Property Ownership: How to Detect and Avoid Fake Sellers

What is a fake seller and why would anyone want to knowingly waste time and money on something so lame? It may seem like a bogus idea, but fake sellers are out there. Trust us, we know. From our short-lived personal experience to boot! I feel a story unraveling…

From the onset, we knew what we wanted. We have been mulling the thought of buying a property for a year and a half, and we had extensively narrowed down the price range, location, and types of homes we would be willing to consider. Additionally, we had been spying on the market over the course of the last few years. For every home type that we were considering, I knew the neighborhoods in which they were located, the price ranges, and the typical pros and cons of the properties. I knew which agents were specialized in selling those particular places as well. So the time came when we were ready to make a leap of faith, I reached out to an agent who specialized in lofts in Orange County, CA.

Originally, we were very specific in which lofts we wanted. We wanted a loft in our current and exact neighborhood. We specifically wanted one that faced the market and commercial area, rather than one that faced Main Street or Memory Lane, which limited our search to less than twenty particular properties. We requested that she reach out to any owners to see if they would be willing to sell their loft.

She returned to us on the same day saying that there IS one owner who is interested in selling. He isn’t listed on the market, and is willing to do it without opening the deal up to other buyers And by that night, we were looking at the property.

That’s where the good parts of this story ended.

The owner had an asking price that was $50,000 more than the average value of the property. He claimed that there were upgrades to the loft, which was very true. We looked at the property and we agreed there were updates. We pulled up a comp report and analyzed the selling price of neighboring lofts in the last 6 months. They were usually selling for $575-$590k and the seller was asking for $650k. We accounted for the upgrades he had made to the home and the slightly larger square footage, and the comp report analysis returned at a value of $612-$617k. Since we really wanted the space, we offered $620k, trying to work with the seller.

Unfortunately, when the counter-offer returned, we knew this was not going to be the home. He returned with a counter offer of $645k AND we had to pay for all of HIS closing costs. He was using the downstairs space of the loft for a digital business and did not physically need to be here in California. Since he does not live in this state, he viewed the selling of the house as an inconvenience and is not willing to put any effort in the selling of his house. When we confronted his agent about the ludicrous price, he simply shrugged his shoulders. He knew that the loft would be appraised at a lower rate than $650k and that the difference will have to be covered by the buyer in cash. The seller’s agent informed us that this entire thing is an inconvenience to the Seller, to which we replied, “Then why bother say he wants to sell?” And like that, we dropped them like a handful of hot coals.

How to Spot Fake Sellers

So here’s the rub. Fake sellers can easily seem like real sellers. They do all the things a real seller would, such as put the house on the market, place FOR RENT signs on the lawn, have an agent and host open viewings. However, whether knowingly or unknowingly, they waste their time and money doing all of this because they are not really READY to sell. If you don’t know how to detect fake sellers, then you cannot avoid them. And if you don’t avoid them, then you may waste precious time and money to fruitlessly negotiate buying a house that isn’t really for sale.

  • Are the sellers realistic? The number one reason that people cannot sell their homes is because of a grossly high asking price. When you hear that an owner is having difficulty selling their home at such a high price, beware! As with the case of our first loft offer, what it actually means is that the seller is refusing to accept the market’s opinion of what their house is worth. They may have an alternative motive, such as making up for the costs they’ve spent to upgrade their place. Or just to try to get more money from a buyer who knows nothing about the current market. This, by the way, is different from real sellers who mistakenly place too high of an asking price. Real sellers will wise up over time. Fake sellers will not. My advice is to move on.
  • Are the sellers motivated? Getting a seller who is motivated is important. Most sellers are motivated by a life change, such as a job transfer, a recent marriage or divorce, retirement, etc. Having a REALLY motivated seller makes it better for the buyer, because they will have a better chance at negotiation. Our fake seller was obviously not motivated at all, which made it easy for him to be uncompromising. Lack of motivation is a giant red flag. Run the opposite way, especially if you hear them say “they are just testing the market”.
  • Do sellers have a time frame? Deadlines make things happen. If the seller has no deadline, then he is in no rush to meet deadlines. It’s easy for fake sellers to start an escrow process and decide to not meet deadlines and kill the deal. Only because there is no urgency to sell the home.
  • Are the sellers forthright? Genuine sellers are open about the condition of the home and the legal status. Why? Because they are aware that withholding vital information can ruin the sale. Early disclosures of possible problems help indicate whether you’ve got a real seller on your hands.
  • Are the sellers cooperative? Real sellers want to sell their homes. They will look for ways to make the transactions go more smoothly. Inconsistent behavior is another red flag. If seller’s become uncooperative or start missing their deadlines, they may have lost the motivation to sell. When you start to see these signs, ask why they are happening. Otherwise, you may be in for a surprise if the deal ends up blowing up in your face.

My best advice is to do the same as we did. If you find yourself dealing with an unrealistic, unmotivated, and uncooperative seller, it’s time to walk away. Find something else. Maybe that seller will wise up, but then again, maybe not. You don’t want to waste your time and energy trying to coax reason into a seller like that.

Plus, you may find that it ends up being a blessing in disguise and you find a property that checks off even more boxes! Like we did!

How to Decide if Property Ownership is a Good Financial Decision for You

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Well, we are doing it! We are in the throes of purchasing our first property! Currently, we just started the escrow process, so it’s all new enough to accurately relay our experience on zee blog. I have been MIA on the finances front for a while, but I’ve decided to start a new series on Property Ownership (I say property ownership because, as you will see, we did not go with a traditional home, therefore I think home ownership is too selective of a title), in which I hope to cover a collection of thoughts and well-meaning advice.

The first of which is this: You’ve got to know what you are doing when buying a home. Unless you want to get your money swept from underneath you or risk ending up with a home that you absolutely hate, I highly suggest getting informed before even considering any of this. May I suggest starting with the Home Buying Kit for Dummies? Not saying you’re a dummy, just saying I read this from front to back and felt confident in the home buying process, which went quite smoothly for us. In fact, today’s topic of deciding whether to buy is outlined in their first chapter. Sans my own personal stories and interjections. You’re welcome!

Deciding Whether to Buy

We all make consumption choices in our lives. Whether that’s a cup of coffee, a sustainable product, or an eco-friendly gadget. Sometimes, purchases can lead to buyer’s remorse, especially when they fall short of our expectations. When it doesn’t cost much, you can get over it quickly by either choosing to return the product or deciding you will not make the same mistake twice.

As a very mindful consumer, you likely already know that I weigh the pros and cons of every purchase I make. This is especially important with large purchases, such as a car or home. Sloppy shopping can lead to financial and emotional disaster. And I love the analogy that consumer debt is the equivalent of financial cancer. So, buying a home should not be taken lightly. It should not be an entirely emotional decision. And it is not right for everybody. If that is something you did not want to hear, then I am very sorry.

The goal of this series is to go through the process that Mike and I went through in order to help ensure that we have a home we are happy with, we get a good deal on the property, and most importantly, that owning a home helps us accomplish our financial and life goals.

But before we could have even decided whether owning or renting was best for us, we had to learn the advantages and disadvantages of both!

The Pros of Ownership

Not everyone should buy homes, and not at every point in their lives. That’s a statement I believe in. That being said, there are many pros to owning your own property.

  • Owning should be less expensive than renting!

This is the first guideline that Mike and I wanted to follow. We have thrown away so much money in rent. How much, you ask? Our first 18 months, we paid $2,800 a month for our beautiful 1,599 sq. ft., 2bed, 2ba live/work loft in Orange County, California. For those of you thinking we are financially crazy, I just want to point out that an 800 sq. ft. 1bed, 1ba apartment in an apartment complex runs around $2000-$2200 in our area. I agree, it is crazy expensive to live here. I also agree that we weren’t exactly financially savvy when we started out. The next 8 months, we received a huge rent reduction to our space. We made a bargain with our landlord which stated that we ourselves will fix any problems (that totaled to no more than $200 per month) that came up, and she reduced our monthly rent from $2,800 per month to $2,600 per month. Additionally, we took on co-housing and we further reduced our rent to $1,900 per month, while giving our roomie her own bedroom, bathroom, and access to the entire house for $700 a month. She was happy because she avoided having to hemorrhage $1,500 for an old, run-down studio space, and we were happy because our rent went down almost $1,000 with those two simple changes. The savings of $900 over the course of 8 months was $7,200! YAY US!

All of this to say, that over the course of the last 26 months, we have spent $65,600 in rent. If we didn’t have our roomie, then we would have spent $71,200 towards rent, with nothing to show for it. Now if it seems like your monthly rent looks way smaller than the price of a home, which is likely to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, think again.

A very simple calculation of the home you can buy that would have approximately the same monthly cost as your rent can be completed using the following equation.

$______________ per month x 200 = $ _____________________

Example: $2, 800 per month x 200 = $ 560,000. The property we decided to put an offer on? $499,900.

Another consideration between the cost of buying and renting is the cost of doing so today versus the cost in the future. As a renter, you are fully exposed to inflation rates. A reasonable annual increase in rent is 4% per year. Remember that if you pay $1,000 in rent per month, that is the equivalent of buying a $200,000 home. Well, in 40 years, with 4% inflation per year, your rent will balloon to $4,800 per month, which is like buying a $960,000 home! On the flip side, after buying a home, your housing costs are not exposed to inflation if you use a fixed-rate mortgage to finance the purchase. So only the comparatively smaller property taxes, insurance, and maintenance expenses will increase over time with inflation.

This isn’t to say that you must buy because of inflation. But, if you are going to continue renting, you must definitely plan your finances accordingly.

  • You can make your house your own

This is a great pro to all the creatives out there. However, a word of caution:

Don’t make the place too unique. I understand that you may have a distinct taste or style. And while that may lead you to a happy life in your home, it could make it very difficult to sell in the future. If you do make improvements, focus on those that add value, such as adding skylights, energy-efficient  upgrades, and updated  kitchens and bathrooms.

Avoid completely running yourself into financial ruin. It’s easy to get carried away in the emotions associated with owning a new home. There is this urge or pressure to make it look picture perfect straight away! There is nothing wrong with making your home a dream one the slow way. When you feel the urge to throw all your money straight into renovations, think of the things you already have. Say, a roof over your head?

  • Avoiding Landlords You Can’t Get Along With. Mike and I have never personally had an issue. However, we have heard stories of landlords who neglect their tenants needs or continually refuse to fix rental units that are falling apart.

The Pros of Renting

  • Simplicity. Signing up for a place to rent is definitely easier than going through the process of securing a home. You don’t have to deal with financing, inspections, and other possible issues like you would if you were buying a home.
  • No upkeep. When you have a rental property, your landlord will be responsible for property maintenance and upkeep!
  • You have flexibility! This was actually one of our initial reasons to continue renting. Renting allowed us to not feel tied down. In the last few years since we got this place, we were going through so many changes. We got married, Mike got a new job, we started tackling our student debt, and we wanted to travel the world. I just started work and Mike and I did not know if we would like our new jobs and if this is the area we wanted to stay. Luckily, since then, we have fallen in love with our city and our jobs. We have proven to ourselves that tackling the student debt is doable, and we are comfortable enough to now tackle on housing. But if you are at a stage in your life where you need any sort of flexibility at all, then maybe renting is better for you right now. If you plan on not keeping your property for more than five years or plan to move soon, buying and then selling a property is not the way to go.
  • Increased liquidity. Many people buy their first home and wipe their finances clean with the down payment and the closing costs. Plus they have to make their monthly payments. Renting will help prevent you from being financially stretched.
  • Better diversification. Buying a property could mean that your wealth is tied up in the house. As a renter, you can invest money in a variety of investments, not just one.

Do NOT Fall for the Following Pitfalls

  • Renting because it seems cheaper than buying. You must consider the monthly cost as well as the future cost. See discussion above.
  • Buying when you expect to move soon. Additional costs that come with buying and selling a home are pretty large. Unless you plan on keeping the home for a while after you’ve moved, it may be better to wait until you are more sure of where you will be one year from now.
  • Allowing salespeople to sell you something you don’t want. Many people in the biz have a vested interest in getting you to buy, because they work off of commissions. But remember that when you buy a property, you will be the one coming home to it every day. You will be the one paying for it. So make sure that you do you!
  • Ignoring logistics. You should probably think through how every aspect of your life is affected by your home purchase. Imagine buying a home that has everything you are looking for and is within your price range, but which adds an hour commute to work. How much would you resent that home? Or imagine having a home that happens to be located in a loud neighborhood, and you are a light sleeper. These are important things to consider!
  • Don’t become house poor! Either you own a home, or it owns you. Nuff said.
  • Being peer pressured. This is a toughie. Typical me, I had to really dig deep and figure out why I wanted to buy a home. Was it entirely socially ingrained? Was it purely from a financial perspective? Was it part fantasy? I had to rationalize and confirm (and re-confirm) that I was not being peer pressured into this. That this is something Mike and I decide to do, for reasons of our own. Just because siblings, friends, and co-workers are buying homes, it does not mean you should too. Maybe they own a home, but have no finances left over to travel. Maybe their house is keeping them from quitting their work and pursuing a passion. Don’t assume their life is better than yours. And as always, never compare your beginning to someone’s middle.
  • Misunderstanding what you can afford. To be honest, if you haven’t gotten a feel for your financial situation and life goals, you are just guessing how much you should be spending on a home. So having a good grasp on your financial stance is the place to start. Also, unless you are a high-income earner, if you do not have a back up plan for unexpected life occurrences, you may find yourself in a tight situation. A job loss, family emergency, or natural disaster can make you house broke in an instant. Understanding all of this and having a back-up plan is very wise!

Given all of these pointers, only you can ultimately decide if buying a home is right for you. Not me, not your peers, not your real estate agent, and, no offense, but not even your parents. More importantly, you must analyze whether NOW is the right time for you. It may be that waiting until you have a bigger down payment, a more stable job, or a better financial back up plan is the best option. Something we as humans tend to avoid thinking about is the worst case scenario. But think about it you must.

Also, learning about the property buying process is quite necessary. If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed after reading this post and need a place to start, start with this book! I highly recommend it. Do you have other recommended reading for first-time home buyers?  Feel free to share with the community in the comments below!

The Value of Having a Certified Financial Planner (CFP)

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Today, I wanted to pose the question, “Is having a CFP right for you?” When I first graduated from dental school, I was absolutely lost. Along with the feelings of excitement and pride with my recent accomplishments came a subtle (but over-powering) dread, and a very heavy, invisible weight. I knew I needed guidance, but did not know who to reach out to. I did not exactly have adults in my life who could act as good financial role models (my long historical relationship with money detailed here), and there are very few people I know (outside of my fellow graduates) who really had the problem of paying down half a million dollars in student debt at 26 years old. So I reached out to Andrew Davis, the CFP behind SeamlessFP, who happened to be the husband of a dental classmate, and whose work focused on guiding newly-graduated dental students, specifically. I think it was the best decision we ever made.

On the flip side, there are people who would argue that CFPs are a waste of money, and that money could be used elsewhere. Which is a fair argument. I myself am a big fan of avoiding outsourcing tasks as much as possible. It will take a bit of work, but handling your own finances is totally a doable thing! However, it requires time, which I have value over money. Delving into research isn’t such a scary thought for me, but spending all my free time learning the nuances of taxes, S corporations, estate planning, investments, and more is NOT an enticing thought. So what I want to discuss today is the value of having a CFP to us, and then I leave the decisions to you.

The value of having a CFP

The list of pros for having a CFP versus not having one is quite long, which is a good thing!

  • Pro: Outsource financial planning to free up time, in order to pursue interests, hobbies, work, etc.

As mentioned before, outsourcing financial planning frees up a lot of our time. Time is a resource scarcer than money in the modern world. People seem to always be running out of it, but are still quick to occupy it with tasks, necessary or otherwise. When you think about how much your time is worth, in dollars, can you really put a price to it? Time is the one thing you are constantly running out of, and will never be able to replenish, making it an extremely valuable resource. Being intentional with the tasks I choose to occupy my time is very important to me. Spiritual uplifting, emotional replenishing, mental healing, these are the things that matter and make it a life worth living. NOT constantly worrying, thinking, and dealing with money.

  • Pro: Peace of mind that we are hitting our financial goals in a very step-by-step (and legal) manner.

This is for the DIYers out there. I am a lover of DIY projects and take pride in my ability to be self-sufficient. However, no matter how much of my free time I put into studying the nuances of finances, I cannot possibly keep up to date with the ever-changing rules and regulations. Mike used to do his own taxes with TurboTax and that worked sufficiently well, but once we got married, added in an S-Corporation with its own separate payrolls, well things got too complicated. We started asking ourselves, “How do we know we are following all the rules? How do we know about the fine-print clauses that benefit us? Who will be flagging our attention with every change?” A financial planner gives us peace of mind, knowing that we are on track to hit our goals in a efficient (and legal) manner. There are many minute details that one could miss, but it makes us feel better knowing that we have someone else helping us with that.

  • Pro: Keep up to date with new changes.

The new Tax Bill that passed last year is a great example of this. Even now, nothing is quite set in stone as to how these changes will apply to us. By having a financial planner, we were alerted to the possible beneficial change for S Corporations in the upcoming year, something we would never have known, but definitely can impact our financial plan.

  • Pro: A resource for learning more.

This, by far, is the most beneficial to me. Andrew has been instrumental in educating us about our finances and different paths we can take to achieve financial freedom. He has recommended books, blogs, podcasts, and other resources. He was actually the one who introduced us to the FI community: a community dedicated to reaching financial independence by using life optimization “hacks”. We would not have gone so far on our financial road to freedom without life hacks such as co-housing, travel hacking, YNAB, and more!

Financial planning VS Investment Planning – What’s the difference?

It is important to differentiate between financial planning and investment planning. We do financial planning, which requires a long-term life plan, created by the marriage between our financial past and our dream futures. Our first meeting with Andrew was not something we expected to have. It began with a meeting dedicated wholly to gaining a deep understanding of our personalities, goals, and dreams. It almost felt like a therapy session, with questions such as, “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you spend your time doing today?” Don’t let that deter you. I think that first meeting was essential to setting the foundation on which we created our entire plan. The process continues to be a constant reassessment of life. Initially, we listed our priorities as traveling, buying a house, yoga subscriptions, guitar lessons, sticking with loan repayment program, and working until we were 65 years old. Now our life still includes travel, but our goals have shifted to standard repayment, renting for the next few years, working less hours, being a blogger, opening a coffee shop, and early retirement from our lines of work, which would possibly lead us to newer lines of work. In this respect, Andrew acts as more than just a financial planner. He is a psychologist, therapist, educator, mediator between spouses, confidant, & friend. This is NOT to be confused with investment planning, where someone advises you where to invest your money. That is included with financial planning, but not the other way around.

The importance of being a fiduciary

A fiduciary requires that someone acts in the best interests of a client. It is important that your CFP is a fiduciary in all aspects. Conflicts arise when CFPs have affiliations with third parties that may sway their advice towards promoting something that benefits them. For example, a person can receive a profit for selling an affiliate insurance. The insurance may be great, however, that person has a motivating factor that would make him want to promote that particular insurance. Even though it can be beneficial for you to sign up with that insurance company, the decision was not completely unbiased. We did not even realize the importance of being a fiduciary until we learned the concept from Andrew himself. 

If you are not sure whether your CFP is a fiduciary, ask! Try to find a fiduciary in all aspects. You want to ensure that you are being treated fairly at all times. Do not be afraid to ask how they get compensated, so that you can truly see where they are getting their money. It may seem awkward to inquire about it, but it is your finances on the line.

What a CFP has done for us, so far

  • Budgeting Help: Our CFP introduced us to budgeting, setting up our YNAB budgeting tool, and helped us develop good budgeting habits. 
  • Analysis between two potential jobs: When Mike was considering making the move from one company to another, we needed help analyzing whether it was a reasonable financial move. It was not simply a comparison between the two different income, but also required factoring in 401k investment matching, health benefit options, life insurances, difference in commute, and level of interest in the line of work.
  • Investment Planning: He has given us advice on how to manage our 401k portfolios as well as given us other investment tips when we reach out for help. We retain full autonomy as to where we want to invest and how much, but having a third person to go over the pros and cons at each step has been helpful. 
  • Health Benefits: We needed help deciding on a health plan, and have chosen one that works well for us thanks to Andrew’s help. After an analysis of our options, an HSA option was also open to us, and we decided to take advantage of that privilege.
  • Renter’s Insurance: Prior to our new place, we did not have renter’s insurance. After seeing the benefits of having that extra coverage at a small monthly cost, we decided to sign up for one right away!
  • Connection to a CPA: Taxes for SCorps can be a bit tricky. A CPA is advised so as not to miss a thing. Initially, I was going to go with the same person my parents have used for years. But after an hour-long interview with him, it became clear to me that he did not know much about taxes as they applied to dentists specifically. He did not even know about the different student loan forgiveness programs, or how an SCorp can be used for tax deductions. It was useful to be referred to a CPA who frequently does taxes for dentists specifically.
  • Set up my SCORP: This was so beneficial to me! It is possible to create a corporation easily online, however, he walked me through the pros and cons of having an SCORP so that I could make an informed decision as to whether this is something I wanted to do. The application for the SCORP was easy but we did meet some humps along the way that he quickly helped me to resolve. 
  • Setting up Gusto and ways to automate my SCORP: Once the SCORP was set up, our CFP took care of creating an automated payroll for me. We use Gusto to manage my payroll, and once it was set up, he easily walked me through the different ways that we can keep track of the payroll via my SCORP. All I have to do is wait for my payments, the system takes care of the rest!
  • Introduction to financial life hacks: I learned tricks such as travel hacking from Andrew and it was he who introduced us to the FIRE and FI communities.
  • Analysis of student loan repayment options: This is the part about our finances that has most affected our lifestyle. He walked us through the different student loan forgiveness programs that we qualified for. After a thorough explanation of each, he created an extrapolation of our financial futures under each repayment option. By using physical numbers, we were able to predict the lifestyle changes associated with each student loan option. Once we had our budgeting in order, he brought to our attention that we were able to pay down student loans without the forgiveness program, thus saving us more than $100,000 in the long run, as well as buying our freedom 15 years earlier than planned. That decision itself was so life-altering for the better, and we would have never gotten to that point on our own. 

We personally benefit from SeamlessFP

Andrew Davis is the CFP behind SeamlessFP. He focuses on helping newly graduated dentists create a financial plan. He does work with non-dentists occasionally, or dentists who have been practicing for a long time. I only know this because we have referred people in those categories who now are working with him too.

There are multiple options one can choose when working with SeamlessFP. A person can do a one-time consultation in order to gain help on a particular goal or project, or they can choose the full life-planning package. We chose to do the latter option. I did not want help with simply setting up an SCORP. I wanted a more thorough analysis of all of our financial details. I was determined to tackle as many aspects as possible to optimize our financial situation. After every meeting, he will upload a list of tasks via an online portal to be completed. This is helpful for people who need someone to hold them accountable to ensure that they continue moving forward with their financial path. Together, we re-analyze continually to see what we can change to optimize even further. A yearly re-cap meeting is held as well, where we go over our dreams and goals for the future (5, 10, 25 years out) so that we aren’t dully following a pre-set path. Besides, a lot changes in a year!

What I like most is that he is eager to help clients learn more about their financial options and situations. It is clear that having his clients make their own decisions (given the facts) is important to him. I can ask him one question, and we will go over the entire topic in detail, prior to him answering my question just so that I know the reasoning behind his answer. It’s scarce to find that these days, and I wholly appreciate it.He may give suggestions but he really makes sure you know that ultimately, the choices are still completely yours to make. It’s easy to see that his goal is to help his clients find the happiness they seek, by eliminating financial stress from the equation. It also helps that he is very accessible via email or text. Typically, responses occur within one day. Additionally, if you choose the latter option, there is unlimited access. Anyone who knows me will easily tell you that I am the type to ask multiple questions, always in search of a deeper understanding of all things. So a CFP who embraces that is gold. Off course, you want to make sure that the CFP you choose is right for you, if it’s right at all. If you have any interest in learning more about our friend Andrew, you can easily set up a one-hour phone call to speak with him and see what services he can offer you and which package is best for what you are trying to achieve.

Overall, I just wanted to shed light on how a CFP has changed our life in this blog post. As always, you do you.

 

Finances: How YNAB Helped Us Pay $84,000 Towards Student Loans in One Year!

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

Looking back on it, it seems absolutely nuts that we have been able to pay $84,000 towards our student loans in the last year. Prior to getting our finances in order, you could say that I was not one who was highly motivated in monitoring my spending. Or rather, I may have been highly motivated, but not entirely good at it. Honestly, I did not know where to start.

I was never afraid of budgets. Some people are. They are afraid that it would be too limiting, or depriving, to set financial constraints on their having fun in life. I get it. YOLO, right? But honestly, that’s just the rub. YOLO. You only get one life, and I don’t want mine consistently anchored down by debt. I want to be free. So it was not the budgeting that scared me, but the lack thereof. In fact, I was always in search of ways to budget. However, I had no idea how to do it efficiently.

We used to implement that all-too-familiar way of assessing our spending by guessing, eye-balling, rounding up and down (depending on our mood), or sometimes, ignoring all-together. Additionally, much of our analysis was performed retroactively. As in, “Oops, I spent too much on groceries last month! Roughly $100 too much.” The estimates, off course, were always too low, and the recognition harbored a bit too late, after the spending was already a done deal. Yikes!

Enter YNAB. YNAB is kind of like that high-school teacher that slaps your wrist and sets a vagabond teen straight. The acronym stands for “You Need a Budget“, and is better than an angel on your shoulder keeping your finances in check. It is a very easy system that is based on the age-old envelope system of budgeting. It used to be that, without computers and programs such as YNAB, people would use envelopes to budget their money. Each envelope would stand for a category. For example: “Groceries”, “Rent”, House Maintenance”, “Savings”, etc. With each incoming paycheck, a person would split the cash in between envelopes, allocating a certain amount towards those categories for the upcoming month(s). One can never accidentally overdraw from an envelope, because once the money runs out, that’s it! In order to overspend in a category such as “Dining Out” for example, one would need to proactively choose to take out money from another envelope, thus consciously deciding to decrease spending elsewhere.

With the invention of things such as credit cards, this becomes an obsolete practice, but I think it is one that is very useful. Instead of retroactively analyzing our spending, we should be proactively planning for our financial futures. In YNAB, you can create categories of your choosing that would be equivalent to those envelopes. You can be as precise or as general as you would like. We prefer to be more general, because it makes categorizing easier. Our categories are separated into “Needs”, “Financial Goals”, and “Wants”. A few examples include:

Needs – Rent, Auto Insurance, Utilities, Cell Phone, Groceries

Financial Goals – Student Loans, House Savings

Wants – Activities/Hobbies, Travel, Mike’s Fun Money, Sam’s Fun Money, Dining Out

So as paychecks roll in, we are proactively placing budgeted money into each category. Every dollar we earn is accounted for, down to the last penny. The goal is to budget appropriately, so that none of the categories need adjusting during the month. Metaphorically, you don’t want to borrow from any of the other envelopes. It did take us a while to get a feel for how much we spend in each category, but that’s the fantastic thing about YNAB. It summarizes previous spending in the months prior really well. Over time, we were able to know exactly what number we would need to budget in each category to be absolutely prepared.

A word on those summaries. This is a wonderful way to get a picture of how much of your spending is going towards your “Needs”, your “Wants”, and your “Financial Goals”. For us, because of our student loans, 50% of our income goes straight towards hitting our “financial goals”. We try to keep “wants” to a low 10% of our income, travel included, which is why travel hacking is so important for us. Also, there are graphs to show you how much your net worth is rising, as well as comparisons of “Income VS Expenses”, if those are motivating at all for you.

All of this can technically be done on an Excel sheet, but it would take a lot of time and effort. What I love about YNAB is that it can link to your bank accounts and automatically record every transaction, whether that’s money going in or money coming out. The only thing left to do is to categorize each transaction. Also, YNAB will remember which transactions fall under which category. For example, we frequently shop at Mother’s Market and Whole Foods for our groceries. I no longer have to categorize those things, since YNAB will automatically do that for me, thus making my job easier.

Off course, YNAB comes with a fee, which luckily for us, is waived by our financial planner. The cost to use YNAB is $89.99 annually, which seems like a lot, but when I look at the number we paid towards student debt ($84,000), I don’t feel bad at all! I think that fee is totally justified, plus it makes the whole budgeting process easier and much more motivating than if I had to go through all of our bank accounts and credit cards and physically input each and every transaction, create analytical comparisons and graphs and pie charts, and let our financial situation take up all of my free time.

If you are someone who wants to know where their money is going, wants to plan for the future, or is already doing both but wants a simpler process, try out YNAB. I hear too frequently the saying, “I don’t know where my money goes!” It’d be nice if we never have to say that ever again. Plus, once you know where it goes, you have the power to redirect it, kind of like we have!

Finance: Why I Consider the Loan Forgiveness Program as a Risky Chance

When you graduate with a loan as large as I have ($550,000 in debt!), it is easy to view student loan forgiveness programs as the superheroes of our lives. There are many different loan forgiveness options that you must choose from, but once you’ve chosen one, you are given the choice of paying a sliver of your income every month, with the promise that at the end of your program, the remaining (accruing) balance will be wiped forever from your life! It’s an ultimate quick fix to a problematic giant standing in the way of your financial independence. The small monthly payments are on autopay and the looming terror is out of sight, out of mind, for the next twenty or twenty five years. So why the skepticism?

Twenty five years is an extremely long time. I know, because I have barely passed my twenty five year mark. I also know that because after I add on twenty five years, I’d be over fifty. To be honest with you, I don’t want to keep this lifestyle up until I’m fifty. A lot can happen in twenty five years. The immediate assumption is that no matter what happens in the future, we will be grand-fathered in this loan forgiveness program.  But although it’s an immediate assumption, it doesn’t mean it’s logical or true. Because nowhere in the fine print does it say that. But our brains are wired to make up stuff that will put us at ease. And so, some like to reason that this must be true, and I know I can’t convince them otherwise. Because, what do I know?

Well, here is what I know.

  • I know that there are people out there who chose a ten year loan forgiveness program. Only to be told after their ten years that they do not or no longer qualify. Some haughty know-it-all will likely say, “Well, that’s THEIR fault for not knowing their own program!” But as we all know, they don’t make programs easy to know. The fine print just keeps getting smaller AND longer.
  • I know that my sister took a five year contract with a charter school in a city far away from her family and friends with the promise of getting $40,000 forgiven from her student debt after the five years. However, you cannot apply for the forgiveness until you’ve completed all five years. Last year, the amount forgiven changed. It went down to $17,000. Still a good amount, but not the promised $40,000. Her five years ends in June. So in June, she would have given up five years of her life living in this far away city to only get back less than half of what she thought she was going to get back. Which is depressing to think about, since she turned down multiple amazing opportunities with higher pay for this program.
  • I know that in the ONE year that I have been out of dental school, there has already been talk of the loan forgiveness program being extended to THIRTY years. An additional five years of minimum payments, a continually accruing debt, and a higher percentage of your loan that you have to pay in taxes at the end of it all. More, more, more.

Therefore, you are right in saying that I just don’t know. I don’t know the future one year from now, so I sure as heck don’t know the future twenty five years from now. I don’t know who will be in the government, who will be controlling our laws, how the program will change, if the program will still apply to me, and if the program will even exist. And with a loan this large, I will not leave this up to chance.

What I do know is that I CAN tackle this giant, so I WILL. I will not let him rule over me, stop me in my path, instill any fears or doubts.

Will you tackle him, too?

 

Finance: The First Year of Paying Down $550,000 in Student Loans, An Update

Hi guys! So it has been about a year since our search for a future home turned into a commitment to pay down my massive student debt instead. I figured I would give you an update as to what paying down $550,000 at 6.7% interest looks like.

We arrived at our decision to tackle the loans aggressively in April of 2017 (our decision tree, here). The most important thing to note with a loan this large is that committing to it means REALLY committing to it. It wouldn’t be advantageous to choose to pay down the debt, and then fall back to IBR midway. From a numbers perspective, you would just lose unnecessary money that way. If you choose the loan forgiveness route, then the goal is to pay AS LITTLE MONTHLY PAYMENTS AS POSSIBLE, so that a huge chunk gets written off. If you choose the standard repayment option, then the goal is to pay AS MUCH MONEY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. So, with a steely grip on the reality that we did not want the debt to dictate and shape our lives for twenty five years, we went head first.

Here are the numbers.

To be completely honest with you, $550,000 is a ballpark estimate. The real number is a principle amount of $538,933.50 and an accrued interest of $35,101. Meaning the total was actually $574,034.50. YIKES!

So what did we do? We decided that we will essentially live off of one income, and use the other income towards loans. We figure, out parents raised us on a single person’s income, so this can’t be that difficult especially since we don’t even have kids yet. The verdict: We were right! It was surprisingly easy. Which makes me wonder, where were we spending all that money before hand?! I don’t even want to know….

With that being said, we have been successful at making our minimum payments of $6500 per month! YAY! We were even able to add a little extra every so often due to diligent saving habits (See The Ever Growing List of Things I’ve Given Up In The Name of Frugality!). But that does not take us as far on the path of financial freedom as we would like. It took us a few months to completely pay off the interest that had accrued, but it must be remembered that the loan is at 6.7% interest. So that means that interest continues to accrue over all this time. So what does that look like? Well, once the accrued interest was paid off, approximately half of the $6,500 was going towards the interest accruing per month. Which means that the loan is only getting paid down at a rate of about $3,000 per month. And that, my friends, is how lovely interest works! Womp, womp.

So, $55,367.22 was paid towards interest. Only $28,632.78 went towards paying down the principle amount. When my husband first looked at the little pie chart graph that I had on the corner of my computer screen summarizing our progress, he said, “Well, THAT’s depressing!” For someone who is only looking at that, it CAN seem pretty depressing. However, I know better. This. Is. Amazing.

The accrued interest is already out of the way, which tells me that next year is going to look a LOT better. I can already see a higher proportion of the monthly payments being applied to our principle. It started out as slightly less than half of our payment being applied to the principle. However, as of early this year, slightly more than half is being applied to principle. I know it’s hard to look at this as any way other than a linear projection, but it really, truly is an exponential one, albeit with a slow start.

The amazing part is that we have survived our first year and our lives have actually been much improved. Choosing this journey has nudged us to be proactive with our life, not only with our financial decisions, but also with our lifestyle choices. We are experiencing less stress than when we felt helpless and unable to address the student loans. We are experiencing more happiness than when we were trying to buy our way to a meaningful life. I work less than I did last year, and love myself more. We are healthier and have better relationships. And it all started with us learning how to get our finances in order and in our efforts to remove money from our life equation.

I am very happy with this decision and I am excited to see what the next year of payments will bring.

PS: I am excited that we will hit the $400,000’s during me and Mike’s birthday months in June/July!

Also, for the curious, I have never, not once, felt regret in funneling extra money towards my student loans. I have felt buyer’s remorse. I’ve regretted going out to eat. I have regretted going to events that required spending money. I have regretted buying gifts that I know will end up in a landfill some day. But I have never regretted letting go of money in exchange for a little slice of freedom. I’m just saying.

The First 5 Steps to Getting Our Finances in Order

Right after I graduated from dental school, I knew I wanted to get our finances in order. We were six months away from swearing eternity to each other, and I wanted to be clear about what our current financial status was and where we want to go from there. They say that finances are one of the biggest stressors in a relationship, and I knew I wanted to nip that one in the bud and move on to living happy eternal lives.

There were a few key steps that, on paper, seem super elementary, but I guarantee that the majority of the people do not have these five steps down. I am not saying these are the first five steps everyone should take, but they were the first that we took and it worked out really well for us! If you are looking to get your finances in order but aren’t sure where to start, hopefully one (or all!) of these will give you the boost you were looking for.

  1. Build up an emergency fund, and then never touching that money unless it’s a TRUE emergency. For my entire life, I knew in the back of my mind that I needed an emergency fund, but never have I had one. I assumed that there will be some money left in the bank in the case of a true emergency that I could rely on until the emergency is solved. Off course, I was underestimating the cost of my potential emergency. I assumed an emergency constitutes of a flat tire, or the need to buy something right away (this was before I became anti-consumption and was practically throwing my money out the window). In light of the recent fires in Ventura County, it is safe to say that a TRUE emergency can constitute of a fire affecting your city, so that your home burns down, along with the office that you work at, thus putting you out of a home, without belongings, and without a job. Recovery from such an emergency could take multiple months. Or an accident that could leave you with hospital bills and a disability that prevents you from going back to work. When put in that light, I never thought a true emergency could happen to me. Well, it can happen to me. Most certainly, it can happen to anybody. So one of the first things we did was build up our emergency fund. Our emergency fund is enough to last us through three months’ worth of living expenses. It sounds easy to do, but in order to find the correct number, you actually have to track your monthly living expenses. There is a tendency to underestimate the correct figure. Saying yes to dining out with friends and purchasing random items during a Target run can quickly increase that number significantly. So we started to track our finances (See item #2 below). Once we got our number, we saved up enough and then did not touch that money. It still sits in our bank accounts today, which is a great thing because that means we have been emergency free for the past year and a half! I’m not talking, “I am out of money in my bank account, let me just borrow from my emergency money.” Ideally, you don’t ever want to get to the point where you run out of money in your bank account, but we will get to that later.
  2. Track your money by budgeting. We started to track our finances with the budgeting tool called YNAB. You can use any budgeting tool alternative, such as Mint.com, or your own homemade spreadsheet. We decided to go with YNAB only because it was what our financial planner set up for us. I fell in love with budgeting! I was always interested in numbers, organizing, and planning, so this was just my cup of tea, luckily for Mike. The tool tracks money going in and money going out. By linking your bank accounts, the tracking is almost immediate. The only part you have to do is categorize your spending and income, so that you can see how much you spend on things such as rent, groceries, gas, dining out, and any other category you can think of. You can be as specific or as vague as you want. I prefer to be vague so that it makes the process a little bit easier. I was amazed at how much money we were hemorrhaging through, and that’s quite a realization since, compared to a majority of our friends, we were pretty frugal. This was the part of the process that pushed me towards minimalism and anti-consumerism. Thinking about my past habits with spending money is almost nauseating. To multiple that by the number of Americans who do the same or worse makes me want to cry and beg Mother Earth for forgiveness. To this day, we continue tracking our spending. It’s taken the guesswork out of finances, and we no longer have to think about whether we have money or not for a certain something. We always have the money, because it is already allocated for. We follow the simple envelope system, which long ago would consist of one taking their income and placing them into different envelopes based on spending categories. There would be an envelope for utilities and for auto-registration, etc. In order to pay for something, one would take the money out of the appropriate envelope. If a person tries to overspend on dining out, they can’t, because there are no physical dollar bills left in the dining out envelope. It would require for them to physically take money out of a different envelope to cover their spending, or force them not to dine out for that day. That’s the simplified version of the envelope system and it’s the categorization system that YNAB uses. Because of this, once we get our paychecks, every single dollar bill is allocated for a future expense. So that when the expense comes, the money is already there. What about in the cases of unexpected expenses? Well, that would be called an emergency, and that’s also already saved and built up from step 1. And no, there is no such thing as a shopping emergency. There is no such thing as an unexpected expense unless some drastic unforeseen natural disaster strikes in your neighborhood. The whole point of the budgeting process is to teach us that there is not one thing that we absolutely need, and those that we want, we have the time to plan ahead for and save up.
  3. Put everything on Auto Pay. Life gets hectic and busy, and sometimes we miss a payment and get charged a late fee. Ugh, those late fees kill me. It’s another way of throwing money straight down the drain. Stop that right now and put your worries to rest. Take the minimum payment for every credit card, utility bill and loan and place it on auto pay at a particular time of the month, every month. Just make sure it draws after your paycheck is deposited in your account, at a time when you know the money will be present in the bank account. The last thing you want is an overdraft fee.
  4. Start paying off your debts one by one. Since I opened my first credit card at age sixteen, I have never been debt free. The first thing I wanted to do was start our debt snowball. Credit card interest rates are insanely high, and it was crazy to think that I was throwing away so much of my money at the same time that I was spending money I did not have. So we tackled our credit cards one by one until we brought them down to zero. After we cleared all our credit cards, we kept them clear every month by paying off the total. By doing this, we were also reaffirming that we were spending well below our means. After all our credit card debt was paid off, we only had two debts left. My student loan, and Mike’s car loan. We decided to tackle the student loan first. The reason was because it had a much higher interest rate than the car loan, as well as a higher amount. The amount of money we would be gaining in interest by letting my student loan sit is way more than the amount of interest we would gain by letting the car loan sit a little longer. Don’t get us wrong, we are still paying down the car loan at the same time, at a speed fast enough so that it will be gone in three years. But we are funneling all our extra money towards paying down the student loans instead. Once you start paying things off, it becomes more addicting than spending your money. I get such a thrilling, spine-tingling joy when I pay off debt. The debt snowball is well on its way, and my goal is to make this snowball the biggest and fastest snowball possible!
  5. Hire  a financial planner. It’s the last on the list, but it was actually the first thing we did. It was how we began this journey. So why is it listed as number 5? I hesitate to put this on here because some people believe that hiring a financial planner is not a worthy way to spend money. Some may argue that paying for such a service could cause you to lose out on money that would be better served invested or paying down debt. I am not completely disagreeing by the way. If you are really good at this type of stuff and can do an equally great job on your own, I would back up your decision not to hire a financial planner. I would agree that your money is way better spent towards investing or achieving your dreams. So it isn’t for some people, which is why I hesitate to put it as number one, for fear that somebody will just shut down this post’s tab and move on with their lives. For us, this was the right choice, and I think it IS worth the money. One hundred percent! First off, notice that I did not write financial investor. That is a different type of service, one that focuses solely on investing money. A financial planner, when you’ve got the right one, does more than investment management, although that is part of their job description as well. A good planner will start by helping you discover your goals, and then trying to get you to your goals by tackling your financial life. It isn’t about the money, but about the end result. Where you want to be, and how you can shape your finances to get you there. Ours is particularly good at analyzing what we truly want and asking us the right questions to re-evaluate every few months if our dreams are still our dreams. We create the vision, and he helps to give us the path to make that a reality. The planner will keep you accountable, and is useful as a resource to guide you towards new and innovative ways to approach your goals. People can say it’s a mistake, we don’t care. Let’s just say, it’s a mistake we have to make. And if we had to choose all over again, we would do it just the same because frankly, I wouldn’t even be here, writing about all of this, if we had chosen differently.

So those are our first five steps, and now you know that the list is not in a particular order. Happy budgeting!