A dog, a homework and a reader question about Robo Advisors

There is a first time for everything. A first time in about two years! I didn’t get today’s designated blog post up and running in time! The dog ate my homework! Well not literally but only figuratively. Things are busy at work and last weekend we had to move (again). After a month and half of couch-surfing with friends and relatives and some vacation time in between, we finally moved into a slightly more permanent place, an AirBnB in Oakland. Hopefully, our last place in the Bay Area before I finish my job in mid-June. Right as we settled in at the new place and I wanted to get working on my blog post my laptop gave up its ghost! The new one I wanted was not available at Costco and needs to be shipped. ETA TBA! What to do now? Well, I could just skip this week’s post, right? I figure once we go on our long trip to Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand in the second half of 2018 I will likely reduce the blog post frequency to 1-2 per month anyway. Vacations are a lot of work! But as long as we’re here I’ll try to keep up with the weekly posts on Wednesdays.

So, what about today’s post? Simply repurpose something I had already done! I receive a lot of emails with personal finance questions from readers. I can’t answer them all because I don’t have an army of Macedonian content writers working for me! But a few weeks ago I got an interesting question via email that I couldn’t help but answer! It’s about Robo advisors! And why two Robo advisors are worse than one! That’s something I have to share on the blog as well! Let’s take a look…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf”

Welcome to a new Case Study! This time, Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf” (not her real name) volunteered to open the doors to her finances. And every case study brings up something new to learn for yours truly. Today’s challenge: How would “alternative” investments factor into the Safe Withdrawal Rate exercise? Peer Street, Hard Money Lenders, Lendingclub, Prosper, etc. have gained a lot of popularity, especially in the FIRE crowd. When calculating safe withdrawal rates, I have only worked with stock/bond/cash portfolios because they are the asset classes with returns going back 100+ years. Doing the SWR exercise for a portfolio of Peer Street loans will require some “hacking” in my Safe Withdrawal Rate Google Sheet!

Further challenges come from the fact that Mrs. and Mr. Surf keep their finances separate (similar situation as in the Case Study for Rene) and Mr. Surf will still be working for a number of years, so we have to make some assumptions on how to assign the tax burden between Mr. and Mrs. Surf. Lots of work to do! So let’s get started and look at Mrs. Surf’s finances…

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We just saved $42,000 by not switching to Betterment

There is a popular car insurance commercial featuring someone who “just saved a ton of money by switching to GEICO.” How much is a ton of money? $400? Well, by that measure we just saved more than “100 tons of money” or a whole century worth of car insurance savings. And we didn’t do so by switching, but by not switching our brokerage account. Ka-Ching, how easy was that?Read More »

Beat Behavioral Bias: Mental Accounting

A lot of economic and financial research deals with behavioral biases, those occasions where the mind plays tricks with us and leads even very intelligent people down the path of irrational and sub-optimal decisions. Other bloggers have pointed out some of these biases before, see Plan Invest Escape on cognitive biases. Also, Northern Expenditure wrote an interesting post on the temptation of instant gratification over saving for the future. Among all the different biases, Mental Accounting is not that well-known but it’s one of the most fascinating. Mental accounting, sometimes called Framing, shows up in human behavior in the following ways:

Intentionally or unintentionally creating different buckets of money and ignoring the fact that money is fungible; displaying different degrees of risk aversion and/or different propensities to consume out of different buckets.

Quite intriguingly, in personal finance the mental accounting bias is not only committed frequently, sometimes it’s even celebrated as a great innovation. It’s not a defect, it’s a feature! Some of the well-known financial gurus fall for this fallacy and are not even ashamed!Read More »

Why we don’t use Robo-advisers

  1. Most investors will get much smaller excess returns from the tax savings than what the Robo-advisers claim.
  2. Robo-advisers pick an asset allocation that may have tax inefficiencies built in for some investors, worth at least several basis points of annualized returns.
  3. Smart investors should still perform Tax Loss Harvesting, but it’s best to DIY because the benefits may not outweigh the Robo-adviser fees, especially if taking into account some of the potential inefficiencies introduced in the Robo-adviser target portfolios.

Intro

In our earlier post we showed how to be your own DIY Robo adviser. That post got quite long and even then it didn’t deal with all the issues of Robo advisers and especially tax loss harvesting (TLH). Here are some additional thoughts and caveats about TLH, Robo-advisers and their – in our opinion – slightly “creative” marketing practices.Read More »

Be Your Own DIY Zero-Cost Robo-Adviser!

We don’t use Robo-advisers because their services can be easily replicated with zero fees by smart frugal retirement savers. Tax loss harvesting, one of the Robo-adviser tasks, is also easy to perform yourself and we have been doing it since beginning to save in taxable accounts. Of course, once we are retired, tax loss harvesting is much less useful and for some early retirees, it is even completely ineffective. Moreover, investing only a small portion of your portfolio with a Robo-adviser, and managing the rest yourself is a bad idea because, among other reasons, some of your own trades could potentially invalidate the tax losses in the Robo account.

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