Pretirement App: Interactive Countdown Clock to Financial Freedom

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What would you do if you knew that skipping that morning $4 coffee/muffin combo every day would get you 8 months closer to financial freedom? What if I told you that buying that $40k car instead of the $25k one would only extend your working years by 3 months? That’s the entire purpose of the Pretirement app (Apple iOS/Android):

A financial independence app that instantly converts spending or savings decisions into days, weeks, or years of your life.

After you supply some initial numbers and assumptions, it will provide a countdown timer to your financial freedom date. You can then input a specific change to your current saving/spending routine, and it will show you the impact to that date. Found via Reuters.

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There are no fancy Monte Carlo simulations, but the underlying math appears correct and the overall design is pleasing in a minimalist way.

What the app shows you is that long-term habits matter more than temporary changes. If you make permanent saving change like dropping the morning $4 breakfast stop, you can put more money towards your nest egg and your required nest egg is smaller. If you just do a one-time saving of $100 or even $1,000, it really doesn’t make much of a dent. You need to be able to repeat the savings over and over. It’s similar to weight loss: Diets don’t work.

Hopefully, people can use this information as activation energy to change their habits for the better. (Ironically, activation energy is explained using coffee…) The developer Danny Murphy himself has started cooking more and eating out less after going through this exercise. It took us lot of initial effort to learn how to cook efficiently, but after developing a set of “go-to meals” and a pre-plan method it has become much easier.

If you are truly serious about early retirement, my advice would be to look for things that you can change permanently and/or automate so you can repeat it without requiring constant willpower. This usually means a larger, upfront effort. Up your 401(k) contribution by 1% every year. Relocate to a cheaper city. Move to cheaper housing. Search for a better job. Once you set yourself up on the right path, go ahead and enjoy your prioritized expenses – be it high-quality coffee or fun cars.

Portfolio Visualizer: Asset Allocation Backtesting and Monte Carlo Simulation Tool

portpie_blank200Here’s another neat (and free!) portfolio analysis tool – PortfolioVisualizer.com. You can upload a custom asset allocation and get all sorts of backtest data and Monte Carlo simulation results from it. If you register for an account, it will remember your model portfolios for future use.

I created a custom portfolio “MMB Default” similar to my current portfolio asset allocation and below are selected charts that were produced. Here’s the summary:

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Historical portfolio growth and annual returns. (Note that the time period shown was limited because the available data for Emerging Markets only went from 1995-2017. Apparently there are some ongoing issues with data licensing.)

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Historical drawdowns during the same period. This provides a good feel of how “painful” it was to hold this portfolio. 2009 was certainly a stressful year when both our portfolio and future job prospects were being questioned.

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Monte Carlo simulation of 4% withdrawal rate over a 30-year retirement period. I used my custom portfolio and had it simulate a withdrawal rate of $40,000 from a $1,000,000 portfolio (4%), adjusted annually for inflation, for a 30-year period. You can alter nearly all of these variables (withdrawal rate, inflation adjustments, period length, etc). Monte Carlo basically looks at many possible trajectories based on historical asset return characteristics. If things turn out well, you end up with a “runaway” portfolio, but if they don’t you can hit zero pretty fast.

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The success rate looks at the percentage of simulated scenarios that end up with a positive value at the end of the period. At a 4% withdrawal rate for 30 years, it was 95%. At a 5% withdrawal rate for 30 years, it was only 84%. At a 5% withdrawal rate for 50 years, it was only 69%.

Here’s where I warn you that Monte Carlo simulations are not the end-all of portfolio safety. You can’t predict the next 50 years when you can barely look back 50 years. Living off a portfolio for decades involves not just a reasonable rate of withdrawal but planning as to how you could cut expenses or create additional income if conditions go sour for an extended time period. I’d rather have 90% theoretical safety and a flexible backup plan over 99% theoretical safety and no backup plan.

Portfolio Visualizer has several additional features that I may never use, but even the above is enough to make it a very interesting tool for the DIY investor. I hope they get their data source issues sorted out eventually. You can find all of my posts about portfolio tools in the Tools & Calculators category.

Research Affiliates Custom Portfolio Expected Returns Tool

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Investment advisory firm Research Affiliates has updated their interactive Asset Allocation tool, which now provides estimates of expected returns for more than 130 asset classes and model portfolios. There are two expected return models, “valuation-dependent” and “yield-plus-growth”. In addition, you can input your own custom asset allocation.

My initial reaction is that while the tool got new bells and whistles, it also became more confusing to navigate and harder on the eyes. Here’s a screenshot of their scatter plot showing the expected risk and return for several asset classes under their valuation-dependent model.

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I created a custom portfolio “CustomMMB” using my current portfolio asset allocation and it is charted below on their risk/return map. In a separate window (not shown) you can see how each individual asset class contributes to the total expected return.

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As you can see, my portfolio did not offer the maximum expected return for its risk level. The RA efficient model portfolio that did includes an exotic mix of asset classes, including Emerging Markets bonds (non-local currency), Bank Loans, US Private Equity, European Private Equity, and direct investments into US Commercial Real Estate (not through REITs). Unfortunately, I’m not even sure how to access many of those asset classes.

I appreciate that they freely share their research methodology and results, specifically covering the valuation perspective. US Equities have historically high valuations, but interest rates are also at historically lows. The next 10 years should be interesting…

Another portfolio analysis tool that lets you input your specific asset allocation is PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate calculator. This Research Affiliates tool says my expected 10-year real return is only 2.4% (equates to a nominal expected return of 4.6%). The PortfolioCharts.com tool says the same personal asset allocation has a historical perpetual withdrawal rate of over 4% over a 40-year timeframe.

PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate Tool (Updated)

eggosI just noticed that PortfolioCharts.com has updated their Withdrawal Rate Calculator. It has improved visualizations and as a personal finance geek I even found it fun. You can enter your specific asset allocation slices down to 1% and see customized results.

The Withdrawal Rates calculator shows the safe withdrawal rate for any asset allocation over a variety of retirement durations based on real-life sequence of returns. Those looking to retire early or leave money to heirs can also see the perpetual withdrawal rate that protected the original inflation-adjusted principal.

You can read about the specifics behind these improvements here. You should also read all the assumptions here. For example:

The withdrawal rate is the percentage of the original portfolio value used for one year of retirement expenses. Each year, expenses are adjusted for inflation (not for portfolio size) to maintain constant purchasing power.

Briefly, a “safe” withdrawal rate (orange) allowed a portfolio to go as low as $1 but never hit zero at the end of the timeframe. In other words, the ride could have still gotten quite hairy for a while. A “perpetual” withdrawal rate (green) never ended up less than the initial principal, even adjusted for inflation. The author Tyler recommends the perpetual WR for early retirees or for people who desire to leave an inheritance for heirs.

Here is the specific chart for my current portfolio asset allocation:

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I would be quite happy with being able to confidently withdraw over 4% (+ inflation adjustments) of my portfolio for the next 40 years. The short-term drawdown paths can still be scary though. The usual caveats with using backtested data also apply.

Playing around, I noticed that the simplest way to change things up was by adding a healthy chunk (~20%) of gold instead of stocks. This seemed to significantly improve the perpetual withdrawal rates in the short-term (0 to 15 years). It’s too bad I still don’t have a firm fundamental understanding of gold. If you can’t maintain faith in it when things are scary, then you shouldn’t own it in your portfolio.

Big List of Scary Personal Data Websites + Opt Out Info

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“People would care more about privacy if they knew how exposed they already are online,” says Geoffrey A. Fowler in his WSJ article Your Data Is Way More Exposed Than You Realize. I would have to agree.

I hear this all the time: “I have nothing to hide.” The truth is, pretty much everybody does something online they have reason to keep private.

The full article is behind a paywall, but here are the websites that should scare you into caring. I’ve selectively avoided full linking and added some info of my own as well. Opt out information is included where possible.

  • FamilyTreeNow.com – Public access to your current and past addresses, phone numbers, relatives and associates. See my previous post. Opt out at familytreenow.com/optout.
  • TruePeopleSearch.com – Public access to your current and past addresses, phone numbers, relatives and associates. See my previous post. Opt out at truepeoplesearch.com/removal.
  • Spokeo.com – Public/paid access to birth month, email, current and past addresses, phone numbers, relatives, social networks and court records. Opt out at spokeo.com/optout.
  • StalkScan.com – Mines data from Facebook to reveal information that can be found publicly. Open to public. You can adjust your Facebook settings, but your friends may also be the source.
  • Google Maps Timeline – Google may be tracking your location all day long and keeping records forever. Not public. You can log in and request your data to be deleted.
  • Google My Activity – Google may be tracking every search and your web browsing history and keeping records. Not public. You can log in and request your data to be deleted.
  • AboutTheData.com – Acxiom is a data broker that uses information to target ads and marketing. I found some unique data on there, although supposedly it’s not public (just up for sale). View/edit/remove data here.

Let me know if you know of any other similar sites. See also:

Simple Portfolio Rebalancing Spreadsheet Template (Google Drive)

gsheetsUpdated. Automated portfolio management services like Wealthfront and Betterment will help you manage a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds for a fee. While I understand their appeal for those that wish to outsource that task, I choose to maintain my own diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. I enjoy having full control of all investment decisions, and I like saving the management fee (and adding that money to my snowball).

An important part of this DIY portfolio management is staying close to your target asset allocation. I use a very simple Google Spreadsheet to track my portfolio. Here is the direct link and it is also embedded below. Yellow cells are those meant to be edited.

(Download a free copy: I am sharing this spreadsheet online – free of charge – in read-only format. However, please make a copy of it using the menu option File > Make a copy or download it as an Excel file using option File > Download as). Any requests for edit access to the original public spreadsheet will be denied, because you would be changing the appearance for everyone.)

Here are some guidance on how to use the spreadsheet:

1. Decide on a target asset allocation. Don’t use the generic one I put above. There is no perfect portfolio. You can find plenty that look great based on history at this moment, but that will not be the perfect portfolio 5, 10, 25 years down the line. The best portfolio is the one that you can stick through even after your fanciest asset classes have negative returns for 5+ years.

Here are a few model portfolios to get you started. Below is what I have settled on for myself. Details here. You only have to enter this once as long as your target asset allocation stays the same.

2. Enter your total balances for each asset class. The easiest way to grab my holdings from multiple brokerage accounts is to use a aggregation service like Personal Capital (review). If you don’t have that many accounts, simply log into each individual website and add up your totals by asset class.

You could solely rely upon a service like Personal Capital to manage your portfolio, but I tend to use some specific asset classes like “US Small Value” or “Emerging Markets Value” which Personal Capital does not recognize. I do enjoy the fact that it pulls in all of my holdings and balances automatically into one screen and is always updated.

3. Check out the actual breakdown vs. your target breakdown. The spreadsheet shows the current actual percentage breakdown vs. your target breakdown, as well as the dollar amounts of any differences. A positive number means you need to buy more to reach your theoretical target (negative means sell). In the fictitious example shown, I might feel that I was close enough that I wouldn’t really bother with any rebalancing. If things were really off, I could buy/sell as needed.

3. Rebalance with new cashflow, dividends, and interest. Choose your frequency of “forced” rebalancing. By using this spreadsheet, you can see which asset classes should be invested in currently to bring you back towards your target asset allocation. This is where you should invest any new cashflow (i.e. paycheck, dividends, rental income, or interest that your portfolio generates).

In addition, you can rebalance by selling some asset classes and then buying another. I try not to sell too often as to avoid capital gains taxes. You can do this on a set calendar basis such as annually on your birthday or quarterly. Another method is to only rebalance once your percentages are off by a certain amount, like a tolerance band of +/- 5%. I personally check in quarterly to see where I should invest any new cashflows, and if things are really off then I rebalance by selling something at most once a year. If you have sizable taxable holding, you could also attempt some tax-loss harvesting during these check-ins.

Recap. If you are managing your own portfolio, it is important not to stray too far from your target asset allocation. In order to know where you should invest new funds, I track my portfolio in two ways. First, I use Personal Capital for a real-time, daily snapshot of my holdings. Second, I manually update this spreadsheet each quarter and print out a copy for my permanent, physical records. This takes about 15 minutes every 3 months. Using these two methods, I maintain complete control over my portfolio and I don’t have to pay any management fees to a robo-advisor.

FileThis App Review: Automatically Backup Your Online Statements

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A few months ago on my post about Paperless vs. Paper Statements, I received this helpful comment from reader Daveraham:

I like the services FileThis.com. It’s setup similar to MInt, where it stores account information, but instead of fetching dollar amounts and transactions, it grabs every statement available and stores them where you direct. Personally I store it an evernote account and then periodically pull it off to store on a removable HD that get’s stored in a fireproof box. Overkill?? Sure…. But its the point. You want to keep that snapshot of data for a long period of time.

I made a mental note to check the site out and… promptly forgot. I was again reminded in this Liz Weston article about apps to organize your financial life. In November 2015, FileThis announced their 2.0 version with new features. You can use the FileThis.com website, iOS app, or Android app (1.0 version only for now).

FileThis is now one of many “bill organizers” that ask for your account passwords in order to sift through your accounts and remind you of due dates. Personally, I don’t need or use due date reminders. I sit down at the end of every month, read through all my paper statements, track expenses, and pay my bills. I’m an old fart like that (although I do use free online billpay).

I previously shared that I maintain physical statements for critical financial accounts and have it mailed to a secure PO Box. But I also have several other financial accounts which are either dormant, temporarily opened for reviews or experiments, or have low balances which are set to paperless. Ideally, I would still log in and download those PDF statements every month and back them up. But I never do.

FileThis will log in and automatically download all your paperless statements and then save them to your cloud service of choice: Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, Amazon Cloud, and more. You can even use their in-house storage (500 mb free). The cost options:

  • Free for up to six (6) connections. Checks weekly.
  • $2 a month ($20 a year upfront) for up to 12 connections. Checks weekly.
  • $5 a month ($50 a year upfront) for up to 30 connections. Checks daily.

Besides things like bank accounts, credit cards, and brokerage statements, FileThis will grab stuff from your mortgage provider, car loan servicer, cell phone bill, utility bills, insurance bills, and even online shopping accounts like Amazon. An added bonus is that they will even grab tax documents like 1099 forms.

I linked up a few accounts, the list is relatively extensive but it couldn’t find a local credit union. Here are some screenshots from my website and smartphone app.

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Remember that the actual files are on your cloud service. Here’s a screenshot from my Dropbox app. The files are stored in the folder Dropbox > Apps > FileThis.

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This is pretty cool. The initial download basically grabbed all the older documents that were available as well (up to last 3 years, supposedly). They’ll even grab PDF statements if you also get mailed paper statements (assuming they are available), giving you an additional backup copy.

By allowing backups directly to a third-party cloud service (Dropbox in my case), I will still have all of my online statements even if FileThis shuts down some day (remember Manilla?).

The trade-off here is that another FinTech startup has your account logins and passwords. Their security measures seem fair enough (encrypted SSL transmission, passwords are encrypted on server, the documents can be stored at your cloud service). I already track my paperless accounts in real-time with Mint, but I am willing to make this trade-off as I think it’s worth it to have my old statements backed up for me. (Why can’t Mint do this for me too?) The only other service I know that offers something similar is Finovera, but I think they store the statements on their own servers as opposed to your personal Dropbox.

As an existing user, if you sign up using my referral link, both you and I will receive an additional free connection (so you’d have a total of 7 free to start) and an additional 250 mb of free in-house cloud storage.

Portfolio Charts Visualization Tool: Returns vs. Time (Holding Period)

When investing in stocks and bonds, it is important to take a long-term perspective. We’ve all heard that phrase. A new tool called PortfolioCharts.com lets you create charts that make it easier to visualize the relationship between returns and holding periods. Created by a fellow named Tyler, found via The Reformed Broker.

With the Pixel chart, you can customize any asset allocation and see that portfolio mix’s returns over a multitude of timeframes. Here’s the chart for The Swensen Portfolio, which is the closest “lazy portfolio” to my personal portfolio – 30% US Total, 15% Foreign Developed, 5% Emerging Market, 20 US REIT, 15% 5-Year Treasuries, 15% TIPS.

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You can see that depending on your starting year, the returns over the next 1-9 year period could be pretty rough. But as long as you held for 10 years or more, you always got a positive real return above inflation. You can also see that the often-promised 5% real returns aren’t always guaranteed, although historically if you held on for 20+ years your odds were pretty good.

You may recall a similar style of chart from the NYT and Crestmont Research which includes additional data going back to 1920:

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My favorite style is the Funnel chart:

The Funnel chart shows the changing uncertainty of compound annual growth rates over time. This demonstrates how long you may need to hold a portfolio to experience the average long-term returns it advertises. It also provides a nice snapshot of the range of 1-year volatility.

Here’s the Funnel for the same Swensen Portfolio:

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The funnel chart also supports the notion – in an even simpler way – that if you can take a long-term perspective, your risk of losing money should decrease. Here’s a similar chart from the classic investing book A Random Walk Down Wall Street that was one of my early blog posts:

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Finally, the Hurricane chart allows you to simulate what would have happened to your portfolio balance if you made annual withdrawals, such as in a retirement scenario.

Warren Buffett is another famous supporter of taking the long-term view. From a recent CNBC interview:

Buffett, who looks to buy stocks or business for their long-term prospects, said recent weakness in the market does not concern him.

“Stocks are going to be higher, and perhaps a lot higher 10 years from now, 20 years from now,” he said, adding that’s why he does not try to time the market.

Hopefully for those investors with a long runway ahead of them, this new tool will help you view your portfolio in a more patient manner. I’ll try to remember it when the next market panic arrives.

Expected Returns by Asset Class Tool by Research Affiliates

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In the current environment of historically-high US stock valuations and historically-low interest rates, there is a lot of discussion about what investors should expect in regards to future returns. Predictions are a dime a dozen, but some are better supported than others. Research Affiliates has interactive Expected Returns tool where they freely share both their forecasts and detailed methodology. For example, here is a PDF of their equities methodology.

1st Quarter 2015 Equities 10-Year Forecast. Currently, their forecast for equities predicts that US Large-Cap and US Small-Cap stocks will have expected real (inflation-adjusted) returns of below 1% annually. Developed European and Asian Country stocks (MSCI EAFE) have significantly higher numbers, while Emerging Markets as a whole offer the best risk/return ratio (Sharpe ratio). I’m not into single-country bets, but it appears Russia is the one to take if you have a high appetite for risk.

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1st Quarter 2015 Fixed Income 10-Year Forecast. Currently, their forecast for fixed income predicts that both long and short US Treasuries will have expected real (inflation-adjusted) returns of basically zero. You might get under 1% real with a broad US bond fund like AGG or BND, or reach for a little more return with a high-yield junk bond fund but with roughly the same Sharpe ratio. The gambler’s choice appears to be Emerging Markets currencies (EM money market funds), which they predict will appreciate relative to the US dollar in the next decade. This is followed by Emerging Market bonds issued in local currency.

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I like reading the theories and fundamental arguments for these forecasts, and consider the numbers as part of the big picture but not necessarily something to act on directly. I also keep track of other forecasts, including the follow which were previously mentioned on this blog – Jeremy Grantham / GMO 7-Year Forecasts (free registration required) and the Rick Ferri / Portfolio Solutions 30-Year Forecasts. The most recent GMO numbers also give the expected-returns edge to Emerging Markets in both the stocks and bond worlds (risk is not directly assessed).

Best Buy vs. Rent Calculator Ever? Interactive & Fully Customizable

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There are a plethora of buy vs. rent calculators out there, but virtually all of them make at least some fixed assumptions. They might assume that you could invest the difference between renting and buying in the stock market at 8% return while you disagree, or they might assume that your property tax rate is 3% when it is only 0.5%.

The New York Times already had a pretty good one, but their new Buy vs. Rent calculator is the most interactive, user-friendly, fully customizable version that I have ever seen. Here are the factors that it lets you adjust:

  • Home details (price, length of ownership)
  • Mortgage details (rate, downpayment size, length)
  • Future growth rates (Home price appreciation rate, rent appreciation rate, overall inflation rate, investment return rate)
  • Taxes (Property tax rate, your marginal income tax rate)
  • Transaction costs (closing costs on purchase, commission paid on selling)
  • Costs of homeownership (maintenance, HOA fees, utilities covered by landlord, homeowner’s insurance)
  • Costs of renting (security deposit, broker’s fee, renter’s insurance)

If I could find a flaw with the calculator, it would be that you now have the power to tweak your assumptions to reach your desired answer of renting or buying. “Well, if I adjust investment return a bit higher, and I reduce the commission to sell with a discount real estate agent, and stay in there a couple extra years… we should buy!”

Of course, an accompanying NYT article points out that buying a home isn’t all about the numbers.

Estimate Your Portfolio Personal Rate of Return – Calculator

Updated and revised for 2014. Some of you may be wondering how well your specific portfolio performed last year (or over any specific period of time). Let’s say you started the year with $10,000 and put in another $5,000 through 10 different deposits spaced throughout the year, and ended up with $16,000. What was your rate of return? Your main goal is simply to separate the effect of new deposits (or withdrawals) and your actual return from investments.

Figuring out your exact personal rate of return requires you to know the exact dates of all your deposits and withdrawals, along with a financial calculator or spreadsheet program with an IRR function (example here). However, for a quick and simple estimate of your returns, try this calculator instead:

Initial Balance: $
Total Deposits: $
Total Withdrawals: $
Final Balance: $
Time period: year(s)
Your estimated annualized rate of return: %

Instructions

  1. Get your initial balance. This is probably from your brokerage statements. Try January of last year.
  2. Tally up any deposits or withdrawals. For example, let’s say you know you put $3,000 in your Roth IRA and also 5% of your $40,000 salary into a 401(k). That would be $3,000 + $2,000 = $5,000. That’s it, you don’t need to worry about looking up the specific dates and amounts.
  3. Get your final balance. Your December statement is probably available already.
  4. Find the time elapsed (in years) between your initial and final balances.
  5. Hit Calculate. An estimate of your annualized return is instantly given.

How Accurate Is This Estimate?
The calculator assumes that the inflows and outflows are spread evenly around the middle of the year. I originally saw this method in the book The Four Pillars of Investing (review). However, unless the deposits and withdrawals are very large as compared to the initial balance, the estimates are actually pretty good.

For example, let’s say that you start with $100,000 on 1/1/13, and end up with $120,000 on 1/1/14. If you had net deposits of $10,000 during the year, the calculator above would estimate your return at 9.52%. If the $10,000 was actually deposited all at once on one of these specific days, you would get the following exact returns:

Deposit Date Exact Return
1/1/13 (very first day) 9.1%
6/04/13 (middle of the year) 9.5%
1/1/14 (very last day) 10%
Estimate 9.5%

Also check out the rest of my Tools and Calculators.

True Cost of Holiday Shopping Calculator

Time for my annual Black Friday Buzzkill calculator! 😉 Can you hear that sound? Sleigh bells a-jingling? Carol singers? No, it’s credit cards a-swiping as part of what is now officially BUY BUY BUY season.

Here’s a mental trick that I use to temper my “self-gifting” urges. We know that every dollar saved now will be worth much more in the future. I made this calculator to help visualize this fact and push me to forgo short-term (temporary) pleasure for long-term gain.

Step 1: Pick Your Purchase:




Name Your Own Impulse Buy Price

Step 2: Pick your estimated annual return (default is 6%):
4% 6% 8%
Step 3: Pick your time horizon (default is 30 years):
10 years 20 years 30 years 40 years
Assuming a 3% inflation rate, the inflation-adjusted TrueCost™ of your impulse buy in years is:

$600 for a cashmere sweater? $7,000 Flatscreen TV? Ouch. This is not to say the occasional splurge is never worth it. (I do like me a steaming hot Peppermint Latte.) Perhaps it is. But I hope that this calculator can provide a little perspective while you are barraged by retailers to buy stuff you really don’t need. Who cares if you get 30% off when it’s so expensive?