First Impressions of College Grad Money Guide

The College Grad Money Guide has been out less than a week and some first impressions have been coming in. If you are a blogger who has had a chance to read it and wrote a review on your site, please email me. If you are a reader and want to share your thoughts, you can leave them as a comment here or email me.

Nicki, who took a “personal finance” course in high school college (sorry!), sent me this email:

First, I wanted to say that both your blog and the mini-book for College Grads are great! I enjoy reading your blog on a daily basis. And I believe you achieved exactly what you wanted to with the College Grad Money Guide – it outlines the basics for those who are new to the world of personal finance! Your writing style/light humor made it a fun read as well.

In my “Personal Finance” course that I took, we covered a wide range of subjects (the textbook we used was Personal Finance – Turning Money into Wealth by Arthur Keown, 4th edition. We discussed the reasons behind financial planning, how to measure your financial health (using various ratios, etc), understanding the time value of money, tax planning/strategies, cash/liquid asset management (no mention of high-yield savings accounts there!), the use/role of credit cards and open credit, consumer loans, purchasing a home/automobile, life/health insurance, property/liability insurance (ie increasing this as your net worth increases), investment basics, mutual funds (my finance professors all made a huge emphasis on the importance of investing in mutual funds), retirement planning and finally, estate planning. […]

Everything that you say in the short book is great and to the point. I believe it is a wonderful basic tool for those who do not have much previous knowledge. Some things you mention, which was not covered in my course and I have since learned about via PF blogs include: High-Yield Savings Accounts, Online Bill Pay, the 120 Rule (though we were told that starting young, it is good to go with 100% invested in equity, split 80/20 between domestic/int’l stocks indices by using mutual funds) and how to actually set-up a Roth IRA (though we covered IRAs in a lot of detail and were recommended to set up a Roth). Essentially, the course just went into much more detail regarding all the topics. One topic you cover which we did not was that of student loans (we discussed consumer loans).

Sorry this was so lengthy! Overall, I think the guide is fantastic. I am already passing it on to a few friends who I think would certainly benefit from it. I do not think any changes need to be made at all. Thank you very much for creating it, it is a wonderful introduction on the basics of personal finance!! 🙂

Tim, who downloaded the guide for his brother in college, had this to say:

This is a good guide. I’m not sure how much interest a fresh graduate might have in the health savings plans, I didn’t follow through to the site for your write up. I feel like graduates don’t get a good idea of what their “usual” medical expenses will be until they’re out of school for a few years.

I especially liked the section which talked about planning for the big life events, marriage, first home, etc. I know I kick myself for not planning a little more on those things. For guys you’d like to think about having that engagement ring fund ready so that you aren’t stressing about it later when you decide to propose.

Great guide overall. Even for those that have established good habits, a good guide is handy because a whole bunch of new things happen after graduating which you don’t have experience with.

If you’d like to get your copy, the instructions are on the College Grad Money Guide download page. If you’re already a subscriber, just look below for the download link.


Review: Gotcha Capitalism by Bob Sullivan

Gotcha Capitalism by Bob SullivanIf The Consumerist were a religion, Gotcha Capitalism would be its Bible.

I think that every consumer in America needs to read Gotcha Capitalism by Bob Sullivan (he also writes for Red Tape Chronicles). Go to the library, head to the bookstore, jump on, but get yourself a copy. This isn’t a book about investing that appeals only to those with some extra income to invest in the stock market. This isn’t a book about relationships and money. Gotcha Capitalism will teach you how to identify how you’re being cheated by major corporations and what you can do about it. If you spend money, you need to read this book. (I’ve never given a stronger endorsement to a book) Heck, just get it and scan it, you’ll end up savvier than when you started. I bet that once you start reading, you won’t want to stop.

The book has three major sections. Section one describes Gotcha Capitalism, how ten industries are bilking you and every other American out nearly a thousand bucks a year ($946 on average, they calculated, and that on only ten specific industries), and how they get away with it. Section two describes exactly what they’re doing and how to defend yourself against it (and get your money back!). The third and final section is like a tool-kit of consumer tools – a collection of sample letters, emails, scripts, etc. for dealing with companies. In summary, section three is the hammer, section two tells you where to hit them, and section one charges you up with the fury you’ll need to drive that nail home in one shot.

The crux of section one is that the world is separated into myopes and sophisticates. Myopes are the folks who happily overpay for things and don’t comparison shop. Sophisticates are those who are savvier consumers, who read more of the fine print and comparison shop products so that you get a good, if not the best, deal available. I’d say all of you are sophisticates (no I’m not buttering you up, a myope wouldn’t be reading blogs about personal finance, they’d simply trust the first financial planner they met) and we’re the enemy to corporations. The solution to the busting the comparison shopper is to confuse them. While we do have savviness in abundance, we only have so much time. So they force arbitration clauses on us, and hidden fees, and ridiculous early termination charges. They hide where the true cost is (for printers, it’s in the ink, not the printer) so that you can’t accurately comparison shop. They deliberately plan to confuse and befuddle you to the point that you become a myope. Your brain can only process so much! Myopes are awesomely profitable, sophisticates are not… and so the game begins.

Section two goes into every one of the ten industries, and more, they identified (Credit Cards, Banks, Retirement/401(k)s, Mortgages and Rentals, Cell Phones, Home Phones, Pay TV, Internet Access, Travel, Groceries, Gift Cards, Rebates, Student Loans, Everything Else) and talks about all the fees and ‘gotchas’ they employ. A great one they discuss deals with retirement plans and 401(k)s. The ‘K’ in 401(k) stands for kickback. 🙂 Your HR contacts a third-party administrator to handle the fund options for your 401(k). Your company gets a great deal on the administration of the plan from the third party administrator because the third party gets a huge “revenue-sharing payment” (*cough* kickback *cough*) for including certain funds. They state that 90% of mutual funds use revenue sharing. 90%. Look to the person to your right and then the person to your left, chances are you’re all getting screwed. This section is nearly 200 pages long.

The last section is the toolkit section with sample phone scripts and form letters you can use to battle the fees described in section two. The sample scripts are great because they outline exactly what you need to do and they can help keep your emotions in check. If you’re listening and reacting, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get angry, flip out, and start screaming at the poor CSR on the other end. By having a script to follow, you can go through it like an emotionless killing machine to get the job done. Plus, yelling never helps.

That’s Gotcha Capitalism in a nutshell. I don’t really want to talk it up any more than I had in the first paragraph so I’ll leave with this suggestion. Give the book a chance by getting it at the library. When you realize you can’t put it down and that it could be a handy reference for a long while, you’ll understand why I was so positive about it. 🙂


SmartMoney’s 2008 Best Discount Brokers

It’s always fun to see discount broker rankings. Last week, I wrote about a little preview to the SmartMoney 2008 Broker Survey in which SmartMoney released some preliminary results from their annual ranking of brokerage firms. SmartMoney has published the full details of their report and I’m sad to say that TradeKing did not retain the top spot they enjoyed the last two years (third place isn’t bad!).

(Click to continue reading…)


Review: Investing in Brazil Stocks by Fred Fuld III

Investing in Brazil Stocks by Fred Fuld IIII don’t know Fred Fuld too well, though we’ve swapped a handful of emails, but I suspect he’s a no nonsense, get to the point, don’t waste your time kind of guy. I suspect this because his book, Investing in Brazil Stocks, is a no nonsense, get to the point, don’t waste your time kind of book. If you want to learn about the major companies of the major industries in Brazil and you had only one hour to do it, this is your book.

The book is organized in a very straightforward manner. The book begins with a discussion of the importance of international markets, of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the rapid growth of industries in those countries. The book then makes a bit of an entertaining digression to discuss a fund Fred created called the Gisele BĂĽndchen index (he has created several of these and the Gisele BĂĽndchen index was featured in Money). The Gisele BĂĽndchen index increased 29% last year (Dow increased 6.5%) and is down only 1.9% this year (Dow fell 5.6%). From there, Fred jumps into the major industries of Brazil in this order:

  • Chemical, Energy & Mining
  • Bank & Real Estate
  • Telecom
  • Food
  • Utility & Forestry
  • Airline

In each industry, Fred outlines a handful of companies in pretty solid detail. For each there is a brief profile, history, recent news, sometimes some trivia and discussion of their financials. Some of the trivia is entertaining to read as well such as Petrobras Energia Participaciones, a leading Brazilian oil company commonly called Petrobras, having some product placement in the yet-to-be-successful Speed Racer movie (that’s polite for ‘it bombed’).

If you are looking to get a comprehensive overview of the major Brazilian industries and their major players, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better starting point than this book. I recognize that’s a very specific need, one that I really didn’t have (but the prospect of a book on Brazilian stocks did interest the trivia side of my brain), but investing internationally is where the investment money will be made in the next hundred years so you might as well start learning now or be relegated to the dinosaurs.

The second edition will be coming out in the Fall.


Review: High School Money Book by Don Silver

High School Money Book by Don SilverMany folks in the personal finance community, both bloggers and mainstream media writers alike, have complained that our high schools should be teaching personal finance along with home economics and shop class. High school students aren’t being educated on the intricacies of dealing with credit cards and their fifty page T&C’s or preparing their taxes or even the fundamentals of saving. Well, Don Silver probably heard those calls and, through Adams-Hall Publishing, put together a book called High School Money Book.

The book itself is quite basic but comprehensive in its coverage of personal finance topics. While it’s targeting high school students, it really applies to anyone who is clueless about the breadth of personal finance topics. It discusses things on how to be frugal, handling debt and credit, being philanthropic, preparing for college, banking, paying bills, etc. It’s more a breadth type of book than a depth type of book. By this I mean it covers a lot of topics at a shallow level without going deeply into any of them. While it has been many years since I was in high school, I think this book hits the mark by educating the reader to the keywords they need to know and the processes they need to become familiar with once they start handling money on their own.

The only concern I have is whether high school students care, which is outside the scope of the book, and whether they’d sit down and read it in book form. With as much information as there is on the internet and the younger generation’s savviness with it, I would think anyone proactive enough to want to read something like this would go directly to the internet; those who are less proactive will probably skip it.

Either way, at a little over 150 pages, it’s a good brief primer on personal finance for anyone.

 Investing, Reviews 

Review: Beating the Market by Gerald Appel, Marvin Appel

Beating the Market by Gerald and Marvin AppelWhen I was first approached to review the book titled Beating the Market, 3 Months at a Time, I thought I was looking at one of those “invest in this hot new sector, you’ll be rich in three months.” Then I saw that the publisher was Financial Times Press and that allayed my concerns some more, FT Press isn’t going to put out some day-trading, hawkerish type book and, this is something I learned later, neither of the authors are your BS snake-oil salesmen types.

The book isn’t about day-trading, though Gerald Appel is well known for his technical analysis and marketing timing (Gerald Appel created the Moving Average Convergence / Divergence technical indicator), but about active investing and how it can yield higher returns than “buy and hold” strategies. By active investing, they mean that you can use their strategy to review your portfolio once ever three months (rather than the often advised once a year rebalancing act). So, through active investing and a one hour review every three months, you can beat the market with their proven investing plan. That’s the promise they’re making.

Basic Investing Education

Beating the Market begins by educating the reader on how to put together an investment portfolio, what your goals should be, how you should approach it, and is generally a good primer on investing in general. For example, it’s important to note that you want to get a rate of return greater than the risk-free investments you have available to you. I could put my funds in an E*Trade Online Savings account and get 3.15% risk-free, so my investments have to beat that. (usually the benchmark is money market funds and 90-day T-bills) Another goal is to manage the risk of your investments, something individual investors are notoriously bad at. Emerging markets are always hot and can return big double digit returns, but they can also lose big doubt digits… are you getting enough return for the risk you’re taking?

It Gets Complicated, Quickly

After the eight page primer on putting together a winning investment portfolio, the books slices right into diversification and risk management. I don’t want to recap the entire book but the topics it covers run the gamut from discussing ETFs and emerging markets, to the purpose of bonds in your portfolio, to special bond market investments, and end with discussions of retirement, planning for the political impacts, and an appendix chock full of resources. There is even a chapter called the Definitive Portfolio in which they build out a well diversified example portfolio with a mix of two types of bonds, two types of ETFs, and one overseas component.

The Investing Plan

So what’s this plan I spoke of earlier? The plan is the whole book. By understanding all the pieces of your portfolio (including risks, investment profiles, and all the nitty gritty described in each chapter) and how diversification works to reduce your risk, you can actively participate in the management of your portfolio without having to pay a manager 1-2% of your investments. That’s what active means in their plan, not day trading.

There’s a lot of information in this book and it’s definitely one I will be reading more closely over the next few weeks. There are discussions about high yield “junk” bonds and about the international markets that I glossed over, two things I know very little about, so if you have it at the library or bookstore (I tend to borrow all my books from the library) I wholeheartedly recommend that you pick it up.


Review: Financial IQ by Robert Kiyosaki

Financial IQ by Robert KiyosakiI think Financial IQ by Robert Kiyosaki is a good “big financial picture” book that can help some re-frame the way they think about money and the impact money has on their lives. He talks about various Financial IQs and how the rules of money has changed, all of which are important ideas to think about. I’m not saying he’s right, but he certainly raises questions that require additional investigation. I don’t think you should take anyone’s opinions, and that’s what a book like this is really about, as pure gospel without reviewing the details for yourself. For an example of this, let’s take a look at one of the rules that have changed, according to Kiyosaki.

Gold Standard

Kiyosaki repeatedly states that the rules of money changed in 1971. 1971 was the year that President Nixon took the United States off the gold standard. Kiyosaki goes on to explain how that turned our dollars from “money” to “currency,” and how all currencies will eventually move towards being worthless. Besides being a little inflammatory and doomsday-ish, the point is somewhat valid as the concept of inflation is just that – our money is worth less and less each year. Is this true?

If every nation’s money is pegged to gold, what you have are pieces of paper worth exchangeable for different amounts of gold. If you have that, then exchange rates are all fixed and there is no inflation. What ends up happening is that instead of inflation handling the differing growth rates in countries, you would have a shifting of gold reserves. If a country’s gold reserves go down, then you end up deflating and have to pay people less and then they can’t pay their debts and all sorts of bad things happen (at least according to this interesting article by Peter Bernstein. So… while inflation seems bad, it’s not as bad as deflation. So, the lesson of the day is to trust but verify. 🙂

Financial IQ’s

The five basic financial IQs are:

  1. Making more money.
  2. Protecting your money.
  3. Budgeting your money.
  4. Leveraging your money.
  5. Improving your financial information.

The importance of these financial IQs is that these are the five areas you need to educate yourself on about money, having a high IQ in one area does not mean you have a high IQ in any of the others. Just because you’re good at making money doesn’t mean you’re good at protecting it or leveraging it. I think we can all agree with that but we’d also agree that this is hardly groundbreaking information. Let’s take a look at the first Financial IQ: Making more money.

IQ #1. Make more money!

The key to making more money is learning from your mistakes and solving your problems. Kiyosaki begins this chapter with stories of his younger years as he left a lucrative job as a third mate on an oil tanker to enlist in the Marines for Vietnam, then opting to become a Xerox salesman rather than return the oil business so that he could pursue the path of entrepreneurship. He goes on to explain the rest of his successes and failures with the point being that you have to learn from your mistakes in order to find the right path for you. (there’s also a little bit of Seth Godin’s The Dip in there, where you don’t settle for your local maximum)

Many of the other chapters are like this, very high level, and it’s something that JD of Get Rich Slowly complained about in our chat the other day. The problem with being at such a high level is that it requires the reader to bring it down to the street level, where you take those ideas and act on them. If I remember correctly, JD wasn’t a big fan of that because sometimes we need actionable advice and this book just doesn’t deliver on it.

I have a different take, I appreciate the high level look and brain stimulation. I never thought about the impact of coming off the gold standard (I am only 27) and some of the other viewpoints brought on by Kiyosaki and so I welcome the ideas he’s pushing. Some of them aren’t too groundbreaking, but some of them do intrigue me.

If you’re looking for or need a step by step guide or something like that, I don’t think you’ll like this book very much. If you are looking for something high level, I think this one may stir up your brain a little and get those juices flowing.

 Retirement, Reviews 

Review: Cash-Rich Retirement by Jim Schlagheck

Cash-Rich Retirement by Jim SchlagheckCash-Rich Retirement by Jim Schlagheck, seen on public television’s Retirement Revolution, seeks to turn the retirement advice community on its head by taking “the investing techniques of the mega-wealth” and bringing it to the masses. It’s quite a bold statement to make, since we all know the mega-rich are afforded a much different set of rules than the rest of us, so we’ll see if Mr. Schlagheck can deliver.

The dust jacket says that Schlagheck’s advice “breaks with conventional advice that tells the public to invest mightily in stocks, flip holdings, and seek capital gains.” I’m not sure that the conventional advice says you should be actively trading stocks, but then again personal finance bloggers live in a world where we are exposed to the sage advice of Buffett and Bogle, two accomplished investors who actively advocate index funds for the masses. However, even if you accept the belief that the conventional advice is flipping stocks, Schlagheck advocates investing for “prudent income… Build a ‘life-cycle’ annuity package for lifetime retirement income. Focus on dividend-, interest-, and rent-producing investments and insurance.” If your alarms went off when you red “life-cycle” annuity package, you weren’t alone – mine went crazy. Annuities are actually one of the “six straight-shooting, show-me-the-money steps” in the Cash-Rich Retirement plan. We can see what Schlagheck means when we get to them.

The six steps are:

  • Change your “automatic pilot”
  • Diversify your holdings in radically different ways
  • Build out your investment plan with funds and objective research
  • Get all the professional help you can
  • Build income streams with a ladder of annuities
  • Invest in long-term health care insurance

Setting the stage

The book begins by discussing retirement and how the rules of the game have changed. Schlagheck has a very straight forward and easy to understand writing style and the book is organized in a way that makes it very easy to follow. He makes excellent points about how the retirement is changing, given the changing demographics, solvency of Social Security, and a whole collection of other issues. It really does drive the point home that the old rules of retirement are changing (because they are!).

Let’s see these six steps…

Change your “automatic pilot”

Schlagheck’s term of “automatic pilot” refers to the fact that you concept of “saving for retirement” is investing for speculative gains. It means taking stocks in your Roth and going after high flyers, it means pushing your 401(k) contributions into microcaps or other more risky investments, and he argues that you need to rewire the way you think and act differently. Less like a slot-machine player and more like a saver and cautious investor. Mostly, he’s saying you need to take your retirement seriously right now. What does he recommend you do?

  • Save at least 20% pre-tax income
  • Hold savings in tax-sheltered accounts (401k, 403b, etc.)
  • Automate saving (think, Automatic Millionaire)
  • Don’t chase speculative gains

So far, nothing super incredible or only within the realm of the super-rich. It’s just straight up, smart personal finance advice that’s been repeated before, though it does have some eye-opening statistics not often included in other books.

Radically diversify your holdings

This chapter focuses on how your asset allocation is probably off, though it focuses on many of the simple mistakes people may make such as investing too much in company stock or being too risky in allotments. He advocates investing in things that provide cash flow. That includes dividend stocks, interest bearing accounts or investments, and “rent” producing REITS or rental properties. This is probably where the “Cash-Rich” in the title comes from. Another category he says you should increase in is international exposure, an idea that probably would’ve netted you quite a tidy sum had you implemented several years ago.

From here, this book has some nice ideas but nothing that’s radically new or unheard of. Since the annuity chapter sounded some alarms, let us skip to that chapter.

Build income with annuities

Annuities are like timeshares, they’re not inherently bad, they were just pitched by inherently bad people. The book makes an excellent case for annuities and one that I buy into, though, as they say, the devil is in the details. Annuities provide protection against longevity risk, which is the risk that you’ll outlive your retirement savings, by providing a guaranteed constant income stream and Schlagheck recommends using them after everything else (401k, Roth). I believe that to be prudent advice.

Schlagheck explains annuities, how they are structured, the four main types, the benefits, drawbacks, etc. If you want a primer on annuities, Schlagheck has a good one in his book. He warns about the costs of an annuity, which are 2.3% average, and says that there are many excellent ones at a fraction of the cost.

So what’s this life cycle strategy? The idea is that you want to ladder your annuities so that you get different amounts of income at different points of your retirement. His example has three annuities, each paying out for three different time periods. The first pays out income for 9 years from age 65 to 74, #2 pays out for 9 years from 75 to 84, and #3 pays out from 85 and onward. I’m afraid the details are outside my capability to detail with much clarity so you’ll have to check out the book if you want to know how their structured. He also provides a lot of explanation that I think is crucial for understanding how to ladder annuities, such as tax implications, purchase tactics, etc.

Overall Impressions

Overall, I felt Schlagheck did a good job explaining his cash-rich retirement plan, even though I skipped a few of them in this review, though nothing seemed exclusive to the mega-wealthy. Granted, the ability for most retirees to invest in rental properties is slim (but not unheard of) but investing in dividend stocks, buying annuities, and many of the other suggestions are not anything special. His explanation of annuities, for someone who knows little about them or the fact that laddering them would be a good technique, was comprehensive and easy to understand. If you have the basics of retirement down and are looking to learn more, I think getting this book, either at the bookstore or your local library, would be a great first step.

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