Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Liabilities and Debt, Personal finance, Savings, Spending

How to manage your cash flow

A company which is listed in the stock market has to publish 3 essential financial statements.

  • The balance sheet
  • The profit and loss statement
  • The cash flow statement

Briefly, the balance sheet shows the health of the company at the reported time, profit and loss statement shows how much profit the company is making after all expenses and taxes, and the cash flow shows how the company is generating the cash from its operations as well as investments.

Free Cash Flow (FCF) is an important metric that is used by investors to evaluate the real worth of a company. 

In personal finance, while balance sheet (Your net worth) and profit and loss (how much you are making and spending) are important, managing the cash flow is key to achieve your financial goals.

In this blog, we will talk about how to manage your cash flow – no matter whether you earn a lot or earn an average paycheck.

Most people do not manage their cash flow, forget about doing a budget or any other conscious form of tracking.

At the end of the month or year, we wonder where all the money earned went.

Conventional ways of managing cash flow

There are several techniques Personal Finance experts have championed time and again.

  1. Do a budget, track every dollar. 
  2. Create an envelop for groceries, utilities, fun etc.
  3. Use separate accounts. 
  4. New automated solutions like Stash, Digit etc. 

All of these are good methods, but the problem is sticking to the discipline of maintaining it day after day, month after month.

Isn’t that boring and worrying at the same time? Few issues with these approaches are:

  • Writing down expenses every day
  • Stuffing that envelop and counting the money every time before spending
  • Keeping track of multiple accounts
  • Not knowing how much the AI driven savings app is going to deduct next month

So is there a simpler and better way?

Just like most posts in this blog, I seek simplicity and automation.

The simpler way of managing your cash flow

There are 4 goals to managing the cash flow every month.

  • Invest for the future
  • Save for the short term
  • Pay your bills 
  • Spend the rest

In fact, any wind-fall is also a one time cash flow, and can be fit into the same framework.  Lets say you got a bonus of $1000, for example, the Govt is sending a check to all Americans. And if you want to keep it simple, allocate 25% to all the 4 goals.

  • Invest $250 in your long term (retirement, child education) plans. The market is down and you can invest $250 in a mutual fund or an ETF. 
  • Save $250 for any short term goals that you have. It could be added to your monthly savings goals, towards anything like vacation, buying that new phone, or simply emergency fund. 
  • If you have consumer debt, why not allocate some to pay it off? Use $250 to pay off the highest interest or smallest balance credit card. 
  • Now you have $250 to splurge on. Buy that favorite book, order the special meal or decorate your home. 

But how do we automate and manage the cash flow every month?

  • Invest – Direct deposit investments. In fact most employers have systems to auto-deposit 401-k investments or direct deposit to your chosen brokerage firm. 
  • Save – Auto transfer to a savings account from your checking account. 
  • Pay Bills – Setup auto-pay with your credit card or debit card. Set the bill payments mostly towards beginning of the month. 
  • Spend – Use your debit card to spend – it will tell you when the money runs out. 

Once setup, the only stress you have is the last bullet, where you have to make your spending within the limits, or rather the residue after all obligations are set aside or paid off.

How it can snowball into Financial Freedom

As you get consistent with stashing money away for investing and savings, those may generate additional cash flow or assets which will come back to bolster the spending budget.

Thus cash flow is a virtuous cycle once set up the correct way. Lets take some initials and approach this from a math perspective.

  • J – Job Income
  • R – Retirement
  • I – Investment
  • S – Savings
  • B – Bills
  • E – Expense
  • P – Portfolio Income

J + P = R + I + S + B + E

I can produce P in terms of interest, dividend or rental income.

silver and gold coins

In the wealth accumulation years, the goal should be to increase J, so that I can be increased, which when invested can increase P. P is added to J and a part reinvested, saved or used.

As you reinvest P, it will generate more P till at a point, J becomes less and less important. 

This cash flow situation is called Financial Freedom.

Conclusion

We just presented a simple and fully automated cash flow management system for personal finances. It does not take much discipline and will power to stick to it, once correctly setup.

This is also explained in more detail in the post The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient .

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Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

A simple method of asset allocation

As I started to write this post, I decided not to rant about the Corona Virus and its effects anymore. The last two posts were dedicated to the topic and frankly it is becoming a little bit weary to add to all the deluge of information and opinions on it.

Let’s look at the current situation as nothing unexpected, at least financially. Being a financial blog, let us generalize this to another black swan event, and not worry about the statistics of no. of confirmed cases vs. deaths etc.

What is a Black Swan event?

A quick Google search yields the following:

An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict. This term was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

Lets leave it to that and consider we are in the midst of one such situation.

The keyword in the above definition is “would be extremely difficult to predict”. 

No matter what financial experts say about the markets, about investments, using sophisticated algorithms to trade stocks, the fact remains that such events are not predictable by even the multi-PhDs of Finance.

In the beginning of 2020, most of us did not know that a black swan event is so much closer, although experts have been predicting recessionary clouds for last 2 years or more.

The effect of such an event is the havoc it can do to your savings and investments. Yes savings too, as we don’t know which banks or financial institutions will go under the water, and whether government stimulus can rescue them.

It may be a rare event so far, or some rescued in 2008 but we cannot guarantee with every black swan event. Just in Feb 2020 (when it was still normal business), a very large private bank in India went bust taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of deposits of very normal people. Ironically the bank was named “Yes” bank.

Similarly by end of March 2020, the stock and mutual fund portfolios are down 20%-50% depending on how much risky the portfolio was to begin with.

The only respite from all of this is to maintain a good asset allocation as each investment avenue has its own risks. Some of the typical risks are:

  1. Cash – Banks going down and Government struggling to insure the deposits.
  2. Stocks – Markets tumbling for an extended period of time due to economic fears.
  3. Bonds – Risk of default as even good companies’ bonds can turn into junk debt very quickly. Lot of mutual funds in India were invested into Yes Bank bonds. Long term bonds can also run into interest rate risk.
  4. Real Estate – Somewhat resilient but affected by vacancy, interest rates, unemployment.

If your finances are severely affected by this storm, how do you achieve a good asset allocation once the clouds are gone and the sun is shining again on the stock market?

KISS – Keep it simple, stupid

Its not overly complicated although some financial experts make it so. Let’s say I want to hold 25% each of the 4 asset classes and distribute my assets accordingly.

Here is a step by step method on how to achieve this. It is better done in an Excel sheet as the calculations can be automated and even graphs can be plotted, although equal allocation is easy to visualize anyway.

  • List down all your assets into one column which comprises your Net worth including your home and any other property you own.
  • Now in a second column, list the value corresponding to the asset. Be conservative, do not add any speculative value.
    • For your home, just take the equity value that you have.
    • For stocks or mutual funds, take the present value.
    • For any bond investment, take the invested value or the expected maturity value (if the term is not too long).
  • Now add 4 columns for the asset classes.
  • The chart should start to look like this. Here is a simple example of a $100,000 Net worth.

Asset Allocation Table 1

  • Now based on the asset class for each, fill the right side columns in the right proportions. For example the mutual funds  may consist of equity funds, bond funds and REIT funds in equal proportions. For each mutual fund, a look at the fund report will reveal the proportions of these asset classes that it invests in.
  • Fundrise is just an example of a private REIT that is considered real estate asset class but in paper form. It is only for illustration and I am not an affiliate of the investment fund.
  • Once you allocate the numbers to the 4 asset classes and add up each column, it will become visible how your asset allocation is skewed.Asset Allocation Table 2

 

  • A visual inspection of the numbers reveals that this portfolio is heavily skewed towards Real Estate due to the largest investment in the Home. This is true for most people, as their largest investment is their home.
  • A more vivid depiction of this can be drawn using the Excel chart.

Asset Allocation Table 3

  • How to balance it? There is no ideal asset allocation as it depends entirely on the person’s situation, age, risk appetite, goals and many other factors. It is only after this simple analysis that one should approach a financial coach or investment adviser.
  • For example, if the person (who’s portfolio we have just analyzed) is not happy with the Real Estate skew, he can allocate future investments more towards Equity or Bonds (or even Cash), than buying more real estate or paying down his mortgage aggressively.
  • Being overweight in Home Equity can mean house poor and the person will find it difficult to raise funds or access cash in times of emergency or other life goals.

Conclusion

The beauty of this asset allocation method is that in a simple exercise which takes less than 10 mins and one sheet of Excel, you can look at your entire financial picture.

  1. It gives you a quick overview of your Net worth.
  2. It gives you the current asset allocation you have.
  3. It tells you where your financial situation is vulnerable to market, liquidity or economic risks.
  4. It tells you what action you need to take (whether to sell some or boost up another) regarding the various asset classes.
  5. It directs how your future investments should be structured.

The value of this exercise is immense and a good asset allocation can let you sleep in peace when the entire world is savaged by another Black Swan event.

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Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Locked down – 5 hurdles to overcome

In the last few weeks the world has changed quite a lot. With no sight to an end to the corona-virus spread, cities after cities are going into lock down and people are forced to stay at home.

This will impact the economy in a very bad way and many businesses like entertainment, travel and food will be severely affected or shut down. In these unprecedented times, the current situation of the stock market and its decline is understandable.

Since this blog is concerned with personal finances, let us look at the impact this black swan event can have and how to get over this crisis.

We will examine 5 adverse scenarios and how my previous posts (in good times)  suggested recession proof way of managing personal finance.

Social distancing

This has been enforced in many cities and people are not allowed to be meet each other face to face.

    • This will impact people and their livelihood when it depends on teams and network. For example, direct real estate investing like house flipping, buying houses, wholesale deals and likes.
    • Financial, insurance advisors and their clients who depended on face to face interactive sessions. While this can still be done over video conferencing and online communication, the personal coaching sessions may be less personal after all now.
    • Investments which depended on a broker or branch are impacted since  offices are shut down or low on staff.

The key to solving these issues is to setup systems that enables you to transact virtually from anywhere in the world, including your home. If you have automated your financial systems using FinTech, those systems are not affected by the current situation.

FinTech – can you be immune to it?

Losing jobs or income

    • As various industries are expected to be hit hard by this event, many people may lose their jobs or get a reduced income for an unknown period in the future.
    • This will cause difficulty in managing household cash flows, paying bills, mortgage and tiding over emergency situations.
    • Emergency medical conditions, for example, someone in the household may contract the virus and need to be hospitalized. Even with insurance, it may cause a hefty out of pocket expenditure.

The key to solving such emergency situations is to have enough cash cushion in terms of Emergency Fund and to cover Short Term Obligations.

One essential comfort zone

Investments are tumbling and losing their value

    • Your stomach will have a strange feeling when you look at your stock, ETF or mutual fund portfolios under 401k and Taxable accounts.
    • Almost all portfolios are beaten down 25-30% and may go further down to 50% or more.
    • With the risk of financial institutions and other companies going out of business, even fixed income portfolio is not safe. There may be large scale defaults in the bond market, as companies struggle to meet their short term debt obligations.

The key to solving such challenges is to remain invested and not panic sell out of it at this time.

Afraid of investing? Not so simple either

Fear is gripping us

    • While there had been virus spread earlier, the scale of the COVID-19 is unprecedented and growing.
    • This type of lock down has never happened before, and after what happened in Italy and China, we are gripped in a fear of the fatality rate caused by the virus.
    • This has stopped us from behaving rationally and with our investments, people may be reacting with the same fear. I have read many discussions on Quora where people are predicting a long recession and advising others to pull out investments or completely stop investing more.
    • Fear is the worst enemy and negativity is biggest killer of future prospects.

The key is to remain calm and take necessary precautions (staying at home, frequently washing your hands etc.). Similarly for finances, do not take up unnecessary debt at this point but just remain invested and keep your monthly investments ongoing.

The biggest enemy of your investments

Not building new assets

    • While there may be a recession ahead, this may be the starting of a good time to buy assets.
    • Our net worth is beaten down due to the stock market crash, and this is not the time to rue over the loss.

Instead we should focus on increasing the underlying asset values and look to the future for those assets to throw in cash flow and appreciate.

The Net worth vs. Cash flow debate

Conclusion

At the end, we all have to realize that the world will tide over this crisis.

For our finances, we just have to carry on doing what matters and take a long term view.

If you adopt the SAFE plan as in below post, nothing should really change.

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

With the forced shutdown, learn a new skill indoors and do not worry about your investments.

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Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

The 4-Q way of protecting your finances from coronavirus driven volatility

One of the questions all investors consider is how to spread their investments. This is super essential in a volatile economic environment that we are now being forced by coronavirus.

Coronavirus is already sending stock markets across the world in a downward spiral, companies may find it difficult to service debt and hence affect bonds, and interest rates going downwards put cash and money market funds into useless investments.

How do we then allocate our funds and make sure we are not into an all-or-none, boom-or-bust kind of situation?

There are essentially 4 kinds of investments that a simple investor like us will hold over time.

  1. Cash and cash equivalents – CDs, money market, timed deposits etc.
  2. Debt – Fixed duration and fixed income products like bonds bought and held till maturity.
  3. Market Linked – Index Funds, Mutual Funds, ETF, direct stocks, REITs.
  4. Real Estate – Properties (homes and rentals), Private REITs.

The 4 Quadrant approach

The below table shows how these investments fit each quadrant of a time horizon vs. liquidity.

Financial PlanningLiquidNot Liquid
Short TermQ1 – Cash and Cash EquivalentsQ2 – Debt (Bonds till maturity, other lending investments)
Long TermQ3 – Market linked (funds and stocks)Q4 – Real Estate

For example, cash and debt instruments are typically short term reserves. While cash in savings account is highly liquid, bonds typically have a fixed maturity duration unless they can be traded in the secondary market.

On the contrary, stocks and funds may be liquid but typically yield best results only over the long term, due to short term market volatility. Real Estate is both long term and highly illiquid since it may take months and years before a property investment can yield profit or get sold.

If we allocate our resources with the 4-Quadrant principles in mind, then the short term market volatility or conditions will not bother us much. Each of the Quadrants will have enough invested/saved to go through the current phase.

For example, if I need immediate cash or want to maintain an emergency fund, Q1 is the place. There is no need to panic sell Q2, Q3 or Q4 investments.

Similarly for a medium term (2-4 years), the required funds can be maintained in fixed duration bond products (Q2) matching the maturity to a goal horizon.

At last, stocks and real estate are for the long term (> 10 years) and should be left to grow on their own. We can keep adding to them in a well defined proportion. But we do not need to panic sell them if the Q1 and Q2 are in place.

Simplest Asset Allocation

Another advantage of this approach is automatic asset allocation. Sometimes without realizing we may be overweight in one Quadrant. For example, some people may be just lazy to invest and keep their money lying in savings accounts, hence Q1 heavy.

While others may be so overweight in Stocks and Real Estate that in case of an emergency or reaction to market movements, they may sell or trade unnecessarily and hastily. Worst is premature withdrawal from retirement funds and paying penalty and taxes.

A balanced allocation to each Quadrant based on goals is the right approach.

For example, lets say I have $200,000 net worth. I can allocate the following after estimating my monthly expenses ($3000) and near term goals (Education, buying a house etc.).

Q1 – 6 * $3000 = $18,000 in money market fundQ2 – $40,000 for a new house in 2 years – Treasury Bond Fund
Q3 – $42,000 in 401-k and Roth IRAQ4 – $100,000 in present home equity

Lets analyze few scenarios here. 

  1. I suddenly lose my job – Assuming it will take 4-6 months to get a new job, I can withdraw from Q1 my monthly expenses and tide over this crisis. 
  2. I need to save for a new house in 2 years – I keep saving every month in Q2 and buy investments maturing in about 2 years.
  3. Whether the above events happen or not, the Q3 keeps growing as the funds remain invested in the market. In fact, as long as there is no crisis, I can keep making dollar cost averaged investments every single month into 401-k and Roth IRA accounts. 
  4. Q4 is even longer term and can be one’s own personal residence and additional rental properties. If Q1 and Q2 are in place, there should not be any hurry or knee-jerk reaction to sell or lose these valuable assets.  

The actual amounts or assets can vary depending on a person’s goals and needs. 

Overall this framework will also avoid a person to go into debt unnecessarily. Similarly paying off debt or mortgage can be considered money invested in Q2 and Q4 respectively. 

Conclusion

The 4-Q is thus a simple financial planning framework. Sticking to this 4-Q framework and directing one’s monthly investments to the relevant quarter helps build wealth in the long run, as well as take care of short term obligations. 

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Posted in Personal finance

The Power of Financial Scribble

A picture is worth a thousand lines of a spreadsheet.

Managing your personal finances can be scary at times when you visit a financial coach or financial planner.

Any good financial planner worth your money will present data in a nice spreadsheet or make you fill a template form which has 30-40 questions about your current situation and your goals.

After filling out the form or trying to decipher the complicated spreadsheet and charts, you wonder if you have made any progress in your financial planning. The concept of simplicity gets ignored in the data and jargon.

Personal financial planning has to start with your goals, what you have today and where you want to reach. It is not about numbers on a spreadsheet, but more about what is your current life situation and where you want to go in next 3, 5, 7 or 10 years.

How do your write your goals in a spreadsheet or a predefined questionnaire? The answer is you simply can’t. These tools are built for data collection and analysis and not for top down planning.

The solution lies in a much traditional tool, pen and paper – even better pencil, eraser and paper. I find it extremely refreshing to write or draw my goals, current situation and how I want to go where I want to go.

It is what I call the Financial Planning Scribble.

Financial scribble

It is a lot of fun and creativity as you design your own symbols to represent personal finance as possessions,liabilities, plans and road map.

Lets say you are assessing your Net worth (your assets – your liabilities). Your assets may contain real estate, cash, stocks, bonds, gold. Now think of a symbol for each along with a space to write the present value of the asset.

For example, for each real estate you can draw a house (remember the 3-D cube with triangle for the roof) and write the value in between the figure. Similarly use an envelope symbol for your cash (even though it is not hard cash but balance in your checking account). Your vacation fund can be a picture of your favorite spot (beach or mountain) and so on…

Go creative with your assets… you have built them with sweat, sacrifice and planning. They deserve to be given a life and make you happy about them.

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The second part of Net worth are the liabilities, or in other words, what you owe. You should not feel good about these unless you have a plan for strategic leverage, like building your rental real estate portfolio with debt or student loan to finance a good education.

Your liabilities can be depicted as something that may scare you and force you to act to reduce them. Again go creative here as per the kind of debt. High interest credit card debt is a demon with blood in its mouth, as that is what it is doing to your life and finances.

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The idea is to depict your personal situation today as accurately and vividly as possible. This is not always apparent in a numerical spreadsheet. The demons should scare you and the vacation fund or investments should make savings feel worthwhile.

The difference between the two (assets and liabilities) is your Net worth. See if the residual picture (your bright side covering the dark) is positive or not. You can find a symbol for the net worth, positive or negative.

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Once you get to the habit of scribbling and sketching, you will find it so useful and refreshing that you can extend it to beyond Net worth.

Your investments and asset allocation can also be depicted through sketches and you can even draw your plan and ongoing monthly investments.

Conclusion

The idea of financial scribble is not to get too complicated and lose interest in tracking finances. Finance can be fun once you depict it in your own way, not in a financial planner’s jargon and spreadsheets.

Financial scribble helped me internalize my personal situation and plans, in a clear and concise way that anytime I can draw it on a piece of paper and use it to make bigger decisions. A very rough scribble (you can be definitely be more artistic) from one of my recent planning sessions is shown below.

Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Who moved my cheese? How to deal with changes in financial plans

The title is taken from a famous book as below. Even though it is meant to be a management philosophy, it applies to the subject of personal finance as well. 

Financial Planning does not work? 

There is a proverb in the military – Plans are good till the first bullet is fired.

Some of us who are obsessed about managing or advising on personal finance can go really overboard with planning. Have you heard about those retirement numbers, college planning or even financial freedom number?

While long term planning is good, problem with personal finance is that it is a not a standalone aspect of your life. It impacts and gets impacted by life events – birth/death/marriage/divorce in the family, choice of career or college, changing goals and circumstances and finally your own priorities may change.

How my circumstances kept throwing my plan astray

Lets take an example in my case, as I transitioned from India to US.

Till 2005, I did not know a zilch about managing finances. In fact I was pretty bad at it, just enjoying my life and like many, used to blow up my entire paycheck in frivolous expenses, needless shopping and eating out. So in a nutshell there was no plan.

Then in 2005, I decided I can at least start investing some money out of my paycheck. Good plan but was it anything long term? No it was too flaky as I jumped from one hot fund (mutual fund) to another. This was the time when the Mutual Fund and Private Insurance industry was taking off in India in a big way. I also lost money investing in an insurance plan (actually a bad plan) that was masquerading as investment.

Beware of ripoffs

Eventually as I got better with finances, I actually created a long term plan complete with everything – retirement fund, children’s education fund, vacation fund and corresponding projections several years into the future. I built separate portfolios for each, and tracked them to utmost precision even calculating year after year growth.

However God had other plans for the family. In a series of unfavorable health and personal issues, we decided to move out of India at least for a few years and relocated to US.

This obviously altered my earlier plans completely, since my place of work and source of income changed. The retirement numbers started to look different, the college education fund seemed minuscule when compared to US college costs and all the plans are to be redone again.

Well what do I plan for now? I don’t even know whether I am going to move back to India again in few years or not.

In a global economy mobility is a part of life and no one stays in the same place or country throughout their working life. Moreover as you move, international taxation is another beast which can alter your long term investments (like tax sheltered) into immediately taxable entities. 

Plan to adapt, not adapt to a rigid plan

So finally you have to take into account an ever changing plan, moving from Plan A to Plan B and keep adjusting according to your circumstances.

When I read about estimating expenses at retirement, I wonder how can someone calculate that? Following factors and more can make it completely non-deterministic.

  1. Where will I retire? Different cities and countries have vastly different living and medical costs.
  2. Will it be only me and my wife? What if the children stay with us?
  3. What do I want to do in retirement? Will I work or travel more?
  4. What health condition will I be in?
  5. What other obligations (including social and family) will I have then?

So projecting your expenses at retirement based on today’s lifestyle is like predicting the weather 20 years from now, based on 20 years of past data.

Same goes for College funding. Even if you are saving in 529 or other accounts, do you have a goal or a number in mind? How do you arrive at a number for college costs, when the costs are going up every year? Isn’t that also as variable as retirement? The following factors come to my mind immediately.

  1. Do you know what career will your 5 year old choose when he/she turns 16-18?
  2. Do you know which college will she go to? Ivy Leagues, State or Community colleges? Are the costs not vastly different?
  3. Are you even going to stay in the same state or country when the time comes for college?

In today’s volatile world, planning too far away (more than 3-5 years) is futile.

Planning based on solid principles, not circumstances

The best way to plan your finances is to look at your current goals, aspirations and develop good money habits.

Below steps will help you be in control and act nimbly to adapt to changing situations.

  1. Live below your means – no matter which country or which circumstance you are in, you can always strive for this and become better. Living below your means is common sense, yet so uncommon. 
  2. Budget – Goal based budgeting – This is very important as it ensures you have control over the cash inflows and outflows. Again something which does not change with your place of work or future plans.
  3. Invest with simplicityFind investments that are easy to understand. Index funds, mutual funds, Real estate, CDs and savings accounts.
  4. Keep some portion of portfolio liquid – Sometimes this can be called an Emergency Fund or Contingency Fund. No matter what you call it, it is useful. When I moved from India, I kept a portion of my India portfolio into Fixed Deposits (similar to CDs here in US) and then built up an emergency fund in US too. This gives me option in both places if I decide to just leave work for some time or get laid off. 
  5. Remain consumer debt free – This is also related to freedom. Except for one mortgage in US, I am completely debt-free otherwise or rather bad-debt-free. Being debt free coupled with a portion of portfolio in cash, gives you plentiful of options to enjoy life at your own terms. 
  6. Keep investing for long term – Unless your investments are in countries with troublesome political climate, long term investments (a part of the portfolio) can be left to grow with time. Long term investments work on the principle – its not market timing, but time in the market that will reward your investments. 

To plan and execute above steps in the most efficient way, read the following posts.

Five components of a personal finance system

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Finally do plan but let life change it

Money decisions should not dictate all your life’s decisions. Money is only a tool to live a good life.

Let your financial plan adapt to your own goals and aspirations, rather than rigidly follow personal finance gurus and templates. 

If someone screams in YouTube to pay off mortgage, it does not mean you have to follow as your plans may be completely different. Similarly you may not fall for all those high reward promising credit cards if you are not going to use those benefits.

A chess player does not know what the board will look like after the next few moves. 

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Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings, Spending

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Safety in financial world is an oft-repeated word, and is mentioned in contrast to risk and growth.

We talk a lot about risk-return trade-off, safety of invested principal in long term and short term investments.

There is another way of looking at Financial Safety. The SAFE plan described below is a way of setting up financial life that is SAFE by design, not in the traditional sense of Safety vs. Risk but automatic habits that ensure you don’t stray from common sense.

Common Sense and Simplicity in Financial Plan is hard to achieve. True it is counter intuitive, but most people land into financial trouble due to complicated behavior – be it spending recklessly, chasing high unrealistic returns or simply throwing caution to the wind.

The SAFE Plan

Let me first present the 7 steps to SAFE plan.

  1. Invest in pre-tax accounts like 401k and HSA.
  2. Set up a direct deposit of the remaining taxable income to a checking account.
  3. Set up credit card payment to be auto paid from the checking account on the 30th of every month.
  4. Set up an auto-invest plan where 10-20% of the taxable income is diverted to a brokerage account or another IRA account (like Roth IRA). 
  5. Spend your monthly expenses on the credit card. Keep an eye on the credit card balance with the money left over in the checking account.
  6. Save the left over surplus, if any. 
  7. Continue and repeat next month … 

Simplicity

The above steps are nothing new. They have been suggested by numerous financial coaches and gurus. However the importance of the SAFE plan is how the steps are stitched together and flows through a seamless automation.

Since we have established the Simplicity of the SAFE plan, lets look at the Automation part and how to set this up. 

Automation

  1. You just need to figure out the % you want to put in 401k or HSA, and inform your payroll department. This can be decided based on the following factors.
    • Your cash flow needs after this deduction.
    • How much to invest to capture any employer provided matching contribution.
    • Max limits of the 401k or HSA.
  2. Direct deposit of the taxable amount to checking account.
    • This is handled by your payroll department automatically.
  3. Setup credit card auto-pay from your bank account for the 30th of every month.
    • This one if not done, can prove to be dangerous as missed payments are very costly.
    • The trigger will also help you pay-off something even if you have amassed a debt.
    • You can configure to pay off the entire balance, minimum payment or a fixed amount.
  4. Setup auto invest for 10-20% of the taxable income. The exact % can vary as it will depend on your household expenses.
    • Even if your budget does not allow this today, find at least a small amount ($50-$100) to divert automatically to an investment account.
    • This will build the habit and set you up for regular investment.
    • The amount can be increased over time as the budget frees up extra cash.
  5. Live within your means. This is again a cliche, but very difficult to be consistent month after month. You can manage it with some automation and discipline though.
    • setup a notification when your credit card balance crosses 90% of your projected expense for the month (or simply the money left in the checking account).
    • Put a Level 5 tornado/hurricane warning when it is crossing over the money left over in your checking account.
    • Typically the projected expenses can be simply set to the money left over in your checking account. You cannot spend more than that without incurring consumer debt or dipping into other savings/investments.
  6. Save the surplus – If you have surplus at the end of the month (that is, Credit card balance < Money in checking account) you can save it for future goals, short term and mid term.
    • I wish banks provided this facility, but it can be set up to transfer a fixed amount once you have an idea of your monthly expenses.
    • Some apps like Acorns or Digit automate this although in more complicated way. 
    • Do not leave the money in the checking account otherwise next month it will create an illusion that you can spend more.
  7. Let the automation run month after month. 

Flexibility

Once setup correctly, the basic version of the SAFE plan is low maintenance and enables an almost debt free living. 

Of course, we have not taken into account mortgage payments, prior debt pay down, saving for education – but these can also be fit into the plan. In the step where you are investing 10-20%, you will break that into smaller chunks of various debt pay down and remaining amount can be invested for various goals.

Thus the plan is also extremely flexible to adapt to individual situations. 

Efficiency

The last part of the SAFE plan is that it is efficient in managing money. 

The following good principles are built-in into the plan. 

  • Pay Yourself First – Pre and Post Tax investments are deducted in the beginning.
  • Low maintenance – no coupon cutting, daily budgeting etc. 
  • Keeps you debt free – just keep tab that your credit card balance is below money left over in checking account. 
  • Encourages more savings at the end of the month – creates a healthy race to increase it, by reducing your spending. 

The efficiency is evident if you do this for even one year. You will see the difference in your credit score, savings balance, net worth and above all, peace of mind. 

Conclusion

This plan has been working for me for a long time. The simplicity and automation helped me manage it seamlessly without getting distracted from my main job – which is not finance. 

And the in-built savings and investment discipline in the plan has helped me invest and accumulate cash for emergencies, short term purchases or just a cash cushion. 

Here is my version of the 7 steps of the SAFE plan (the % are approximate and rounded)

  1. Invest some in the Roth-401k and H.S.A. 
  2. Direct deposit first paycheck. (50% of monthly)
  3. Use the credit card from same account. Set up auto-pay on 30th of every month. 
  4. Investments/Pay downs
    • 10% to mortgage account
    • 10% to savings for property taxes, insurance and maintenance
    • 20% invest in mutual funds via brokerage account
    • 10% to a 529 Plan 
  5. Next paycheck direct deposit on 15th of month. (50% balance monthly paycheck)
    • Living expenses capped to 40-45% of monthly total. 
    • Pay off credit card balance within this limit – I make sure it is $0 as it enters following month. 
    • Sometimes it is hard to stick to the limit, then I have the cash cushion (from previous months’ savings, step 6) to dip into. 
  6. 5-10% savings for vacation/travel, fun, cash – diverted to a high-yield online savings account. 
  7. Keep track every Saturday morning using Y.N.A.B. 

cropped-pexels-photo-908288.jpeg

Posted in Personal finance, Spending

Good Buy or Good bye a house purchase

I had been thinking of upgrading to a bigger house for some time now. This is a difficult decision when you struggle to justify more debt, more wants and lifestyle creeps.

There are various factors to consider in deciding whether you buy that next dream house or say goodbye to your wants for a duration, till you are better prepared.

There are two aspects to this –

  • a numerical analysis
  • a behavioral analysis

Numerical Analysis

white graphing paper

What can you afford?

It is definitely not what the lender tells you in a pre-qualification or pre-approval letter.

You have to see the following numerical aspects in your finances.

  • Do you have cash for down payment? Usually 10-20% of the purchase price is a good thumb rule. 20% is better to avoid Private Mortgage Insurance, which will increase the monthly payment otherwise.
  • Add the mortgage payment to other costs like Property Taxes and Insurance.
  • Are there any up-front rehab costs? Can you get those repaired by the seller?
  • After adding up all costs, adjust your monthly budget to see where you will stand once you buy this house.
  • See the impact to your net worth and asset allocation once you spend the cash for down payment. Although it moves from cash to Home Equity, it can skew a previously well thought out asset allocation across stocks, bonds, real estate and cash.

What should you pay?

There are two main items where you have to shop around and get the best deals out there.

  • Purchase price. Since here we are dealing with numbers, the only thing that matters is whether you are paying too much.

    • List price offer or a multiple offer situation can quickly escalate the price and throw all deals out of the window.
    • Assess what all rehab needs to be done. It is better to get a contractor estimate during the inspection period, so that you can back out if found expensive.
    • Try to buy 10-20% below the price after subtracting any projected rehab expense.
  • Interest rates – This will depend on your credit score and the interest rates available in the market.

    • Getting estimates from various lenders will help compare the best rates.
    • Take into account closing costs and points as these can be significant and varies quite a lot across lenders.

What are the future costs?

A house purchase does not end with the closing. In fact, in terms of expenses it has just started.

Many people take on big house purchases only to realize later that the recurring costs or the holding costs of the property are too high and severely constraint their finances.

  • Holding costs

    • After you have accounted for the P.I.T.I (Principal, Interest, Taxes and Insurance), you need to make sure you still have enough slack in your budget to save for unforeseen expenses.
    • You need to have a cash cushion (preferably separate from your 3-6 months worth of emergency fund) for this property. The HVAC can go bust, the roof may get damaged in the next storm or there could be a disastrous water damage.
    • You also need to consider increase in Property Taxes and Insurance year after year.
    • To correctly account for the holding costs, you need to budget an amount every month and sock it away in the Home Maintenance Fund.
  • Future sale or rent value

    • No one stays in the house forever. You will also move at some point.
    • It is important to decide how you project the use of this house once you move out. Do you plan to convert it to a rental or sell it?
    • Decide on a tentative time frame when you may move out. Based on this and the neighborhood real estate projections, find out what the future sale value or rent will be.
    • Will the rent cover all the P.I.T.I expenses per month? Add a few more expenses like reserves for maintenance, capital expenditures (big expenses like roof),  property manager (whether you use or not, just budget for it). To effectively analyze this, learn about Cap rates, Gross rent value etc.
    • If you plan to sell it, will the appreciation rate be enough to justify your costs, with a sale commission of 6% and all the money you will spend on Property Taxes, Insurance and upkeep of the house over the years.

After you can define a good deal by satisfying most (if not all) of the above parameters, it is time to take stock of some behavior patterns.

Behavioral Analysis

woman wearing white dress standing near building

Do you really need to upgrade? What are you going to sacrifice?

Often it is our wants that itch us constantly to make that lifestyle upgrade. Whether it is keeping up with the Joneses or simply growing out of your current residence, it is a natural behavior trait for most people.

Answering the following questions may steer you to a better decision.

What is the motivation? A better neighborhood, schools or simply more space?

What exactly is the motivation? Is it due to moving to a better neighborhood, or moving to a better school zone? Or is it that the family grew and everyone needs more space?

This should be evaluated purely on basis of needs. For example, for more space can you rearrange or sell off unnecessary furniture and create more space in the process?

How will you clean and maintain the bigger house?

While buying a bigger house sounds exciting, think about maintenance. A bigger house brings in more maintenance headache. And we are not talking about money expenses here (we did that in the numbers section), but the overall energy you will need to keep it clean, mow the lawn and maintain the appliances, carpet etc.

Do you like more debt or want to manage debt?

For most people, buying a house with cash is not an option. So invariably you will take up a larger mortgage, whether you have one currently or not. Overall your debt increases. This has to be justified by the future stability of your job or the state of the industry or business you are dependent on. Or simply the peace of mind and how much debt will still keep you comfortable.

Is this going to be your long term buy?

If you buy a house (not an investor deal) and turn around to sell it, you will lose a bunch of money. Even after few years, it is difficult to break even. So if you are not staying in the house for longer, it will be another expensive switch few years down the line.

Thus it is better to justify all the needs and factors and make sure it will be a long term buy.

Can you rent first and then check out similar homes in the area?

Often the reason could be to just move to a better neighborhood for schools, or get more space. However instead of finalizing a buy, you can always rent a house in the desired area and then check out better deals as they hit the market.

This has the disadvantage of spending some money on rent, but in this section we are analyzing non-numerical aspects. Renting for a year or two will give better idea of the neighborhood, bigger house etc. and better justify the buy decision for a longer term.

Conclusion

All the above factors may seem daunting and may not be possible to satisfy to make a rational decision.

Some of the factors like rent to value ratio can be area specific. If your area is very expensive, then some of the numerical analysis will not give favorable results.

Hence it is important to consider other factors and take an overall informed decision.

This will also prevent the almost inevitable buyer remorse which is very common as you inch towards the closing date.

Once you take a decision, enjoy your mansion.

concrete building surrounded with flowers near roadway
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Posted in Personal finance

Welcoming Twenty – 20

Twenty20 cricket or Twenty-20 (often abbreviated to T20), is a shortened format of cricket. This is much shorter than previous forms of the game, and is closer to the timespan of other popular team sports. It was introduced to create a fast-paced game that would be attractive to spectators at the ground and viewers on television. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty20

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity)[1][2] states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

This year 2019 I started the-log-house.com and made a few important steps towards more clarity in my personal finances. It took less than 20% of my time weekly, and yet gave me 80% of the clarity I was looking for.

As I documented my thoughts, ideas and opinions on the blog posts, the likes and followers encouraged me to chug along. Thanks to all my followers and all those who liked or read my posts over the past year.

Next year 2020, I plan to make this blog less subjective and more actionable. Yes just like the Twenty-20 form of cricket described above.

One of the most liked posts in 2019 is all about action.

Five components of a personal finance system

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So what are the action items for 2020?

  • Got a year end hike and bonus. Invested 50% of the bonus, and will try to keep expenses the same as 2019.
    • This will increase the cash flow a little better, so that I can invest more.
  • Tweak the asset allocation among various classes – Equity, Bonds, Real Estate and Cash.
    • This may require some selloffs and aids in tax adjustments.
  • Get a better handle on tax planning this year.
  • Prioritize goals, analyze 2019 expenses and make a budget for 2020.
    • Simplify and automate investments. This is already the case for me, but the monthly amounts may need tweaking based on 2020 plan.
    • Save at least 20% of my gross income towards retirement.
  • Cash allocation
    • Maintain or improve the emergency fund.
    • Auto and home insurance paid off for 2020. Now start saving monthly for next renewals in Dec 2020.
    • Paid off property taxes. I don’t escrow but keep saving monthly portion in a savings account with interest.

How to wrap up 2019?

  • If you have been using YNAB, create the reports from it and analyze the total amount of expenses, investments, savings and taxes paid.
  • Start gathering the tax documents. For me, I have to prepare for Foreign asset reporting and it needs quite a complex paperwork, not to mention figuring out the estimated tax liability.
  • Update the net worth and wealth progress metrics. See this post if you are interested.
  • I redeem the credit card rewards at the end of the year.
    • Last year I got cash back.
    • This year I am getting myself a Bose speaker system, a DVD player (for my old DVD collection) and gifts for the kids. My credit-union-no-frills credit card gave me 1x point for each dollar spent. Not bad to reward my discipline.
  • Wipe out credit card debt. I pay off at the end of every month, and definitely want to enter 2020 with ZERO consumer debt.
  • Go on a vacation, hope you too have been saving up monthly for this goal.

HAVE A GREAT 2020 YEAR AHEAD.

  • Wish 20% of your efforts produce 80% of happiness and wealth.
  • Take action like the Twenty-20 form of cricket.
Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com