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What is Personal Finance

What is personal finance? And Why does it matter?

Those are two very interesting and important questions to ask as one either begins their life as adults, or begins asking questions they’ve never approached before. For the past five months or so, this blog has predominantly been centered around personal finance, both the investing side, as well as the money management side.

I didn’t realize that before I choose to continue this journey with you all, I should probably take a moment to explain what Personal finance actually is. Personal finance clearly deals with how individuals manage their money.

While the topic briefly touches on the analysis and performance of businesses and organizations for investment purposes, it predominantly centers around the individuals’ approach to managing each dollar in and each dollar out.

Personal finance answers questions like:

What are my financial goals? What use do I have for money? What should my investment approach be? How much do I need to be saving? How large should my house purchase be? Should I buy this trinket or save the money?

Many of these questions are simply answered through quiet reflection or by asking your friends and family for feedback. However, some of these more complex questions like how to invest your money, or how to craft a financial plan can often be better answered by a financial advisor.

Why does personal finance matter? 

There are three basic reasons why you should pay attention to your finances:

1. Money has impact

2. Money can be complicated

3. Money is emotional

While we of course don’t have the time to go into the details of Personal Finance in one blog post, I hope this gives you a great picture of what this topic is all about.

Meeting A Different Donald: Real Estate and Ways to Invest

Most people, if not almost everyone, has heard of Donald Trump. As the 45th president of the United States, he has been a real estate developer and the previous host of the Apprentice show.

But have you heard of Donald Bren? He grew up as the son of two relatively successful parents. His father was a movie producer and real estate developer like him. His mother was a civic leader. After majoring in Economics and Business a the University of Washington, Bren attempted at Skiing in the Olympics but had to quit due to an injury. In addition, Bren became an Officer in the U.S. marine Corps.

After that he took a $10,000 loan out in 1958, he began developing and flipping homes until he had built up a business which he sold. He started another one, sold it, and then took the proceeds to buy a third stake in the Irvine Company. He eventually bought the outstanding ownership and now has a net worth of over $16 Billion.

Donald Bren took one path to real estate. But there are others. I want to briefly cover the three main ways you can approach real estate investing.

1. Direct Investment

A direct investment in real estate, like what Donald Bren did, involves purchasing property either directly or through a business entity. Either you focus on property appreciation, resale, or cashflow. With these metrics in mind, you seek to partner with others to produce above-average returns over the long-term. This is what Bren did.

2. Indirect Investment

The second, more modern way to invest in real estate is less direct. With an indirect investment you buy a company that invests in real estate. Usually this is either a REIT (real estate investment trust) or some sort of real estate syndication.

3. Hybrid

The last option is some sort of mix. It involves partnering with others so that you own the real estate but you don’t necessarily control management of it directly. An example might be a partnership between a handful of people in which you own, say, 20% of the upfront investment. You put a shared investment with say, 2 other people. One person is in charge of management, and the other two people sit passively by but provide the capital.

A hybrid between direct and indirect is usually less risky but also less financially rewarding if your investment becomes a success.

Conclusion:

Part of investing in real estate is understanding yourself. How much involvement do you want? Often the answer is not much, but for those adventurous few, you never know, you might become the next Donald Bren.

Acquiring a Domicile: How to Rent an Apartment

Most people have or will rent at some point in their life. What often comes up is concern about rising prices or lack of adequate amenities. These issues will always be a concern. However the following steps will help prepare you for a move into someone else’s rental.

1. Determine your Renting Criteria

As soon as you decide that you want to rent, you need to determine what you’re after. What kind of budget are you looking at? What square footage? What types of Amenities do you want? What are your needs verse what are your wants? In which location specifically does this rental need to be?

Answering these questions will give clarity, allowing you to start the next step…

2. Narrow Search to 10 Rentals

As soon as you’ve determined your renting criteria you will be ready to begin screening. Similar to how a landlord screens potential tenants, you will be screen potential landlords. Find ten places that most closely meet your criteria.

Some places you can find rentals include:

Pad Mapper, HotPads, Lovely, Trulia and Walkscore

3. Visit Your List and Come Prepared

With your list in mind you can begin visiting each one. To come prepared, bring a checkbook, wallet, or some means of payment in case they want to charge you for an application fee. Also bring proof of income such as a pay stub or other documentation. Lastly, you’re going to want a photo ID.

At this point you should be well on your way to both knowing which locations fit your needs, and entering yourself into the landlords application process. Assuming you meet the rental criteria, you will probably get one of your applications responded to within a week or to.

You’re on your way! I hope this helps you on your rental journey.

Trimming Your Body and Your Budget

What’s more important than money? I can think of a few things: Relationships with yourself and others and your health. Often when people try to get in shape they spend a lot of time or money trying to set up the best equipment. I understanding wanting to set yourself up for success, but if you can’t afford expensive equipment don’t buy it before you even know you’ll stick with it!

The Surviving Millennial has a great blog post about reducing your fitness budget. Check it out!

Here’s the post:

Fitness At Home

I’d like to share a few points I have used in my own life to reduce exercise expenses. I am currently at a University that has a gym. Using it regularly, I have come to realize that access to exercise equipment is truly a blessing. I know this “free” equipment won’t be around forever.

Here are some exercises I’ve used that don’t cost a dime:

Pushups

Jumpking Jacks

Crunches

Burpees

Planks

Another factor that can play itself out in both budgeting and exercise is concern over other’s behaviors. Maybe you are worried what people will think, or possibly even what they’ll say about what you’re doing. The bottom line is that both budgeting and fitness are hard things to do regularly. If you can get over other’s opinions about what you’re doing, and if you are able to exercise your finances and your body, you’ll be headed in the right direction towards achieving your goals.

A Logical Approach to Getting into Debt

The largest expense most folks in the U.S. incur is a home. When buying a home most Americans choose to take out a home mortgage. So how do you go about buying a home? I’ll share that with you in the steps below.

To be honest, I have never purchased a home of my own, however, I plan to. These are the steps I will take in a couple years when buying my first place. I also will incorporate the experience and knowledge I’ve learned from my Father who was both a home builder, carpenter and owner multiple times during my teen years and still is today.

Place and Purpose

Where and why you want to purchase a home are some of the most fundamental questions. For example are you wanting to buy in San Fransisco, CA? In that case you’re probably okay with a price range of $300K-$400K+. Thinking about Lansing, MI? It’ll cost you around $75K-$250K. These ranges are drastically different so deciding on where you want to buy is the first step.

Then ask, why am I buying? Maybe you intend to “house hack” and move out a year later to turn it into a rental, or maybe you want a quiet family home in the country that you can live in for 30 years. Maybe you just want a place large enough to house your aging parents as well as your growing family? There are many reasons for buying.

With those two things in mind, your location and your reasons behind buying, you are ready for the next crucial step, Financing and Finances.

Financing and Finances

Financing and Finances are the most analytical and numbers-based part of purchasing a home. First look at your finances. How much house can you afford? How much home do you actually want or need for your situation? In which ways will a home limit or help you financially?

Financing a home is fairly straightforward and complex at the same time. One one hand all you have to do is go to a bank, get approved for a loan, and then pick a house to buy right? While this is certainly the gist of it, there are most considerations and steps involved.

For example how much downpayment are you putting down? This will determine whether or not you need an FHA loan or conventional loan. What interest rate will you most likely have? What kind of monthly payment will that mean and will you be able to afford it? This kind of ties back into the realm of Financial analysis.

Comparing, Choosing and Closing

In you first step you decided on what you wanted generally speaking and where you wanted to live. In the second step you got approved for a loan and made sure you knew how much you were willing to spend and if you could afford it. Now it’s time to find a place.

First you’re going to need a realtor. This real estate agent will be able to help you locate properties in the area you identified. As they show you properties you will get a feel for the characteristics that you like and the ones you don’t. You’ll ask questions like, “would I  be willing to pay more for a pool?” Or, “Should I pay less for no garage?”

After looking at enough properties you will decide upon one or two that suite you. Get you Realtor to put in offer and you may have to negotiate a little. After agreeing on a price and terms (which is often a long process) you will come to sign the contract. As the day of closing comes near you will have to be aware of the following closing costs:

Realtor Commission

Property Appraisal Fee

Due diligence costs

Attorney fees

Other closing costs

These closing costs and others will usually range between 5% to sometimes even 10%.

Next you’ll have to start moving in, which is a whole different process. But for now I hope I’ve helped you develop a plan for your own home buying.

Building An Empire: Your Real Estate Investing Options

Real estate investing has become a sexy topic for many real estate channels, blogs and books. There are those who say buying a home is a great financial step. However those who want to go beyond the typical goal of homeownership, there are a wide variety of options.

Direct vs Indirect vs Hybrid

When you first decide to put money into real estate, you have to ask yourself how much you would like to be involved in the process. For those who want to buy or manage property directly, there is direct real estate investing.

If you don’t want any part in the investment process you can consider the real estate indirect investment options. These are things like REIT (Real Estate Investment Trusts) and syndicated real estate funds.

The hybrid between indirect and direct investing is partnerships. With a partnership you find someone to either provide the money and credit or do the more involved part. Basically you only are require to take part in part of the real estate investing process, whichever you decide as partners.

Step 2: Picking your strategy

If you decide to invest indirectly into an REIT or syndication you will need to do research and decide on one. For those who determine on either a hybrid or direct investment approach exploring strategy is your next step.

There are many strategies out there like flipping, buy and hold, BRRRR method (Buy, Rent, Repair, Refinance, Repeat), property development, house hack and a few others.

Finally: Choosing your Property Type

After picking which strategy to deploy, you have to determine which kind of property you’d like to buy. Examples include single-family, multi-family (duplex, triplex and four-plex), commercial office, commercial retail, industrial, commercial residential (apartments)

Funding

The last step in acquiring property is deciding upon a funding method. There are a few ways to do this. You can either buy the property cash, which of course is less common, or you can buy one using other people’s money (OPM).

Funding a property using other people money can either come from a bank or somewhere else. If you’re using a bank to buy residential property there are two basic kinds of loans that are usually deployed, either a conventional loan or an FHA loan. The FHA loan is basically a loan that requires less of a downpayment in exchange for paying (PMI insurance).

With an unconventional funding source there are usually two places to get it from: the seller (called seller-financing) or outside places. Seller financing can be fairly straightforward but let me explain that the other outside sources of financing can come from friends, acquaintances, or private lenders.

Conclusion:

Whichever form of real estate you decide to buy, whatever strategy you decide to employ,  and whatever funding method us use to buy them, real estate remains a solid investment option. Real estate can be consider a reputable option up there with stocks and business ownership. Next time you’re thinking you want to invest use these steps to uncover your own real estate path.

Are Commodities A Good Investment?

When it comes to discussing investment options, commodities often pop up as something that is seen as a gamble. But are commodities actually a viable investment?

Commodities

There are a few basic kinds of commodities. There are metals like gold and silver. There are gas-type resources like oil and gasoline. There are animals like cattle and pigs. And then there’s also grown commodities like wheat and corn.

Commodities as an Investment

Not only are there many forms of commodities, there are also different ways of investing in them, take gold for example. If you were interested in investing in gold, you would have a few options to consider. The simplest route would to buy a gold bullion ETF, but you could also purchase gold bars and physically store them, or you could even buy gold jewelry and other gold-based products.

Generally as a whole, commodities are simply a resource used in the means of production, that is valued based on simple supply and demand. By very nature, the price of various commodities aren’t specifically predicable because of the way in which commodities are traded. Just like stock prices can’t be determined on a short-term basis, commodities are very volatile even in long periods of time.

However, this brings us back to our original question, should one invest in commodities? First off, I wouldn’t consider commodities a real investment because resources, just by themselves, aren’t growing enterprises that produce cashflow or even profit. So if one is going to discuss “investing” in these, let’s call it what it is: speculating.

My option speculation is that speculation as a whole is generally a bad idea for long-term investing. However if one considers the prices of certain commodities there are predicable supply-demand patterns that arise. Gold for example, has done considerably well in times of economic panic.

Overall, commodities aren’t a wise “investment” choice for the majority of investors. However as part of a broad portfolio, it might not be bad to put a 5% or 10% stake in gold as a hedge against economic disaster. Ultimately the choice depends on the individual.

Different Stock Investing Strategies

I am going to briefly cover the top most widely used “investment” strategies for stocks. Technically not all of these methods are investing because a few of them involve short term trading.

1. Stock Index Mutual Funds

There are many types of indexes. Indexes are essentially a predetermined basket of stocks that are formulated using a set of rules. For example the most widely used index, the S&P 500, is an index that incorporates the 500 largest companies in the US and weighs them in the index accordingly. There are other indexes such as small-cap indexes or tech stock indexes. The bottom line is that with an index you are purchasing a tiny portion of a large basket of US stocks that is going to reflect your sector of choice.

2. Actively Managed Mutual Funds

Actively managed indexed funds are very similar to indexes except for 1 key difference: They aren’t bound by a predetermined set of guidelines. For example an active mutual fund might have a focus on large-cap stocks or international stocks, yet there aren’t any rules on how much of each of these have to be purchased. This is different from an index where the predetermined weight of each stock is set in stone. Out of this difference comes an increase in management fees because of the funds active, and therefore more costly management structure.

3. Value Investing

This is the method used by the smartest and most successful investors (in my opinion). Warren Buffet is the most famous example of this. Value investing involves determining a company’s value (regardless of current perceived value) by looking at a balance sheet and income statements using fundamental analysis. As the investor sees a price drop well below it’s determined real value the value investor can seize up good deals and hold on for the long-term.

4. Day Trading

This is a common strategy by short-term investors who use primarily technical analysis (looking at charts and trends) to make “investing” decisions about which stocks to buy and then sell quickly for a profit. The risky thing about this is that if you accidentally buy a stock or ETF that suddenly drops in price, you could get stuck with a plummeting investment that was truly overvalued.

5. Random Strategy

This strategy is specifically for people who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t even pretend to try to act like it. They randomly purchase stocks that “sound cool” and then hope that they rise in price. By far this is the stupidest strategy just behind day trading. You can lose your shirt much easier with mindless/random investing or day trading than you can with the other strategies I outlined above.

Conclusion:

Whatever you do, please don’t choose route 5, and preferably strategy 4 as well. Not only is day trading risky and the fees expensive, it has also be statistically been proven to outperform traditional investing methods over the long-term.

Combining Your Passion and Values With Income

Often when students or even middle-aged employees are considering which career path to choose they run into a dilemma. “Should I choose a greater income or sacrifice money to do the things I love?” many ask themselves. Even as a college student I have met and spoken with many older folks who find themselves still in a situation of questions.

Countless people go through their life without truly finding something that is both enjoyable and lucrative (or at least enough to pay the bills). Most people have heard of the classic situation of an artist or writer who lives in their parents basement. But what about the countless others out there who are in similar, yet less extreme situations?

Teachers a good example of this. Many of them make just enough to pay the bills, yet work long hours and stressful lives. Assuming they are doing something they enjoy (which I believe many of them are), how do teachers continue to do what they love while keeping the financial strain at a minimum?

There’s no easy answer to this question. I’m going to simplify a process I have used in my own life (before even exiting college) that has allowed me to understand myself better going into my “working years”. If your financial situation isn’t stable, you may have to work a J-O-B while you get these questions figured out.

1. What do you value?

Ask yourself, if you had only 24 hours to live, what people, places and activities would you care about? What would make your last 24 hours feel “full”? The answer to this can be revealing. As soon as you have grasped the things that matter most to you, begin looking at the things you want to pursue that match those values….

2. What do you love to do?

Everyone likes to do something. Maybe you love math. Or maybe writing or reading are your favorite. Or maybe science has always been a blast. There are numbers things you could find enjoyable. Find some of the top things and list them.

3. What are you good at?

This can be hard to know just looking at yourself. It may take honest questions with people who know you well to pinpoint what you’re good at. Maybe you are a eloquent or articulate writer. Or maybe you can organize things efficiently and effectively. Or maybe you are a natural leader. Or maybe you always have found analyzing numbers and facts easy. Whatever thing(s) you find stand out, those are some things you should double down on.

With these three questions answered you now have set the parameters. Your values dictate where you will never work. For example if you value family, your probably won’t work for a drug gang that breaks up families. Or if you value moral integrity, you probably won’t become a jail robber, even if your greatest skill is stealth and deception.

With values as your parameter, your passions are the arrow, pointing you towards a career field. Lastly your abilities and talents are the final part of the puzzle in determining what position best suites you.

For example what if you value family. You’re also highly interested in personal finance. As you become interested in the subject, you realize that you’re best at analyzing data and making good decisions. Upon looking at these three angles you will determine that becoming a personal financial planner suites you best!

I used the example of myself but you can use these questions for any situation or interest. Overall, these questions are simple, but they may take time to answer completely. And as if often the case, they may lead somewhere that doesn’t pay well. In that case you can either work somewhere on the side, take a pay cut or continue looking for that thing that is both fulfilling and pays the bills. Good luck in your journey!

3 Forces Standing Between You and Your Financial Goals

Time

Often all the things we want to accomplish aren’t feasibly achievable in a set period of time. When this is true, we have to make the often difficult decision of determining which path matches with our values. In other words, we probably can’t achieve every goal we have so we have to prioritize.

This is very true with short term goals like making it to your kid’s basketball game verses watching the football game live. But it can also be true with long term goals. For example I certainly would enjoy the process of being a masterful accountant who has both technical skills and people skills. However I have come to realize that I might never become the world’s greatest accountant if I have other goals more worthwhile (for example like becoming a great financial advisor).

Goals

You might think a strange thing to add to this list is goals. After all, aren’t goals things that empower us and keep us on track? Yes and no. In one sense goals are essential to producing the results we want in life. In another sense, goals by themselves, without effective plans to get there and way to streamline actions towards them, are meaningless.

As Warren Buffet and Bill Gates agreed in an interview: one of the greatest factors to success is focus. Putting all your energy on one task, both with your mind and body, is a powerful thing.

Having too many goals, I have found, can get in the way of this powerful focus. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the things that are worthwhile and the things that can wait.

Inflation

Lastly on this simple list of 3 is inflation. This is more of a technical obstacle than a mental one. However the force can be equally important. If you were to buy a house in a stable neighborhood today, do you think the same house would be worth more in 30 years? Yes, I would hope so. This fact that we can all bet on, the fact that prices will overall rise year after year, is called inflation.

Inflation is powerful because it covers both the consumption side (for example like purchasing gum) and the investment side like stocks or investment real estate. Inflation is such an important force that I will be covering a brief history and action steps around it tomorrow in my blog. Tune in!