Fixer-Upper Tip

Investing in a fixer-upper house and then either keeping it to rent or selling it is a good, fun thing to do especially if you are handy and/or have an “in” when it comes to the design or purchase of new wares for the house. If done correctly, one can make a decent living and have an enjoyable business doing fixer-uppers, and it can be an important part of one’s financial plan.

Chip and Joanna Gaines, Stars of HGTV’s Fixer Upper

Chip and Joanna

“Fixer-Upper” on HGTV with Chip and Joanna Gaines is over, and the stars are looking to move on to bigger things with regard to television. They are continuing to run and expand their Magnolia brand in Waco, Texas, and they are transforming Waco in the process. According to this article, tourism and home prices along with it are increasing.

Bad Idea

Although they are talented and have been successful thus far, there is one element of the Gaines’ business plan that I would not recommend: Their homes are setting the high end of home prices in Waco. Although they are trying to bend the curve upward, they are too far ahead of it. According to this article, the average Waco home sells for $215,000. The Gaines’, on the other hand, are selling homes for over $500,000, and even up to $950,000. More power to them if they can fetch those prices, but it is not a good idea to be that far above the market, regardless of how nice the house is or the cachet attached to the Gaines’ name.

Know Your Local Market

Instead, if you are looking to do a Fixer-Upper, you need to make sure you know what your market is. Buy something below the market price and be able to sell it at or close to the market price, factoring in all of the money you plan to spend to fix it up. When you sell the property, don’t stand out with a price that is 2 or 3 standard deviations from the mean. Rather, plan your exit price within 1 standard deviation, and work backward from there. If the acquisition price plus the amount you spend to fix it up results in an acceptable profit for you, then great! If not, don’t buy the house!


More power to the Gaines’, but don’t do what they are doing and try to reset an entire city market and point it upward in terms of the local economy and housing prices unless you want to establish a brand as they have. Instead, if you are planning to do one-off fixer-upper deals, stay in your lane and fit within the parameters of that local housing market.

Sweep Accounts: Watch Out!

This article from highlights a new trend that some brokerages are using now to make more money from your account: Not all sweep accounts are created the same and you may need to make sure your excess funds are being swept into the right account.

Sweep Account

A “sweep account” is an account into which your excess cash is invested in order to earn interest. Typically a sweep account pays a money market interest rate, which is higher than a savings account interest rate. A sweep account that pays a money market rate is more in focus now because, at 2% or even slightly higher, the money market rate is higher than one can get in a longer-term bond. This is what a flat or inverted yield curve is all about.

Be Proactive

The article shows that some brokerages – Schwab being the primary example – are not sweeping excess funds into money market funds. Schwab’s sweep account, for example, pays an interest rate of 0.61%, far lower than most other money market funds. Schwab has a money market fund, but if you are a Schwab account holder, you must proactively invest in its money market account. It’s easy to do – just do it through your online portal – but Schwab won’t do it for you. Schwab is not the only firm that does this. Merrill Edge, for instance, has a money market account that is not its standard sweep account.

It Makes a Difference

It makes a big difference if your sweep account pays 1% vs. 2%. Think about big institutions with millions of dollars invested. The extra 1% adds up to big money. For the small investor, the marginal interest you earn may not seem like much, but it is important not to feel taken advantage of. Also, think about it from the brokerage’s perspective: It’s a lot of money to them if they can avoid paying their customers an extra 1% on their deposits.


I recommend you go into your web portal or look at your statements to see what your excess cash is being swept into, and what the interest rate on that sweep account is. Then figure out if there is another equally-safe money market account available at your brokerage. It may be worth it to transfer your excess cash into the higher-paying account, especially if you anticipate the cash remaining there and if it is equally safe and easy to invest if a better opportunity presents itself.

Diversify Your Dividends

Interest rates are historically low. Granted, you can earn nearly 2% in a money market account, but that rate will decline if and when the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates. Longer-term bond rates are lower, with the 10-Year Treasury at 1.5%-ish. You might look at corporate bonds or a corporate bond fund: LQD, and investment-grade corporate bond fund, yields above 3%, so there is that option. However, the more common alternative to bonds for yield is stocks that pay dividends.


With interest rates on traditional debt instruments as low as they are, dividend stocks become more attractive. What you should look for when you look to invest in dividend stocks, in addition to the current yield (the annualized dividend divided by the current stock price) is the opportunity for a hedge against inflation. For instance, the current yield on SPY, the S&P 500 Index ETF, is about 1.8%. If SPY’s price over the next year rises by the rate of inflation, say 3%, when added to the dividend, that is a 4.8% total return for the year, which is much better than you get with a bond, a 1 year CD, or most other traditional savings havens.

Diversify Your Dividend Portfolio

Many dividend-paying stocks are clustered into relatively few sectors. For instance, utilities, real estate investment trusts, large oil companies, and some traditional industrial companies typically pay higher dividends, or at least higher than the average S&P 500 company’s dividend. You might, for instance, buy 4 large oil company stocks – Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and BP all yield from between 4% and 7% – and declare victory on investing in dividend stocks. The problem is, stocks in one particular sector such as large oil companies tend to trade in unison. In my example, if the price of oil declines, your portfolio is likely to decline, and your hedge against inflation will not work out as planned. If oil goes down too much, these companies might lower their dividends, although companies typically make a strong effort at least to maintain their current level of dividends.

Dividend Funds

Regarding portfolio diversification, the typical financial planner might default to recommending mutual funds or ETF’s because they are diversified portfolios of securities. However, with the case of dividends, although there are many dividend funds, I am not a big fan, and I think you can do better on your own by buying individual holdings, as long as you know what you are getting yourself into individually and collectively.


I recommend that you target a yield percentage and pick a diversified portfolio of stocks that collectively earn that percentage. For example, set a goal to earn a 4% yield on a portion of your portfolio. Then pick stocks that earn 4% on a weighted-average basis. Some will earn more, and some less. The key is to make sure your portfolio is diversified among sectors, which means you should have 10 or more – a finance professor will tell you that you need 30 to be diversified, but you will be pretty well diversified with 10. Other things to watch out for:

  • Try to avoid stocks whose yields look too good to be true. There are stocks out there that yield 10% or more. Typically these are companies that are in trouble, so really high yields are a red flag.
  • Try to avoid master limited partnerships, or MLP’s. If you screen for “stocks that yield more than 4%”, many of your results will be MLP’s. There is nothing wrong with owning an MLP, as it is just a different form of ownership with voting rights different from what you find with stocks. The problem with MLP’s is that tax reporting at the end of the year is complicated because you get a K1 instead of a 1099, which could cause you to delay filing your taxes. The trend now is that companies that were previously structured as an MLP are converting to C-Corporation ownership so as to present investors with a cleaner ownership structure.

Another way to help to put together a diversified dividend portfolio that accomplishes what you want is to contact me and engage my services as a financial planner. I would enjoy helping you achieve your goals!

HIPAA and Mental Health

Recent mass killings in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, and Santa Ana have caused us to discuss the state of mental health in this country. The argument is that “we” or “someone” needs to find people who fit the profile of these isolated sociopathic would-be killers before they act. The problem is “we” or “someone” can’t do so, and a principal reason they can’t do so is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, otherwise known as HIPAA. HIPAA makes it so that the initial cry for help needs to come from the mentally ill person, and not from someone, even a family member, on the outside looking at this mental illness situation and trying proactively to do something about it. If we want a more proactive strategy to search for the mentally ill and those who might fit the mass killer profile, HIPAA needs to change.

Saiorse Kennedy Hill

In addition to the tragic loss of life in the above-named cities, we also recently lost the granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Although the cause of Saiorse Kennedy Hill’s death has not been yet revealed, Ms. Hill had issues while at prep school at Deerfield Academy and wrote specifically about her issues and how HIPAA exacerbated her problems in the Deerfield school newspaper. Those issues included attempted suicide. I refer you to this column by Andrea Peyser in the New York Post. Because of HIPAA, Ms. Hill wrote, nobody at Deerfield had the ability to reach out to her to help her back after a difficult spate.

It is not a stretch to think that a high school-aged girl struggling with mental health issues might be similar to an isolated young man struggling with his own issues and feeling ever more isolated and trying to figure out how he might get even with those who are against him in his own mind. A teacher or a colleague might see this situation developing and want to do something about it. They might confront the person, who might, in turn, tell the person with good intentions to take a hike. “Intervention” sounds like a good idea but it is really hard to pull off.


All of us who go to the doctor have to sign HIPAA forms typically once every year per doctor. When you do so, though you might take comfort that HIPAA helps you with your own medical privacy, it also in a twisted way contributes to some of the most tragic events in our society. I advocate that HIPAA needs to be revised such that interventions are easier to accomplish because mental health is a growing concern. Health insurance and physical and mental health are an important part of Financial Planning, and so this is certainly an issue that my fellow financial planners should address and advocate.

Dow Down 800

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 800 points on Wednesday, August 14, a day after it rose 400 points. The market is volatile! An inverted yield curve is given as the reason why the Dow dropped on Wednesday. In the past, an inverted yield curve has sometimes preceded an economic recession, which means lower earnings for companies, which means lower stock prices.

My Take

Here are my thoughts about what is going on with the market:

  • The yield curve is inverting because money is being poured into the longer end of the yield curve, and not because rates on the shorter end are increasing. According to the US Department of Treasury, the 10 Year Bond hit a recent high yield of 3.24% on November 8, 2018. The current yield is just over 1.5%, less than half of what it was a scant 9 months ago. By contrast, the 3 Month T-Bill’s yield has dropped from 2.35% on 11/8/18 to 1.91% currently – a much shallower decline in yield.
  • Money is being poured into the longer end of the yield curve because alternatives for yields on government-issued securities worldwide are even lower. Negative interest rates are back. According to Marketwatch, the 10 Year German bond has a current yield of negative 0.7%, and the 10 Year Japan bond has a current yield of negative 0.24%. Interest rates are negative in much of the world (except for the US) because economic growth in these places is extremely weak or non-existent. Large institutional investors see these negative rates and weak growth and figure these other countries aren’t going to grow out of their problems any time soon, and they see that US Treasuries at least have a positive yield, and that the US economy’s rate of growth in the 3% to 4% range far exceeds that of other developed countries, and so they decide it is a good wager to lock in yields for 10 years, even if those yields are half of what they were 9 months ago. This speaks volumes about the future outlook for Europe and the rest of the developed world.
  • Meanwhile, the metrics for the US economy remain good and do not signal an oncoming recession. Despite the 800 point selloff on Wednesday, stock price indexes, which are a leading economic indicator, remain near all-time highs. Unemployment is sub-4%, and workforce participation is rising slightly. Corporate earnings are forecasted to improve, albeit not at the rate they did during 2018.
  • The Federal Reserve has been and remains accommodative, including their most recent 25 basis point cut in rates. Per the Fed, it still has $1.4 Trillion of excess reserves in the system, so money is not tight. In addition, the Fed Funds Rate of 2.25% is about half of the nominal GDP growth rate – a metric some economists look at as a predictive element.


My point is that this semi-inversion of the yield curve is different than previous inversions that have come before recessions. Most other indicators point toward further growth in corporate earnings and therefore appreciation in stock prices. Moreover, there are other issues in play, such as the China trade issue, that can be solved with some political will on both sides. I believe this semi-inversion will not be followed by a recession within the next 2 calendar years, at least.

Paying for Grandkids’ College

Only a few of my readers that I am aware of currently have grandchildren, but a number of them wish they did. I fall into the latter category. One grandparent I know says, “If I had known how much fun grandchildren are, I would have started with them first!”

How Can I Help With Their College?

One common thought among grandparents is, “How can I help pay for their college education?” Same thoughts as parents have, but perhaps not with the same level of dread. There was an excellent article in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal that discusses various options a grandparent has. Click this link to read the original article, and then read my two cents worth here below on each of the options presented in the article:

  • 529 Account: This is the best way now, especially if the grandchildren are nearing college age, or at least over 8 years old. Parents can contribute $15,000 per year per grandparent and per grandchild, and they can frontload 5 years of contributions if they want, although this may not be desirable due to investment market vagaries. This means a grandmother and grandfather together can contribute $30,000 per year or $150,000 if they want to frontload 5 years of contributions without triggering Gift Tax issues. I advise not frontloading all 5 years because it is better to invest the contributions over time rather than all at once because you don’t know if you are contributing during a good buying opportunity or not. Most 529 Accounts are invested in target-age funds based on the child’s age and years until they need the money.
  • Direct Payment of Tuition: A grandparent can pay all or part of the grandstudent’s tuition directly. This means the grandparent writes a check directly to the college. The problem with this is that many colleges now want to be paid by credit card all at once, so how mechanically can a grandparent pay for a portion of the tuition? Probably someone will need to contact the college to work out the mechanics, which likely vary from college to college. Another issue to consider: The grandparent really should not write the check to the parent, because of gifting limits. A check directly to the college does not count as a gift, but a check payable to the child or the child’s parent counts as a gift, so there could be issues if the total including the tuition plus other gifts that grandparent gives to any one person exceeds $15,000. For instance, let’s say the grandchild graduates from high school and the grandparent gives them a car for graduation, and then the grandparent writes the grandchild a check for their first semester’s tuition. In this case, the grandparent is generous but not wise because both gifts combined within the same calendar year could easily exceed $15,000.
  • Fixed-Index Universal Life Insurance Policy: This may be the most intriguing option but only if the grandchild is less than 8 years old, because the contribution requires 10 years of aging for the tax benefits to kick in. The grandparent owns the policy but the grandchild is insured, so the cost of insurance is minimal. After being in place for 10 years, withdrawals to pay for tuition are considered loans against the cash value and aren’t taxable and aren’t considered assets that count against a child’s ability to get financial aid on the FAFSA. As in many other endeavors, it pays to plan ahead, and so the best option works if the planning and investing occur 10 years or more before the money is needed.


These suggestions for grandparents do not contradict with anything that the child or the child’s parents are trying to accomplish to obtain financial aid or to pay for college. My further advice is to make sure the college choice fits with the budget, and to be realistic about what the child wants to achieve with their college experience. With college as expensive as it is now, make sure that you really understand what you are getting into if you choose to go into serious debt to go to your dream school when you might be better served to go to a more cost advantageous place. And, as always. please ask me to help you if you have serious questions about any of this.

Have a Side Gig

Do you work a steady job, make steady income plus maybe a bonus, but you still can’t get ahead or even squirrel away any money in a savings account? If so, you need to consider what you do in your spare time. Perhaps you need to change what you do when you are not at your job such that what you do puts more money in your pocket rather than taking money out of your pocket.

Side Gig

Having a “side gig” that makes you money can take any number of forms. This article from suggests some ideas and gave me the idea to write this post. Teach a class on or consult in a field that you have expertise in; buy and manage a rental property – it’s not passive income if you manage it yourself; buy and sell niche products through eBay or Amazon; or write how-to books or manuals about something you know about. These are suggested in the article. Other side gigs that might pay you money include some of the following:

  • Drive for Uber or its like. This works if you have an inexpensive car and you like to chat it up with random people.
  • Do you watch Flip or Flop on HGTV? Do you think you have a good eye for properties and perhaps are handy with some things? How about buying a property and doing a remodel and flip rather than a rental? I have written about this before: It can be a fun way to make some extra cash but don’t do it the way that they do it on TV.
  • If you like to travel, consider becoming a personal tour guide and organizing a tour that you run yourself. You may not make much money, but you may at least have some or all of your expenses covered, so at least you won’t spend as much money as you otherwise would have.
  • Generally, take any skill or avocation you have or do and think about how to monetize it. This is not a stretch – we likely have all dreamed about doing something we love to do for a living. Instead, think about doing it as a side gig that pays you somehow.
  • Think about derivative activities. Example: You like to golf or play tennis, but you will never be a pro or earn money directly by golfing or playing tennis (is “tennising” a word?). Instead, derivative activities that might earn you some extra cash might be to write a blog about the pro tour or about your experiences with these activities or to organize tours of interesting golf courses or about rating golf courses.
  • Babysit! If you are an adult, this only works probably if you are a female and really like kids and otherwise don’t have much of a social life. However, there is a real need for babysitters because high school-age kids who babysit are in very short supply.


The internet and the accessibility of online retail and other channels open up many doors if you are looking for a side gig that pays you some extra cash. Having a side gig is almost like a 2 for 1: Not only can you put money in your pocket, you also don’t spend money you otherwise would have during your spare time. So, if you make $200 with your side gig and don’t spend $200 on an evening out, that’s $400 more you have in your pocket. It’s a great way to work your way out of the issue I stated at the start of this article, which is that it is tough to get ahead with just the salary you make at your day job.

25 BP vs. 50 BP

Last week, the Federal Reserve lowered the Fed Funds rate by 0.25% or 25 basis points. I agree with the 25 bp move for a couple of reasons:

  • Many other central banks such as the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, and Bank of China, are lowering rates, so the Fed needs to as well to keep in line with other central banks.
  • If the Fed did not lower rates, it may cause the US Dollar to strengthen to the point that US exports would be more expensive, thereby causing trouble ahead for US exporters.
  • Inflation is not great but deflation may be worse. The Fed targets an inflation rate of 2% +/- and actual inflation has not hit 2% on average for many quarters. Lowering rates should theoretically cause slightly higher inflation, and should also work against deflation.
  • Longer-term interest rates not controlled by the Fed have been trending downward, meaning the yield curve is extremely flat, even slightly inverted at times. The Fed’s lowering of the short-term Fed Funds rate will help to alleviate an inverted yield curve, which in the past has signaled a recession.
The Fed Announces Its Decision

25 vs. 50

Some out there wanted to Fed to lower rates by 50 basis points instead of 25, theorizing that such a move would be a “one and done” and would thereby provide a clearer path within which the US economy could operate, I understand the rationale, but that’s not the way the Fed operates. The Fed has been raising rates (or at least not lowering rates) for 10 years. They weren’t about to reverse course abruptly, and a 50 basis point drop in the Fed Funds rate would have been an abrupt reversal of policy. Perhaps if there had been an emergency, along the lines of the October 1987 stock market crash or September 11, a 50 basis point drop would have been warranted, but current economic conditions aren’t nearly an emergency along those lines. In fact, many economists, as well as 2 of the Fed governors, argued that there should be no rate cut and that the US economy remains strong enough so as not to warrant a cut. Several careers ago, during my time at a large commercial bank doing risk grading of the loans I managed, I learned that the regulators want to see sequential changes in risk grading. Step by step only, and don’t skip any steps. Fed policy is the same way: A 25 basis point drop in rates was the next sequential step, and a 50 basis point drop would have meant skipping a step, which is not the right way to do it.


I think the Fed’s steps are bullish for asset prices. Lower interest rates mean lower borrowing costs for individuals and companies, which is good for corporate earnings and therefore good for stock prices. Mortgage rates have trended lower all year, which is good for home buyers and home prices, and the Fed’s decision will only help in that regard. Hopefully, longer-term interest rates will stabilize or maybe even trend slightly upward and thereby avoid the yield curve inversion. If you own stocks or own real estate, this is all good news.

Back From Vacation

I am back from a month’s vacation in Europe, first with my wife of now 30 years celebrating our anniversary, and then with a group of friends attending the British Open golf tournament in Northern Ireland and subsequently golfing on the Emerald Isle. What a great trip! Only a couple of days of rain, and we managed to avoid the worst of the European heatwave. Thank you to my wife and to everyone who helped to make this trip of a lifetime happen without a snag!

We visited Florence, Italy on our 30th Anniversary Vacation


I haven’t really gotten away from it all in a long time. Seems like my previous recent trips have involved me keeping fully abreast of the news of the day and the financial markets. This trip was different. I really didn’t pay much attention to the day-to-day news, and though I checked the markets every day, it was to see if there were any significant moves one way or another. Being away and out of touch (sort of) helps you to realize that the day-to-day news typically doesn’t have much effect on the direction of the financial markets, particularly the stock market. I believe that some traders get so invested in the news of the day that they fail to see the forest for the trees. The “forest” purview is that the US economy continues to grow; corporate earnings remain strong; some companies (Amazon) are taking market share away from others (other retailers, especially small retailers); and interest rates remain low. All of this is bullish for stocks in general, particularly for those of us who invest in index ETF’s.


At the same time, I was fortunate to have been away during a month of minimal volatility. When I left on my trip, the SPY was at about 295, and it is now at about 300, with few peaks and valleys between then and now. Similar story for the Nasdaq 100. The Average True Range (a measure of volatility) has been small. The VIX Index (another measure of volatility) has declined by about 6%. In short, it has been a good time to have been away from the financial markets. The markets have continued their “melt-up” despite continued fireworks in Washington, D.C. By the way: Missing the daily news from Washington was really great! By getting away, one can see how the 24-hour news cycle feeds the beast, and that it takes on a life of its own that has little or no bearing on how most of the population live their lives.


I hope I have gained a perspective that I can continue to carry now that I am back in the breach. I have always tried to be above the fray, so to speak, and I hope that this break moves me more in that direction. Please contact me directly if you want to learn more about my trip, or if you want perhaps to share a story about what you have learned through previous trips of your own.