k compared to what the average person does. And again, I still drive relatively nice cars. Right now I have only one – a 2014 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited, which offers 274 horsepower, a synthetic leather interior, a backup camera, blind spot monitoring, heated seats, 18 inch rims, and much more. And while it is still occasionally mistaken for being new, it is actually better than that since Hyundai took a tragic step backwards with the model in 2015 in both design and mechanical engineering (2 mpg city/0 highway gained in exchange for TWENTY NINE FUCKING HORSEPOWER lost to the tune of a 1.5 second difference in 0-60 time? If that didn’t get some people fired – or executed if it had been North Korea instead of South – it should have).

My next car is going to be a Lexus, more than likely a certain “radical” coupe that, with the aid of a few minor corrections modifications, puts out over 500 horsepower and sounds like an unstoppable monster from hell. I will probably buy one around five years old due to the way luxury cars depreciate but I will still probably keep it close to ten years and operate the same way I always have. With the combination of legendary Toyota reliability and proper maintenance working in my favor, I believe I will do just fine. If not, I will go back to buying premium versions of regular brands like I have in the past. Either way, I’m happily driving a good quality car with almost no problems and spending much less than average to do so. Everyone is obviously going to make different choices when it comes to cars. But if you take care of yours the way I take care of mine and keep it a while, you are going to get the same kind of results.

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.