A year ago I read Burton Malkiel’s seminal text on investing, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, and concluded that it made sense to invest in exchange-traded funds (ETFs). He imparted a challenging message: people are inherently poor stock pickers, but we can be better through diversification and buy-and-hold strategies. ETFs would be a quick, affordable, engaging way to diversify, too.
Despite the logic, my brain wouldn’t relent — I wanted to invest in an individual stock. Like a horse being kicked and yanked to the right but continuing left, I decided, against my better judgment, to place an investment in a risky, small cap stock. I’d been following it for quite some time, and made a small prior investment. I wanted to put more in, though.
Only two weeks after doing so, I lost $400. How could this happen? Why did I fall for this logical fallacy and bias? I was berating my brain for the errors. The company looked poised for a rapid expansion. I had drunk the Kool-Aid.
I knew better than to make this recent individual investment, and did it anyways. Humbled, I was the definition of many of the investing problems and fallacies individuals have a habit of engaging in.
Like my flawed investment, I realized much of my financial strategies had become stale. Having money to invest was a new feeling, and the do-it-yourself route wasn’t working. I needed to refresh my checking, savings, and investment streams. And I wanted to feel secure in my financial future. Here’s how I analyzed and reviewed it all.
1. Analyze current accounts
Almost all banking goes through Ally Bank. With 1% and 0.10% on savings and checking accounts, respectively, Ally is an industry leader. I’ve been with them for years, and appreciate the domestic ATM-fee reimbursements and free checks.
After paychecks are deposited into the account, about 40-50% of the money goes to regular, immediate bills. Then, another large portion gets spent on food and regular expenses throughout the month. This variable amount is something I continue to work on and struggle with. Reducing food budgets is something I’ve written about before, and will likely talk about again. It’s vital for a frugal life. But after all is said and done, there’s only about $300-400 in leftover funds.
Right now, I’ve been putting the surplus into a savings account. Additionally, I’ve been investing in individual stocks, but with mixed results. At this point, and with such little money at the end of every month, I need to be smart about what I do with any extra funds. These funds will be used to travel for job interviews, licensure, work clothes, moving expenses, and other emergencies. It’s important to have a fair amount on hand for all these moments.
After looking at the accounts, I can see that I have two piles: a checking and savings. There aren’t specific accounts for individual goals. Money is one big slush fund of fun.
Another major unaddressed part is regular investing. As mentioned it’s a weakness within my current financial management.
International travel has been also concern financially; not necessarily the cost, as I use bonus miles for most travel, but the currency exchanges. When I traveled to Colombia about a year ago, I needed local currency and had no method to get cash without fees. It cost me quite a bit to talk to a money exchange business and have them take my USD for Colombian Pesos.
2. Consider other accounts, options
Based on this analysis, I will stick with Ally Bank as my primary checking and savings method. Direct deposits will continue to flow to this checking account first. The goal will be to use this to manage all regular bills and upcoming expenses. Ally has really earned my respect over the years, and I’m happy to stay with them.
Staying with Ally doesn’t mean I’ll be staying with the same strategy, though. I’ll be opening up a new savings account and calling it, “Vocational Expenses.” This will be specific for interview, moving, and other work-related expenses incurred over the next three years. Now, how much should go in here and how fast? I will likely need $4000-5000 over the next few years, but this is a rough estimate. To meet this target, I’ll deposit $250 per month automatically out of every paycheck (Ally checking account) for the next 16 months on the first of the month.
International travel currency fees have been abysmal. To remedy this problem, I’ll be opening up a Charles Schwab Investor Checking account and solely using my Capital One Quicksilver credit card. The interest-earning checking account provides most of the features that an Ally Bank affords, but includes ATM-fee reimbursements for international ATMs and no foreign transaction fees for purchases out of country. The account is widely regarded as the best travel debit card in existence. And unlike Ally’s checking debit card, Schwab’s debit card has a chip and pin. In preparation for any travel, I will place a budgeted travel amount into the Investor Checking account, but leave it at low levels, as there’s no minimum balance necessary. Moreover, I’ll use the Capital One Visa for all international transactions, as it has no foreign transaction fees.
The last revised strategy will be a regular, monthly deposit into a taxable Wealthfront account of $100 on the first of the month. Wealthfront provides low-cost (and free for those under $15,000 invested) asset management, and automates the entire process. They choose real estate, emerging markets, and domestic stocks. They reinvest dividends and provide timely updates.
Now, I don’t need to worry about rebalancing my portfolio or looking for low-load or low-fee funds. I’m exceptionally happy with their service and professionalism. Because I might need the funds sooner than retirement, I’ll be placing them in a taxable, brokerage account for now. Eventually, when I have more cash flow and income, I will place more in my Roth IRA to invest without incurring additional taxes.
3. Review decisions and new strategy
With any financial management plan, there are going to be hiccups. When you make as little as me, automating savings and investing helps, but can also hinder my plans. Sometimes, I don’t have enough money one month and can’t make the savings necessary. At the same point, the plan motivates me to earn and save more. Maybe it’ll even encourage me to save on food!
As I analyzed and reviewed my current actions and future plans, I reflected on interest rates and banking business. Today, banks are not in the business of encouraging you to save. They nickel and dime customers — especially brick and mortar banks — for every little thing. Checks? That’ll cost you. Overdraft fees? You bet. Minimum balance not met? Say hello to my lil’ fee.
Banks earn more when you spend. They profit when you’re in peril; a tragic irony that places their interests (pun intended) above yours. From car loans to mortgages to credit debt, banks increase their margins by marketing these products to their customers.
To save requires great care, forethought, and hours of hard work. To spend takes the swipe of your card.
Reviewing and updating your financial plan is one of the most important actions you can do. If anything, it helps you understand your financial fitness and maximize interest earnings. And maybe still, it challenges you to look for new ways to save and scrimp.