Nearly Everything I Learned About Investing I Learned From My Father, Revisited

Happy belated Father’s Day to all the Dad’s out there. This is an older post that I have edited, expanded, and added to.

My father is not an investor or “bank guy” by any means. But thinking back upon childhood and beyond, I realize that a good amount of the things that are important to investing, are the same simple life lessons my father tried to instil in me when I was young.

They are tidbits of wisdom that seem to have limitless application. Here’s a few that come to mind:

Use the right tool for the right job

Whenever my dad caught me trying to hammer something with the handle of a screwdriver, or unscrew something with a butter knife, he used to stop me and tell me to use the right tool for the right job. Taking the 30 seconds to grab a hammer was far better than breaking the screwdriver and being out the time and money that it would take to replace.

The same can be said about investing. We have a variety of products we can choose from, and several of them have their specific purpose. Use a TFSA if you want to save up for a car, not your RRSP. Use an RESP to save for your child’s education, not your un-registered account. There are benefits to using the right tool for the right job, and penalties for not.

knife for the peanut butter, spoon for the jam

I think this advice was brought to the both of us from either the Flintstones or Sesame Street, but my dad would repeat the jingle if we were going to make a peanut butter and jam sandwich. It’s a simple life lesson: be cleanly and organized.

If you are in the fortunate position to have “extra” cash to play with, or if you “have a hunch” that a stock is going to move, hey, more power to you. Take the plunge, if you see fit. But don’t get your ultra-risky speculations mixed up with your legitimate investments that should be the foundation of your savings.

Simply put, don’t take the money you are planning to use for a down-payment on a house and put it all in the latest IPO. If you can take a gamble, set up a separate account and keep only a small portion of your wealth there.

More importantly, it is linked to the “use the right tool” section above: It is important to keep certain accounts separate, even if you don’t invest in individual stocks. We need to remember time horizons when investing, and use the appropriate vehicle.

Do it right the first time

Nothing upset my father more than when he asked me to do something and I did it half-heartedly. Inevitably, he would make me re-do it. It taught me to put the effort into getting it right the first time.

This doesn’t always work with investing; we all make a bad decision from time to time. But if you can make the effort to make sound decisions, you won’t have to try to make up lost ground in the future.

Creating an investing plan for yourself, deciding an asset allocation, and following the plan is far more important that finding the next Microsoft. The fact of the matter is that most of us will never find the next Microsoft early enough, nor would we sell it when it should be sold. But following an asset allocation plan is something that we all can do… easily.

Keep your head up

This was a hockey lesson. I remember forgetting this advice once, and skating full speed into another kid behind the net. My tailbone hurt for a week.

If you are a do-it-yourself investor, then you will have to keep on top of things, especially if you are investing in individual stocks. Buy and hold is a legitimate strategy, and one that I tend to follow. But if you are not reading up on your companies, then you may be left holding some useless Enron stock, which may hurt more than your tailbone.

For indexers, it is important to keep marginally informed, and take care of re-balancing when your holdings get out of whack by a decided percentage, or at decided intervals.

Another day another dollar

More than advice, this is something he would say (still says to this day, in fact) when he got home from work and I would ask how his day went.

I’ve said in another post that I view my human capital as my most important asset, and it really stems from this saying. As long as you can keep working, you can keep earning, which means you can keep saving. It also means that you can spend when you need to, knowing that you have this powerful asset in your portfolio.

I prefer Steve Martin’s version, though: “All I’ve ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

Do as I say, not as I do

Probably the most frustrating to have to hear, but one of my favourites now, I would get this line thrown at me when I caught him in some sort of seemingly questionable situation where he told me one thing, but wasn’t following his own advice.

This is as important in investing as it is in life. There is a lot of good advice and wisdom out there from several people who know a lot more than you or me. It doesn’t mean that we need to do exactly what they are doing, especially when scale is an issue.

Warren Buffet is very good at recognizing value in stocks and whole companies. But he has said that the majority of investors would be better off by buying a basket of index funds.

Check your base

Living on a farm, ladders were constantly in use. Whether it be for changing light bulbs, painting barn doors, re-shingling the roof, cleaning the eaves or picking cherries, we were always up on them. No matter how many times I would climb the ladder,  he used to always tell me to check the footing before climbing, and then again on the first rung or so.

A solid base to a portfolio should be able to avoid (or lessen) the impact of a hard fall from market heights. This helped me when the market was approaching 15,000 (I put the brakes on at about 14 and change in June of 2007). The ladder started to feel wobbly, so I stopped climbing, re-checked my base, stockpiled cash, and had a nice cushion to fall on.

If the ladder starts to feel unstable, check the base, or grab another ladder. High stock prices may offer a great time to move some money into bonds, for example.

Don’t waste Your Money

Kids always go through phases and fads. Often these fads cost money. Whether it is video games, rap music, Pokemon cards or BMX bikes, the truth is that most of these things will be forgotten 10 years out.

My father’s words (and disappointed eyes when I wasted my money on something foolish) have had a lasting impression. I don’t often buy shiny things, and save a very healthy portion of my income.

Put your things away

Whether it was my toys when I was little, tools on the farm, or the jars and packages after making a sandwich, my father always insisted that I put things away when I was finished with them.

Not exactly investing, this mentality has left me with a very organized system for recording income, expenses investments, dividends etc. Good accounting practices are very helpful come tax season.

I’m sure there are several more of these little gems that can be found. Feel free to add some in the comment section.

Dirty Marketing

Many years ago I worked as a concierge at an inn in Niagara-On-The-Lake. In that position, and due to the location, part of my responsibility was to be up-to-date on information about the various wines and wineries in the area. To help with that, every Friday a different winery representative would come to the inn, give us a tasting along with a short talk, and field any questions we had.

It was an enjoyable job which sparked an interest, and to this day I still follow the world of wines, though to a much lesser degree. A bit of news that I came across a couple of months ago really annoyed me, however.

Two wine companies are in a legal battle about the naming of their wines, and it is those names that irk me. One is called “Mommyjuice,” while the other is called “Mommy’s Time Out.”

I’m not denying that this is a key demographic. In fact, wineries across the board have realized that women 25 – 40 are target consumers, and this is why there has been a proliferation of reasonably priced wines with cute or stylish labels. Yellow Tail (a brand of Casella Wines) became an instant success with it’s artful wallaby, Vincor (itself a subsidiary of Constellation Brands) came up with Kumala, and Peller Estates created an entire subsidiary in Roundpetal to produce XOXO, Croc Crossing and others… all  to market to women.

I’m all in favour of the above. I think it is in a business’s best interest to locate potential buyers and market to them. Businesses that fail to do so alienate huge swaths of the populace.

My beef, however, is with the flagrant implications that “Mommyjuice” and “Mommy’s Time Out” create.

While being a stay-at-home mom is certainly a difficult and sometimes stressful job, and I take no issue with a parent enjoying a glass of wine at the end of the day, I find the implication that alcohol is the answer to be in poor taste. It is entirely possible to market to this demographic without the suggestion that the need for alcohol is in direct relation to their children.

In wine tasting lingo, a dirty wine is one that is poorly made, that gives off a foul or pungent smell. I define dirty marketing as much the same.

Disclaimer: I own shares in one of the companies mentioned in this post. I post the link not as a recommendation, but rather so readers can see what the bottles look like.

A 50% Service Fee!?

Consider this to be a “What not to do” lesson in personal finance.

I’m usually pretty much on the ball when it comes to our finances. But recently I had a slip-up that cost us 50% in fees.

We have most of our Canadian financial assets with one financial institution, which are spread over a number of accounts. The bulk of our cash savings are sitting in a high-interest account with the bank. I’ve also had my main credit card at that bank for about 13 years.

I have never had any problems transferring money or paying off my credit card because there are no fees to worry about when moving money from one account to another within the bank.

I applied for a new credit card in January with another financial institution, however, and recently set it up to make a monthly donation to a charity. When my first bill came in, I went online, set up a new payee, and paid off my credit card… all $10.00 of it… from our high-interest account. I checked my new card a few days later to confirm that the payment went through, and thought nothing more about it.

Last week I was going over my April transactions and noticed that right after my $10.00 credit card payment, there was a $5.00 service fee for a payment to an outside account.

Ouch!

Okay, I admit that 50% sounds worse than $5.00,  but it’s still a hard pill to swallow.

On one hand, I want to leave it as-is, as a bit of self-punishment; a 50% stupidity fee, of sort (I long ago read and knew about the fee, I had simply forgotten). More likely, however, I will call the bank and ask them to reverse the charge.

Hopefully they will allow me to leverage my very long history with them against my very recent stupidity.

Smells Like Shoe Polish

My friend and flatmate in my 4th year of university was a geology student. His department had given him some tickets for a dinner and lecture on geology at some geological club in Toronto. Always interested to learn about something I know absolutely nothing about,  I jumped at the chance to go.

The keynote speaker raved about how gold was foolishly cheap, and should  have been twice the price that it was. It was an interesting talk, and had I listened to that geologist, I would have made out all right (not accounting for inflation or exchange rates). Take a look at this. It was 1999, and gold was about $250 an ounce.

I have never pretended to understand our infatuation with gold. I understand it now to be another currency, yes, but what makes it desirable?

Gold has a long history of being something we associate with wealth. Empires in Mexico, India, Europe and others… they have all sought after it. It’s history is nearly as interesting as that of salt.

To tell you the truth, I don’t even like gold really. Sure, I would like to own a bar to use as a doorstop or a wafer to use as a paperweight, but that would just be to be eccentric. Gold jewelery has always seemed Gaudy to me. My wife’s engagement ring, and our wedding bands are platinum. Simple. Stylish. Hard.

Yet gold keeps moving higher, and recently some things have happened that make me wonder if it’s possibly on its way back down.

I’ve lived here in Japan for 9 years, and starting last year a commercial started running that made me cringe. The commercial is selling a class and system to trade and make money from gold. The people in the commercial look very happy after walking out of the class, and then it cuts to them in front of a computer screen in their living room, smiling as they (I assume) buy and sell gold futures.

(This seems to have replaced a similar commercial that used to run, which promised to teach you how to make money in the F/X market.)

But the real reason I will continue to stay away from gold  came last evening when a door-to-door gold buyer showed up at my door.

He was wearing a yellow jacket, and asked if I had any gold I wanted to sell. I said no, and he took a step to try to stop me from closing the door. He showed me a flier with various examples of gold jewelry and asked “Don’t you have anything like this that you want to sell?” I said no, and he asked again if I didn’t have anything like it in the house, to which I answered “I’m poor. I have no jewelry.”

Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t tell a complete stranger if I had jewelry in the house or not, the concept of door-to-door gold buying floored me. Has it come to the frenzy that pawn shops are willing to send a workforce out into the community in search of gold?

That tells me something. It tells me that pawn shops believe that gold will continue to increase, so they are willing to go out to buy gold at today’s price with the expectation that they will be able to sell it even higher next week or next month.

And that tells me something else. If there are commercials advertising how you can make money in gold, and pawn shop dealers showing up at my door, well, to me that’s about the same as a shoe-shine boy telling me to buy stocks. It’s advice that stinks, and will leave you with a headache if you stick around too long.

Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Meltdowns

 

Epicentre to my place: 1075km

I’d like to say thank you to all who have emailed to make sure that my family and I are safe. I thank you. We appreciate it a lot. Luckily, the quake had no direct effect on us, as we live a good thousand kilometres from the location of the quake, tsunami, and reactor. To put that distance in a Canadian context, it’s about the same as a flight from Toronto to Fredericton.

To be sure, it was a massive quake, and caused a remarkable amount of damage. As terrible an event as it was, however, I have to say that it probably would have been several times worse had this event happened in any other country. The Japanese quake predictor system sent out a message one minute before the main quake, and I can only assume that that helped many people prepare even slightly. Architecture in Japan is also designed with earthquakes in mind. And while the old wooden structures of Sendai were no match for the tsunami, all the buildings of Tokyo held up exceptionally well.

Beyond this technology, though, is the sheer calm of the Japanese people. It was remarkable to watch the events on TV of people walking calmly to shelters, or waiting patiently for the few buses that were running. No rioting, no looting, no fighting for places. A true testament of oneness… we are all in the together.

The Canadian Embassy has done a great job of sending out emails regarding the quake, evacuation and reactor to those of us registered, but I found this article a little surprising and disheartening. It estimates that there are about 12,000 Canadians in Japan, yet only 1773 are registered with the embassy. I registered when I first moved here, and can’t recommend it enough. If you live abroad and haven’t done so already, here is the link to register.

Again, thanks for your thoughts everyone.

Fear and Respect

As a factual resident of Canada, I submit a tax return each year to the CRA. Due to a tax treaty between Japan and Canada which states that there shall be no double taxation, I am generally exempt from Canadian income taxes. My world income is input on one line, and a corresponding deduction is entered on another line, resulting in zero taxable income from salary.

My return has been filled out the same way for years, and there had never been a problem until last year, when they kept my 2009 return for review. They agreed with my return, but said any return could be re-reviewed at any time.

They took themselves up on that offer by sending me a letter in January saying that my 2007, 2008, and 2009 returns were under review.  After complying with their request for information, my returns have been left as they were (which is a relief) but at least this time I think I know what was setting off the CRA’s alarm.

I submit my statements of earnings from my Japanese sources with my return. I also submit a legend that tells the CRA what each box means (income, pension payments, taxes paid, insurance premiums paid etc.) as well as receipts for local taxes paid,  but I had never thought about translating the addresses of my various employers. This seems to have been the rub, as their January letter specifically asked for the translation and telephone numbers of my sources of income, as well as a description of how the income was earned.

I submitted the information within the 20 days given to me, and they wrote back saying that since I sent in that information, no adjustments would be made to my returns, and that everything looked to have been filed correctly.

As I prepare my documents for my 2010 return, you can be sure I will have an extra page inserted with my forms giving the addresses in the Roman alphabet, the phone numbers and a brief description of how I earn my money. Regardless of how right you think you are, it can’t stop the feeling you feel when you receive a letter from the CRA.

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Good Help Is Hard To Find

I enjoy meeting new people in casual environments. I don’t, however, enjoy meeting new people in a business setting when I am the customer. This is an area that I truly loath.

The rapport I have with the majority of my contacts is worth more than gold to me. I have written about the benefits of knowing my mechanic and jeweller before, and the same goes for knowing my barber, financial planner, and, until three years ago, my travel agent.

Three years ago my travel agent was transferred to a foreign branch. Since then I have struggled to find someone I can trust with my travel plans. The agent that was assigned my file promptly drew my wrath as she failed to book my requested tickets for 6 people. Her company lost out on about $8000 of business, and we were forced to pay a higher price at another company, as the early booking prices were no longer available.  

While my old travel agent understood my preferences and requirements for travelling, and always knocked off a few hundred bucks through “preferred customer” discounts, I can’t help but feel that I am merely dealing with commission based sales people now.

I met one the other day when I was trying to find out prices for July. I sat down prepared to give all information and then set her loose on the computer, but she starting tapping away as soon as I opened my mouth. “Well, at least I’ll hear several options,” I thought. Within one minute she piped up that she can book me on a flight, and the price is just shy of $2000.

That’s a ridiculously high price for such an advance ticket, and sure enough, it was Air Canada. I asked her to give me a quote for Korean Air flying through Inchon, which was apparently a very difficult question, as it took her 20 minute to search through the database, talk with her supervisor, and make a phone call.

Finally she gave me the quote I wanted to hear (about $1200), but said I couldn’t book the flight because it was too early. Hilarious.

With that kind of service, I’ll once again be searching for a new agent.