As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

February 2009

My First Stock Purchase

This article was written by in Investing. 14 comments.

So, I got this credit card that deposits 2% cash back into a brokerage account. I started using it for all my daily purchases, paying off the statement balance each month. At the end of January, my points on the card were redeemed for the first time, and a few impatient days later, I had $38 dollars to start investing.

I could just set up a transfer from the brokerage account to my regular checking account and use this free money for other purposes, but I’ve always wanted to try investing in the market, and because it’s free money, I’m allowing myself to do so.

I figured that I could buy 3 shares of an ETF called PBW, which is a collection of companies specializing in renewable energy, which seemed like a good fit because:

  1. I didn’t feel like I have the time needed to do the right amount of research to buy shares in only one company
  2. I’m an aspiring hippie
  3. I knew that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was in the works, and it set aside a serious amount of money for renewable energy projects

Here’s the funny part: that $38 dollars that Charles Schwab gave me for free? It was double the amount that they should have given me. So a few days later, I noticed in my portfolio that $19 was missing. It took me three tries to get the credit card and the free brokerage account linked in the first place, so this was extremely frustrating. I assume it was an honest mistake on Schwab’s part, but I had gotten myself in the position where I was investing with my own money, and not with free money, anymore.

I still think that this card/brokerage setup is a good idea, but if you’re setting this up for the first time, keep a close eye on the amounts being moved around.

Incidentally, I’ve only lost $17.66 on my investment so far, including the $12.95 commission. I can laugh about it, because it’s free money.

{ 14 comments }

In 2008, millions of people received checks or direct deposits from the government in an effort to stimulate the economy. The extra cash certainly helped many families and individuals, who, like the banks that received TARP funds later in the year, cushioned their bank accounts and paid off debt. Some used the found money to contribute directly to the economy, but not enough people purchased products and services to prevent the global economy from collapsing. It’s usually argued that one of the strongest aspects of distributing checks of this type to the public is to boost confidence in both the market and those in power.

The economy is now worse than it was when the 2008 economic stimulus payments were sent out. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was recently created to continue the attempts to boost the economy. This time, however, there will be no stimulus checks. Instead there is a new tax credit, the “Making Work Pay” credit, which will allow employees to keep more of the money they receive in each paycheck.

Starting in April, employers will adjust withholding automatically for qualified workers. This will result in $44 additional take-home pay after taxes for individuals, and $89 additional for those who selected “married” on the W-4 employee withholding form. Economists believe this small increase in pay will stimulate the economy more effectively than the equivalent lump sum payment of $400 ($800 for married couples). A lump sum payment is more likely to be saved, used to pay off debt, or spent all in the same place, while a little extra in each paycheck will help families incorporate the money into regular spending, like dining out in restaurants or buying groceries. This helps taxpayers circulate the money in the community rather than hoarding it in a bank account.

But lump sum payments are often better for the individual, even if they don’t stimulate the broader economy as effectively. So here are eight ways you can create your own stimulus check by turning the small weekly or biweekly increase into a larger benefit or by finding other income or savings that can be effectively used to boost your finances.

1. Save the Making Work Pay credit. If you receive a paycheck biweekly, you will be taking home $20 or $39 extra each time. Set up direct deposit to automatically transfer that amount into a high-yield savings account like FNBO Direct. With the interest you earn, by the end of the year you’ll have more than the $400 (single) or $800 (married).

2. Work extra hours. If your boss allows you (mine doesn’t) and if you get paid extra for doing so (I wouldn’t), spend an extra hour a day in the office. Assuming a salary of $40,000 or $20 per hour, and a benefit of time-and-a-half for working beyond 40 hours a week, you could earn an extra $7,500 by working one extra hour a day for one year.

3. Turn your hobby into a business. If you like creating and assembling furniture, building computers, knitting, or making jewelery, consider getting serious about selling your products. These could be things you don’t need to make yourself, as well. A coworker of mine recently started hosting jewelery parties, where she enlists her friends to host their own jewelery parties. I believe it’s some kind of multilevel marketing scheme, but it works for her. With this kind of side job, she doesn’t have to make her own jewelery; she just receives a percentage of what is sold as well as free jewelery.

4. Become a tutor. You can leverage your knowledge by offering to share it with others, perhaps middle school or high school students, for a fee. You only need a few students a week to earn a couple hundred dollars a month. Science and mathematics are always in demand, but you can do well if you have skill with musical instruments, test taking, or a foreign languages.

5. Get your bar tending license. A former coworker found that my company wasn’t providing her with enough income, so she started working in a friendly neighborhood bar on the weekend and one day during the week. With tips, she was able to earn several hundred dollars a night.

6. Sell your stuff. You must have unnecessary items around the house. eBay and the Amazon.com Marketplace come in handy here. Thanks to the websites’ reach, you can find buyers for almost everything. Old books, DVDs, electronics equipment, and games are all items you may no longer want but might be in demand.

7. Cut back your spending. Yes, this is typical financial advice you can find anywhere, good for any economic condition. But if you’re financially struggling right now, it’s time to take this idea seriously. I don’t have to tell you many of the easy ways to quickly reduce your spending, such as reducing your ECRD Factor, cutting back your cable bill, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and reducing your energy consumption.

8. Request your cash back rewards. It’s getting much more difficult to take advantage of credit card offers. Credit card companies are dropping rewards programs, raising interest rates, and lowering credit limits. But if you do use a cash back credit card, claim your rewards. I request a check about once a year for a few hundred dollars from one card, while the business card automatically credits my account once a year. These payments provide me with a “stimulus” that I don’t take into account until I realize it’s time to receive the reward.

What else can you do to find extra money to stimulate your own personal economy?

{ 8 comments }

Claim the tax credit with Intuit TurboTax or H&R Block At Home.

Are you claiming the home buyer tax credit with your 2009 income tax return? Read these new instructions. The credit has been extended and expanded to qualify for more people, including long-time homeowners. I’ve included some of the basic information below.

Because the IRS requires additional documentation, taxpayers who wish to claim the home buyer tax credit must filing federal tax returns on paper through the mail.

1. Download and complete the revised Form 5405. This form is available here. The form will guide you through the process, ensure you qualify for a credit, and determine the amount of your credit. Here are instructions for completing Form 5405.

2. Collect your required documentation. You will need the Form HUD-1 Settlement Statement or other settlement statement outlining the names and signatures of all parties to the sale, the property address, the price, and the date of purchase. If you do not have a settlement statement, as you might not if you purchase a newly-constructed home, attach your certificate of occupancy.

If you are under contract but have not taken occupancy of the house by the time you file your taxes — and you still qualify under the date restrictions above — included pages from your signed contract including the signatures and names of all parties, the property price, the address, and the contract date.

If you qualify as a long-time homeowner rather than a first-time home buyer, include Form 1098 (Mortgage Interest Statement), property tax records, or homeowners’ insurance records. The forms must cover a full consecutive five year period within the eight years ending on the date of the purchase.

3. Complete your Form 1040. Include your bottom line on Form 5405 on the appropriate line on your income tax return. On the 2009 Form 1040 return, this is line 67. You can’t claim this credit with Form 1040EZ.

4. Double-check your work. Check for the most common mistakes, such as not signing the return or using the wrong Social Security number. Review each form line-by-line and check your calculations. Any mistake will cause a delay.

5. Mail your forms and wait. When people began claiming the first-time home buyer tax credit last year along with an amended 2008 tax return, people were receiving the credit within six weeks. As more people began applying, receiving the credit took longer, particularly if documentation was missing.

Below is the original post explaining how to claim the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit when claiming 2008 income. This no longer applies unless you are revising your 2008 income tax return. If you are submitting your 2009 income tax return read this article.

Original article for claiming $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyer on 2008 income tax returns

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, formerly known as the “stimulus bill,” first-time home buyers are eligible for a refundable tax credit of up to $8,000 this year. Here is what you need to know in order to claim the credit.

Who qualifies as a first-time homebuyer? A “first-time homebuyer” is anyone who has not owned a house in the past three years. Furthermore, if you don’t live in the house purchased this year for the three years following the purchase, you will have to pay the credit back to the government. This credit is intended for people who live in their own houses, not house flippers or speculators.

What is a refundable tax credit? When tax professionals and the IRS talk about “refundable tax credits,” they do not mean that you have to pay the credit back to the government. A refundable tax credit means that if you owe less tax than the amount of the tax credit, you will receive a refund — even if you have no other tax liability for 2008. That’s not a bad deal. In other words, if you owe $200 to the government before claiming the credit, and you qualify for $8,000 for the first-time home buyer credit, rather than paying the government, you will receive a check for $7,800. Even if you had no income in 2008, owed no tax, and purchased a qualifying house in 2009, the government will send you a check for $8,000.

TurboTax is Easy, Free Edition, Fast Refund

What if I bought the house last year? If you purchased a house in 2008 and were a first-time buyer, you qualify for the older refundable tax credit with a maximum of $7,500. This does require that you pay the $7,500 tax credit back over the course of fifteen years, starting two years after the date of the purchase. This is still a good deal. As time goes on, thanks to inflation, you are paying back this “loan” with money that has smaller purchasing power.

To qualify for the new credit with the maximum of $8,000, you must be a first-time home buyer and the sale must take place between January 1, 2009 and November 30, 2009.

Do I qualify for the full $8,000? The actual credit you will receive is 10% of the purchase price of the home or $8,000, whichever amount is lower. If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) as a single taxpayer is over $75,000 or if your income as a married couple is over $150,000, your credit will be phased out. The credit will be eliminated if your income is above $95,000 (single) or $170,000 (married).

How do I claim the home buyer tax credit? You can claim this credit when filing either your 2008 or your 2009 income tax return. For example, if you believe that your income level in 2009 will be too high to qualify for the credit but you already know that your 2008 income is low enough to qualify for the full amount of the credit, you can claim the credit on your 2008 income tax return.

Complete IRS Form 5405 to determine the credit amount. Here is the official revised copy of Form 5405 [pdf] that takes the new $8,000 home buyer tax credit into account. Take the bottom line amount on Form 5405 and enter the number on line 69 of your Form 1040. Not all online tax preparation software has been updated to include instructions for this new credit. I checked H&R Block Tax Cut, TaxACT, and TurboTax Online, and as of last night all three include only the rules for last year’s $7,500 credit. You may wish to wait for the software to catch up with the IRS before completing and filing your 2008 income tax return. Or, if you don’t want to wait, you can do your taxes by hand. See new updates at the bottom of this article for TaxACT and TurboTax.

If you have filed your taxes already, you will be required to file an amended income tax return if you want to receive the credit this year with your 2008 refund.

Please keep in mind that I am not a tax professional and none of what is written here or anywhere else on Consumerism Commentary should be considered tax advice. You are solely responsible for your own tax return, and any questions should always be directed to your tax accountant or the IRS.

TurboTax is Easy, Free Edition, Fast Refund

2:00 pm update: TaxACT has contacted me to let me know that as of today, February 25, their software has been updated to correctly figure the $8,000 first-time home buyer credit. I’ve confirmed that the new calculation is now active.

February 27 update: A representative from Intuit has confirmed that TurboTax has now been updated to include the $8,000 home buyer tax credit and the change should be in effect today. I don’t see it as of 4:00 pm, but I will check again later tonight. Originally TurboTax planned on putting this update into effect as late as March 11.

Here is what a TurboTax representative said: “As with any tax changes, especially those that come very late in the season, we are reliant on the IRS to provide guidance so we can update the product accurately and completely. Once the IRS gave us the correct guidance and requirements, we immediately started working to update.”

{ 349 comments }

If everyone could “buy low and sell high” when making investment decisions, everyone would be a successful investor. I would never give this advice to anyone. First, it is obvious to anyone who understands basic arithmetic. If you want to make money, you have to sell something for more than you paid for it. This is why people are reluctant to sell houses right now. Buyers are waiting for lower prices because they think the market will continue to go down for some time and sellers — unless they are highly motivated — don’t want to sell until prices go back up.

Second, it is impossible advice to follow. Unless you have inside information on a specific company — and that is very unlikely — you don’t know with certainty whether a stock price is going to up or down over the next month, year, or decade. The price set by the market, with so many buyers and sellers, is generally the accurate price for that stock at that time. The only way to know whether a price was a “low” or a “high” is to look at the numbers well after the fact.

On Friday, the S&P 500 index hit a low point not seen since the mid 1990s. But will future investors look at Friday’s price as a low? It depends on where the stock market goes from here. Many experts predict that the bottom has not yet arrived. Friday’s low might be high compared to what the future may hold if stocks retreat to levels not seen since the 1980s.

In reality, people don’t buy low and sell high. Yes, there is the argument that people follow trends (rather than lead trends), often resulting in buying high and selling low. But more importantly, investors buy when they have cash and sell when they need cash. As it happens, on average, people have cash when the economy is good and need cash when the economy falls. Stocks are often a victim of this same economy. The stock market generally follows the sentiment of the greater economy, so your cash moves into stocks when they are high and moves out back to cash when stocks are low.

This phenomenon is a result of looking at averages; on an individual level, anything can happen. You could be flush with cash while the rest of the economy suffers and more people are out of work, or you could be struggling while everyone else flourishes. On average, economic conditions force investors to buy high and sell low.

One way to turn this around for your own benefit is to try to understand what most people are doing, and do the opposite. If you buy stocks while there is a general tendency among the rest of the market to panic and sell stocks, you have a better chance of buying at a low point. If investing becomes the latest craze and you can’t go anywhere without having stock tips thrown at you, the exuberance could be irrational and you have a better chance of selling at a high point.

Rather than advising someone to “buy low and sell high,” a strategy which would involve knowledge of the future, perhaps it would make more sense to advise to “buy during panics and sell during exuberance.”

{ 12 comments }

Is “Buy and Hold” Still a Good Investing Strategy?

by Luke Landes

From the time I started investing for the long term, almost all the advice I’ve read has pointed towards buying stocks (usually in the form of index mutual funds) and holding them for decades, rather than following trends in the news and trying to buy and sell stocks frequently. The reasons for this strategy were […]

11 comments Read the full article →

Should You Walk Away From a House and Mortgage?

by Luke Landes

In the real estate boom, many homebuyers extended themselves financially to buy a house that may have been beyond their means. With the exuberant market, people were encouraged to buy with low introductory interest rates and interest-only loans, the belief that their income would increase to meet their payments, predictions that real estate prices would […]

232 comments Read the full article →

These Banks Don’t Want Your Money

by Luke Landes

Note: The information in this article is no longer current. It was updated September 2, 2011 and originally published February 18, 2009. It’s true that high-yield savings accounts offer interest multiples above what you can usually find from your typical state or national bank. For example, a “high performance” money market account (savings account) at […]

15 comments Read the full article →

Obama Sends $75 Billion to Homeowners in Foreclosure

by Luke Landes

If real estate is truly the root of the economic recession, then this new proposal from President Obama should help. The plan calls for $75 billion to help 9 million homeowners who can no longer afford their monthly mortgage payments and are at risk for foreclosure. Here is how this plan would help. If you […]

6 comments Read the full article →

Quicken Online Adds New Cash Tracking Feature

by Luke Landes

This week, Quicken Online (reviewed here), a free service, has added a few new features to help you more accurately and efficiently track your spending and manage your finances. As credit card offer increasingly unfavorable terms and abandon rewards, and as fewer people qualify for credit cards, more are turning to spending using cold hard […]

10 comments Read the full article →

Is Your Home an Asset or Liability?

by Luke Landes

When is your house a liability? Does the fact that you have a mortgage make your house a liability? Or do you have to owe more than the house is worth? What is a liability, anyway? Well, it depends. Looking at your house from a financial perspective, which you should do because if you’re like […]

39 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 3123