Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Measuring Schools by ROI

I was a little inspired this week from my Monday's post on the coming student debt bubble, and started to  ask myself how someone should assess whether they get the best value for what they are paying for higher education.  I immediately thought of a good old financial ratio called Return on Investment (or ROI).  What this means is that you essentially compare what you pay to go to school versus what you can expect to make in your lifetime.  

Ironically enough, a few weeks back, Payscale actually ranked pretty much every college in the US by ROI and came up with this list.  The top colleges seem to make sense from an annual ROI perspective, but Payscale went even further and incorporated student aid into their calculations.  When I sorted by ROI with financial aid included, there were quite a number of public institutions in the top 20 which is an encouraging thought.

Should someone only think of ROI when picking a college...of course not, but it's not a bad way of looking at things.  Obviously, other criteria need to be considered such as major, location, and campus culture, but I think you get the idea.

I know I had fun looking up my institution and I hope you do too.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Student Loan Bubble Mimicking the Subprime Mortgage Bubble

If you went to college or some other form of higher education, there is no doubt that you have had or currently have student loan debt.  As I mentioned in a previous post, education costs are skyrocketing.  Prices are increasing so much so, that they are outpacing the healthcare industry.  No doubt that a major factor in this whole mess is the increased availability of student loans.  I came across this article while reading the news the other day, and it sheds some interesting light into how similar the student loan bubble is to the previous subprime mortgage bubble.

Our friends over at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) have been receiving a number of complaints into predatory student loan practices, and have begun to investigate.  Their conclusion into the similarities with the subprime mortgage market are as follows:

1.) Misplaced Good Intentions - Society has put such a strong need for college and thus more people want to attend.  Since schools can only accept so many students, the easiest way to eliminate people from the applicant pool is to increase the price.

2.) Misleading Interest Rates - Borrowing when you're an adult is hard enough, but if you are a trusting and misinformed student, you could be really confused.  Someone might not know the difference between an adjustable rate, or fixed rate loan.  Even worse, it's often confusing on who you contact to understand how much debt at what interest rates you have.

3.) Lack of Scrutiny - Much like the subprime mortgage market of the early 2000's, there isn't many people looking over the legality and morality of student lending practices.

4.) Government Guarantees - With the implicit and more recently the explicit guarantees of the department of education, most lenders have become rather lax with their student lending practices.

5.) High Pressure Sales Tactics - Student loan originators make their money by having you sign up.  After they make the loan, it's not their problem anymore.  Therefore, any method or tactic to get you to sign up is a plus in their court.  This has lead to some pressure style lending.

And what are the differences to the subprime mortgage bubble:

1.) Size - Whereas the subprime mortgage bubble was approximately $600 billion, the student loan bubble is much smaller at about $20 billion.

2.) Can't Escape the Debt - Unlike a mortgage in which you could just walk away (and ruin your credit), student loans are not forgiven even in bankruptcy court.  Often times, these loans will literally follow you to the grave.

Do I think this bubble bursting will destroy the, but it will most likely have a significant effect in the near future.  If anything, hopefully some good lending practices come out of the whole foreseeable mess.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Had an eye exam a couple days back, and there was basically no change in my prescription.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Meaning of Success

The first time I ever really confronted the question about success was at my high school graduation.  Our seventh grade history teacher was giving the final speech and picked the topic of what really defines success. This seemed like a fitting topic given that so many of us were sitting up on that stage with many questions floating in our minds; is going to college successful?, is going into the workforce successful?, is graduating high school successful?  Depending on who you ask, you'll probably receive a different answer, however, I want to make the point that these are all successes.  In my own definition, success is overcoming something difficult.  If high school was easy for you, then it probably wasn't a success.

In the world of personal finance, success for you might be having a balanced budget or maybe paying off your credit card.  These seemingly small instances can have profound effects on your morale and well-being.

In your own personal life, maybe success is going on a date and having it go really well?  Maybe success is finding a place to live in a new unfamiliar city, or even more fundamentally, finding a job.  On a side note, someone once told me that you will have a whole file cabinet full of all the jobs you didn't get, but all you need is the one you did get.  Success is most likely achieving that job.

Traditionally, success has been about having that mcmansion on that dead-end street, having a few kids, and a happy spouse.  This ideal, while being rather nice, is simply too naive when it comes to the notion of success.  Success is struggling to achieve something, putting in the time, and then finally reaching that goal.  It's that feeling of knowing you have finally accomplished something that seemed so distant when you started.

For me....well, earlier this week, I found that I most likely have type 1 diabetes, and success is going to just be maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.  If I can do that, I'll be successful.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Having a wonderful wife!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Credit Card Roulette

I'm pretty sure most of you know about the dangers of credit card debit and signing up for a new card only to use it to pay off another.  This sort of "bad credit card Roulette" is not what today's topic is about.  Instead, I've discovered (or at least been made aware of) a "Good Credit Card Roulette" that can be accomplished through some savvy personal finance.

Just to set the story right, I in no way recommend what I'm about to describe, but I just wanted to make you aware of this tactic.  I tend to think of myself as risk neutral when it comes to personal finance and investing, so this type of strategy will definitely not fly with me.  So what am I talking about?

The inspiration for this post came from this blog.  The author found a way to make a couple extra grand each year by opening up credit card accounts (max of about 10), snapping up their bonus offers whether it be free cash or rewards, and closing them out once the reward was met.  I was a little skeptical about this when I first heard about it, but then I asked a friend of mine who is a credit card product manager.  He said that he does the same thing and rakes in at least $1,000/year.  My next question pertained to how this might effect a person's credit (FICO) score.  He confirmed that his only dipped about 10 points with all the applications and closures.

This sounds like a fun idea, but bare in mind the risks.  You have to make sure you know what you are doing.  When you find a card to take advantage of, make sure you read the fine print in the contract section. Next, make a list of the benefits and terms to meet in order to acquire said benefits.  Maybe a simple Excel grid would do.  Record the date you sign up, and the date you plan to leave (this is important!).  Start spending like normal (do not spend more just to meet some petty reward), and make sure to record or keep track of how much you are spending.  Once you've met your reward, look at your contract conditions again and exit.  Some people say they can reap an extra $1-3 thousand dollars a year.  To them I say God Bless You, because this arrangement is simply too much work and too risky for my tastes.  Spending too much, getting charged some hidden fee, or somehow messing up my hard earned credit score are just too much to trade off.

But, if you feel like you are dying for some financial adventure, then credit card roulette might be the right thing for you.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Looking with comfort at my measly single credit card...with cash back!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Maximizing your Time in Life

All of us have struggled with the thought of our own mortality at some point in our lives.  Just the simple fact that at some point in the future, you will no longer be here is enough to unnerve some people.  At the moment right before you are about to put the final sentence in the book of life, you might want to ponder all the memories and things you've done.  1 of two choices happens at this occurrence; you look back at your life with great pleasure because you achieved all your goals and lived life to the fullest, or you look back at all the things you could have done or the experiences you missed out of.  If you're the latter case, I'm here to tell you that there are options and you still have time!

The topic for this blog came from this post on Reddit.  The contributor basically ponders the question as to what interesting skill you can learn with very little expense.  Here is the condensed list the author described:
1.) Play an instrument
2.) Lock picking
3.) Programming
4.) Graphic Design
5.) Sketching & Drawing
6.) 3D modeling
7.) Improve your penmanship
8.) Read
9.) Working out and getting fit
10.) Expand your music appreciation
11.) Try composing
12.) Improve your singing
13.) Meditate
14.) Pick up sports
15.) Learn to swim
16.) Biking
17.) Learn a new language
18.) Learn to dance

As you can see, there are plenty of things you can learn to do in your spare time that will lead to a full and rewarding life.  This list is by no means a complete summary of things to learn, but let me suggest another: Learn to fix things.  As a home owner, I can't tell you how helpful it is to have some basic knowledge on plumbing, mechanics, or carpentry.  Not only do these skills save you a ton of money, but it can become an interesting hobby not to mention making my house look great.

Some call it a bucket list, but whatever it is you call it, think of the things you want to learn or do before your time is up.  Write the items down, and figure out how you are going to accomplish these goals.  As I wrote about precision leadership a long time ago, having a list will help you stay motivated and accomplish all you want to do.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Watching a friend complete a multi-national marathon!

Friday, October 19, 2012

5 Ways to Maximize your Contribution to your Company

I've focused much on personal finance theory and practical knowledge in this blog.  I figured it was time for a little change of pace, and so today I want to focus a little on improving your contribution to your current employer.  This all assumes that you in fact want to perform better work for your employer in the hopes of advancing through the ranks.  I've put together a little list of 5 ways in which I avoided obsolescence in my workplace and differentiated myself from my fellow workers.

Alright, on to the top 5 ways to increase your contribution to your employer:

1.) Learn as much as you can.

This first one sounds simple enough, but I cannot tell you how many times I've seen people become complacent in their current jobs.  They become used to a particular way of doing things, and so go through the motions each and every day.  To a manager, these people get the job done, but don't offer anything new.  Underlying these assumptions is an overall fear of change.  Don't live in fear!  Instead, try to learn something new about your job each day, even if it includes something as simple as a new way to do something in a company used software.  Another way this concept can be applied is if there is a new process or program to be learned at work.  Become the first person to know how to apply these new tools.  Not only will you be able to help all your other fellow workers, but people around the office will notice, and you will start to be labeled as a helpful person.

2.) Be eager to be assigned new projects.

I'm always amazed when I see people at work loath to receive a new assignment.  Yes it's work, but this is the type of stuff you are getting paid for.  If you are eager and rather happy to receive assignments, generally they will be less painful to complete, and your manager will appreciate your willingness.  Even if you are not the best technical worker, just being appreciative or eager can separate yourself from the pack.

3.) Be accurate.

This is another one of those topics that is easier said than done.  When completing a report or performing a task, make sure to review your work.  In fact, do it 3 or 4 times.  If you can deliver your work in a timely, and most importantly, accurate capacity, you will be seen as an incredibly valuable employee.

4.) Ask questions.

When I first got out of college and started out in the working world, I would attend meetings, listen to the conversation, not know what was going on, and be too chicken to ask questions for fear of looking stupid.  Don't feel this way.  This was a big mistake in my career.  Often times, I would go for a significant time frame without knowing some critical piece of information, and be even more embarrassed to ask the question in the future when I should have known the answer by that time.  Ask the question.  Often times, someone else is thinking the exact same thing.

5.) Offer your services.

Help your co-workers, other departments, and your boss even if they are not asking for it.  One of the best pieces of advice I received on getting ahead in the world is to figure out what your boss needs and give/do it.  The motivation and enthusiasm you project can be read by all.  If you are helpful and can perceive future work, you be that much more beneficial to your company.

In closing, I ask the question as to whether all this information will pay off in the future.  You don't have to be the smartest person on your floor to be promoted or receive raises at work.  If you work hard, show that your reliable, and a team player, than you will be one of the best employees in your department...I guarantee it!

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Ate like a half a gallon of ice cream.  Don't really know if this was wonderful or a serious mistake...time will tell.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 Easy Funds

Earlier this week, I received my first addition of the Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.  I managed to acquire this magazine through a survey I completed which wasn't all that taxing, and provided me with a free year's subscription.  Not too bad if you ask me.  I read through the magazine and was not disappointed.  With all my own personal finance experience, I can sometimes find these kind of subjects a little too basic for me, but Kiplinger's had articles for everyone in their financial journey.  One such article that I found incredibly interesting was the simple portfolio suggestions.  The rest of this article is my take on the investments they subscribe.  Each one is slightly more complex than the previous.  I won't get into too much detail as to whether the funds will provide decent returns.

"The Ultra-Simple Choice"
1.) 60% Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VTWSX)
2.) 40% Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (VBMFX)

This portfolio is about as simple as you can get while achieving maximum diversification.  Expenses are low, and you profit when the world profits.  The only downside is, like any index fund, you get the good with the bad.

"For Small Accounts"
1.) 33% Amana Income (AMANX)
2.) 33% Homestead Small Company Stock (HSCSX)
3.) 33% Schwab International Index (SWISX)

I've been preaching the Schwab funds ever since they made them free for Schwab clients.  They are cheap and easy to diversify your investments.  I like to point out that this portfolio is diversified and only requires $1,500 to create.  Future investments are also cheep. Amana invests according to "Islamic Principles" if that's something you're interested in.

"ETF's for Income"
1.) 30% Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (VIG)
2.) 20% PowerShares International Dividend Achievers (PID)
3.) 20% SPDR Barclays Capital High Yield Bond (JNK)
4.) 30% Pimco Total Return (BOND)

The goal of this portfolio is straight up income, and currently provides a 3.1% annual cash return.  Keep in mind that this portfolio will have some volatility, but none of that really matters if income is your main driver.

"ETF's for Long-Term Growth"
1.) 30% iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV)
2.) 25% iShares Russell 2000 Value Index (IWN)
3.) 30% Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets (VWO)
4.) 15% SPDR Dow Jones REIT (RWR)

This portfolio is for those that have a long time to wait until retirement.  Due to stock market and real estate fluctuations, you want to hold this portfolio for at least 10 years.  What's nice about it is that you get some more exposure to small cap stocks through the value fund, emerging markets through the Vanguard fund, and real estate through the REIT fund.

"A Kipliger 25 Package"
1.) 25% Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX)
2.) 15% Akre Focus (AKREX)
3.) 10% Haror International (HIINX)
4.) 10% T. Rowe Price Emerging Markets Stock (PRMSX)
5.) 40% Harbor Bond Institutional (HABDX)

I'm not too familiar with most of these funds, but Kiplinger's recommends them based on the the skill of the fund managers.  Overall, it still maintains the 60/40 stock to bond split.

Generally speaking, I find all of these funds a little too conservative for me.  Starting in your 30's with a Stock to Bond mix of 80/20, you should increase your bond exposure by 10% each decade you live.  That means, in your 60's you would only have 50% of your income in stocks.  Let's face it.  You could live to be 100 years old, and you should start investing like it's possible.

I'm still digging through the magazine, but overall, I give it an 8/10.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Fall leaves.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Glorious Gardening: Year in Review 2012

This is it, the final garden update for the year.  As fall sets in and winter approaches, I'm not starting to see weather hovering around the freezing mark.  With the temperature drop, I knew it was time to start cleaning up the garden and get it ready for next year.

For your reference, you can see the following posts on my previous updates as a gauge for how far I've come.

Garden Update 1
Garden Update 2

As you recall in my previous posts, this whole project was an experiment in maintaining a small business...really small.  If you think about it, your land is the factory, you are the workers, and you are also the final consumer.  In a way, thinking of it as a business just adds to the fun of an already fulfilling hobby.  This little lesson can be applied to many of your other projects so that you keep expenses in line, and try to achieve the project's maximum potential.  But enough of that, on to the fun stuff.

So how did we do this summer?  Well, if you recall, total expenses for the installation of the raised garden bed, soil additives, and other gardening supplies totaled $250.  Hopefully, this is mostly a one time investment.  I've since bought about $30 of additional garden related products to enhance another section of my backyard.  These enhancements mostly consist of manure, peat moss, and vermiculite.

On the revenue side, this is what I determine each plant provided:

Pole Beans: $29.50
Baby Carrots: $2.84
Cilantro: $3.58
Basil: $15.92
Sage: $13.93
Marjoram: $7.96
Oregano: $11.94
Cherry Tomatoes: $143.40 (1,797 tomatoes harvested from 5 plants!)
Heirloom Tomatoes: $77.87
Yellow Squash: $3.66
Scallions: $2.91
Grand Total: $313.51
Total Profit: $33.51

I think you get the idea on how many cherry tomatoes we picked!
Not too shabby if I don't say so myself.  I was actually surprised to have surpassed our expenses for the year since we had so many startup costs.  You can see by the picture, that while removing the rest of the cherry tomatoes, we found around 800 or so still on the vines.  These are mostly green, but will ripen nicely in the coming weeks.

As you go through life and encounter projects or develop hobbies, treating them like a small business can greatly adhere your focus hone your drive.  I hope your own gardens were prosperous this year!

Wonderful Moment of the Day: This was actually a weekend event, but I had the chance to participate in a soup and pie fund raiser for Heifer International.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Your Own Personal Project Life Cycle

Have you ever thought about starting a project so much that you reached the point sheer excitement with every passing day?  No, well maybe you were just so excited that you couldn't wait to get started.  Finally, you reach the point where you dig in your heels and decide to dive right in.  Time goes on, and your excitement builds and builds.  The project continues along its merry way and everything seems good, until you reach your first hurdle.  Something bad or unforeseen happens and throws you off the rails.  You try your best but still have some setbacks.  After some hard work, you figure out a solution to your problem and your project continues, but you now have less enthusiasm than you previously had.  Time goes on, the project runs its course, and then you reach a point where you either abandon the project or phase it out.  Sound familiar?  This type of life cycle occurs in many different forms in life, and I submit the below model to help describe it:

A general Life Cycle Chart applied to business
 The chart listed is the general life cycle for most industries, however I believe it can apply to much more than just industries.  If you look at the subsequent stages (Embryonic, Growth, Shakeout, Mature, Decline), you can almost imagine a person's life cycle fitting into this category.  You are conceived, born and grow, experience a couple mistakes or setbacks in life, reach a state of maturity, and then gradually age and pass away. 

In the business world, each section can help describe where a particular industry is currently located.  This is often helpful when you are deciding whether an investment in a certain company is worth it.  CD makers are probably in the mature or declining end of the spectrum, whereas nanotech companies are most likely in the Embryonic stage as their just developing the technology for the industry. 

Many similarities from this chart can be drawn towards projects and experiences in your own life.  As the first scenario illustrated, projects tend to operate on the same life cycle whether it be work related or your own personal hobby or project.  Having the ability to understand where you reside on this curve will allow you to better understand the types of challenges ahead of you.  If you are designing some new invention and it's been smooth sailing thus far, chances are you are still in the Growth stage of your project and will soon meet the Shakeout phase.  Shakeouts in the business term generally indicate a series of industry bankruptcies and consolidations, but I'd like you to think of this in more broad terms as a challenge to your overall goal.  Everyone goes through these periods, and it's only through your drive and perseverance that you can overcome these.

The lesson in all of this is that it benefits you to think of project life cycles in the above format in order to understand what you should be focusing on.  Once you understand where you sit, you can begin to develop a strategy for the remainder of the plan.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: First day my wife is back from a conference after being away for 5 days!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sam Walton's Rules for Building a Business

In the ever encompassing search for all things that maximize your potential, I've stumbled upon a set of rules written by Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) in relation to running your own business.  I struggled at first on whether to write about these rules, but I came to the conclusion that if one were really to maximize their potential, they would capitalize on every idea which would most likely result in running your own small business.  With that in mind, I present to you Sam Walton's Rules for Building a Business.

1.) Commit to your business.  Believe in it more than anybody else.  I think I overcame every single one of my personal shortcomings by the sheer passion I brought to my work.

2.) Share your profits with all your Associates, and treat them as partners.  In turn, they will treat you as a partner, and together you will all perform beyond your wildest expectations.

3.) Motivate your partners.  Money and ownership alone aren't enough.  Constantly, day-by-day, think of new and more interesting ways to motivate and challenge your partners.

4.) Communicate everything you possibly can to your partners.  The more they know, the more they'll understand.  The more they understand, the more they'll care.

5.) Appreciate everything your Associates do for the business.  A paycheck and a stock option will buy one kind of loyalty.  But all of us like to be told how much somebody appreciates what we do for them.

6.) Celebrate your successes.  Find some humor in your failures.  Don't take yourself so seriously.

7.) Listen to everyone in your company.  And figure out ways to get them talking.

8.) Exceed your customers' expectations.  If you do, they'll come back over and over.

9.) Control your expenses better than your competition.  This is where you can always find the competitive advantage.

10.) Swim upstream.  Go the other way.  Ignore the conventional wisdom.  If everybody else is doing it one way, there's a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.

It's important to recognize the source for all these rules of business.  Even though Walmart is an operations innovator, it doesn't go without its controversies.  Lawsuits and law pay have accompanied the company in every expansion.  That said, there are some important parts that I particularly like, especially number 10.  Being a business contrarian doesn't always pay off, but if you can find your niche, you'll likely succeed.

Even if you don't have a business, many of these rules can apply to your own personal life.  Number 5 especially rings true in that it has you focus on your successes.  As the old sayings go, write your successes in stone and your failures in sand.

There you have it, Sam Walton's Rules for Building a Business.  As another caveat, I did take all these ideas from Walmart's website.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Taking an hour long walk in perfect 55 degree weather.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Columbus and the Liquidity Trap

Happy Columbus Day my fellow readers! ...or is it Merry Columbus Day?  Either way, I'm sure you have your Columbus Day decorations all set for a wonderful holiday.  Unfortunately, only bankers and government workers get off today.  Let's not forget our Canadian friends as they celebrate their Thanksgiving, which is probably a more true to the real date of Thanksgiving since it is usually snowing in November.  As we look back towards the Western Civilization's discovery of the "New World", I want you to focus on your own sense of adventure and precisely in the spot that even the bravest of souls run for cover...that spot is your own wallet.  Let's talk about adding a little more risk to your life.

If you invest like me, more than likely you have some or most of your invested funds in the stock market.  With some economists calling the last decade the "lost decade" due to pretty much stagnate market growth, it's understandable why so many people are seeking out conservative and safe investments.  I can only imagine the folks who's retirement was was strong and in the market back in 2008 only to see half of their funds get completely demolished.  It's enough to run chills down your spine.

Due to this once in a lifetime market crash, people started fleeing the market and instead turned to safer investments such as CD's, money market funds, and savings accounts.  The Federal Reserve in their attempt to stimulate the economy is on its way to complete the third round of quantitative easing (a.k.a printing money).  This has essentially caused interest rates to fall through the floor, yet many people aren't investing in the market.  What the heck is going on?

Welcome the liquidity trap!!!
File:Liquidity trap IS-LM.svg
A representation of the liquidity trap

The above diagram essentially shows us the when we move from LM (liquidity of money) to LM', personal investment in savings increases and interest rates stay the same with little growth.  The problem is that we lost some of spending craze.

Wait a second here, I know what you're thinking.  I've been proclaiming the great word of saving to get your financial house in order, so what's wrong with this scenario.  The problem is that people are investing in the wrong kind of savings.  If you're not getting a return on your investment at least as large as the current inflation rate, then you are essentially loosing money. As of writing this post, annualized inflation is hovering around 1.69%, so if you're not making at least 1.69% after taxes and fees, you my friend are losing money.  

So what are we to do?  Well, what did Columbus do?  He ignored the critics and nay-sayers and sought out adventure.  Now, what he did was a little crazy and if it wasn't for the new world being in the way towards India, then Columbus and is men would have starved to depth, but I digress.

Instead of putting your money in a CD or Savings account, why not try an index fund.  I know there's risk, but life is risky and you won't get anywhere without taking chances.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Bought 3 bags of cow manure for next year's garden!

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Investments: International Index (SWISX)

The last time I wrote about my own personal investments, I mentioned using a TIPS fund to hedge against inflationary pressure.  Today, I want to focus on the stock side of the equation (see pie chart on the right), and explore some international options.

Let's just review a little about the efficient market theory.  What the theory boils down to is that for any given risk level, nothing will perform as well as the total market in the long run.  That said, we have to understand which market we are in.  This next investment takes advantage of developed nations' growth from around the world.  The investment is an International Index fund.

I'm a big fan of Schwab for all my brokerage needs, and I specifically invest in their SWISX International fund.  In order to invest in something like an index fund, you need to have a sort of humble attitude when it comes to investing.  You essentially acknowledge that you do not have the ability to accurately predict the value of a company in the future and any investment in that company would be a gamble.  Don't worry...I'm in the same boat.  I played around with stocks in the past and it got me nowhere, so now I diversify my risk through index funds.  Since I'm a Schwab client, trading any Schwab funds is free which is an added perk.

The top companies in the fund include: Nestle, HSBC, Vodafone, etc...  I know sometimes when I mention investing in international funds, people tend to think China or emerging markets.  Instead this fund holds mostly developed companies who have a track record of decent returns.  Also, the expense ratio is generally low at 0.19%, which means that you only have to pay 0.19% of your assets to the fund management per year.

The last question you might have is "why bother investing internationally in the first place"?  You see, the whole goal here with my above portfolio is to diversify risk not only through different asset classes, but also through location.  In the future, there may be a circumstance in which the US is stagnating and the world is growing....why would you want to miss out on that?  As an added bonus, investing in international stocks has allowed me to pay more attention to world news.

Schwab's indices might not be right for you, but a quick search for international index funds will reveal plenty of options for your choosing.  Try it out...your portfolio will thank you.

I also put the caveat that I am not a licensed financial adviser and any investment suggestions I make are purely my own put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Harvested 52 heirloom tomatoes from the last of my crop.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Taking Advantage of Corporate Perks

Whether you work for a huge multi-national company or a local mom & pop shop, chances are, there are company perks you should be taking advantage of.  If you haven't noticed by now, I actually still work for a bank, and have enjoyed many of the company perks ranging from health care to discounted phone plans, to discounted gym memberships.  Whatever your story is, you should do a little research and figure out if your company offers some sweet deals.

This blog concept came to me as I was experiencing one of the local benefits this past Saturday.  Myself, the wife, and another couple with their small child had free tickets to see our local aquarium.  This was in part due to my company donating to this aquarium, and in repayment, they offered a free visit day.  It was a fun time filled with sea lion shows, and exotic fish.  As I was walking around and became face-to-face with a sturgeon, I realized that I'm pretty good at rooting out company perks.

I like to think of company perks ranging from a few different levels.  The most fundamental and basic is a health care plan.  This may or may not include dental, eye, or any other sort of health benefits.  Along the same topic of fundamental needs based perks, your company most likely will offer some form of retirement plan whether it is a common 401k or the increasingly elusive company pension.  All these benefits fit into a basic needs category.  One perk I took extreme advantage of was tuition reimbursement which essentially allowed me to achieve my MBA for free.

Next up on the list of perks are the local discounts.  Most companies offer discounted movie tickets through their HR office, or maybe even a reduced gym membership.  My company had an arrangement with a few gyms and also 20% my Verizon phone bill.  Along with this group comes the free activity perks such as aquariums, zoos, and museums.

Finally, the next group belongs in sort of a consumer discount group.  Companies are starting to subscribe to discounted vendors that offer a web portal to many more discounts throughout the world.  You could see travel discounts are deals from technology stores.  It pretty much runs the gamut.  These types of deals are nice when you are really looking for something.

The point of this isn't for me to brag, but to make you aware that these type of deals exist out there, and you should do a little research and find out what your company has to offer.  You may be surprised...

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Coming home to a chicken pot pie...yum!

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Wonders of Weather-Proofing

Just a sampling of my insulation ammo
With Fall and soon Winter just around the corner, I felt it would be prudent to write about one of my most important secrets for keeping the winter heating bill low, and your overall comfort high.  What is this profound secret?  It won't surprise you to know that I am an avid fan of winter-proofing my house.

Up in north country, winter can be particularly harsh.  It's kind of sad to be thinking about this topic, but soon enough, snow will be on its way and if you're not prepared, you could see $400/month heating bills.

My Wife and I live in a house built in 1927, so you can imagine all the old cracks and poor insulation.  We just moved into this house last year, and luckily for us, it was one of the most mild winters on record.  Being that it was such an old house, most of our first floor windows were single pain with old storm window for some semblance of insulation.  Two of our windows couldn't even shut the whole way due to years of crazy painting.  This coupled with doors that didn't seal all the way made for some drafty hallways.

To begin remedying these issues, the first step was to install some plastic window covers over all the single pain windows.  The general process is to lay down some of the packaged double-sided tape, drape the plastic, and then begin tightening.  The final procedure involves using a hair dryer to shrink wrap the window.  This will create an air gap between your house and the window which essentially acts like another pain of glass.  Since my Wife doesn't own a hair dryer, we used a little fan powered space heater to do the job.  Our neighbors probably thought it was pretty funny to see me waving around a space heater like a magic wand, but I had a job to do.  This little tick alone saved us a bunch of money, and you could just feel the house begin to retain its heat better.  Furthermore, most of the drafts were taken care of.

Next was to seal up the doors with some double-sided foam strips.  All of these products can usually be bought at a home improvement store, and they are relatively cheap.  These foam strips were only a couple dollars, and I wedged them in between all the doors we would not be using this winter.

Next, I bought some of the foam electrical socket insulators which are surprisingly effective.  I only used them on the electrical sockets that are in a wall which faces the outdoors, but the result is noticeable.  It's actually quite impressive how much energy is lost through these non-insulated sockets.

Finally, the last step we preform is to close off any rooms we don't use by shutting the doors and turning off the radiators.  They won't freeze as they still get warmth from the rest of the house, but there's no reason to heat them if nobody is living in them.  The hardest part for me is to remember to turn them back on when guests arrive.

All in all, these little steps should save you big bucks throughout your winter season.  Oh, and those windows that didn't shut...we got those replaced with argon-filled replacements.

Wonderful Moment of the Day: Making a roasted chicken dinner.