Financial Update May 2017

Another month, another update. A few random comments.

Good Reads/Listens/Watches

  • Wisdom from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates:
  • A WSJ reporter shares her infuriating experience of calling her financial advisor to figure out how much she was paying in fees (link). After a series of calls to different people (including company headquarters) with little success, she finally arrived at the number. 0.55% in mutual fund fees + 0.85% in advisory fees for a total fee of 1.4%.

    After a series of phone calls that elicited the kind of confusion and frustration I have rarely experienced outside of interactions with cable-company customer-service representatives, I think I have an idea. Barely.

    Describing the fee disclosures of my adviser as opaque would be generous. The experience left me wondering whether someone even less savvy than me, a Wall Street Journal reporter, would be able to navigate this system, to ferret out the good information from the bad.

    • This is absurd on so many levels. Most importantly, it is absurd that this woman was pissing away 1.4% of her portfolio on an annual basis in fees by listening to a financial advisor. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. If the stock market will produce a nominal return of 5% over our lifetimes (a completely arbitrary number I pulled out of thin air but seems reasonable to me), and inflation runs 2% over our lifetimes (a number which again I pulled out of thin air but seems reasonable to me), we will all experience a real return of 3% in the stock market. This woman was pissing away 1.4% of this 3% return in fees, or 47% of her potential upside.
    • I played dumb on a call to Personal Capital a few years back when they were trying to sell me on their 1% advisory services. After listening to their spiel for about an hour, they essentially claimed that they could beat my current returns by 1% but would charge almost 1% in fees for the right to do so. I am sure they were wrong with the former claim, but even if they were right, on an after-fee basis I’d be no better off with them. This whole industry is absurd. The only thing perpetuating the industry is people’s vast financial ignorance. Once the financial ignorance is solved (easier said than done), the industry will implode. Hence the huge migration to Vanguard I mentioned last month.
  • Warren Buffett on tax reform and healthcare during his recent Berkshire meeting (link).

    Today’s corporate tax rates, Mr. Buffett seemed to suggest, are a distraction, not a true impediment to growth.

    “If you go back to 1960 or thereabouts, corporate taxes were about 4 percent of G.D.P.,” Mr. Buffett said. “I mean, they bounced around some. And now, they’re about 2 percent of G.D.P.”

    By contrast, he said, while tax rates have fallen as a share of gross domestic product, health care costs have ballooned. About 50 years ago, he said, “health care was 5 percent of G.D.P., and now it’s about 17 percent.”

    Mr. Buffett said our global competitiveness had fallen largely because our businesses were paying far more for health care — a tax by another name — than those in other countries.

    • Buffett is spot on. I have a healthcare rant coming later in this blog post.
  • Speaking of interesting facts, every US citizen should be informed of the following:
    • Sources of U.S. revenue and how it is spent: We are basically a welfare state.
      • The vast majority of our expenditures being spent on Social Security (24%), Medicare (15%), Medicaid (10%), Unemployment + Food Stamps + Federal Retirement + ETIC (16%), etc. 15% of budget goes to military (does not include VA benefits), 6% to interest. 16% goes to a bunch of other welfare programs including housing assistance.
      • Income primarily comes from payroll taxes (34%) and individual income taxes (47%). The ladder is extremely progressive, with the lion’s share of the tax revenue coming from the very top of the income distribution. The former is much less progressive, as payroll taxation is largely a flat tax (with the exception of social security being phased out above $120k in income). Only 9% of federal revenue comes from corporate income tax. The remaining 10% comes from estate and gift taxes, etc.
    • Largest tax breaks for individuals and corporations:
      •  The largest break by a mile is the subsidy for employer sponsored health care plans. This should be removed, as discussed later.
      • Mortgage interest is only #3 on the list because not everyone who has a mortgage benefits from the deductibility of the interest (mort int + state  income tax + property tax < $12,600 if MFJ).
    • It boggles my mind that we can’t balance our budget at the federal level. It’s not rocket science. It’s ensuring that expenditures are below income receipts (or alternatively said that our income exceeds our expenditures). Almost all budgetary problems are spending problems, not income problems. Our debt burden has been relatively painless thanks to historically low interest rates, but interest rates will rise and we’ll soon feel the hurt. The great folly of government is that it’s too easy to spend other people’s money. And it’s too easy to over-promise on spending when the burden of paying for it falls to future generations.


How to Fix Healthcare Rant (feel free to skip, of course)

  • Remove the healthcare premium tax subsidy. It is the largest tax break that the US offers. It is utter nonsense that we have this. It creates a huge incentive for companies to offer bloated, Cadillac policies and it’s very regressive….it disproportionately helps those who are well off and have juicy employer-provided plans.
  • Make consumers price-conscious through exclusive use of high deductible plans. High deductible plans will produce many benefits.
    • Create incentives for price-conscious consumers.
    • Reduce overhead from running insurance companies.
    • Given that we have a high deductible plan, I feel 100% of the hurt every time we go to the doctor, up to the deductible which I hope we never hit. As a result, we’ve innovated and come up with less costly options such as telemedicine and minute clinics, which are anywhere from 40% to 95% less costly than going to our primary care physician. Do you think we would have invested the time to figure out lower cost options if we didn’t have the financial incentive? Not a chance in hell. Five months into 2017, we’ve only reached $375 of our deductible, thanks in part to our innovativeness (not to mention good luck avoiding accidents thus far).
  • Divorce employers from health insurance. Remove that nonsensical distortion – an unintended consequence of wage caps during WWII. A competitive market for health insurance will arise (like in all other aspects of insurance (life, car, home, etc))
    • During World War II, the number of persons with employment-based health insurance coverage started to increase for several reasons. When wages were frozen by the National War Labor Board and a shortage of workers occurred, employers sought ways to get around the wage controls in order to attract scarce workers, and offering health insurance was one option.
  • Further incentivize good health by allowing for price discrimination in health insurance markets (just like how life insurance charges more for smokers with high cholesterol).
    • How is it that I’m penalized for being obese or a smoker for life insurance, but it’s not Kosher to do this in healthcare?
    • How is it that I pay the same amount for health insurance as my colleagues? I have 5 kids and some of my colleagues have none. They are subsidizing me, and it’s not necessary. I should bear this cost of having more kids, but I’m rewarded with a subsidy from my colleagues.
  • Require that doctors post prices for all procedures. One article I just read suggested that our healthcare woes will go away once consumers start asking “how much does this test cost?” and “is this test really necessary?”
    • With a more streamlined health insurance industry, there is no need for the nonsense battle between what doctors charge and what insurance companies reimburse. Again, this further drives down the overhead costs of insurance companies.
    • Require a certain percentage of the medical expense to be collected at the time of service, just like any other service on the planet. My preference would be full payment at time of service with all reimbursement handled on the back end between the individual and the insurance company.
      • I spent an hour this morning calling a half dozen dermatologists to inquire about pricing for a a basic preventative skin cancer screening exam. Receptionist #1 said $75+whatever your insurance doesn’t pay. Receptionist #2 said $120-$180. Receptionist #3 said $80-$121. Receptionist #4 said $150-$250. It is absurdly difficult to find out medical prices before incurring the expense. Under the current system, neither patients nor doctors care about costs. Only 3 months after the service is provided, when the insurance company decides it won’t cover all of the procedure, will the consumer care about pricing. By then, it’s 3 months too late and the consumer can’t choose a lower-cost provider.
  • Reform malpractice litigation of doctors, who are required to carry expensive liability insurance which costs are naturally passed down to consumers.

I shared the above points with some colleagues over lunch. One of them retorted “it makes sense for the fraction of spending on healthcare to go up as countries get richer, after all, health is priceless.” I understand where my colleague was coming from, but I reject the premise entirely that doctors make us healthy. In general, good lifestyle choices make us healthy, not doctors. Exercise, veggies, avoiding excessive salt & sugar (i.e. processed foods), sleep, washing hands, and sunscreen make us healthy. Doctors are generally there to clean up our mess when we fail to do what we know we should. I understand there are many conditions that are outside of our control (cancer, horrible birth defects, etc), but I’d suspect that the vast majority of healthcare expenditures are a result of poor lifestyle choices.

My former employer (the MegaCorp) offered free screening to employees every year. We would dutifully stand in line for 5 minutes to get our fingers pricked, to hop on a scale, and have our blood pressure checked. I would always marvel at the supposed insights learned during these exams. My colleagues would come back from these exams surprised to learn that they were 100 lbs overweight, had high cholesterol, and had high blood pressure, and were at risk for a series of horrible diseases. Really, you needed a doctor to tell you this?

Sorry about the rant. I’ve been teaching my oldest daughter economics lately and the idea of externalities. Externalities abound in the context of health insurance markets and it’s interesting to think through the implications of our current system and how one might fix it.



  • I forgot to blog about this last month, but I took our family to the spring football game last month. It cost $17 for the 7 of us total. We have a strict no-buying-snacks policy at entertainment events like this so my kids resort to foraging. We stuck around until the end of the practice game and my kids were elated to see all of the half-eaten popcorn containers left behind by people.
  • We mulched. We had a truckload of mulch dropped off on our driveway. I had no idea how much mulch we’d need, so I gave it some thought and picked a random number out. 10 cubic yards. Then I went to Home Depot to buy a wheel barrow and realized that we needed less than that. Probably 8. The truck arrives with 12 (2 “free bonus ones”). Crap. I spent three days in the heat shoveling that stuff around. The joys of home ownership. That and removing bushes from hell littered with thorns and planting a garden. $364 down the drain.
  • The kids have tired of taking care of their guinea pig after 3 months of owning it. My wife or I don’t want to take care of the thing so we put the thing on Craigslist and it was gone in 3 days. If we were stronger-willed parents we’d probably force our kids to take care of the thing for the next 4 years of life the thing has left, but I hate the daily battle with the kids. Lost $300 or so on the deal, but we got the pet ownership bug out of our system. Best investment I ever made. Goodbye Thumper.

  • Sleep still eludes me, as it has for the past decade or two of life.
  • Exercise went well. Biked to campus every day. Did my workout routine. Took a few days off to recover from the mulching fiasco.


This month’s finances

  • Dumped $6,750 into Saturna HSA. It turns out they recently removed the lower trading expense for Fidelity mutual funds, so I opted instead for the ETF equivalent of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTI).
    • This was my first ETF purchase in my life, and I’m not a fan. ETF’s are a pain to own relative to holding index funds directly. You have to deal with bid-ask spreads as well as the inability to buy partial shares. With a simple index fund, you don’t have to deal with either of these issues.
  • I dumped $2k into a 529 account just to test the waters. Relatively high cost funds (0.32% after management overhead relative to the 0.04% expense I could achieve on my own). But I live in a relatively high taxed state, with marginal rates of 7%. If I lived in TX, WA, NV, etc, I don’t think I’d touch a 529 plan with a 10 foot pole. I guess I still need to give it some more thought, but I think the $10k/year (the state deductibility max) is a no-brainer.
  • It turns out that Vanguard lowered its expense ratios by 1bp (0.01%) for all funds I’m invested in. I hadn’t seen any other blogger/news article mention this. I love that company. It’s relatively commonplace, with expense ratios adjusting roughly annually.
  • Investors talk a whole bunch about alpha, which is a essentially fancy way of saying any excess return above the market. I’m convinced there is basically no alpha out there to be had from stock picking, which is why I advocate low-cost investing. However, I think there is substantial tax alpha to be gained through the efficient management of one’s taxes. Fully funding HSA, 401k, IRA, 529 plans are ways I achieve positive tax alpha. Further, tax loss harvesting, which I’ll expound on in subsequent months, is another source of tax alpha. I think this tax alpha is the lowest hanging fruit out there, and I’m absolutely shocked others don’t see the wisdom and follow suit.
    • I had a recent conversation with a colleague of mine, who is a brilliant man in his mid-forties. He has been employed by the university for a while (10Y or so). We got talking about effective marginal tax rates and tax sheltering. It turns out it never had occurred to him in is life to calculate his effective marginal tax rate. I showed him how to do it (and I shared my spreadsheet with him), and it turns out that his effective marginal tax rate was over 50%. Mine is 45% but his is over because he hits AMT like me but he also loses the refundable education credits with a kid in college, which leads to a 5.5% higher effective marginal rate than me. He and I determined that he could save $20k in federal and state taxes annually by sheltering $36k of income in a 403b + 457, which he validated in Turbotax himself by running scenario analyses. His mind was blown. In exchange for saving him $200k in taxes over the next 10 years, he promised to buy me a Chipotle burrito. I consider it a fair trade. Tax alpha people. It is unbelievably powerful.
  • After reading a series of good posts about umbrella insurance on Bogleheads, I finally succumbed. I detest recurring expenditures. I detest over-insuring. However, my one rule of thumb that guides my insurance choices is to not insure anything that I can easily afford to replace. Well, if I’m at fault in a horrible accident, or if someone slips and breaks their neck on my driveway, I’m exposed to huge litigation risk. Umbrella insurance protects me. I understand retirement assets to be protected from litigation, which is a huge shadow benefit of sheltering money in these accounts. I struggled to know how much coverage I should get but finally converged on a $1M policy for $143/year through Geico. I know it’s cheap, but I’m frugal and it kills me to sign up for a new recurring expenditure. I’ll probably allocate this to my auto expenses since it is primarily driven by auto risk. In addition to the countless Bogleheads posts on the topic, I found this blog post informative: If you are not a reader of the Bogleheads forums (in particular their personal finance one), I’d encourage you to do so. There is no better source of financial wisdom on the planet than the collective brainpower there.
  • I paid $164 for car insurance this month (6 month premium) and $439 for annual homeowner’s insurance premium.

An extended of version of the table is available here (link).



  1. Don’t lend money to friends/family.
  2. I lazily approximate home value using Yodlee’s embedded SmartZip estimator.
  3. I have a 15Y mortgage; which results in a faster rate of repayment. The true cost of the mortgage should exclude repayment of principal, which I show above.
  4. $15 internet and $0 cell phones as described here.
  5. All expenditures at Costco & Walmart are classified as “Food at home” for simplicity (even if it’s laundry detergent, clothing, etc).
  6. I prefer Vanguard funds but my employer offers Fidelity instead.
  7. Nobody knows the perfect asset allocation. Just pick one and run with it. Use a target date retirement fund as a benchmark if you want some guidance (link).
  8. My low portfolio expense ratio is the primary reason why I don’t hold target-date funds, which have expense ratios anywhere from 0.16% to 1%. I can achieve a much lower expense ratio on my own due to Admiral shares, etc. And it’s not hard. Plus, a DIY portfolio allows one to tax-loss-harvest more easily.
  9. ETF’s are a pain to own relative to holding index funds directly. You have to deal with bid-ask spreads as well as the inability to buy partial shares. With a simple index fund, you don’t have to deal with either of these issues. I am currently invested in VTI b/c it’s $10/year cheaper than VTSAX in my Saturna HSA.
  10. The one blight in my expense ratio analysis is my 529 plan. The underlying Vanguard fund is almost free to hold (0.02%), but the high administrative fees bring the total cost of holding the fund to 0.32%. I abhor fees and would likely avoid 529 plans if I didn’t get to deduct up to $10k of contributions per year on my state return, saving myself $700/year in state income taxes.
  11. The only other administrative cost not captured by my expense ratios is a $19/year administrative fee for my HSA at Saturna Capital ($15 per transaction + 4*$1/dividend reinvestment).

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4 thoughts on “Financial Update May 2017”

  1. Some of the youth I have worked with in the past have grown up and have traveled to areas such as South America where the guinea pig is a source of protein.

    Just Sayin!

    • After hearing my two oldest complain the past two months about taking care of that thing, the thought crossed my mind!

  2. Hi FP, I have been thinking about following your example to buy umbrella coverage, so I am trying to understand your rationale, that is, given that retirement assets are protected from litigation, why do you think it is necessary to buy umbrella? In the worst case scenario, one gets sued and the entire saving in non-retirement accounts is wiped out, one should still be able to retire comfortably with the retirement assets, right (I am guessing most readers have maxed out their retirement account contributions)? Given the small chance of being sued, I think not getting umbrella seems to fit your self-insure philosophy better. Am I missing something?

    • Mike,

      Great question, and one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately given that our teenage driver has increased our umbrella insurance substantially (from $147/yr to $557/yr).

      In the 5 years since writing this particular post, our taxable brokerage assets have grown to $500k. Back in 2017, it might not have made sense to carry umbrella. But in 2023, I believe it does.

      That said, if I didn’t own a home or a car, I’d likely drop the coverage. But given that I own a car and a home…and especially with teen drivers in the home…I think it’s fairly cheap insurance for peace of mind.

      My sounding board for all things financial is the Bogleheads forum, and there is near unanimous consensus there to simply pay for the cheap insurance.

      Not sure if that rant helped or confused you, but those are my current thoughts as of 2023.


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