Monthly Archives: May 2015

Weekly Links – How to find awesome food while travelling

This week was great for articles on budgeting and cutting back spending. There are some really good ones I linked to below. My favorite article though is Anthony Bourdains tips on how to find great food while travelling. I couldn’t agree more with all of them! This is exactly how me and my wife find awesome cheap food while we’re backpacking.

Budgeting/Lifestyle

Fun

  • Some great advice from Anthony Bourdain on how to find the best eats while travelling!

    “There was a sinister-looking dude wearing a dirty t-shirt, grilling chicken in a sort of sawed-off 50-gallon drum,” he says. “Mangy dogs were walking around. But we sat down at a table under a bare lightbulb and ordered that chicken.”Everything about it was unexpected, but it came together,” Bourdain continues. “The beer was cold, the right song — something by Peter Tosh — came on the radio. It was a happy accident, and it was the best jerk chicken I’ve ever had. There’s something to be said for letting great meals just happen to you.”

    Go read the whole thing!

  • Ooops creationist finds a 60 million year old fish fossil in his basement.

I post all these articles throughout the week so if you don’t want to wait until the Weekly Links I invite you to follow me on my Facebook page, Twitter or Google +.


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Choosing to stop living paycheque to paycheque

A friend messaged me recently after seeing some of my articles to tell me that, while interesting, the advice is not something he can practically use. In his particular case this is absolutely true. I spend most of my time on this blog discussing how to make better financial choices with whatever existing income stream you might already have. This post is a bit different in that I want to make clear there are cases where it really is impossible to save without fixing the income part first. Let’s start with a little background on myself.

I grew up in a government subsidized building with at least one of my parents unemployed a large percentage of the time. The building was a new one and it was one of the first to be built in a residential home area as part of a government initiative to integrate us “poor people” into middle class society. The thing is I can’t with good faith complain about the living conditions. Sure we did not have a dishwasher, or even a washing machine, and you can forget about a dryer. OK, so once I did wake up to a bomb squad SWAT team knocking down the door to a unit on the floor above me. However, whatever was provided worked well, and it wasn’t a big problem to take your dirty clothes to the laundromat downstairs in the building. There were 3 bedrooms so me and my sister did not need to share a room and the square footage was adequate enough to fit a dining table, sitting area and a TV in the living room. Everything one could possibly need, what would be considered luxury living in the vast majority of the world, and yet most people in Canada would thumb their nose at this as inadequate. Most importantly the building was kept clean and well maintained and the rent was very affordable.

While my friends were getting driven around to hockey games and got their parents to buy them the newest snowboard and ski equipment I was working a paper route to pay for mine. I bought my own baseball glove and paid the league fee myself to join a baseball league. The skis I learned to ski on were from play-it-again sports and were over 2 meters long with old style straps instead of brakes. Those of you that ski will recognize how ridiculously difficult it was to learn on these things!

Once when I told a friend the story of how I bought my own equipment and paid my own fees she remarked as to how sad that is. It caught me by surprise, I’ve never though of it as sad, and I don’t regret any of it today. The lessons I learned during those formative years are the reason why I am the person I am today and I wouldn’t change any of it. I may have had horrible ski equipment but I still made the ski team, and once I got better skis, I was actually able to ski far better than if I had gotten high end equipment to start with.

Once it was time to choose a university to go to I made sure that the school I chose had a co-op program. I knew I could not take any money from my parents as they were already tight as it was. I applied and got some student loans to get me through the first 2 semesters but after that the school was paid for from my own pocket and some bursaries I was able to dig up. Sure I couldn’t go party as much as some other kids and I had to actually hold down a part-time job. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t believe it is and once again the lessons I learned were invaluable. In addition feeling the cost of that education in my own pocket, I never took it for granted, which made me work harder to make sure it wasn’t a waste. I even got into credit card trouble one semester and had to live on bread and instant noodle soup for the last few weeks of the term to make the money last. This taught me the danger of overusing high rate credit and I paid off the entire card through my co-op term earnings over the summer.

I know many of you want to give “more than I had” to your kids, but the fact is I believe my parents helped me a great deal despite not giving me much monetary support. They gave me a free place to live when I was working co-op terms in Toronto and they set the example of how to live on very little income. They helped me understand what was essential and what was just fluff and I thank them for this every day.

I want to emphasize that this entire time I NEVER felt like I was poor. I guess at some level I knew that my friends driving expensive cars and buying expensive toys without actually working were “wealthier” than me but it never bothered me in the least. I didn’t feel inferior to them or bitter like so many other people in my situation would and that inadvertently helped me keep these people as friends. No one likes an envious person and jealousy is a quick way to kill any friendship. I again credit my parents for this and the fact that they instilled values in me that raise personal character, humility and intelligence above material wealth.

I am able to afford some more spoils these days and I do indulge but I make these choices knowing they are choices and not necessities. I know I can live on far less than I do currently I just choose not to and I make sure my finances are balanced without short changing my future. It is this understanding of it being a choice that I believe is the key to achieving financial Independence rather than just pure frugality.

What does all this have to do with the title of this post?

The friend I referenced at the beginning of my post truly does not have a choice. He makes far less than the 70K median family income in Toronto and has children to raise while his wife can’t work. Yet he gets through every month and is working hard on improving his situation. If you are in this situation it’s incredibly tough and your first step is to find a better source of income with saving money a far distant priority. I don’t want anyone out there thinking I’m making light of a truly difficult situation such as his. However, for most families at or above the median family income, living paycheque to paycheque likely is a choice.

I’m not advocating extreme frugality here such as that advocated by some other bloggers who live on 25K in total family costs a year (it IS possible, just google it!). I am advocating taking a serious look at the discretionary choices being made and not ending up like this now famous house-poor couple. If you are in this type of situation you need to get angry. You need to say average or adequate is not enough. Just because everyone else seems to be living paycheque to paycheque too does not mean you can’t do better. Average choices, by definition, can (at best) only lead to average outcomes.

If you own a house that you mostly don’t use because there are only 2 of you remember that’s a choice you made. If you decide to buy in the “hottest” area of the city that is also a choice. Private pre-school? a choice, brand new car, a choice. Buying a second car, a choice. Living in a place with no public transit access, a choice. Driving everywhere instead of walking or biking, a choice. Doing that second degree or pursuing a masters, a choice. Going shopping at that artisan organic grocery store, a choice. Buying a new wardrobe every season because the old stuff is out of style, a choice. Redoing your kitchen to the latest style and installing exotic marble counter-tops? Most definitely a choice.

None of these choices are bad in and of themselves. There are real reasons why people make these decisions and I do respect those reasons. There are benefits to making many of these choices, but are those benefits worth the cost to their future? Not in all cases will the answer be “no” as peoples’ preferences and values are a personal thing. The key is to do the calculation and then decide which of these choices are most important to you and which and how many can you afford without jeopardizing your future.

I think I needed to outline my background before being taken seriously when I say the following: once both costs and benefits are analysed there are probably some relatively painless CHOICES that most people can make to save money. They might not seem like choices, but this is where I hope this blog can help.


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How to get a guaranteed return on your stock market investments

In my last post I outlined why on average it’s better to invest your money than pay down your mortgage in an interest rate environment like the current one. However, since we only live once, we’re not so much concerned with average outcomes as we are with actual outcomes that affect our lives. This means we must consider worst case scenarios.

What if it happens to be a particularly bad year for the stock market?

There is no denying that stock markets have some very bad years. This means many people think of it a bit like a casino where you need luck in order to succeed and the odds are against you. The fact is that, unlike a casino, the odds are actually stacked towards you if you are a patient long term stock market investor. What you need to remember is that the goal of financial security and maybe independence is a long term one. This means year to year variations are not as important as building wealth over a longer period of time.

This may surprise you but the S&P500 has NEVER returned less than 5.9% per year compounded over any 25 year period. Not even if you were unlucky enough to start your investing in 1929 just prior to the great depression would you have made less than that. This means if you invested $10,000 in the worst case in the last 100 years you would have had $42,000 at the end of the 25 year investment period (1929 to 1954).

(See full list of returns here)

On average the S&P500 returns approx. 10% per year for any random 25 year period. This means that an investment of $10,000 is expected to be worth $108,347 after 25 years, which is significantly higher than the interest savings from paying down $10,000 of your mortgage.

Some of you at this point will be saying “I get it!” while others are probably saying “my head hurts from reading all these percentage! What does this mean??”. Let me give you a practical example of what happens to Jim and Amy over a time period of 17 years.

Jim pre-pays his mortgage instead of saving

Mortgage: $500,000
Term: 25 years
Mortgage Rate: 2.5%
Pre-payment: $10,000 per year

Jim will be completely mortgage free in 17 years but will have no savings. His net worth will be exactly the value of his house and not a penny more. For the sake of easy calculation lets say the value of his house went up 50% and his net worth is $750,000, thought changing that assumptions makes absolutely no difference to the analysis. This is because paying down your mortgage makes no difference to the value of your house.

Amy does not pre-pay her mortgage but invests $10,000 per year in the S&P500

Mortgage: $500,000
Term: 25 years
Mortgage Rate: 2.5%
Pre-payment: $0 per year

Amy will still owe $194,798.78 at the end of the same 17 years. However, she has invested $10,000 every year into the S&P500 and achieved the median 15 year annualized yearly return of 12.22%. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500#Annual_returns).

Amy’s investing account after 17 years would be worth $560,085.80. This means she could now pay off her remaining mortgage of $194,798.78 and still be left with $365,287 worth of savings. Since the value of her house is exactly the same as Jims her net worth is $750,000 (house) + $365,287 (investments) = $1,115,287. This is 50% higher than Jims!

(You can verify all the mortgage calculations here)

What if Amy didn’t achieve the median return? Even in the worst case scenario of a 4.24% annualized return (the worst 15 year return in the last 40 years as per my previous post) she still comes out ahead of Jim (though by a smaller amount). Despite the complex calculations above the rule to determine whether to pre-pay a mortgage or to invest is very simple.

If your mortgage rate is higher than your expected investment return you should pre-pay

If your mortgage rate is lower than your expected investment return you should invest

Here is a chart of the results for your comparison:

Jim Amy – average case
12.22% return
Amy – worst case
4.24% return
Amy – best case
18.93% return
Starting Mortgage $500,000 $500,000 $500,000 $500,000
Yearly pre-payment $10,000 $0 $0 $0
Mortgage after 17 yrs
after its paid off from investments
$0 $0 $0 $0
Investment account after 17 yrs
after paying off the mortgage in full
$0 $365,287 $57,380 $939,377
House Value after 17 yrs $750,000 $750,000 $750,000 $750,000
Total Net Worth (House + Investments) $750,000 $1,115,287 $807,380 $1,689,377

Amy’s worst case scenario is still better than Jim’s while her best case scenario makes her more than twice as well off.

So how do you get a 100% guaranteed return on your stock market investments? The answer, like most important truths in life, is simple and boring. If you invest your money in a well diversified portfolio over a period of at least 15 years, then based on history, you are guaranteed a positive return.

If after reading this you still feel like you’d rather just pre-pay your mortgage then you should go ahead and do that.  In our society paying down your mortgage has evolved to be such a great and noble goal that many people feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride when they put down a large amount. I don’t want to play down the importance of that feeling, I just want to point out that it’s not a financially optimal decision. Also remember, if you invest your gratification may only be delayed, as one day you will have enough savings to put down that one gigantic payment and pay off the rest your mortgage in full.


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Weekly Links – Matthew McConaughey urges you to travel more

In addition to writing my own posts I will try to post a weekly roundup of articles I found interesting or educational in the past week. I haven’t decided whether to pick a particular day every week or just go with the flow so for now I’ll stick with the latter.

Don’t worry a new original article is on the way and I plan to get it published by tomorrow! Promise!

In the meantime some interesting things I’ve read this past week.

Lifestyle

  • Matthew McConaughey is a great actor but not someone I would generally think of when I think life guru. However this article, which is a transcript of a speech he gave, is really great and filled with some excellent insights. I especially like #13 and the idea of getting perspective on life by temporarily disconnecting from it. I’ve been to those mountains in Peru, though it could be really anywhere as long as it’s remote, and I get it. I completely understand why he feels the need to go to these places and get “lost” in them. Great job putting into words one of the main reasons I travel so much. Check out all 13 lessons learned.

Investing & Retirement

  • What makes so many people so susceptible to financial fraud? Josh Brown from The Reformed Broker has some good suggestions on how to keep yourself out of trouble.
  • You may have heard of the 4% withdrawal rule . It essentially states that you can safely withdraw 4% per year in your retirement from your investment accounts and never run out of money. This article in the New York Times is a good discussion on whether that rule still works.

Fun

  • The New Yorker did some research and used science to prove something I’ve been feeling for a while. Could this be true? I really can’t see any other explanation.

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Why pre-paying your mortgage may not be a good idea

This is not a subject I wanted to tackle in my first post! I find people hold very strong almost religious-like beliefs when it comes to housing and mortgages. However, as I was relaxing on my train ride to work a couple of days ago noticed and read the following article in TheGlobeandMail.

“Why paying off a mortgage beats investing”

The way to dispel an illusion is to take the argument, deconstruct it, and then disprove it point-by-point. In that way both of the blog posts linked to in the article are great starting points because they reflect widely held views on mortgages and money.

Interest savings and investment returns are two sides of the same coin

The author writes

“The tax deduction essentially gives you about 25% of your interest payment back. There are people out there that keep their mortgage to pay the bank $400 in order to get $100 back from the government. According to my math, that’s a $300 loss.”

Then he continues with…

““By paying off my entire mortgage in just over three years, I was forced to pay only $6,000 in interest payments instead of the $70,000 that I would have incurred by carrying my mortgage the full 30 years.”

Never pay off your mortgage unless you have no other debt left

Assuming the author means $400 in interest per month and assuming a 2.5% fixed mortgage rate this means the hypothetical person would need to pre-pay $192,000 of their mortgage to save $400 x 12 = $4,800 a year in interest. Therefore right away you can see saving $400 a month in mortgage interest is not very realistic for most people.

However, let’s say you have an extra $5,000 sitting around at the end of the year and want to decide where to put it.

If you put it in into your mortgage you will save approx.. $5,000 * 2.5% = $125 per year or $10.42 per month.

Sounds good? What if you instead pay off your credit cards?

If you pay of an 18% credit card you will save approx. $5,000 * 18% = $900 per year or $75 per month. That’s much better!

How much of your mortgage would you have to pay off to generate $75 per month in savings? It turns out it would take $36,000!

Therefore paying off $5,000 of credit card debt saves you the exact same amount of money as paying off $36,000 of your mortgage!

The same calculation can be done for car loans (and leases!), credit lines and virtually any other type of debt you may have. Mortgage debt is by far the cheapest type of debt so unless you own everything else out right it you should not consider pre-paying it at all.

Here is a chart comparing the approx. interest savings from pre-paying various types of debt:

Interest Savings from paying off $5000
Credit Card (18%) Unsecured Credit Line (8%) Auto Loan (5%) Mortgage (2.5%)
Per Month $75.00 $33.33 $20.83 $10.42
Per Year $900.00 $400.00 $250.00 $125.00

If you have no other debt except a mortgage than what matters is the interest rate

The author of the article states

“ For example, the S&P 500 was worth $1,441.47 on January 7th, 2000. Fifteen years later, the S&P 500 has risen to $2,025.90. It sounds like a pretty impressive increase doesn’t it? But, when factoring in the 15 year time-span, we soon understand that the average growth during this period was only 2.3% per year. That’s pretty crappy. I think many of us would have rather paid off our home mortgage.”

There are two mistakes in the above statement that show either the author does not have a good grasp on how investing in stocks actually works or he’s ignoring facts to prove his own point.

  • He forgot to count the dividends!

Dividends are payments made to you when you hold a particular stock, or in the case of the S&P 500, it’s payments received from 500 different stocks. It’s a little like rent when you buy an investment property. The author considered only the price increase but not the rent you get from your tenants and concluded you haven’t done very well!

With dividends reinvested the annual per year return for that particular 15 year period was actually 4.24%.

  • He cherry picked the investing time period to suit his point

If we consider last 10 years the per year average total return (including dividends) is 7.67% and if we consider last 20 years it’s 9.85%.

If we look at the 15 year period ending in the year 2009, just after the worst stock market collapse in modern history, the per year average return was still 8.04%!

Why does the particular 15 year period the author chose look so bad? It just happens that 15 years ago there was gigantic internet stock bubble which drove stock prices far above where they would otherwise be. If you had bought at the exact peak of that bubble then your return would in fact be 4.24% per year, the worst 15 year return of the last 45 years, but still 70% higher than your current 2.5% mortgage rate.

The historical median total one year return on the S&P500 since 1970 has been 15.79%.

Assuming the $5,000 in the previous example was invested in the S&P 500 over the course of an average year it would be worth $5,789.50 at the end of the year. That’s an extra $789.50 and significantly higher than the $125 you would have saved by pre-paying your mortgage.

(You can check the S&P 500 returns here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500#Annual_returns)

Here is the same chart as above except this time including the median one year return for the S&P500:

Expected benefit from paying off or investing $5000
Credit Card (18%) S&P 500 Investment (15.79%) Unsecured Credit Line (8%) Auto Loan (5%) Mortgage (2.5%)
Per Month $75.00 $65.83 $33.33 $20.83 $10.42
Per Year $900.00 $789.50 $400.00 $250.00 $125.00

For most people I would recommend paying off the unsecured credit line and perhaps even the auto loan as the median S&P500 return is not guaranteed. However, the right action depends on more than I have time to explain in a single blog post. The bottom line though is I would never recommend them paying off their mortgage in the current rate environment.

In my next post: What if it happens to be a particularly bad year for the stock market? Isn’t it better to get a small guaranteed return from paying down my mortgage rather than risk money on investments?


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Welcome to the Blog!

This blog is about achieving financial independence while still checking off all those superficial desires along the way. It is not about making more money but rather how to make the most out of the money you make. The fact is if you live in the US or Canada (or most of the first world) and are reasonably well educated, financial independence is very much achievable and at a young age.

Part of my inspiration for writing this blog has been hearing how surprised people are that I am taking 2 months off for paternity leave. The surprise only increases when they find out it’s the second year in a row I am doing this and that I am not taking a dime from the government to afford this. I wanted to spend this exciting time with my entire family including my wife and the Canadian government only pays for one person at a time. Therefore she’s living on EI and I’m taking two months off unpaid.

I work in a very well paid industry and yet make less than the industry average. The people most surprised at my freedom make far above the average Canadian or Toronto wage and double what I make, and yet still live paycheque to paycheque in such a way that taking 2 months off unpaid seems like an unattainable luxury. I started to genuinely wonder why that is and this led me to a very inspiring community of bloggers.

The other part of my inspiration for this blog has been discovering and reading all the awesome frugal living blogs out there on the internet (Mr. Money Mustache, Mad FientistEarly Retirement Extreme, Financial Samurai etc.). These amazing people prove saving lots of money for anyone in a developed country is not only possible but relatively easy if you know how. I have nothing but respect for all of them. While much of what they’ve written is what I’ve been unknowingly following myself I did notice a difference between my own approach and theirs that is subtle but I think important.

In this blog I will try to hit a middle ground between the completely self-reliant approach most of the other bloggers advocate and the mainstream consumerism that most people follow. Instead of focusing on what purchases should or should not be made I will instead focus on how to achieve the things you want at a far lower cost to your future. This blog is not so much about anti-consumerism as much as it is about smart consumerism. It’s very much about looking a bit deeper into those desires and finding a way to re-frame them in a financially responsible way. 

Through my blogging I hope to show how actions often considered frivolous, such as buying a fast fuel inefficient car, travelling while young, renting an apartment or paying people to renovate your house rather than doing it yourself can actually be completely rational and financially sound decisions.

I really believe you can get everything you want out of life, even some of those seemingly irresponsible and vapid things, and live financially worry-free anyway!


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