Military Finance Report

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Top 3 Personal Finance Sites and Apps

The first step towards financial success is to track your money. You need to know where your money is going before you can make any sound decisions. There are many personal finance websites and apps that can help you do this. They integrate into your bank accounts and have amazing tools to help you manage your finances. Many of them are free so you may have to deal with some advertisements, but other than that, they are strong/powerful tools to aid you with your finances. Here are the top three that I’ve had personal experience with and/or had discussed with others about.
  • Mint - I used this for almost a year and I liked it a lot. I was able to integrate all my accounts in it and it helped create good trackers and it let me track some of my personal goals. I had it on my desktop and the iPhone app. The iPhone app had a lot of advertisements, but it’s worth it. I want this blog to become a good source of information and I also rely on advertisements to help earn income. The app is owned by Intuit so if you’ve used Quicken to prepare your taxes, then some of your Mint information can quickly transfer over when filing your taxes.
  • You Need a Budget (YNAB) – The full service costs money but it offers a social experience to it too. You can go on their forums and talk to others, view their tutorials and lessons and get real advice from professionals. They’ve recently released a free “lite” version of their product and it’s still very powerful. Some of my friends love the feature that gives you tailored advice if it notices you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. I’ve been helping people with their finances for over a decade now and a lot of people don’t like asking for financial help (especially men). A friend of mine loved getting good advice from the app while retaining his privacy.
  • Personal Capital – A friend personally recommended I post about this one. This site is less about the budget and more about investing and managing your money. I’ve read a lot of good reviews from users and they are very happy with the reduced amount of advertisements compared to I’ve never personally used it before but I trust the recommendation.
These are very powerful tools that you can use. Working with a Certified Financial Planner can be very costly, so even paying $60 for YNAB will save you money over the long run. Check out each website and let me know which one you prefer or like to use.  What other sites do people use?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014 Year in Review and 2015 New Year's Resolutions

Every year I create financial goals to help guide me through the year. I first read this quote when I started my fitness journey regarding meal preparing, "If you fail to prepare, then you are prepared to fail." (Unknown). I think this is relevant in any goal management, but especially with financial goals. Here's a sneak peek at how I managed my finances in 2014.
  • Max out Individual Retirement Account (IRA) - In 2014, the limit was $5,500. This is always my first goal and I've been maxing it out every year for almost a decade. This is my first goal in 2015 as well. I use Fidelity to manage my IRA; if you're interested in starting a Fidelity account please let me know so I can refer you. In 2014, I met this goal.
  • Put $XXK into my "high-yield" savings account - This is my emergency savings account. I'm expanding it beyond the 6 months of bills (the typical advice) to add 12 months of bills for my new house. My goal is to have the ability to absorb a whole year of not having a renter when we PCS and have to rent this house out. Some of the increase will also be for a new car in 1 1/2 years. I use CapitalOne 360 (the bank that bought ING Direct) for my "high-yield" savings account; if you're interested in starting a CapitalOne 360 account please let me know so I can refer you and we both get money. In 2014, I met this goal.
  • Save at least $XK from each paycheck - Ever since I was an E-4 I've been creating this goal. No matter how hard you plan, you'll always have unexpected costs throughout the year. For this goal, I'm focused on the end goal so if I can't save the goal from one paycheck, I'll make sure I save a little more from a future paycheck. But this gives me an average savings goal from each paycheck and allows me to see if I'm exceeding my goal or not meeting it. In 2014, I met this goal.
  • Increase dividend income by X% to $XK - One of my retirement goals is to supplement the amount I lose by retiring with dividend and interest income by the time I retire from the Air Force. This is a lofty goal and I may need several years after Air Force retirement to achieve it. Nonetheless, I try finding better return rates on my investments to achieve this goal. One of my new investments this year was Lending Club. They offer loans ($35K or less) to people and investors can contribute $25 increments to their loan so it spreads the risk while offering a better yield. By playing it safe, I earned a 9%+ return on investment this year. If you're interested in starting a Lending Club account please let me know so I can refer you and we both get money. In 2014, I DID NOT meet this goal. I was very close but missed the goal by less than $200. I'm not too worried, but next year I would like to say I exceeded the new goal I set.
  • Net Assets of $XXXK by the end of the year - This is just an overall goal. I don't focus on how much I have saved total. I focus on what the money is doing and what return on investment I'm getting. People focus on a round number like $1M without figuring out what their going to do with it once they get there. Most rich people don't even care how much total they are worth, they only care how much money it's earning so they can use it. Either way, it helps me focus and ensure I'm earning a decent of return on investment. In 2014, I DID NOT meet this goal. I tried to do some ultra-risky investments to help my wife pay off her school loans and they all back fired on me. I lost a lot of money this year on those investments and it stings pretty badly. My house equity didn't rise at all either like I had expected. In fact, I manage my Dad's IRA and it's pretty conservative and safe and he crushed my returns this year.
These goals are specific to me. If I had debt-management goals, then those would be near the top. If I didn't have an emergency savings account, then that would've been my first goal. What are your goals for this year? If you need help or are interested in being referred so we both get money please leave me a comment or e-mail me at bjone6 @ gmail . com (spaced out to prevent spam bots).

Monday, December 22, 2014

Rising Interest Rates and Military Retirement Impacts

Last week, Russia raised its key interest rate 17% to 10.5%. (Bloomberg, 2014) While I personally believe raising the interest rates would be good for America’s economy and long-term economic success, I do recognize the rise would impact our military; specifically, our military retirement plans. Rising interest rates will make our military retirement less valuable.
Our military retirement is fixed; which means the variables do not go up and down. Our retirement is based on what rank we retired as and how many years we served. Our retirement doesn’t change based off of America’s interest rates; only the annual inflation adjustment.
We can see the impact to our retirement plan using my “Military Retirement Value” calculation blog post. A Major at 20 years (I use this because it applies to me) will receive $3,715 a month in retirement.  By comparing it to the yield on a 30-year bond (3%), the retirement is worth $1.5M. If interest rates rise to 4% then the retirement would be worth $1.1M; 5% is $892K. The reason why is because civilians can invest their retirement and gain from higher interest rates, while a fixed military retirement suffers because of rising interest rates.
I personally believe the economy will see inflation and America will be too slow to raise the interest rates to slow it down. The costs of normal consumer goods and borrowing money will rise. Groceries will be more expensive and your credit card interest rates will rise while your retirement will stay the same and you’ll have to wait for the lagging annual inflation adjustment.
What can you do to reduce the impact?
The first thing to do is eliminate all adjustable-rate credit sources. These will increase when the interest rates rise while your income will probably not.
Next, take advantage of the rising interest rates. When then interest rates increase you can find safer investments then stocks to get the same yields. Most people won’t have the flexibility to take advantage unless you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog.
If you’ve been a long-time reader, leave me a comment.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2015 Military Basic Pay Charts and BAH Cut

Last night, the government passed the $1.1 trillion budget, known as an "omnibus" for the federal government. The bill includes a 1% basic pay increase for all military members except for Generals and Flag Officers which are still in a pay freeze and a 1% cut to our Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). Here's a link to see the proposed 2015 Military Basic Pay Charts, though the site is not the official DFAS site.

Although I've attached the link, you can simply look at your LES and add 1% to your basic pay while decreasing your BAH by 1%. For me, this equates to a net .07% pay increase. That's less than a 1% pay raise. The main reason for cutting the BAH was the Pentagon and Congress don't feel that renter's/homeowner's insurance should be part of our BAH.

How does this make you feel? For me, I've noticed a significant reduction in personnel with an increase in the amount of work. Not being fully compensated makes it a more difficult burden to bear. Leave me a comment on how you feel.


Friday, December 5, 2014

2015 Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) Contribution Changes

In 2015, there will be big changes to our retirement contribution limits. For military members and our civil servants, our Thrift Savings Plan limit will be $18,000 up $500 from $17,500 in 2014. For those 50-years or older and that are eligible for TSP Catch-Up contributions, it will increase to $6,000 up $500 from $5,500 in 2014. This is great news. This $500 increase will allow us to put more money into tax-sheltered investments. If you do the Traditional TSP, you will be able to contribute an additional $500 pre-tax money to grow tax free and then be taxed when you withdrawal. If you do the ROTH TSP, you will be able to contribute an additional $500 of post-tax money to grow tax free and then will be tax free when you withdrawal. 2015 contributions will remain the same.
Another great change in 2015 is a larger saver’s credit amount. For our junior enlisted that meet the income qualifications they will see higher credits.
BL: If the government gives you an opportunity, then you should take it. When funding your retirement, you should max out an IRA and then max out your TSP. This allows you to invest up to $23K in 2014 and $23.5K in 2015 in tax-sheltered accounts.
Full Disclosure: I’m a conspiracy theorist who believes there is a widening social gap and the government will look to the middle class to support the rich like some future dystopia movie. The investors who took advantage of government-offered programs will be better protected.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Major Collapse is Coming

In July of 2001, I had just received my enlistment bonus and had been in the military for less than 2 years. I had $800 in Lucent stock and $500 in other stocks; totaling $1,300. I had less than $300 in an emergency savings account. Several months after the stock market had collapsed from the 9/11 attacks, my $1,300 portfolio was nearly worthless.
In 2007, I had become politically aware and more knowledgeable about the economy. Some of the political websites I followed started to discuss how bad the economy really was despite the media and the politicians saying the economy had never been better. All the data suggested the economy was perfectly fine yet some people had noticed the problems at the base. I began selling my stocks at 52-week highs. I looked foolish for several months preparing for the drop. Starting in October of 2008 the stock market began crashing, losing 18-20% in one week. By March of 2009, the major stocks indices dropped 50+%. I started buying back some of the stocks I had originally owned. Several years later I had many stocks double on me.

Now, in 2014, news articles are saying the economy has never been better and stock markets have never been higher. I believe there are significant problems at the base again. The national debt, almost $18T, Russia growing its empire and China doing the same are all world problems that soon, will impact America’s economy. Instead of worrying about a recession/depression like we’ve been doing for too long, we’ll see inflation come like a hurricane through our lives. Once the crash happens, the recovery, like always, will be on the backs of the middle-income taxpayers. The rich will come out unscathed and the poor will see little impact to them. By design, most of the people in the military are middle income and will be “punished” the most to help the economy recover. Over the past year, I’ve been preparing for the stock market to collapse and once again I look foolish, sitting on the sidelines while everyone is making money in the stock market. If you believe a crash is coming, like I do, then here are some of the investments I’m doing to prepare.

·         Emergency Savings Account: I’ve been increasing my emergency savings account. Even though I have no real debt, I believe having available cash will give me flexibility to take advantage of a stock market collapse by buying stocks at cheaper prices which have crashed with the economy but there’s nothing wrong with the company.

·         Eliminate all consumer debt: Except for a mortgage, and perhaps low-interest rate student loans, you should eliminate all consumer debt. As interest rates rise to help protect against inflation, your credit cards and other loans will also rise leaving you in a bad spot if you have limited flexibility in your paycheck.

·         Start selling stocks as they reach higher levels: If you own individual stocks or mutual funds, then sell portions of your gains as they go higher. Like me, you may look foolish when others are making money; but if they never sell, they miss the opportunity to realize those gains. If you solely invest in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) you can request an Interfund Transfer (IFT) and/or you can change your allocations on to “sell” out of the stocks funds and move into the “G Fund” to protect your TSP portfolio.

·         Gold: It may make sense to buy and hold gold through the collapse, but I recommend only holding gold for the initial panic. Gold has dropped from a high of $1,800 to less than $1,200 (a 30% drop). Gold will rise again when the stock market drops rapidly but if inflation rears its head, interest rates will rise and all the money currently in gold will go towards bonds to earn a “safer” rate of return. In 2003, an average high-yield savings account was earning 5% and Gold was less than $300. It may not go down that low for a long time, but it will go below $1,000. Gold will remain high as long as our national debt is at 100+% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), currently at 103%.

·         Dividend stocks: As the stock market collapses, many companies will offer a higher dividend yield as the stock prices fall in relation to its dividend. Some companies will be just fine and recover nicely. If you had invested in them at the bottom, then you’d have a very nice dividend yield. In his book, Getting Back to Even, Jim Cramer calls these stocks “accidental high yielders”.
If you are using different strategies or you disagree about my prediction, please let me know by leaving a comment.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stocks to Consider (November 2014)

I’ve made most of my returns through sound value-investing principles. Buying stocks at cheap prices because of temporary weakness, either in the company or the sector, has provided me the best returns. I’ve lost the most money by using other investing principles and ended up buying at the high point and then having to sell at a loss. In my opinion, a good value strategy in this rising market may be Solar Energy stocks.
The two companies on my watch list are First Solar (FSLR) which is the industry giant and SunPower (SPWR) Corporation which has a huge presence in the deserts of California. FSLR once hit close to $180 in Feb/Mar of 2011. As of 13 Nov, its 52-week high is at $75 and is currently trading at $48. SPWR once hit $130 in 2008 and its 52-week high is at $42 and its currently trading at $27. SPWR has been on a tremendous run since the end of 2012, being as low as $4 in November 2012, as it gains more momentum in the industry.
The Solar Energy industry was the darling of the stock market when Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” swept through the world; putting alternative energy options in the spot light. Ever since then, politics have shied away from the Climate Change debate, focusing more on the struggling economy.
The alternative energy is politically dependent. As the Republicans take over the House and Senate, I imagine the industry will suffer and stock prices will go lower, providing ample opportunities for value investors. In 2011, the solar-cell company, Solyndra, filed bankruptcy after receiving a huge grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The company was a major donor to President Obama’s presidential campaign. Once the company filed for bankruptcy, the administration dodged all implications of corruption costing the taxpayers $385 million, once/if the projected $142.8 million is recouped. The executives all received “golden parachutes.” Instead of the administration taking the hit, the solar energy industry took the blame and climate change discussions were halted.
These temporary political weaknesses may give us an attractive buying opportunity this year and into 2015. I think the industry will continue to expand with or without political support. Once the support has returned, the stocks should skyrocket. It’s also satisfying to invest in industries you feel good about. As always, be careful taking stock advice from any blogger.
DISCLOSURE: As of this writing, I’m not currently invested in FSLR or SPWR but will most likely buy soon.