Aug 24

That was the title of a Barron’s article this past week. There’s been more and more press about the gap between the rich and the poor. In my work as a real estate agent focussing on renting to low income people, I see people who aren’t lazy, but just the opposite. Showing me proof of income made by working a 40+ hour week at a minimum wage job, and asking if we can take their cash income into account as well. The regular extra money they make doing some labor or babysitting nights or weekends. When you make $1400 a month working full time, you’re not going to able to afford much in the way of housing. We try to see three times a rent for income, i.e. $2400/mo income to qualify for an $800/mo apartment.

The Barron’s article started off with an observation, $1.4 trillion cash in the economy. The federal reserve backs up that number. The authors then make 2 logistical leaps that are beyond comprehension. First, that this cash is income. Forget for a moment that most people don’t keep more than a few hundred dollars sitting around. Even if they did, it only counted as income (declared or not) when it came in. The authors then assume that 80% of this money is income to the poorest 1/3 of households, the bottom 40 million families. Then, by magic, wait, not magic, a miracle. As in this cartoon.


Where was I? They conclude that the bottom 1/3 have an income that’s understated by as much as $30-$40K per year. To be fair to Barron’s and their real authors, the article was published in the “other voices” page.  This is where essays are solicited from readers who have some knowledge of finance. Whoever accepted this article blew it, in my opinion. Is there no cash economy? No. Of course there is. However, the numbers presented in the article offer bad math and a false conclusion. The income gap is so large that if it’s exaggerated by some percent, it’s still an issue. Sorry, Barron’s, this article isn’t worthy of your otherwise fine paper.

(Note: I am not condoning undeclared income, just putting it in perspective. A real estate agent is not an agent for the IRS, in fact we have an obligation to count any and all income, regardless of source.)


written by Joe \\ tags: ,

Aug 10

It’s already election season, and we have 15 months to look forward to our politicians each jockeying for position, name calling, debating, all the way to the final two (or three?) we can choose from in November 2016. I am a personal finance blogger, and do my best to stay non-partisan, but when I hear proposals that will affect our tax code or cause me to change my advice on investing, I’m going to analyze it here.

Today, it’s Chris Christie’s proposal to cut social security benefits. First, he’d like to push the age for full retirement benefits from the current 67 to 69. For this part of his proposal, I’d like to address the elephant in the room. The fact that this impacts black men disproportionately from whites.

From the CDC, “In 2011, life expectancy at birth was 78.7 years for the total U.S. population, 76.3 years for males, and 81.1 years for females. Life expectancy was highest for Hispanics for both males and females. In each racial/ethnic group, females had higher life expectancies than males. Life expectancy ranged from 71.7 years for non-Hispanic black males to 83.7 years for Hispanic females.”


In other words, on average, a 67 year old black man has 4.7 years left to live, and a white man, 9.3. This cuts the benefit by 42% for black men, but only 21% for whites. I read his proposal and didn’t have to search too long to find government number for life expectancy. Yet, in all the media I consume, all the articles on the Christie proposal, I have yet to see this addressed by anyone. (To my readers – This observation opens a discussion of a far larger issue, health care. In the long term, instead of tinkering with Social Security benefits, we need to close this gap.)

Next, we have his plan to reduce benefits for that he believes simply don’t need the money. How much is that? He would phase out the benefit for those with incomes from $80K to $200K. For a single person, that’s quite the range. In the last election, I recall $250K/yr being considered rich. And we discussed the difference between rich income vs rich wealth. It’s possible to make $250K and blow through every dime, and it’s also possible to make $100K and save your way to a $2M retirement fund. But here, we’re talking about retirement, and the connection between $80K and the wealth it represents is best thought of via the 4% rule. In other words, assuming I spent a lifetime of work saving to my 401(k) and IRA, pretax, it would take $2M of wealth to let me withdraw $80K per year. This takes an above average wage (or wages for a couple, but if one person passes early than the other, we still have a single person dealing with this money) but nowhere near what we consider “rich.”

At $80K taxable, we’ll ignore deductions for this discussion. This person might have as much as $40K in Social Security benefits. The furnace breaks, the roof needs replacing, a child needs help sending your granddaughter to college. Whatever the reason, $60K extra is withdraw from the 401(k). The tax rate this year would be 28%, netting $43,200 to pay a year’s tuition. But Christie would add an effective tax of $20K (i.e. confiscate half the SS benefit) and the net result is $23,200 from that $60,000 withdrawal. This results in a marginal rate of 61.3%.

What I find most troubling is the Catch-22 in which we all seem to find ourselves. Social Security feels like a retirement plan. From the time I started working, I’d get an annual statement, basically telling me that if I kept working to a certain age, 62,65,70, I’d expect a certain benefit. Yet, as many have noticed, the statement have a warning.

Your estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2033, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 77 percent of scheduled benefits.

This, and the warning that it’s really not a retirement plan, but an insurance, leaves us all encouraged to save all we can, 10-15% of our income being ideal. In my example above, it was more about how the retiree saved than how much. In hindsight, had the savings been post tax, subject to a 25% margin rate, the accumulation might be $1.5M instead of $2M. The tax on dividends would be 15%, as would cap gains. But withdrawals wouldn’t be considered income, and Christie’s horrific proposal could be moot. To be clear, his proposal doesn’t just hit the wealthy, but those who simply saved what they could in a responsible way.

More to come on the topics raised here. What do think about Christie’s proposal? If you agree with him, what am I missing? If not, how would it impact you? Last do you feel that Social Security is a “Entitlement” or do prefer to call it an “Earned Benefit”?

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Jul 24

Today, a guest post from Crystal –

Many of us dream about hitting the road or traveling the globe… ideally without sapping our savings dry! To travel while working is the ultimate lifestyle. Here are some ways you can explore the world while still earning a living.


Thanks to the internet and the rise of sites such as Elance and Freelancer, there is a whole suite of opportunities for writers, journalists, editors, graphic designers and programmers. These sites give professionals the ability to list their résumé and experience online and then bid for thousands of jobs available.

Initially, it can be a slow start as you build you profile and reputation. But once you are established, there is regular, paid work to be found and even a decent income to be had. The best thing is the work can be done from anywhere – an office, the beach or your dining table – using only an internet connection and laptop. Jobs are invoiced and paid online, with job tracking and even time tracking included as part of the service.


New technology has also changed the face of sales, meaning it’s no longer a door-to-door profession or needs to be based from a sales office. For example, companies such as Telcoinabox offer the opportunity for those with sales skills to essentially set themselves up as a telecommunications provider. Everyone uses telecommunications products every day, meaning anyone is a potential customer and they can be serviced from anywhere with a phone and computer.


If you’re an expert in your field then consulting is a great way to earn money while on the road. With experience in fields like human resources, finance, IT or business mentoring, consultants can charge big dollars to help start up or shape up a business.


It’s old school but noble. Tutoring, whether it’s in English, maths or general studies, is a great way to earn cash while traveling. It’s also a great way for you to engage in a little culture while overseas as you get to know new people and share your skills.

There are some great organizations that can find you positions overseas and provide you with accreditation, or you can establish yourself as an independent traveling tutor.


If you’re a great writer and have knowledge or wit to share then setting up your own website or blog could provide a steady income while you’re on the road. Income is derived through advertising or membership, but it’s a competitive field, so ensure your topic is of interest and you have a new take on it.

From parenting to food blogging, there are people making good money after establishing their own sites.

As technology and access to it improves by the day, more and more opportunities are opening up to global citizens looking to make the world their workplace. Whether it’s using your language skills, professional expertise or sales smarts, it’s simply a matter of taking the leap and finding the field to suit you. Then you can sit back on that beach in Thailand while the money keeps coming in.

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

Jul 09

I was listening to my local news station when a segment came on, a 5 minute bit of money advice with a local author and financial planner, Jonathan Pond.

I like his conservative approach. What’s unfortunate is that a quick few minutes to discuss any financial topic is going to miss some important details. In this case, the host asked what one should do with their 401(k) when they leave a job. Jon’s answer was to not leave it languish in the old account, to move it to an IRA. I hope listeners took that advice as “don’t forget about the 401(k), get more information.” I often say that it’s called personal finance  for a reason. Not all situations are identical. Let’s review 3 situations where leaving the account where it is would be best:

  • You were 55 or older when you left the company. Did you know that if you retire at 55, and try to take an IRA withdrawal before age 59-1/2, you’ll pay a 10% penalty? Yes there are some workarounds, a Sec (72t) withdrawal for instance. The simplest thing, however is to leave the funds in your 401(k) where you can withdraw with a 20% tax withholding, but no penalty, if you separated at 55 or older.
  • Your old 401(k) had great investing options. It’s possible. My old company 401(k) uses a Vanguard S&P fund that has a .02% annual expense. This is a $200 fee for every $million invested. The typical 401(k) expense is 1% or .02% per week.
  • Last, you’ve been doing well, well enough that you can’t make a pre-tax IRA deposit. Still, each year, you can do the back door Roth. Deposit to the IRA and immediately convert to Roth. Easy, right? Yes, but if you transfer your 401(k) to an IRA, and then try this maneuver, you’ll be in for a headache and tax bill. Conversions to Roth are prorated, all your IRA money is considered. So if you had $95K in your IRA and then deposit $5K to convert, 95% of the conversion will be taxable. Keeping the funds inside the 401(k) is the way to keep these funds segregated.

Are you making this decision right now? What factors have been part of your thought process? Have friends or family been giving you advice to go one way or the other?

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

May 18

The David (as I fondly call the entertainer Dave Ramsey) is known for his hyperbole. And his “my way or the highway” view on all things financial. One of his more memorable quotes is “No one ever says they got rich off of credit card points.” It seems to me that if I say so, and offer some supporting evidence, then he’s wrong. If he ever repeats himself, you can reply and tell him you know a guy that did. Let’s start here.

Screen shot 2015-05-02 at 3.28.43 PM

Above is a snapshot of my 529 account funded solely with the 2% cash back from my credit card. We use a credit card that offers 2% cash back on all purchases, and have had the card for nearly 16 years. It’s invested in an S&P index, so the number above includes the growth of the market. We have 2 years till my daughter goes off to college. Or 6 until her senior year. I’m hoping this account can grow to $40K and cover a full semester’s cost. That will make another topic for an article here.

In 2012, I wrote a guest post How I Made $4,000+ on a Cash Back Credit Card Offer. The exact number was $4550. That was a one time opportunity, for me, a way to take advantage of the institution we all hate, the bank that pays you .01% on you money, but charges you 5% on your mortgage, and a fee for every little thing. You can read all about it at the linked article.

Last, I’ve also had an Amex card that averaged over $500/yr in rebates for Costco and gas purchases, so another $10K on top of this. This all totals $40K, give or take.

There’s a site Global Rich List that puts wealth and income into perspective. I put in $40,000 and found

Screen shot 2015-05-02 at 3.44.56 PM


If instead of wealth, we look at income, how about I look at the $1600/yr I can withdraw from the $40,000, and add $2000/yr, the amount I’ve been getting back in rewards, so $3600/yr.

Screen shot 2015-05-02 at 3.47.43 PM

I offer this a bit tongue in cheek, as I know that $40,000 isn’t really rich, nor is $3600/yr living the dream. But $40,000 is still a chunk of change. If you look at how much we’ve saved for retirement in the US –


That $40,000 is more than 40% of those nearing retirement have saved. Did I really get rich on credit card points? We can debate that. But first, ask the 31% of 55 year olds who have less than $10,000 saved if an extra $40,000 would make them feel rich, and then decide.

written by Joe \\ tags: ,