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Facts Don’t Always Matter

facts

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” – Dale Carnegie

Sometimes facts don’t matter. Some people believe in “alternative facts!” One conclusion that can be drawn from this phenomenon is that people are humans and often times our decisions are dictated by our emotions rather than by logic or facts. Facts don’t matter as much as emotion does. Stirring up strong passionate emotions like anger, fear, outrage, and on the more positive side, love, inspiration, and hope will often trump facts, logic and math.

A friend of mine, who taught a financial literacy class, talked about Dave Ramsey’s snowball method of paying off debt to his students. With this method, you pay off the debt with the smallest balance first and then move on to the next one with the smallest balance. “The math doesn’t make sense,” I argued, and countered that you should pay the account with the highest interest rate first to save on the interest you pay. My friend explained that while math may be on my side, his experience told him that paying off small balances motivated people to continue on the path to debt freedom. What good are facts and logic if someone gives up on making those extra payments because it seems like such an uphill battle? We need to win the small battles to win the war.

In a similar financial debate, many often ask whether you should pay off debt first or invest. In a recent post from the Big Law Investor, Josh asked whether you should pay down an auto loan of 1.9% or invest. I always thought my decisions to be fact-based, rational, and logical. I always came down on the investing side and wondered why others chose to pay off low interest debts so quickly. If you look at the math, it would seem pretty easy to beat a 1.9% return.
In the comments section, one reader said, “In my experience, most folks don’t actually invest the difference and /or increase their lifestyle since they have the low-cost debt.” Josh replied, saying that lifestyle creep occurs without you even realizing it when there’s “extra cash sloshing” and that you’re probably tricking yourself into thinking you’re actually “investing the difference”. I started to think about what was said and realized that this was true with me. I had been tricking myself into thinking that I was investing the difference when that wasn’t really the case.

My student loan interest rates are low and I haven’t made any extra payments to them since paying off the high interest ones. I also recently bought a car with an auto loan even higher than the rate posed by Big Law Investor’s blog post (It’s at 2.9%). I didn’t pay it off either, but am I using that extra money that I have to invest? Not really. I keep thinking I will use that money to invest but just haven’t done it yet. Maybe I’ll buy another rental property, but maybe I won’t. However, in the 10 years that I’ve had my student loans, did I invest the difference because I didn’t put many extra payments towards those loans. I would say yes, to a certain extent, but it’s hard to say how much extra I invested. And I think it is highly likely that much of that excess cash also went to lifestyle creep instead.

After this realization, I think I’ll be taking some cash I have on hand and combine it with my tax refund this year to make extra payments on my auto loan. Speaking of tax refunds, I used to think it was silly for people to want big tax refunds. Getting a large tax refund is giving the government an interest free loan right? And having money now is better than getting the money later, so why not take the money now by increasing your withholding? It made sense, but when I owed money to the IRS a few years back, I was very upset. But shouldn’t I have been happy? The government had given ME an interest free loan, and I just had to pay it back. It didn’t feel like a win to me and I had to allocate some savings to cover the tax bill. With my higher paycheck throughout that year, did I save and invest that money? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is “NO.” After that painful lesson, I changed my withholding and have been getting a tax refund ever since. And now, every year after I get that tax refund, I make contributions to my Roth IRA account as well as my wife’s IRA account, contribute to our son’s 529 plan, pad our savings or make extra payments towards debt (mortgage/student loan).

Money is more about emotions than the numbers. And as disciplined and logical as I may think I am, I am still human. I’m not a robot analyzing every decision, inputting the numbers and running an algorithm to determine the best and most optimized choice. I have to remember that when making financial decisions and in giving financial advice to others.

Your Most Important Financial Decision

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I am proud of many of the financial decisions that I’ve made in my life. I opened an IRA account while in college. I signed up for my employer’s deferred compensation plan my first day on the job, even though most of my co-workers said they were too young, had too little money, and that retirement was so far away. I am proud that I continued living below my means even as my income increased, and even as my peers inflated their lifestyles. But the decision that has had the most positive affect on my finances is marrying my wife. While, marrying someone is not just a financial decision, it is undeniable that it will have a huge impact on your finances.

The best investment strategies and savings advice won’t do much for you if you save and invest money while your spouse promptly spends it all. The leading cause for most divorces is financial stress. And a divorce will often leave you in financial shambles, as well as emotional shambles. According to a 2016 Fidelity survey, the top cause of money spats is the significant other’s spending habits.

Opposites often attract and a lot of times financial opposites attract. I’ve met a number of couples where one is the spender and the other is the saver. There’s the husband who wants the latest tech gadgets and the biggest flat screen television set. There’s the wife who has more name brand shoes than can fit in the closet and handbags which cost as much as or more than the big flat screen T.V. This causes conflict when the saver spouse doesn’t agree with those expenditure and prefers to save or invest that money instead. Sometimes the saver spouse will feel like he or she is getting the shaft and gives up on saving and spends on their wants too. I’ve also met some couples where both were spenders. In that case, they might agree on the SPEND SPEND SPEND philosophy, but their financial stress results when bills come due and money is tight.

I am very fortunate that my wife and I are pretty much on the same page when it comes to finances. In an old post from over two years ago, I wrote an Ode to My Frugal Wife. I wrote how we’d rather make an effort to make each other happier, rather than buy material things and spend money on things that won’t bring us happiness. But even though we have the same financial mindset, it was very helpful that we talked about these issues during a premarital counseling class. It is also important that we continue these discussions now that we’re married.

In a New York Times Article, Ron Leiber lists four money talks you should have before marriage.

1) How did your parents deal with money, how does that impact how you deal with it, and how might that impact the relationship?
According to the article, so many of our money behaviors are learned so it’s important to know your significant other’s “financial ancestry.”

2) Can I see your credit report?
A person’s credit report holds a lot of information about his/her financial past.

3) Who’s in control?
Gregory Kuhlman, a psychologist who runs marriage success training programs, says that control issues come up constantly when talking about money. He listed a few things that should be discussed: “If one person is making most or all of the money, does that person get to make most or all of the financial decisions? If you’re the car aficionado or have researched all of the local school options for the children, do you get to make the decisions about those things?”

4) Just how rich do we want to be one day? What is your “desired level of affluence?”
Mr. Kulman asks his clients, “are our career paths going to be something that pulls us together? Or, more often, are they things that will tend to pull us apart, where we’ll really have to be proactive to make sure it’s under control?”

I don’t recall many of the questions that my wife and I discussed at the premarital counseling class, but three questions stand out and they are questions we ask each other still when we discuss money.

What are your short-term financial goals?

What are your long-term financial goals?

How will we get there?

When my wife and I talk about finances, those are the core issues we focus on. Do we want to help our children with college costs in the future? Let’s open a 529 plan. Do we want to retire early? Let’s try to max out our retirement plans. Do we want to buy a house? Where should we go on vacation and how much will it cost?

I know that it is Valentine’s Day and talking about finances is not the most romantic thing, but to have a successful relationship, having conversations about money is necessary.

What are other “money talks” married couples and those looking to get married should have?

Buying an Investment Property Sight Unseen

house
A little over a year ago, I purchased an investment property in Kansas City, Missouri. I have never been to Kansas City, Missouri. I bought the property sight unseen. I live in New York City and can’t afford rental property in this area so I decided to invest out-of-state where the numbers make more sense. I am a risk averse person and buying something sight unseen sounded crazy. I just didn’t have to time to fly out there to see the property personally. However, ultimately, I determined that me physically going to the location wouldn’t have made that much of a difference. Was it really necessary to drive around the neighborhoods, look at houses, and speak to the staff of company I was looking to purchase my investment from? With the power of the internet, I can research the neighborhoods, look at pictures and videos of the houses, and speak to the staff of the real estate investment company over the phone. I know very little about housing construction and the extent of my home improvement skills is changing a light bulb and hammering a nail into the wall. Yes, it is pretty pathetic. I am much better off in leaving this to the experts.

Here is what I did instead:

First, when choosing someone to work with, I went to the forums of Biggerpockets. There are many people asking for references and a few names consistently came up as being trustworthy. I contacted the people who gave the good reviews and asked them more specific questions about how their investment was going. I googled those companies and checked if there were complaints on BBB. The most important thing when investing (and especially when investing out-of-state) is to trust the person you are working with. And even if you do trust the person, you must always make sure to the best of your ability that what they are saying is true. Trust, but verify!

After narrowing down the companies that had great reviews, I contacted them and asked them more specific questions regarding the investment. If the person I spoke to take forever to reply to e-mails or phone calls or if they sound shady or overly optimistic about their investment, sounding like they were making a sales pitch, I’d be less inclined to work with them. Sure, an in-person meeting may be slightly better way to determine whether one can be trusted, but I don’t think it was absolutely necessary.

Researching the neighborhood and property:

Zillow: This is one of the best tools giving you a good amount of information about the property and neighborhood. It will provide you with a “Zestimate” which is their estimate as to the approximate value of the property. They seem to do a pretty good job estimating how much the property is worth. You can also look at the comparable sales in the neighborhood. There are also ratings for the schools in the neighborhood. Another great tool that Zillow has is their rent zestimate which estimates the amount of rent you can probably get from that property. It is a pretty good estimation but also check out Rentometer, which also gives a rent estimate. Another thing you can do is to call up local property managers and ask them how much rent they think you can charge for that property.

Trulia: It provides similar information to Zillow, but I like using Zillow better. I do like Trulia’s Crime Map which shows the amount of reported crimes in that neighborhood. It also has information about demographics as well as average commute time and businesses in the neighborhood. For more information about crime, SpotCrime is also a good resource. Another great resource with a wealth of information about various neighborhoods is neighborhood scout. (You will have to pay for more advanced data)

The Biggerpockets forum is not just a great place to get recommendations on companies to work with, but it is also a great place to find which neighborhoods you should invest in. There are plenty of helpful people who will tell you what areas to avoid and which areas are a good investment. Also, check out the City Data forum where there are many locals who will provide information about the neighborhood you are looking into. The Biggerpockets forum is geared towards investors whereas the City Data forum seems to be people talking about their neighborhoods generally and helping those who plan on moving there with information. Another way to look at the neighborhood and house without traveling there is to use Google Street View. Of course, these pictures may not be up-to-date but it still gives you a feel for the neighborhood.

Seeing the property- the turnkey company, realtor or whoever it is you are working with will send you pictures and/or videos of the property. If you want to make sure these pictures are accurate, you can hire an independent third-party to take pictures of the property and send it to you. For $69, WeGoLook will send an agent to the property to take some pictures and verify the condition of the property.

Finally, after all this research, I think that an inspection and appraisal of the property adds an extra layer of security. If you are taking a mortgage on the property, the bank won’t want to take the risk of giving you mortgage with a property that is in horrible condition and about to fall apart. The home inspector has no incentive to lie about the condition of the property. Consider using a different home inspector than the one recommended by the turnkey company or realtor you’re working with to ensure there is no conflict of interest.

I’m not saying you should purchase real estate out-of-state without seeing it. If you are able to fly out to see the properties offered, check out the neighborhoods, and talk to the people you will be investing with, it’s a great idea. I’m just saying that it is doable even if you cannot personally go there. Just make sure you do your due diligence. Investing in real estate has risks and investing in a property out-of-state has increased risks, but they can be reduced.

Would you consider buying a property without seeing it? If you’ve done this before, are there any other resources you would recommend using?

Buying a Used Rental Car

hertz
Buying a car is a stressful event. Buying a used car is even more stressful. You don’t want to buy a lemon and you don’t want to overpay. I purchased my previous car years ago through Enterprise Car Sales and had a good experience with it. You can read about my experience here. In a prior post, I mentioned that I was looking at purchasing a bigger vehicle and eventually bought a minivan. After doing some research, it seemed like the Honda Odyssey was a good choice. One big reason was the fuel economy for such a big car. Unfortunately, Enterprise Car Sales did not carry that car so I considered going to a regular used car lot.

I did not have a good experience with the used car lot. I found a car with a very good price…maybe too good to be true. I had a mechanic check it out and he basically told me to RUN FAR FAR AWAY. He said that even if the price was dropped $2000, he wouldn’t recommend buying it. I didn’t want to deal with shady used car dealers so I considered other types of minivans and looked back at Enterprise Car Sales, but their prices didn’t seem as good as when I purchased from them years ago. I also looked into Hertz Car Sales, which like Enterprise sells their rental car inventory, CarMax, a no-haggle used car retailer as well as a new tech start-up called Carvana, which sells used cars online (they deliver the car to you).

After looking at those option, I found that Hertz had the best prices for the vehicle I was interested in. Hertz advertises that their prices are $1000 or more below the Kelley Blue Book (KBB) value. It is a no haggle price so the price is the price, however, I found the price to be very fair based on my research and over $1500 below KBB value. Also, if you are a Hertz Gold Member, you get an extra $300 off. If you’re not a member, you can just sign up online. They didn’t seem that strict about it. I just showed them my member ID card which I printed from my e-mail.

Hertz offers two options when purchasing their cars. One is Rent2buy and the other is Herz Certified. For the Rent-to-buy program, the cars are still in their rental inventory so you have to reserve the vehicle. You have three days to test drive the car and decide whether to buy it or not. If you end up buying it, you will not be charged for the rental. I went with the Certified program. According to their website, certified cars are “carefully selected from their rental fleet” and then undergo “extensive” inspections because it is put out for sale.

My car buying process went smoothly and without a salesperson trying to pressure me to buy or upsell me. There also wasn’t any hidden fees like “destination fee” or “documentation fee.” The person I worked with showed me the car and took me on a test drive. There was no pressure and the transaction was stress-free. I recommended Hertz Car Sales to a friend of mine and he also bought a car, but he went through the Rent2buy program. The cars in that program might have less mileage as they haven’t been retired from the rental fleet yet. My friend told me that during the three-day test drive, the car ran smoothly and when he took it to his mechanic, he was told the car was “like new.” Hertz also provides a 12,000 mile or 12 month power train warranty. You also get 12-months roadside assistance.

When I’ve mentioned that I purchased my car from Hertz, some have asked me whether I’m worried that it’s was previously a rental car and might have been abused. I guess this is a possibility, but I think the majority of people renting from Hertz are probably people on business. And for others renting the cars for leisure, do you really abuse it or do you just drive like you normally do? Another thing is that I bought a Minivan! Most likely the person renting it is a parent and I doubt they’re flooring it or doing donuts in the parking lot. Also, I think rental car companies have an incentive to keep their cars in good condition so maintenance is not really an issue.

One other criticism was that I didn’t get a good deal because I could not negotiate the price. However, I can’t say that was the case. As I mentioned in my previous experience with Enterprise Car Sales, I did my research and in that instance also went and negotiated at other dealerships. In the end, no-haggle is not a big deal because the price is fair. It’s possible that if you’re an expert negotiator and the dealership you go at a time is desperate to move its inventory you might get a better deal, but I’m happy with my deal. The only downsides for some maybe is that they may not carry the make and model of the vehicle you want, and their cars also probably won’t have higher end features. But I don’t need heated leather seats or an entertainment package so that’s okay.

Would you purchase a vehicle from a rental company or do you prefer to negotiate at the car dealerships?

Personal Finance for the Forgotten

credit: freedigitalphotos by Winnond

credit: freedigitalphotos by Winnond

Tomorrow, after a divisive and contentious election, a new president will be sworn in. A thin-skinned, vengeful, inexperienced braggadocio and bully. That was just an undeniable assessment of the character of the man based solely on his conduct, actions, and words. This is not a political blog nor am I a very political person so I’m going to leave it at that.

Xenophobia and racism played a part in the outcome. Having an opponent who was strongly disliked with flaws of her own also played a role. Some just held their nose and voted for the least of two poor candidates. Others voted for a third-party candidate who had no chance of winning. However, there was a strong segment of the population who felt ignored by the political establishment, on both sides. Their economic concerns and values were not addressed and Mr. Trump was able to tap into that anger and turn it into a victory for himself. The forgotten man and woman are angry for being ignored, and rightfully so.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a segment of the population who feel like they are the forgotten when it comes to receiving personal finance information. In a Yahoo finance article listing various ways to spend less and save more, it offered the usual generic tips most personal finance bloggers often tout. One reader commented, “Each time I read about educational and personal finance tips here, I can’t avoid feeling that they were written by privileged folks with textbooks solutions to real life problems.” I’ve also read comments in similar articles where people seem to shake their head and say, “I already do this, but I am still struggling!”

The feeling that perhaps personal finance bloggers or gurus are perhaps out of touch with reality made me think of a Saturday Night Live skit where Kristen Wiig parodies Suze Orman. Josh Brolin plays Dick Dunkendirk, a caller to the Suze Orman show who is in dire economic straits. He tells Orman that he “took a sponge bath this morning in a TJ Maxx bathroom” and slept on “four opened pizza boxes lined with Pampers.” Orman responds by telling him to tap into his emergency savings account and to immediately put his money into a Roth IRA.

Helaine Olen, a journalist and writer, criticizes personal finance gurus for blaming financial victims for not getting ahead when it is a political and economic problem. She says that “there is this great myth out there that Americans went on a financial bender. The leading cause of bankruptcy is not buying lattes, it’s health care, followed by the usual fractured families, unemployment, sort of all of the plagues of the 21st century — economic plagues.” She continues by saying that it “depends on if you think this is a self-help problem or a political problem. I believe it is a political and economic problem.” She also says that those in the personal finance space are basically saying, “‘Yeah, the economy (is poor), but you’re in it on your own, and therefore you should be able to solve this on your own.’ Realistically, that’s just not true for most people.”

I think Mrs. Olen’s comments are troubling. She is correct that a lot of those financial struggles are a result of the economy and that a large part of it is a political problem. But by saying that personal finance advice is unrealistic and unhelpful is a disservice to her readers. Actually, not only is it a disservice, it is unproductive and perhaps dangerous. She is allowing the forgotten and ignored to abdicate responsibility and play the victim. Yes, for some of those struggling, they may be blameless and perhaps they may be unable to pull themselves out of poverty. But you can only control what you can control. Sure, it would be great if our politicians could offer a solution, but I’m not holding my breath on that happening. It is much more productive to try and find a solution on your own, rather than waiting for a savior. Nobody cares more about you and yourself. Your choices in life has a huge effect on your destiny. So rather than accept financial struggle as a foregone conclusion, take action to improve your lot in life. Even with all the issues we have in this country, I still think this is the land of opportunity.

If you are unemployed or underemployed, you’ve got to learn skills which will enable you to get a better paying job. If you live in a depressed area with no jobs, maybe you will have to move. I do not mean to make it seem like these solutions are easy. They are absolutely not easy. However, what choice do you have if you are stuck in that predicament. And while Mrs. Olen has done much more research and has more access to data than I do, my anecdotal experience is that while there are many struggling due to things beyond their control, many are also struggling because they lack financial literacy and live beyond their means. I see all too often that a family is living paycheck to paycheck, yet they have cable television, an expensive car, more house than they need, and the latest tech gadgets. However, I would also like to caution many who rush to judge others financial predicament without knowing the full story. Often times when I read an article about someone struggling financially and the comments will lay complete blame on that person for their actions. More empathy, compassion, and understanding can never hurt.

As I was writing about the forgotten people out there struggling financially, I read that Jay from Budgets are Sexy has created the Rockstar Community Fund where $20 gift cards are given out to better someone’s life. Another initiative is Debt Drop where $50 is given to someone struggling with debt to give them a little hope for the day and remind them that they are not alone. This initiative was inspired by Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt who was doing that on her own blog. Finally, a third initiative is a general fund, which has recently helped a fellow blogger who is struggling with health issues. Some may say that $20 or $50 is a drop in the bucket, but big things often have small beginnings!

I’d also like to mention that Brian from Debt Discipline has spoken at his local library about dealing with debt and about budgeting. He has also championed financial literacy education at his children’s high school.

I am inspired by my fellow bloggers who are taking action to address the needs of the forgotten. What else can we do? What else can those struggling financially do?