Military Finance Report: 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2016 BAH Rates Discussion

The 2016 BAH rates have been announced.  According to the Defense Travel Management Office, BAH rates will increase an average of 3.4%.  The average increase across the whole spectrum is $54 a month.  This continues to slow the growth in compensation in a “fair, responsible, sustainable way.”
As a taxpayer and a budget analyst, it’s a good thing to hear about “slowing the growth of compensation” as defense spending continues to skyrocket without any accountability.  Like all of America, the DoD has an insatiable appetite, unable to reduce any spending.  However, as a service member, and at a time where I feel like I’m working the longest hours, doing more additional duties than ever, and dealing with severe manning issues, hearing about reductions in compensation can be disheartening.  But you may ask, didn’t you just say the 2016 have increased an average of 3.4% or $54 a month?
Yes, the 2015-to-2016 rates have increased; however, in some cases it still doesn’t restore the reductions we took in the 2014-to-2015 rates.  In my zip code (71111 – near Barksdale AFB, LA), and for my pay grade (O3E), the 2016 with-dependent rate is still lower than the 2014 with-dependent rate.  The without-dependent rate is higher.
BAH Year (71111)
With Dependent
Without Dependent
2014
$1,947
$1,647
2015
$1,833
$1,521
2016
$1,911
$1,656
 
Even though I’ve been grandfathered (a.k.a. individual rate protection) into the 2014 rate, it still represents a reduction to future with-dependent O3Es.  As you can see, without-dependent O3Es will make an additional $9 in 2016 compared to 2014.
Remember BAH costs consider rent and average utilities (electricity, heat, and water/sewer).  We must make sound decisions on where we choose to live off base [post, camp, or station].  As a young E-4, I chose to live in a place which my BAH afforded me.  Many E-4s chose to live above their means and it cost them a significant amount of money.  A bigger house not only costs more in rent/mortgage, but utilities generally tend to increase proportionally as well.
While reductions from 2014 may not be a good thing, I think staying within your means, and/or encouraging your subordinates to do the same, may help offset these “fair and responsible” reductions.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2016 Financial Resolutions


2016 has the potential to offer a great financial revolution.  For the first time, in a very-long time, people are more interested in macro-events regarding their own money.  Many of the political candidates are focusing their campaigns on changing America’s economy.  2015 was one of the biggest years for me helping people with their finances, and I believe 2016 will be a greater financial year.
Unfortunately for me, it looks like I won’t be meeting most of my 2015 financial resolutions.  I took quite a large hit chasing quick money, which had a ripple effect across my other financial goals.  If you’ve never made New Year’s financial resolutions before, then consider these:

1.       I’m going to save $X,XXX in an emergency fund.  Make sure you keep this money in an account that’s not quickly accessible to prevent impulse spending.  I use CapitalOne 360; if you’re interested in setting up a CapitalOne 360 account, please let me know so we can both benefit from referrals.

2.      I’m going to reduce or eliminate X% or $X,XXX of debt.  The most concerning problem in the whole world is the overwhelming debt taken on by middle- and lower-income people.  Without getting into any conspiracies, personal and national debt is THE most critical THREAT our world is facing.

3.      I’m going to save $X,XXX in my retirement fund.  People are being forced to work longer because they failed to prepare for retirement.  In one of my most popular posts, I shared my concerns with my generation not being financially prepared.  Read it here:

4.      If you continually do these things, but still want to improve your finances, consider these:

a.      Max out your credit score for your age
b.      Eliminate ALL bank fees by changing banks
c.      Maximize rewards by getting a different credit card

I really believe 2016 can be a financial revolution for the developed countries.  We must take care of our own finances within our control before we can make fundamental changes against the conspiracy theories.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Guest Post: How For-Profit Colleges Hoodwink the GI Bill

Brittany Thompson has created this graphic discussing how for-profit colleges are targeting the post 9/11 GI Bill funding.  According to the research, for-profit colleges have a lower completion rate.  One of the conclusions, the graphic points out that with every $1 of military funding (GI Bill) the college receives, it can charge up to 9X that in federal and private loans, and grants.  The bottom line I got, is that for-profit colleges are targeting GI bill funding to increase their ability to raise other government funding.  I experienced a lackluster education from my for-profit college.  The one thing this graphic doesn't touch on, is that when these colleges focus on profit, the quality of educated offered decreases.  What are your thoughts?

How For-Profit Colleges Hoodwink the GI Bill
Source: Affordable-Online-Colleges.net

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Military Members Saving for a Child's College Education


Giving your kids a college education is extremely important.  Like any investment, the best time to start planning and saving is now.  The military provided me with the resources to get my bachelor’s and master’s in business administration.  There are many options to properly save for your kids’ college education.  As in all proper financial planning, avoiding taxes is key.  Here are the main ways to save for a child’s college education.  If you’re a civilian, skip the Post 9/11 GI Bill.   

·         Post 9/11 GI Bill – One of the major changes when the Department of Defense switched from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post 9/11 GI Bill was the ability to transfer the benefits to your spouse or qualified dependent.  The Post 9/11 GI Bill can pay for 36 months of tuition, provides a housing and book stipend.  Military members do not have to put money into this fund, but they must meet minimum Time-in-Service requirements.  As long as Tuition Assistance (TA) still pays for 100% of tuition (some Master’s programs will cost more than the TA provides) while on active duty, then many military members will be able to transfer their benefits to their children[1].  Transferring your benefits does come with a 4-year active-duty service commitment—which I’ve heard is incredibly hard to get out of.  

·         529 Plan – The most common method for parents to save for their kids’ education is to a 529 Plan.  These are state-sponsored programs that allow you to invest your money and not pay taxes while your invested money grows.  If the child uses it for qualified education expenses, the withdrawals are also tax free.  You can put $14K a year into a 529 plan.  If your extended family is looking for birthday and Christmas gifts, they can send you money to put into the child’s 529 plan.  You can invest in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds (or any investment) and it will grow tax free; however, this does expose your savings to market risk.  Once your child is ready to withdraw the money, you may want to read on tips how to maximize 529 plan deductions.  For example, for a couple making $160K, or $80 for a single parent, the first $2,500 of qualified education expenses are tax deductible under the American Opportunity Credit ($160K couple, $80K single, $2,500)[2].  Little tricks like that will help maximize the money you saved.  The Security and Exchange Commission has a great starting point for all things 529 plans. 

·         Scholarships – As a parent you should thoroughly research scholarships.  My parents provided me with absolutely no information regarding college.  I didn’t even know that scholarships existed.  Finding scholarships from schools and degree types will help you focus your efforts in preparing your children for college.  For example, many colleges have unfilled scholarships for females in golf, tennis, and most of the STEM degrees (science, technology, electronics, and mathematics).

·         Child ROTH IRA – A more obscure way of saving for your kids’ college education is to start a child ROTH IRA.  It works very similar to a 529 Plan, but the child doesn’t have to use it for a college degree.  It’s simply an IRA that you can use to avoid taxes when you withdraw the money for qualified education expenses.

NOTE:  Qualified Education Expenses: tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment and an eligible institution
This blog post assumes that you want to save for your kids’ college education.  Some parents don’t believe in paying for their kids’ college education.  What are your thoughts?  Should parents pay for college education or should kids have to “work for it”.


[1] http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/post911_transfer.asp
[2] https://www.irs.gov/uac/American-Opportunity-Tax-Credit

Friday, November 20, 2015

Financial Milestones for your Thirties


I have a growing concern that my generation (30-39) will have to work well beyond the age of 55.  Additionally, the future of “Mandatory” government spending programs like Medicare and Social Security is in jeopardy.  The excessive consumerism driving excessive debt and the lack of saving by our generation is very worrisome. 

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the decisions we made from 18-29 determined what social class we would end up.  Those of you that were already blessed to start in a good social class or became educated or found an extremely high-income job quickly will be wealthy in the future.  Those of us that became educated and started a career early are probably in the middle- to middle upper-class.  Those of that remained static since high school, or had a series of unfortunate events, are probably lower class.

The 30-39 years will determine at what age you can stop working at the social class you created when you were 18-29.  I started with generally speaking, because through entrepreneurship, inheritance, or the lotto, some of us will be able to bypass the 18-39 time period.  But if you’re 30-39, there are certain milestones you should have achieved to mathematically ensure you can retire at 55.

If you don’t meet 2 or more of the following, you are mathematically in danger of having to work past the age of 55.

  1. $100,000 in net assets (before debt) – You should have $100K and more by the time you’re 30-39 to be able to retire by 55.  Unless you’re the next Warren Buffett, you’ll be tied to the same market returns as everyone else.  To retire by 55, you’ll need $100K or more to be invested correctly.  If you’re earning 4-8% a year in returns, then you’ll need ~$100K to start working now.  Additionally, if we have several years of negative returns, you’ll need more money to offset those losses.
  2. Household income of $100K or more – Your household income, whether you’re single or married, should be $100K or more before taxes.  With the crazy inflation of nearly every commodity, an income of $100K is simply middle class.  For simplicity, I won’t go into the cost of living of each city, in each state; however, on a national average, $100K is basically middle income now. 30-39 is the prime age to maximize your income.
  3. Job with full benefits (life insurance, medical, dental, unemployment credits) – No other commodity in America has grown as quickly as medical expenses.  Without proper insurance, medical bills can financially destroy a person for the rest of his or her life.  Neither political party has tackled the rising costs of medical care, only tap-danced around insurance coverage.  Insurance companies take your money, invest it and earn crazy investment profits, and then nickel and dime you.
  4. 1 or more real estate investments – This is mathematically self-explanatory.  If you’re 39 and don’t have a mortgage yet, then even with a 15-year mortgage at 40-years old, you’ll be paying for a house all the way into your 55th year.  If you’re 39 and just bought a 30-year mortgage, that’s okay because you’ll have significant equity by 55, so you’ll have power moves available to you at 55.
  5. Excluding your mortgage, you have less than 1-year’s income in debt – To include student and car loans, you shouldn’t have more debt than you make in a year.  If you only make $50K a year, you shouldn’t have $60K in student loans and a $40K car loan.  When you’re 30-39 with that much student debt, it may be a signal that your career didn’t correlate with the price of your education.  If you’re only making $50K and have a $40K car payment, then you’re probably living way above your means.
  6. You have one or more different tax-sheltered retirement accounts – You have many options to properly save for retirement.  Here are several you should have: Federal Government (to include military)/Civil services/State worker pension; 401(k) or similar accounts, Thrift Savings Plan (for government workers), Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), and 529 college plans for your kids.

These are GENERALIZED milestones.  If you don’t meet 2 or more of these, then you need to start immediately reconsidering your retirement aspirations.  This Thanksgiving “break” reminded me that weekdays and weekends are something that we humans created.  It’s not scientifically real; just our perception of time.  Wealthy people who are financial independent don’t wait for the weekends; same with properly financed retired people.  Do you really want to be in this daily grind into your 60s or 70s or beyond?  Or worse, be totally dependent on politicians and government programs?   

Monday, October 26, 2015

Military Financial Report Video Series - Episode #7 - Military Retirement Information

Check out the seventh video in my Youtube series.  I show you the value of your military retirement, using the U.S. treasury 30-year bond interest rate.  I also show how rising interest rates can impact the "value" of your retirement.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

4 Steps to Make Money when the Stock Market Crashes


The DOW Jones has fallen to around 16,000 after hitting a high of 18,300 on May 2015; a 13% drop. Depending on what you’re invested in, you may have seen a large drop in your TSP, 401(k), or your taxable brokerage account. If you’re under 55, you should see this as an opportunity. If you’re over 55 and you’ve seen a 13% or more drop in your portfolio, then you’re not correctly investing your money in the first place. For those under 55, stock market drops can be a good thing to take advantage of. Here’s how.

  • Put more money in as the stock market drops. Most people have their retirement savings on autopilot. TSP and 401(k) contributions are automatically taken out of our paychecks. Some people also have IRAs and a taxable account as well. As the stock market is dropping, you should increase the money you’re putting in your TSP or 401(k). For military members, you can go to MyPay and change the amount anytime you want. For civilians, you’ll have to use your online retirement system or go through HR. Remember, you can only put $17,500 a year in a retirement account.
    • As the stock market drops, you’re able to buy more at the lower prices. Think about it like a sale on stocks or a military discount. You can buy your favorite stock at a 10% discount when the market falls.
  • Find high-paying dividend stocks. In Jim Cramer’s book, “Getting Back to Even,” he calls stocks that pay high dividends because their stock price fell, accidental high-yielders. When World Wrestling Entertainment’s  (WWE) stock dropped, their dividend rose to 4% and I bought it. There are many dividend paying stocks whose dividends rise because of the overall stock market dropping.
    • This mainly applies to people choosing their own stocks or mutual funds. You can use any stock screen to find these. I like Yahoo! Finance and Fidelity’s stock screeners. I search for stocks that have fallen with a 3% or higher dividend yield.
  • Avoid selling stocks. Over the long term, people who sell stocks automatically after a certain % drop tend to lose money. If you’re buying individual stocks, then you should only buy and sell based on stock performance and not stock movement. 99% of the DIY investors Buy High and Sell Low because they are too emotional. When Tesla (TSLA) hit $290 a friend got excited and recommended it to people because he wanted to be a part of the stock’s rising price. Unfortunately, the stock lost steam and at one point hit fell back down to $180; yet my friend was longer promoting the stock at the discounted price.
    • If you know you’re emotional then avoid buying and selling individual stocks and mutual funds. You’ll lose money over the long run.
  • Don’t time the market. People often wait on the sidelines for the perfect moment in the market drop. They’re so scared of investing at the wrong time that they miss an opportunity all together. This is the major reason why after nearly two decades of DIY investing that I’m not a billionaire; because I’ve incorrectly timed the market. I’ve bought on the way down (low) and sold on the way up (high). Don’t worry about trying to find the perfect time to buy. If you’re portfolio is less than $1M, then minor changes in your returns/losses will be less than missing out on opportunities all together.

Buying low and selling high seems like such an easy system but when the stock market declines or increases rapidly, people often do the opposite. This psychological response is why gambling is so profitable for the “bank” and so disastrous for gamblers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

It Takes Money to Make Money


You’ve probably heard the phrase; It takes money to make money. Have you ever wondered what that actually meant? Let’s take a look at different aspects of life and how this phrase applies. Also, I’ll provide tips on how to navigate through this so you can make money without having a lot of money.

  • Young Adult Head Start: When parents buy or provide their children a car at a young age, they are giving them access to get a job. By having a job, the children can save and invest the money at a younger age giving them more money to make money. Also, when parents pay for college, their children are able to make more money quicker, be promoted faster, and be insulated better against long periods of unemployment.
    • My parents weren’t able to buy me a car or pay for college. I joined the Air Force and was able to acquire them myself. I was 19 when I bought my first car and didn’t receive my degree until I was 26. Someone who had a car at 16 and graduated college at 22 had much more time to save and invest than I did.
    • Advice: Help your child work and save for a car so they can start working at an earlier age; doing the same for college yields exponential dividends for your children. There’s not a lot you can do if your parents couldn’t afford these for you except to make it right for your children.
  • Debt: People who have a lot of money tend to avoid debt. Having a lot of debt means you’ll continuously have less money and it’s a negative feedback loop that is hard to get out of. People without money need more money but money is more expensive when you’re in debt.
    • Advice: Reduce and/or eliminate your consumer debt now (credit cards and small loans)
  • Credit Scores: You need a good credit score to be issued credit but you can’t get a good credit score until you can get credit. This is a double-edged standard many people face. Typically, it takes having money to sustain a good credit score. A good credit score is extremely important because it saves you from 1) having to put large deposits on common utilities 2) makes college, car and house loans cheaper which means you can save more money and 3) keeps credit card interest rates low so if you do run into financial trouble you won’t get buried quickly.
    • Advice: If you have children, then establish teen credit accounts. Starting early is essential is important because each loan you take out will save you money with a good credit score. If your credit is in shambles then repairing it should be the first thing you start working towards after you establish an emergency savings account.
  • Fees: For bank and brokerage accounts, the more money you have, the less you have to pay in fees. Minimum account balance fees will eat away at your savings. It’s better not to invest your money, avoid the fees, and then wait until you have the minimum account balance. People who don’t make a lot of money are forced to take out $20 at a time from the bank and pay ATM fees each time. A $2 ATM fee on a $20 withdrawal is the same as a 10% loss to your savings. Also, people with money usually don’t worry about Overdraft fees. Some banks charge $29 regardless of the overdrawn amount. If you overdrew your account by $1 and have to pay $29, then you theoretically suffered a 2,900% loss.
    • When I started my first bank account, I was getting charged $8 a month for not having direct deposit to my checkings and $3 a month for not having the required minimum balance in my savings account. $11 a month in fees is a lot of money for an E-3. This was before internet banking really took off so reconciling accounts was difficult.
    • Advice: Check your bank and brokerage accounts right now and make sure you’re not being charged any fees. During the financial collapse of 2008, banks had to restructure their accounts to regain confidence with the public. A benefit to customers was a serious reduction in normal fees. If you’re being charged fees, then you need to switch bank accounts or stop whatever action is causing those fees. For example, USAA doesn’t charge an ATM fee and will reimburse up to $15 a month for ATM machine fees.
  • Investments: This is the simple “Time Value of Money” principle. The more money you have to invest now will be worth more in the future. Mathematically, if you’re over 30 without $100K saved up in non-pension/military retirement accounts, then you’re seriously jeopardizing your retirement goals. People who have more money to invest earlier get to reap the benefits of compounding returns.
    • Advice: Start investing now in an IRA and/or your TSP/401(k).

Having money means you can make more money and so on. If you’re flat broke, then it’s time to start moving. It takes money to make money is just a parable form of the math behind investing early.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Betterment Review


I started an account with Betterment today. From what I can tell this is a perfect way for many of us to invest and I’m recommending people try it.

Click here to set up your own account.

The User Interface is really simple and offers a service that I appreciate the most in the investing world yet it’s so rare: Transparency! Your summary page shows you all the necessary details to track how much you’ve invested, how much you’ve earned and how much the fees cost.

It’s basically an automated system investing in low cost Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  As the website says, “Through diversification, automated rebalancing, better behavior, and lower fees, Betterment customers can expect 4.30% higher returns than a typical DIY investor.”

This speaks to me personally because I have not been able to excel in investing by doing it myself. Last year I decided to reassess my investing style and move towards Index Funds and this Betterment account should help me reach my goals faster than what I’ve been able to do.

If you’re interested in setting up a Betterment account, please click here to participate in their referral program where you and I both get 30 days free account usage (no fees).

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dual Military BAH Cut


In the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY16), the Senate Armed Forces Committee is seeking to cut dual-military married couples’ Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). The purpose of this blog post isn’t to discuss whether this cut is good for our military members who are already facing unique financial issues or whether the politicians and senior Defense leaders continue to choose taking risk to save money with their personnel instead of focusing on large fraud/waste procurements and programs. For a complete breakdown of the impact of this measure, please read this amazing story by the US Naval Institute.
The purpose of this blogpost is to help dual-military married couples prepare for the potential cut. To date my single most popular blogpost is when I helped prepare military members for the FY15 Reduction in Force (RIF) and I hope this blog post helps others as well.

The Proposed Cut
Currently, dual-military married couples without children both receive the “without dependent” BAH rate. For the dual-military married couples with children, the higher ranking members receive with “with dependent” BAH rate and the lower-ranking receives the “without dependent” BAH rate.

The proposed cut allows the couple to receive only one BAH rate. The highest ranking will receive “with dependent” rate regardless if they have children or not. Mathematically, this is unfairly attacking dual-military married couples because if each military member married a civilian, then both members would be receiving the “with dependent” rate. These dual-military married couples were actually saving the military money.
Prepare Now

Dual-military married couples should prepare now by taking the following steps; instead of burying their head in the ground and praying this cut doesn’t happen, like many military members did during the RIF cuts.

1.      Assess your current situation – Can you afford this cut if it were to happen right now? The Senate Armed Forces Committee called this entitlement a “windfall” of money without considering all expenses dual-military married couples go through on a day-to-day basis. Would this reduce the money you currently save or would this cause a shortfall in your finances?

2.      Start looking at the market now – If this cut happens in FY16 and you are forced to leave your current place, start looking at the market now. Some states (like Louisiana) have strict zoning restrictions which prevent kids from attending schools outside the current zone. Will your kids be impacted now if you can’t afford your current market?

3.      Create a soft landing – Deviate slightly from your current financial goals by saving as if this was actually going to happen. You may have to save for the initial deposit or to pay for the difference in rent or mortgage you wouldn’t be able to cover if the cut happens. Either way, starting or increasing your emergency savings account is a great idea.

If you read the US Naval Institute’s article, it describes in-depth examination described this cut as “regressive, discriminatory and costly.” The best thing to do is to prepare now so you aren’t caught by surprise if this cut makes it into the FY16 NDAA.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Ready to Become a Military Millionaire


Most of my blog posts are written for people just starting out on their path to financial independence. I focus on that demographic because I feel most people in the military that may read my blog are probably just starting or have a surface-level knowledge base of personal finances. This blog post however, is for people already financially secure and who are ready to turn it up a notch. This post is for those aspiring to become military millionaires.

  • Ditch the “all cash” emergency savings. This first step is in direct contradiction with what I tell 95% of the people I help. I always recommend people have easy access to cash for emergencies. An emergency savings account is extremely important for people just starting out because it will shield them from unexpected expenses that may derail their financial success. Having an “all cash” emergency savings account isn’t as important for those that are higher ranking, have almost no real debt and have excellent credit. For these people, they should invest their money in conservative to moderate-conservative investments. For me, it takes less than 3 days to sell mutual funds and transfer the cash. Right now, I have cash only in my short-term goal account and it only earns a .75% interest rate (that’s less than 1%). People looking to become wealthy need to maximize their returns at all times and having a significant cash withhold can hamper those returns.
  • Debt is not a bad thing. Think big. For people with low financial knowledge and for the majority of America, debt is the new slavery. We are enslaved to consumerism and the banks own all of our debt. We have no assets to claim for that debt; i.e. college loans and credit cards. This is simply our slavery to banks and insurance companies. For people with high financial knowledge, debt is simply a tool. They have assets to claim for that debt and ensure they always have equity in that debt. Real estate, smart auto purchases, margin investment accounts and business loans are types of leverage where people earn more money than it costs to owe the money. For example, purchasing a home creates a large “debt” but is also a large “asset.” In the military, if we don’t invest our BAH, then we lose it. Going into “debt” with a home loan allows us to reap the BAH benefit. I spend most of my time helping people dig their way out of consumer debt and I wish I could spend more time helping people with their leverage.
  • Promote, save, retire, work, save and retire. This is a model most people in the military talk about but rarely execute correctly. Whether you enlisted or commissioned right away, the goal is to promote quickly. For commissioned officers, you need to complete all the things you have control over; right positions, professional certifications, Master’s degree and PME. For enlisted, study for each rank and focus on making the next rank. I made E-4 early, E-5 first time but then took 4 times to make E-6 before crossing over to the dark side in becoming a commissioned officer. This represents a large loss of income as I tried to focus on my degree. While in the military you should save as much as you can in your IRAs, TSPs, real estate and taxable accounts. Then when you retire from the military, some people as early as 37/38, get another job, save all your money and retire from that job; again, some people as early as 45-55. It doesn’t matter if you transition to civil service or corporate life. A lot of people don’t calculate their military retirement correctly and then find out they don’t have sufficient money to actually retire. Remember, our military retirement is only 50-75% of our base pay and doesn’t include COLA, BAH or BAS. For my current location, my retirement would only be 35% of my current paycheck.
  • Get another job. Even with excellent investment returns our pay doesn’t make it easy to become a millionaire in 20-30 years. After raising a family and normal expenses, we simply don’t make enough to put away a million dollars. Most people get another job or position their spouse to launch a successful company. I know friends who’ve opened their own business and after years of hard work have eclipsed their own military paychecks making retiring from the military an easy transition.

Unless you’re in an excellent financial position, I wouldn’t follow this advice. For most people, following “vanilla” advice will help secure a good financial position. This blog post is for people ready to invest and have the ability to position them to become military millionaires.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Being Fearful When Others Are Greedy, Moving Into The G Fund


Warren Buffett once said, “Be FearFul When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful.” With the stock market hitting all-time highs...I’m fearful.

In November of 1999, the NASDAQ (major index tracking mostly technology stocks) hit an all-time high of 4,303 during the “dot.com” bubble. Now in June of 2015, the NASDAQ is sitting at 5,160 jumping from a bottom of 1,476 in November 2008. While most people are encouraged by this upward movement, I am fearful.

Military members and federal government employees can take advantage of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) which allows them to invest in specific funds in a 401(k) like program. When an investor contributes to the TSP it automatically invests in the “G” Fund which invests in Government Securities. It’s the safest fund yet offers very little returns. Since 2008, I’ve been advising people to move their money out of the “G” Fund to take advantage of returns after the financial collapse in 2008. For most people I’ve recommended not being in the “G” Fund at all. That advice was spot on for those that listened. For those that kept their money in the “G” Fund, their portfolios have barely moved.

For nearly 7 years, we’ve enjoyed a stock market rally fueled by historically low interest rates and two administrations (Bush and Obama) with uncontrollable government spending. Both of these have artificially pumped cash into the pockets of corporations and the people who, then in turn, spend it quickly. With our National Debt over $18T, these low interest rates and government spending can’t last forever. Despite gas prices going lower, all others commodities in our lives have seen price increases. As I joked in a Facebook post, “Inflation is coming”; borrowing the ominous warning from Game of Thrones.

I believe there will be a stock market drop soon. I believe Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) investors should consider moving money back into the “G” Fund to protect against major market drops. Each investor is different, but if the investor is under 30 then they should consider putting about 10-15% in the G Fund. If the investor is 31-45, then I recommend 15-35% in the “G” Fund. Anyone over 45 should very carefully analyze their current financial position and evaluate retirement goals before deciding on how much to put in the “G” Fund. If the retirement goal is to retire at 55, then there should be a larger percentage in the “G” Fund and if the retirement goal is later, then less in the “G” Fund. Retirees should be careful not to take all their money out of the stock market though with average life spans reaching 85 years old—they’ll need to make their money last better. As interest rates rise to fight inflation, investors will see increased returns in the “G” Fund as well.

Investors can either go to MyPay or change their allocation to start moving money into the “G” Fund or they can use one of their two a month Interfund Transfers (IFT) to move money out of one fund and into another. They can do this through www.tsp.gov. Please do your own research before making any investment decisions, but I really feel that this 7-year long rally is about to end.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Real Debate about Raising the Federal Minimum Wage


In July 2009, the federal minimum wage was increased to $7.25 from $6.55.[1] In his 2015 State of the Union, President Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage.[2] The minimum wage debate has caused protests and, like all topics, is hard split by the two parties. Most of the debate revolved around raising the federal minimum wage to $15 from $7.25. This is more than doubling the previous wage increase in just six years. The intent of this blog is not to discuss politics but to address personal finance concerns. So this blog post won’t be discussing whether we should or should not increase the minimum wage; but rather, it will focus on what you can learn from what the true debate should be on.

If you’re mathematically or economically inclined, then your first question should or probably is why isn’t $7.25 enough anymore? What’s changed from 2009 to 2015 requiring an increase of over 100%? The real answer and one of the biggest problems in our economy is the damaging impact of inflation. The debate isn’t centered on reducing the cost of Consumer Prices though; it’s simply based on increasing the wage.

If you just analyze simple inflation, using the Consumer Price Index from 2009-2015, then $7.25 is equal to $8 in today’s dollars.[3] So why is the current administration and federal minimum wage supporters asking for $15 instead of $8? The answer and another problem in our country is way we handle of our current income (regardless of what we’re currently making).

  • Inflation: Every adult has experienced inflation in almost every commodity. College tuition, health care costs, movie prices, gas, food, utilities, etc. Most of us aren’t seeing our income keep pace with this inflation either. So even in times of low Consumer Price Index (which doesn’t capture all commodities) increases, inflation is still outpacing our incomes. To protect yourself, you need to start saving money for your short-to-long term goals, retirement and long-term health care costs. The economic principles of time value of money and compounding interest relies on timing to help protect you against inflation. The sooner you start saving, the better protected you’ll be against inflation.
  • Handling of our current income: One of the main reasons that people want it increased to $15 versus the inflation adjusted $8 is because we don’t know how to handle our current income. People can become financially independent by making $8 an hour or by making $200 an hour. Conversely, people can be in extreme debt and financial ruin while making $15 an hour or $200 an hour. There is too much focus on how much we make and not what we’re doing with the money we’re currently making. When I help people with their finances, the first thing I do is track expenses. By raising the minimum wage to $15 we’re not solving the problem of helping people financially. To help protect yourself, you need to track your expenses and maximize the income you currently earn. I’ve always recommended to people that before you seek and pay for professional financial guidance, you need to track all expenses for 30 days. About 60% of people I’ve dealt with quickly saw where they could make life changes without earning more income.

So regardless of whether you oppose or support a federal minimum wage increase, you can still implement changes in your life to protect yourself from the real problem.


[1] http://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/chart.htm
[2] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/20/remarks-president-state-union-address-january-20-2015
[3] http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=7.25&year1=2009&year2=2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How do People on Welfare Afford Luxuries?


A reader asked me to write a blog post about how people on social programs afford luxuries that as an E6, first-line supervisor, he couldn’t afford. He was obviously frustrated at something he saw recently, but I know exactly what he’s referring to. I went on leave last year back to my hometown in California; north of Los Angeles. I was at the only shopping market we have in town and a woman in front of me paid for her groceries with an EBT card (a social program) while answering her iPhone6 and her nice clothes and then left in her nice, new car. How can someone afford these luxuries and be on social programs? As I’m writing this blog post, I, a prior-enlisted Captain in the Air Force, currently only own an iPhone5s and desperately long for the newest iPhone.
The majority of this discussion will obviously be on the people abusing the program which garners the most attention. Economically speaking, it’s imperative for a country to have a solid social safety net to encourage entrepreneurship, risk taking, and to take care of those with disabilities. Unfortunately, many states in America, like California, have let the social programs get out of control and have created and perpetuated a negative feedback loop that keeps poor people poor. The political reason for this is not the subject of this post. Rather, instead of worrying about taking this ability away from people abusing social programs, I plan to give you ways to mimic this behavior if you need to and provide a caution.

So how do they afford these luxuries? It’s because the social programs pay for most of the “needs” of the household leaving any additional income from the social programs or from side/part-time jobs as disposable income. Most of us don’t have that option because after bills, reducing and eliminating debt and saving for retirement, we have little disposable income left.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

·         Housing - A person living near Los Angeles, CA can get a near-free apartment through Section 8, HUD rental vouchers. If the person is working they only have to pay the difference between the rent and the voucher. It was difficult for me to get the benefit amount but in Fiscal Year 2012, a family of four could get a 2 bedroom apartment voucher for up to $1,447 a month. A person doesn’t necessarily “make” money on this program since it goes directly to rent. Most utilities are paid for under this program. (http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/fmr/fmr2012f/FY2012F_SCHEDULE%20B_922.pdf).

·         Food - The federal government estimates that we spend nearly 30% of our income on food and someone receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits using his Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card could earn up to $649 a month. (http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/how-much-could-i-receive). Using the government’s calculation of $649 a month on food, for a family of four, this person would be “making” $2,100 a month.

·         Income – Every state administers its welfare program differently. I used California’s CalWORKS program and used the conservative estimate for Region 2 (basically not the expensive parts) and for a family of four could earn $725 a month in income. http://ca.db101.org/ca/programs/income_support/calworks/program2b.htm Since food and housing is paid for, most of this welfare is pure disposable income. Most military members don’t have $700 a month in disposable income.

 
My AT&T bill is $50 for an iPhone5s data plan a month which would easily fit into a disposable monthly budget of $700. Phone companies allow you to split the costs of phones across 12 months so people with pure disposable income can afford expensive phones. A car payment can be less than $250 a month still within the disposable income limits. If the person gets a part-time job they can extend the amount of time they’re on these benefits but their program benefits decrease.
Like I said, the purpose of this blog is to show you how to increase your disposable income. Assuming your income can’t be changed at this moment (but should always be your primary goal), you can reduce your expenses. Many people are ditching their expensive television plans for internet streaming services like NetFlix and Hulu. Paying down credit card bills and paying off other debts is a very quick way to increase disposable income. Find ways to cut on gas and transportation costs. Stop eating out so much (full disclosure: my largest expense is food). By reducing your expenses you can also increase your disposable income so you can “blow” it like the person I saw at the shopping market and the subject of my friend’s frustration and motivation behind asking me to write this blog post.

But be careful. The problem with social programs is they offer no future for people. There is no retirement planning and these people continually need these programs and become dependent. The reason why we have to wait for all these luxuries is because we’re waiting until we can afford them without sacrificing our emergency planning, long-term health care and retirement plans. So it may suck watching the abuse but remember in 5, 10 or 20 years those people will be in the same exact spot as they were when they started the program posting on Facebook, “This year will be different” or “Things are about to change” but they never do. Through your short-term sacrificing, your 10-year later Facebook post will be about how much your life has changed.
Try not to judge those on social programs and instead understand that the system has created a negative feedback loop preventing them to escape. Instead focus on your current position and how you could reduce expenses to increase your disposable income to better your life in 5-20 years.