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Investing


After three months, my $1,000 investment portfolio, nicknamed “Feemaggeddon,” is lagging. This portfolio is part of an investing challenge, the “Grow Your Dough Throwdown.” It’s a lighthearted competition featuring several top financial bloggers.

I have two goals with this portfolio. The first is to test a specific popular investing philosophy. Among those who offer advice about choosing stocks for investing, one oft-repeated technique involves investing in companies whose products the investor uses each day. That’s how I decided to create a portfolio consisting of Microsoft, Canon, Apple, Honda, and Samsung. I couldn’t invest directly in any of these companies except for Microsoft, but I chose good approximations for the others, as I explained in my initial investing challenge report.

The second goal is to highlight the effect of trading fees. Brokerages, whether they consider themselves “discount brokerages” or “full-service brokerages,” or avoid labels at all, earn their revenue from investors in several ways. One source of revenue is the commission, a fee paid for every transaction, whether it’s a stock purchase or a stock sale, and whether it’s a simple market transaction or something more complicated like a limit order or an option.

The biggest investing mistake I ever made.

I want to illustrate the effect of fees because of a very significant mistake I made more than ten years ago. But before that point, some background. When I was a young kid, I received savings bonds as gifts. They didn’t amount to much, although I’m sure I’d have been pleased at the time if I had even known about the gifts. My parents deposited the bonds and eventually, on a banker’s advice I assume, invested the money in a mutual fund, AIVSX.

When the account was transferred to me, my intention was to use it to pay part of my student loan debt. But I didn’t touch it for a few months. During that time, I was starting to read more about managing my own money, and I decided that I would use the dollar-cost average technique to invest more. I transferred the account to Wachovia Brokerage and began adding $100 a month to the same fund, AIVSX.

In general, this is a great idea. My income wasn’t very significant, and investing a little each month in a stock market mutual fund for the long term is a great idea for building wealth. Dollar-cost averaging is a good plan when you don’t have a lump sum to invest at the very beginning.

Here’s where the problem lies. AIVSX, while it was a highly-rated mutual fund at the time, carries a load fee. This is a front-end sales charge, a fee that all investors pay each time they invest in the fund. AIVSX carries a 5.75% load fee. So with the $100 I invested every month, I was only getting $94.25 worth of stock. And this was hidden in the transaction history. When I looked at the statements, I didn’t see a fee being subtracted. The brokerage hides this fee by increase the price of the stock (on the transaction history) by 5.75%.

The only way I realized I was paying a premium was when I started to look at the fund price chart in Quicken. Quicken downloads official daily prices for stocks and funds, but if a transaction occurs on a certain day, it will use the transaction price in the chart rather than the official price on the exchange. I started getting suspicious when I saw large price spikes on the days I invested the $100 in AIVSX.

In June 2003, I realized I had been wasting my money for about six months. I learned about front-end loads, a lesson I somehow missed while first learning about individual investing. I thought I was safe because Wachovia did not charge any commissions for buying mutual funds, but they were still charging the load fee, hidden inside the investment. An investment that loses 5.75% at the exact instant of purchase needs to earn 6.1% just to break even.

That’s close to the long-term annual average of the stock market after taxes. (Economist and author Jeremy Siegel indicates stock market investors expect to earn 6.5% to 7% in the stock market over the long-term.) Therefore, if it takes a year to break even, your performance is just average.

With this knowledge about how I was playing a game I was destined to lose, each month paying a 5.75% premium, I ceased the automated $100 investments in AIVS and learned about no-load index funds. The following month, I founded Consumerism Commentary to make better decisions about my finances.

How fees destroy your real performance.

Front-end load fees, back-end load fees, 12b1 fees, transaction fees, commissions, expense ratios, and asset management fees are all ways individual investors are kept on the losing side of wealth growth. The financial industry wins because they earn money regardless of the performance of the stocks. People seem to forget to consider fees when they talk about the investment performance. Investment fees are usually built into personal reports, but when the media reports on the performance of a stock, they don’t talk about investors.

For example, Microsoft’s stock price is up 9.57% year-to-date as of March 31, according to Google Finance. But actual investors in Microsoft will see internal rates of return that vary if they bought or sold stock during that period. If I purchased three shares of Microsoft at the beginning of the year for a fee of $7, I would have paid $118.48 for those three shares. If I sold all three shares on March 31 for a fee of $20, I would have proceeds of $102.97. So that reported 9.57% gain in Microsoft is really a 13.09% immediate loss.

Here’s how my investments are doing when I take into account the $6.95 I paid for each stock purchase in this portfolio.

One reason some of the other participants in the investing challenge are doing well is because they used a platform that was offering free trades — no commissions — for a limited time. If you can take advantage of opportunities like that, there’s little to lose, if you also don’t get caught in buying and selling. Just make sure that you’re also paying attention to the commissions when you sell, as well.

Carl Richards calls the difference between the reported, publicized returns of the stock market and the actual returns people see the “behavior gap.” And it gets even worse the more people trade and try to time the market. The timing of my purchase in this case was defined by the rules of the investment challenge (buy at the beginning of the year), but as kids throughout the country are getting involved in the stock market game, which encourages watching stock performance on a daily basis and buying and selling based on those prices, and as adults take that same strategy with their “investing,” the mythology of the stock market performance continues.

The only way to get those mythical high long-term returns is to invest at the beginning and stay invested, avoiding all fees as much as possible.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of the year, I’m participating in an investing competition — well more of just a game than a competition — with several other writers and bloggers this year. The premise of the game is to start the year with $1,000 invested in discount brokerages of our choice, and track the progress throughout the year. It’s similar to the stock market game played in thousands of elementary schools in the United States, only with real money.

The investing philosophy I wanted to work with was simple. My investments would be those companies that affect my life on a daily basis. I chose Honda (my car), Samsung (my phone, tablet, and television), Google (affects the work I do), Microsoft (the computer software on which I do my work), and Canon (my photography). Because I had to by whole shares, and in some cases, whole shares of ADRs or ETFs instead of the investments directly, I had some money left over from the $1,000, so I invested all of the rest (plus $8.82) in a broad USA index fund.

My first report in January showed the immediate losses due to transaction fees at ShareBuilder. This is a pretty good lesson. If you’re trading small amounts, you’re in for losses that will always be tough to recover. Transaction fees eat heavily into your profits. If you buy $100 worth of stock with a $7 transaction fee, your investment has to earn 7.5% just to recover the loss from the transaction!

It’s a ridiculous system, not designed for small-time traders. Trading stocks is a losing game for everyone except the brokerage, who makes money even if you lose everything.

After two months, my investments haven’t recovered at all. Each one of the investments is underperforming the index, which itself hasn’t recovered from the $6.95 transaction fee.

Here are the latest results, as of February 28.

Despite the poor performance thus far — exacerbated by the high cost of trading — I will stick with this plan for the year. I have no need to buy or sell any of these investments, and the purpose of this game is to see how this strategy performs over the longer term. Had I invested the full $1,000 (or $1,008.82) in the S&P 500 index fund without a transaction fee, I would be slightly ahead for the year instead of significantly behind.

The good news is that in my main investing accounts, with assets that outweigh the $1,000 stock market game, returns in February have more than wiped out losses in January. The bulk of my portfolio, a mix of stock and bond index funds, is positive for the year. I had a call with my Certified Financial Planner earlier this year (here’s the report from my initial discussion a few years ago) and he didn’t see the need to make any significant changes to my plan despite my concerns about bond performance. I’m still thinking long-term with my investments, leaving them alone while I’m still in “accumulation mode.”

My income is certainly down from when I used to own a business and will continue to be until it’s time for me to take on bigger projects. Nevertheless, my goal is to keep my investments alone, reinvesting dividends and interest, and living off my income. Friends and colleagues have suggested I take some time off, enjoy the fact that I’ve been able to sell a business, and spend some of the proceeds from the sale of the business on myself, but I’ve been mostly reluctant to do that. And perhaps I’m a victim of the economic perception; I’ll feel more comfortable spending my assets when the market is performing better.

How are your investments performing this year?

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It’s easy for me to look back in time and analyze the faults of my twenty-two year-old self. If only I had started saving and investing sooner, I’d be in a better financial situation. My younger self would assume I had forgotten what it was like for me during that time period, when I had barely enough money to make rent, I was still looking for the perfect job, and I managed to avoid many bills for at least a short period of time before borrowing more money from somewhere.

As luck would have it, the older self would be wrong. Had I been in a better financial situation when I was twenty-two, I may have never considered writing publicly about my money situation, which would never have led to my side business, which would never have allowed me to quit my job at age thirty-four, work full-time for myself, sell my business, and become somewhat financially independent. Had I been smarter about money — or at least found a way to be solvent — I might still be teaching or working for a non-profit. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I would probably be enjoying it, but my life would have progressed differently.

Part of the typical financial advice delivered to new college graduates is to start investing in an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) right away. But I remember what life was like living on Ramen noodles. The thought of having cash to invest was completely foreign. I would have ignored any advice to set aside one percent of my income in a savings account, saving up until I hit had the minimum for investing ready to go. It would have been a mistake, but it’s incredibly difficult to get past that mindset.

Financial preaching of this type often falls on deaf ears, and that’s one reason that there are employers who initiate automated savings; young employees don’t have to think about how to come up with the money because they never see it in the first place.

But once you decide that your retirement is important to you, an IRA is a perfect vehicle because it shelters at least part of your income from tax, either today or when you retire. If your employer offers a 401(k) retirement plan with a match, that might be the priority, but otherwise an IRA comes first.

An IRA isn’t an investment in itself. It’s just a bucket for other investments. You can invest in mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and even some other non-traditional assets, but you don’t have to. You can also leave the cash you designate for your retirement uninvested. Cash is much less volatile than investments, in fact it’s not volatile at all if you’re staying in the same country, but it’s not completely risk free. If you have more of your wealth in cash than you need, you could end up missing opportunities for growth, and the real value of your money will erode over time thanks to inflation.

Despite the opportunity cost, many people do keep cash, cash investments, or cash-like investments in their IRAs. Because of this flexibility, investment banks and broker-dealers are not the only financial institutions allowed to offer IRAs. You can get an IRA at your regular retail bank if you just want to keep that money out of the stock market. In fact, because of the close proximity to your savings accounts, and everything will be in the same institution, banks can make it easier to open and maintain IRAs.

When you compare banks, you will see that many advertise IRAs alongside savings, checking, and certificates of deposit (CDs). Your IRA at a bank is covered under the same FDIC insurance as the other cash you keep there. That means that these accounts will never lose money, and if there’s any sort of problem, the government steps in and covers your deposit up to the insurance limit. In the 80 years of the FDIC’s existence, no retail banking customer has ever lost money due to a bank failure.

On the other hand, money invested in an IRA at a brokerage is different. Investments are protected with SIPC, which is a non-profit organization, not a government agency. SIPC doesn’t protect investors against losses; investments frequently lose money. SIPC exists so that if an investment bank fails, customers can still retrieve the value of their investments up to the protected amount. Investment banks might offer a money market fund as an investment option for IRAs, and that’s as close to cash as you will probably be able to get. Money market funds (unlike money market accounts) can lose money, and SIPC doesn’t protect against that loss.

For this reason, if you want to invest in cash for retirement, particularly if you are close to the age at which you want to begin withdrawing your retirement funds, you may want to consider an IRA at your retail bank rather than your investment bank. It also removes some temptation to use the money to invest in riskier assets like stocks.

Before you invest in an IRA at your bank, compare rates and fees. Certificates of deposit can often provide higher rates than savings or money market accounts, but you might have to pay a penalty or lose some accrued interest if you withdraw before the term of the CD is expired. You shouldn’t need to choose an account that requires ongoing maintenance fees; there are enough banks that offer free IRAs that you don’t need to waste your time on anything else.

Some accounts offer bonuses to new customers, too. Account opening bonuses help boost your interest income from your cash in a short time frame, and I’ve used account opening bonuses to increase my effective annual interest rates significantly.

One such bonus is currently being offered by Ally Bank. Ally Bank is a favorite among financial experts; the bank recently won Plutus Awards for best savings account and best checking account. I had an account with Ally Bank for a couple of years before closing it in a financial simplification process that I haven’t yet completed.

Ally Bank is offering a $250 bonus to new and existing customers.

This year through May 31, new and existing customers can receive a $250 bonus for depositing $50,000 into an IRA at Ally Bank. The deposit has to come from an external source, so you can’t just transfer the money from an Ally savings account to the All IRA and expect to receive the bonus. Banks offer incentives like these as an attempt to attract new customers and to increase cash on hand.

You can’t normally just contribute $50,000 to a traditional or Roth IRA. Tax-advantaged retirement accounts have annual limits that are much lower than $50,000. You may be able to contribute $50,000 to a SEP IRA, but that account type pertains only to self-employed individuals and their employer contributions. Ally expects that most people searching for this bonus have retirement investments elsewhere that can be transferred directly into an IRA at Ally, a process that’s called a rollover.

The $250 bonus on a $50,000 investment works out to almost a 0.5% interest increase, assuming the money stays investment in the account for the entire year. But because the $250 bonus is being paid in July, the funds must only remain in the account that long, making the effective annual interest rate increase closer to 1%, assuming you take the money and run after the bonus. I am not recommending this tactic; I’m just describing the mathematical consequence. Whether you leave your IRA at Ally until July, until the end of the year, or until the end of your retirement, the bonus is still $250.

When you open an IRA at Ally Bank, you choose among the bank’s savings products, including High Yield CDs, Raise Your Rate CDs which have the option of adjusting interest rates once or twice throughout the term to take advantage of raising market rates (assuming rates will continue to increase), and the Online Savings Account. The Raise Your Rate CDs offer the highest interest rates now, but your money is locked in the account for a longer period of time than it is with the other cash-like options.

Today’s rates, especially those for the CDs that are locked in for a longer period of time, reflect the assumption that interest rates will rise in the future. The Raise Your Rate CD is probably the best bet today, but if rates increase too quickly, Ally could cease offering the product. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does mean that when your CD matures you would have to choose a different investment type. That could be either a standard CD, a savings account, or a new cash-like product developed by the bank.

Because you can invest in cash in an IRA at a bank, and you can make certain withdrawals from a Roth IRA without any tax consequences and penalties, the combination is ideal for at least part of an emergency fund. When cash flow is tight, an account like this can perform a double duty. It’s your retirement fun on one hand, while it can serve as a short-term emergency fund. If you never have to withdraw your money for an emergency, you’ve saved for retirement, and if you do have an emergency, you have an incentive to replenish the account quickly to avoid the missed opportunity of investing in an IRA that year.

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I’ve joined a number of other financial writers in the “Grow Your Dough Throwdown,” a stock market competition. At the beginning of 2014, each of us will invest $1,000 in the stock market through a discount brokerage. We can trade as often as we like, and publicly track our investments throughout the year. It’s similar to the stock market game I played as a child, but rather than starting with $100,000 in fake money, we start with $1,000 of real money.

I established my account and made my first trades yesterday. I chose ShareBuilder as my discount brokerage because I already had an account there, several accounts, in fact, because when I opened the accounts initially, ShareBuilder was offering a bonus in the form of free money. I used that free money to invest in Toyota, as the company had been going through a bad public relations cycle and I assumed the stock price was reflecting short-term problems, Microsoft, and Akamai.

To participate in the Grow Your Dough Throwdown, I decided I would follow common investing advice. Look around your house. What brands do you see most often? What products do you really like? Those are the companies that you can target for your investments. That’s exactly what I did for this investing challenge. With $1,000 to use, I decided I would invest $200 in five different companies. I thought about my life and the products I use every day and I came up with a list:

  1. Honda. I’ve driven Honda Civics since 1999. I bought the first car used, a 1997 Honda Civic, and then purchased a new 2004 Honda Civic in June of 2004 (when the 2005 edition was beginning to arrive). I’ve had that same car for almost ten years.
  2. Samsung. Some of the technology around my house has been supplied by Samsung. One of my HDTVs is manufactured by Samsung, I have a Nexus 10 tablet manufactured by Samsung, and my phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
  3. Google. Both the tablet and the phone I own include the Android operating system designed by Google, but more importantly, I use Google software every single day. Google controls my email, and I use Google’s search exclusively.
  4. Microsoft. Although I already own shares of Microsoft, I wanted to add this to my portfolio for the Throwdown. I’ve been using Microsoft’s operating systems for desktop computing since MS-DOS since the 1980s, and today, I own an Xbox 360 as well as an Xbox One.
  5. Canon. I am an avid photographer, and when I turned to digital single lens reflex cameras, I had to choose between Canon and Nikon. Once you start buying equipment, you generally lock yourself in with one brand or the other. My friend recommended Canon, and so I’ve been slowly acquiring Canon photography equipment over the past eight years.

Investing in these companies is not as easy as looking up the stock symbol and buying $200 of each company. First of all, only Google and Microsoft trade on an American stock exchange. So here is what I had to do for the other companies.

Honda, which is a Japanese company, has an American depository receipt (ADR). The ADR is a certificate, and the company that administers the ADR invests directly in the underlying security, which is Honda in this case. The symbol is HMC.

Samsung is a South Korean country that does not have an ADR. To represent this company, I invested in an exchange-traded fund that tracks a bucket of South Korean companies, the iShares MSCI South Korea Capped Index Fund, with the symbol EWY. Samsung is by far the fund’s biggest holding, comprising 22% of the fund’s underlying investments.

Canon, like Honda, is a Japanese company that can be traded in the United States through an ADR. The symbol for this is CAJ.

Furthermore, all purchases must be whole shares, not fractional shares. Because Google trades at over $1,000 a share, I couldn’t even buy one share if I used my entire investment for the one stock. I replaced Google with the iShares U.S. Technology ETF, with the symbol IYW. Google represents 10.47% of this ETF, but Apple represents 17.84% as of today.

I got as close to $200 with each trade as I could while using whole shares, but there is a remainder of about $120. With this remainder, I initiated an order for three shares of EUSA, the iShares index ETF that tracks the MSCI, a common index.

There’s another major drawback to this competition, and in fact, to all stock trading. Trading commissions immediately eat into your investment’s performance. With ShareBuilder, each trade costs $6.95 unless you pay a monthly fee to decrease the commission. Even though four out of the five investments increased in value since my purchase yesterday, my returns are negative because the commission fees made the cost to buy each investment significantly higher.

For example, I bought two shares of EWY (the South Korean ETF) at the price of $64.50 a share. The total cost including the commission was $135.95. That’s a 5.4% premium over what the cost would have been without the commission, which means the price of the ETF must increase at least 5.4% before I see any real profit from the investment. It’s like starting a sprint several seconds after the gun goes off.

Here’s a report showing the value of the investment as of the trades I made yesterday, not including the remainder in cash. You can see how the loss in each investment so far is identical to the commission for each trade. It’s a reminder that brokers are always the winners when it comes to trading; individual investors are often the losers.

I’ll update this report on a quarterly basis; I intend to remain with these investments and not make any further trades.

To see how the other participants are doing with the Grow Your Dough Throwdown, visit the series’ home at Good Financial Cents.

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401(k) Contribution Limits for 2014

by Luke Landes
401k

After two years of increases, the IRS is not adjusting the retirement savings opportunities for American taxpayers this coming year. From 2009 through 2011, the maximum contribution to retirement accounts — 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans, was $16,500. In 2012, this amount increased to $17,000. After considering inflation and ... Continue reading this article…

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The Myth of Early Retirement for the Middle Class

by Luke Landes
Is early retirement a myth?

Financial independence has become an important topic for me over the course of my adult life. It’s been a progression. First, I discovered the concept of spending less than I earn — simple mathematics but a behavioral change — and how that, in addition to making better choices, could eventually lead to financial independence through ... Continue reading this article…

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Should Millennials Trust the Stock Market?

by Luke Landes
Should millennials trust the stock market?

First impressions often form the basis of how a young person perceives an object for the remainder of that person’s life. The object in question could be another person, a business, an industry, a group of people, or even a part of society. Deeply-seated beliefs are entrenched during several stages of formative development. Psychologists point ... Continue reading this article…

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IRA Balances At Five-Year Highs: Time for a Retirement Check-Up

by Luke Landes
IRA balances at an all-time high

Thanks to the stock market’s upward trend since the recession (if the trend hadn’t been upward, we couldn’t say “since the recession”), policy changes that allow investors to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs without limit other than the income tax bill, and perhaps even younger savers inspired to plan for their retirement by saving ... Continue reading this article…

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Variable Annuities Customers Facing Benefit Reductions

by Luke Landes
Money - Variable Annuities

When people find out I’ve been writing a blog about personal finance for ten years — yes, it seems crazy, but the tenth anniversary of Consumerism Commentary is Tuesday — they recognize it is an opportunity to share their financial troubles and triumphs. I’m a good listener. For the most part, I am happy to ... Continue reading this article…

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School Gives Club of Teens $100,000 to Play in the Stock Market

by Luke Landes
Teens investing

For many children, one primary exposure to just a piece of financial literacy is the Stock Market Game. The public elementary school I attended pitted a hundred or so fourth-graders against each other. After a few months, the student with the highest overall account value, not taking fees or expenses into account like the real ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Close an E*TRADE Investing Account

by Luke Landes
How to close an E*TRADE investment account

Yesterday, I was motivated to further clean up my excess financial accounts. After a long delay, I moved my main accounts into a revocable living trust, a legal entity I created earlier this year to keep my finances in the best order possible. As I visited Wells Fargo yesterday to move my primary checking account ... Continue reading this article…

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4 Types of Retirement: Which Will You Choose?

by Luke Landes
Which retirement will you choose?

While every situation is different, there are only a few types of retirement for those of us in the working class. Before I get to the retirement concept, here’s what I mean by “working class.” The working class includes those who need to survive by trading their time and effort for an income. They could ... Continue reading this article…

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Four Excuses Prevent You From Investing

by William Cowie

This is a guest article by William Cowie, who writes at Bite the Bullet Investing. While I considered myself a late bloomer in the world investing, not doing much with my money besides spending it until I was about twenty-eight, William started much later in his life. In this article, William describes how certain attitudes ... Continue reading this article…

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Are Financial Planners Hurting Investors Approaching Retirement?

by Luke Landes

If you’ve watched the financial industry over the course of the last decade, you’ve probably noticed some important contradictions. It’s a good indication that taking generalized investment advice and applying it to your own situation is not a smart idea. Anyone who retired at the height of the recession is going to understand exactly what ... Continue reading this article…

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Check Your 401(k) Fees: Invest in Index Mutual Funds

by Luke Landes
401k

A few years ago, new regulations mandated that 401(k) retirement plan administrators change quarterly statements to include more information about expenses about each fund in which the employee is invested. This was a good move. I have mixed feelings about 401(k) plans. Today’s world of employment is different than that from a generation ago. For ... Continue reading this article…

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Accurate Prediction Market Intrade Shuts Down

by Luke Landes
Stop

I’ve mentioned Intrade here. Intrade, until recently, was an open prediction market. People from all over the world could place money — bet — on circumstances they expected to be true some time in the future. It was used to great effect during the recent presidential election here in the United States. Even as the ... Continue reading this article…

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Learning About Investing With the Stock Market Game

by Luke Landes
Stock Market Game

In my mind, no child is too young to learn about the basic concepts of personal finance. From using money to saving money and budgeting, youngest children learn as they watch their parents behave. These are the most important lessons because parents are the ultimate role models. Financial literacy programs that wait until high school ... Continue reading this article…

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Stock Market Reaching Highs: Time to Exit?

by Luke Landes
S&P Index from November 12

On November 12, the world was still reacting to the election of Barack Obama to a second term in the White House. The financial media began its relentless coverage of the fiscal cliff. Market confidence was down, and so were the stock market indexes, immediately following the election results. This seemed to me to be ... Continue reading this article…

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Stock Market: Time to Go All In

by Luke Landes
Donkey

I don’t advocate trying to time the market. It’s impossible to predict with any kind of consistent accuracy what the stock market will do, and the impossibility increases — regardless that the concept defies logic — as the time frame is shorter. I’m still looking at a horizon far enough in the distance that the ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Optimize Your Retirement Investing Priorities

by Luke Landes
Golf in Retirement?

The law in the United States is designed to encourage each working citizens to save for his or her own future. Through tax advantages, there are subtle incentives for investing in certain types of accounts. These incentives encourage financial literacy, boost use of the economic machine of the financial industry, and shift the burden of ... Continue reading this article…

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