Friday, November 28, 2008

What's Your Corporate Jet?

Earlier this month, the three CEOs from Chrysler, Ford, and GM were summoned to Washington, D.C. to explain their situation and beg for some good ol' taxpayer cash. Three companies. Three jets. Three CEOs. Begging for cash. Three people. Three jets. Anyone else see a problem?

Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) really nailed the sentiment:
"There's a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hands," "It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo. . . . I mean, couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?"
These big-three CEOs got in front of congress, whined and complained about how high expenses are, how much they're hurting, and how badly they need government money, all the while ignoring the ridiculous luxury expenditures they authorize and enjoy. This is an extreme example to be sure, but I'm willing to bet that we've all got a "corporate jet" in our own personal finances.

It's that one luxury item that we've started to take for granted. It's the expenditure that while expensive and unnecessary, we just don't give it up, even if money is tight. Maybe it's the satellite TV with premium channels that stays activated while you miss credit card payments. Maybe it's the high-dollar cell phone plan you maintain while you contemplate bankruptcy. Maybe it's the case of beer that's purchased while you struggle to buy groceries.

With tough economic times here for some, maybe it's time to evaluate your expenses and see what can be pared back or eliminated, before you start whining about your plight.

Harsh, but true.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Latest Dance Craze!

Ultrasounds are funny things. The pictures are great and all, but the real treat is the live video, especially if the little guy is moving around.

It all looks like a pathetic attempt at doing the YMCA dance.

Don't worry though, I'm sure the wife (or maybe my mother-in-law!) will teach him the correct way once he leaves the her belly.


Changes, or a Complete Lack Of Them

The following post is a YFNN rant. You may find it offensive, crude or just plain wrong. Get over it.

How many times did we hear from now-President-elect Obama that the Iraq war is poorly run, full of bad management decisions, and going horribly? All the time.

So, in order to rectify that problem, he sticks with the same guy that's been running it the whole time: Robert Gates.

In his cabinet so far, he's picking old school Dems that have been around Washington for years (Daschle, Clinton, Waxman...seriously?) and now keeping the existing Secretary of Defense, who's been the target of immense amounts of hatred from his own mouth.

Yessiree, Barack, you are definitely change we can believe in.


Life Insurance is Cheap!

I cannot believe how cheap term life insurance is. Seriously cheap.

With the new baby on the way in a couple of short months, and my lovely bride now at home full-time, we decided that a larger life insurance policy was an absolute necessity. Before, when it was just the two of us, and we were both working, it was acceptable for us to carry minimal life insurance. We both only carried what our employers provided (two year's salary in both cases). That was plenty because neither of us was completely dependant on the other's salary to get by. If I died, she could have carried on with just her salary, and I could have done the same if she died.

But, with a baby coming, life insurance got vitally important. So we searched out some level term policies to make sure my wife and child could live comfortably if I passed, and I could get by if she passed.

There are lots of "rules of thumb" when it comes to the amount of insurance to get. Kiplinger's, CNN's Money magazine, Smart Money, etc., all have some really good guidelines. To get to my number, I used the 8-12 times my annual salary estimate. This way, the house would be paid off, and the wife and child could pay for college and still live comfortably (albeit not without some changes) for a long time. One million dollars covered us more than acceptably for my policy.

For my wife's policy, we elected to get a much smaller amount. When she's working, she makes less than I do, so we're much less dependent on her income than mine. Since she won't be working (for a while, anyway), we won't be dependent on her income at all. So, basically, the amount just had to cover childcare costs so that I could continue to work and get an income. We settled on a $250,000 policy for her.

For terms, we decided on a 30-year term for me and a 20-year term for her. Since this life insurance is so inexpensive for me right now, we felt it made sense to lock in my rate for 30 years. Granted $1,000,000 won't be worth as much in 30 years, but my health likely won't be as good when I'm 60 and getting insurance may be tougher. With a 30-year policy, I'm covered until our son is WELL out of college, and covered farther in case we decide to have more children.

For my wife's policy, since it's mostly about covering childcare costs, a 20-year policy seemed more than adequate. 16-20 year olds don't need day care.

So exactly how cheap were these policies? Well, since we're both fairly young (30-ish) and in good health (her moreso than me), they were really cheap. My 30-year, $1,000,000 policy was only $800 a year, and her 20-year, $250,000 policy was only $140 a year.


For more information on insurance policies and such, here's my recommended reading:

The Simple Dollar
Free Money Finance
Free Money Finance Again!


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Controlling Junk

A few nights ago, my lovely wife and I purged some junk from our living room. Accumulation of meaningless stuff has always been a constant problem. It's incredible how stuff just starts to accumulate. You pick up a brochure here, get a catalog there, and before you know it, you've got a whole trash bag full of things to recycle or throw away.

The major issue with us is paperwork and such. With my wife recently getting laid off, we're getting inundated with paperwork for COBRA, severance payouts, investment rollovers, and unemployment information. And, that's on top of our standard mail of business magazines, political advertisements (thank God that's over), and regular bills and mail. The real problem is that we don't want to deal with it as it comes in. I don't want to file that COBRA paperwork away since I haven't gone through it yet (and don't want to forget about it), but I don't have the time or desire to deal with yet, either. The same thing happens with day care brochures, unread magazines, and other important but not-time-sensitive materials. So, it stacks up. Typically on our dining room table or the small table behind the sofa.

What to do? Well, the real solution is to take care of that junk immediately, as soon as it comes in the house. I do okay with some items. Junk mail and most catalogs quickly meet up with the recycling bin, and vitally important items are dealt with promptly, but dealing with the other stuff immediately is just not realistic for me right now. After getting up at 4:30am and working a 10-hour day (minimum), the last thing I want to do when I walk in the door at night is to read over insurance statements or the latest day-care documentation. So, it stacks up until we get so sick of it that we can't stand it.

I'm going to try to do better with this. I'm going to try to take care of these items immediately. Not only will it help with keeping the house more clutter-free, but it'll help my wife's sanity, too.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Daily Interest & Motivation

What does a 14% interest rate on a $3,000 credit card balance really mean?
What does a 6% rate on $22,000 car loan balance really mean?

Sometimes, to fully understand the impact that debt can have on your life, you need to break it down into more meaningful chunks. For me, breaking down that interest cost to an estimated daily amount was very beneficial and eye-opening!

Let's say you have a credit card with a $3,000 balance and an interest rate of 13.99%. We can get a decent estimate the your daily interest rate by merely dividing your interest rate by 365 (days in a year).

13.99% / 365 = 0.0383% per day

Now, that 0.0383% sure doesn't sound like much, but when you multiply by your balance:

0.0383% * $3,000 = $1.15 per day!

By itself, you may say "it's only a little over a dollar a day!", but think of it this way: that's a $1.15 every day, whether you work all day, sleep all day, go on vacation, whatever. EVERY DAY. How would you feel if you woke up every morning and as soon as you walked out the front door, somebody would hold out their hand and demand $1.15? I'd get sick of that pretty fast! But, that's exactly what you're doing, just in a more deceptive way.

Want an even more extreme example?

Let's say you bought a shiny new car last year and owe $22,000 at 8.5% interest. I'll do the math again:

8.5% / 365 = 0.0178% per day

0.0178% * $22,000 = $5.12 per day!

In other words, you're forking over a Lincoln every single day just for interest on that loan! $5.12 a day would pay for my lunch every day!

Fortunately, every payment you make drops that daily interest down a bit more. Making extra payments on the principle drops it even faster.

As you can see, it wouldn't take long for your daily interest to add up to $10, $15, or even $20 a day. Couldn't you use an extra $10 a day?


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reducing Dust on the Cheap

My lovely wife and I got a dog nearly 4 years ago. Shortly after he joined our family, we noticed the dust levels in the house increased dramatically. It's just one of those effects of having a pet I guess. We toughed it out for several months, dusting several times a week just keep things looking good.

We bought some small air purifiers, which helped quite a bit and kept the air in the house moving, but it didn't solve the problem completely.

What did help dramatically was changing our furnace filter once a month rather than the every three months that is sometimes recommended. We also set the thermostat to run the blower on the system 24-hours a day. This provided a constant air exchange throughout the entire house, and the exchanged air was being filtered non-stop. This made a huge difference in the dust levels in the house. We have to dust way less often now, we breath easier (especially during the winter), and don't wake up with sore throats and stuffed up noses.

Are there any drawbacks? Of course; there's no such thing as a free lunch. First, the cost of changing our furnace filters over the 12-month year tripled. But, the filters we use are only $10-12 a piece, so going from $40 a year to $120, wasn't exactly earth-shattering. Also, theoretically, our electric bill should have gone up slightly, and it likely did, but the extra buck or two goes completely unnoticed on a typically $100 bill.

I also chatted with our furnace repair man about the change and asked him about the added run time shortening the life of the blower. He told me that it likely wouldn't hurt it at all. Many times it's dirt and dust that kill blowers, and we're reducing those levels. And, much like a car's engine, it's easier on the motor's bearings to run constantly, rather than starting and stopping several times a day.

Obviously, there's been some trade offs, but the dust levels in our house are now pretty low, considering the size of our dog, and our indoor air quality is improved as well.

So, if you're battling indoor air quality in your home, consider changing your filter more often and running your forced air blower all the time. It certainly helped clean up our house!


Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Ramsey Plan vs. The Nerd-ey Plan

A reader commented on a previous post (thanks!) about my general financial strategy and how similar it is to Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. This post is a result of that comment. Also, before reading the details of my family’s strategy, please understand that I am not a financial planner. I don't have a degree in finance or even economics. I don't work in finance for a living (directly, anyway). I’m just a regular Joe that’s lucky enough to have a decent finance understanding and is willing to share my family’s long-term strategy!

I’m big fan of goal-setting, both short-term and long-term. I write them down, check on them regularly, revise them if necessary, and celebrate my successes when I reach them. I truly believe that once you set a clearly defined goal for yourself and write it down, you’re well on your way to achieving that goal. Just merely having a plan to follow makes decisions easier and keeps you focused on what’s really important to you.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve got financial goals...lots of them. I keep monthly, yearly and lifetime financial goals and they’re all meticulously documented, revisited, and revised regularly. They all help me make day-to-day decisions, and keep me moving the direction I want to go. One of the most important is my overall financial strategy.

Dave Ramsey's plan is a great starting point for the majority of Joe Q. Public. It's simple, easy to understand, and effective. But, I certainly don't think it's optimum, at least for us. The plan my wife and I follow to manage our finances and investments is more sophisticated than Dave Ramsey's plan, but I think it's a better fit for us. Yours may be totally different!

For comparison's sake, here's Dave's plan:

1) $1000 for a starter emergency fund.
2) Pay off all consumer debt using the debt snowball.
3) Accumulate 3 to 6 months worth of living expenses for an emergency fund.
4) Invest 15% of gross income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement.
5) Fund college.
6) Pay off home early.
7) Build wealth with mutual funds and real estate.

My family's strategy varies in the steps themselves and in the amounts dictated by each step. Hopefully, I'm able to fully explain my reasoning for the changes I've made. Here are my steps:

1) Save $1000 per member of your family for a starter emergency fund. Personally, I don't think $1000 is quite enough, especially if you have children. It's a great goal for a single person, but if you've got a family, you've got more folks to cover and emergencies have the potential to hit a little harder. I realize for people with large families, this goal becomes significantly more difficult, so good judgment needs to be used when determining your personal amount.

2) If your company offers a match on your 401(k), take it. Invest only up to the amount required to get the entire match. If you don't do this step, you have the potential to leave a HUGE amount of free money on the table. Think of it this way: If on every payday, a man at the exit of your office's building would hand you a stack of 20-dollar bills ($100, $200, or $500) just for investing 5% of your income, wouldn't you take it? That's what your company match is: free money. Even better, it's free money that'll compound as your 401(k) balance grows over the years.

3) Pay off all consumer debt, starting with the smallest amount, using a debt snowball. In this instance I agree with Dave. Even though starting with the balance with the highest interest rate would result in a mathematically better result (minimally in most cases); I think the smallest balance should be tackled first, for a couple of reasons. First, if you go after the smallest balance first, you knock a minimum payment off your books quickly. This could be a big help if your family does get hit with some sort of financial hardship; it's one less minimum payment to make, which means your overall minimum monthly outlay is smaller. Second, there is a significant psychological boost over dropping a debt entirely, which does help to motivate you to keep moving.

4) Accumulate 4-6 months of living expenses for an emergency fund in a high-interest savings or money-market account. . I've written about the virtues of a solid emergency fund in the past, so this shouldn't be a surprise. Once you've got your debt paid off, accumulating this money shouldn't be too difficult. If you've only got one bread-winner, I think a six-month cash cushion is pretty darned important.

5) Invest 15-20% of gross income in Roth IRAs and tax-advantaged retirement accounts, up to federal maximums. I think that you can never have too much retirement income. Dave suggests 15%, but for us, 20% works up to the federal maximums. If you're fully funding two people's Roth IRAs (currently $5000 each), it doesn't take very much additional investment to reach that 20%! If you can make it automatic, so much the better. Fully funding a Roth IRA for one person is only $96 a week!

6) Fund 80-95% of college costs for your children. While you can certainly do 100% funding if you so choose, I like the 80-95% number a bit better. I firmly believe that when someone has a monetary stake in something, they take it more seriously, and in my mind, college is no exception. I fully expect my future son to contribute something to his college education (which is a long way off!).

7) Put 10% of your net paychecks into a mutual fund as a "freedom account". This is your "retire early" account, or your "travel around the world" account, or whatever-big-dream-you-may-have account. For us, it's retire early!

8) Pay off your home mortgage. Obviously, we'd all love to own our homes outright. Since a home mortgage is typically lower interest and tax-advantaged, I think this is the proper step to do it.

9) Build wealth with mutual funds, real estate, and businesses. When you get to this last step, you're living the good life. You'll have plenty of cash on hand, solid retirement accounts, a paid-for house, and fantastic cash flow. It's time to build it up even more through investing. If you choose real estate (rentals) or a business, that’s great. Mutual funds are great, too.

As I said before, this likely isn't the path that's right for you. Each individual needs something just a little different. Right now, this path is perfect for us. As things change in the future, our goals and needs may change, too. So, we're going to keep our strategy flexible.

So, what does your financial strategy look like?