Category Archives: finances

Thanks for the Memories, Malaysia

And so we arrived at Chiang Mai International Airport, checked our documents at the counter and went right through security without checking any bags. Having never flown in Asia without the hassle of waiting for checked bags, it felt strangely liberating but also like we’d forgotten something. Taking a three-day jaunt to Kuala Lumpur to officially terminate our participation in the MM2H Retirement Program, we took the only daily non-stop flight on Air Asia and touched down around 9:30 PM. Given the detail-oriented nature of our agent who insisted on being in constant touch by text and the late flight, we knew we’d better take care of data services ahead of time rather than rely on our shitty old Malaysian carrier.

First time I had this in the passport

Hitting the mall earlier, we visited the AIS store (our Thai cell carrier) and despite their limited English skills, they sold us a data-only plan in Malaysia with 2 Gb of data for 7 days at a ridiculously low cost of 300 Bhat (about $9.25 USD). All we had to do was click the roaming button on arrival and sure enough, when we attempted to use our old Malaysian carrier’s app, the phone number and our profile were long gone. Because I had a new passport, my agent said I could enter on a 90-day tourist status but it might be better to show them the old passport with the laminated MM2H visa instead. Hoping it wouldn’t confuse them, I walked to the counter, explained I had a new passport and without saying anything, the stern stone-faced Malaysian customs agent walked out of the booth and disappeared. Having just read a story about an American family that was detained for 14 days in Malaysia due to a snafu at the Malaysian/Thai border, this unnerved me a bit and Diane watched carefully where he went while I stood at the counter. Apparently never having come across that situation before, he spoke with a supervisor for about ten minutes and finally returned. Gruffly telling me I needed to leave Malaysia within 30 days, he stamped the passport, wrote my status as “special” with a note to visit Putrajaya (where the Immigration Ministry is) and sent me on my way.

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And the Poll Results Said…..

First off, I want to thank everyone for all the feedback regarding my recent post about expat finances and my subsequent follow up that explained why perhaps finances weren’t something I should include in future posts. Understanding my readers a little better now, most feedback was positive and I learned that many folks regard the financial posts as positive input while they contemplate their own experimental expat early retirement. Others felt the blog should only be about travel adventures and that nobody cares about the world’s current political situation and its effect on expat life or our own personal finances. So here’s my take on where the blog goes from here.

Not my intention

As I’ve alluded to many times, the blog isn’t a travel blog about wanderlust or all how early retirement is all about fulfilling our travel fantasies. With thousands of travel blogs, some good, some bad, I’m not here to compete with those folks. Nor is early retirement just about travel, at least not for people like us that joined the ranks of the non-working with much less than we’d need to be globetrotters. Having been laid off about five years before I would’ve preferred, traveling is an added benefit but needs to be carefully planned and isn’t the main focus of why we chose early retirement. Granted we’ve had some great adventures and those are often what folks want to read about most but every day isn’t vacation nor is retirement always great so I like to also discuss the ironic, comical and often cynical parts that convey a more realistic idea of what you might expect should you take the plunge. Usually receiving comments that I “tell it like it is”, I think sugar-coated stories of a fantasy retirement are a dime a dozen.

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The New Math

Well, folks, money management class is closed for The Experimental Expats. Like a Nate Silver poll of the 2016 presidential election, it appears I drastically misread my readers and got it horribly wrong. Based on the response from an old post discussing investments and the importance of a diversified portfolio, I mistakenly thought now would be a great time to share some insight about the recent market volatility, our progress after four years retired and why you should ignore all the “sky is falling” stories in the financial press. But based on an almost total lack of interest in the post and virtually no comments or replies, I guess the financial and money management stuff is best left to other bloggers.

I award myself this certificate for my financial post

Admittedly, I’m a tad disappointed because I put more effort into it than almost any given day in my last job. Thinking it was too long and complicated, I hereby officially anoint my latest post about expat finances a failure and apologize to anyone that was nice enough to give it a read. Using most of the post as background information to explain why our situation is different than many early retirees and what led to our risky decision to forego work, I planned on a follow up to discuss our budget and share some of my rather simple spreadsheets. Ironically, I stumbled onto an article from Business Insider yesterday about 8 people who retired early and how the decision changed their money habits.

Naturally, they’re all millennials that found a way to achieve “financial independence” at a ridiculously young age and they don’t really explain anything about how much they have, how they intend to fund the next 50 or 60 years (some have kids) or how they travel the world with a total net worth of nothing. Some are professionals that probably thought real work was too hard. Most write for-profit blogs which means they live day to day and hope the “online income” field will carry them into the latter part of this century. Clearly not my idea of being “retired”, I wish them all well but wouldn’t trade my diversified portfolio and the security that comes with it anytime. So like a fitness class scheduled at a bad time, part two of my financial post is canceled due to lack of interest. But please don’t go away yet; I heard you all loud and clear and will now return to my regularly scheduled programming.

Thai English on menus; always fun.
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The Chicken Little Financial Post

Despite the obvious importance of financial matters in the success of an overseas early retirement experiment like ours, you may have noticed I generally avoid personal finance posts like the plague. First and foremost, while I did work in the financial services industry for 31 years, I’m not a licensed professional therefore I’d be remiss if I doled out advice about your money. But of course, that never stopped anyone in a social media generation where everyone’s an expert and every month or two brings a new Trump Slump where it seems like the sky is falling. Along with a strong coffee, my morning ritual involves perusing the more reliable financial websites to see what happened in the markets while I slept. And like me, you may have woken up to a stressful email like the one below announcing a reduction of your interest rate thanks to a now fully politicized Federal Reserve Bank compliments of President Shitbrain.

Starting 08/06/2019, your Online Savings Account will earn 1.90% Annual Percentage Yield (APY) on all balance tiers.Your APY is more than 20x the national average — so you can rest assured that your money is working hard in your savings.

With financial journalism now mostly reduced to large websites like Marketwatch and Yahoo Finance hiring millenials that scour other people’s blogs for reposted content, it’s tough to weed your way through the sensationalistic nonsense like this guy who claims the next three months are “the edge of a cliff” or this genius who claims “The Fed should have an emergency meeting and slash interest rates 50 basis points“. Without needing Macroeconomics courses, all you need to know is that the last thing a Central Bank should ever do is cut interest rates while unemployment is at a 40 year low. Despite coming from Barron’s, the first guy supposedly called the 2008 Financial Crisis which means we’re supposed to think he’s got a crystal ball. (He doesn’t, and past performance is NEVER an indicator of future results. Just like the disclaimers on TV and radio say.) As for the second guy, he supports the “policies” of the Stable Genius which automatically nullifies anything he says as pure ignorance.

Throughout my 31 years of cubicle life, I’ve always stayed aware, but ignored the fluff and continuously invested through about five “major” financial crisis’ from The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 to the 2008 “Great Recession”. As I pointed out in Eight Percent Of Zero, my most comprehensive post on money matters, retiring early without being wealthy comes down to understanding asset allocation, developing a plan that’s right for you, and sticking with it. Period. Having said that, Orangeman causes almost daily shocks to the world’s financial system so including something about money matters in an expat blog about early retirement seems necessary now.

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Eight Percent of Zero

With Chiang Mai’s beautiful but very short “winter” now behind us, it means temperatures begin climbing, skies get hazy due to inversion layers that occur during the hot and dry season and many expats begin their annual bitchfest known as “The Burning Season” all over social media. For us it means the end of day tripping and a short break before a one week beach vacation at a moderately priced Koh Lanta resort. After that we return home for a week and then hit the road for four weeks for a month-long escape from the bad air. Given Thailand’s low-cost of living, we’re running about $3,500 under our annual fiscal year budget so it’s affordable to overlap monthly rent if we stay away from the more popular Andaman Sea beach destinations where everyone else goes. Searching for a more low-key area still far enough south to escape the haze, we found a three bedroom house for rent on Airbnb at a ridiculously low rate of about $21 USD per day in a sleepy beach community half way between Hua HIn and the gateway town of Chumphon. Planning on driving, we’ll be able to cart more stuff than flying and see a bit of the country as well.

So for now, let’s talk finances. Depending on your situation, some of you may have noticed the one and only positive aspect of the  Trump Disaster is a rather fast rise of the stock market. Simply put, Wall Street loves billionaires and while very few of his moron supporters will ever see one penny since they’re mostly financially ignorant, underemployed and too stupid to understand why trickle down economics always fails miserably, those of us in the “sweet spot” (invested properly but not wealthy) are doing well. Finally seeing an enormous albeit very short correction that brought the markets down to earth last week, I thought I’d post a follow-up to my recent financial comments.

Having received an unexpected amount of positive feedback when I briefly touched on asset allocation and diversification, let’s get the disclaimers out-of-the-way. Most importantly, I am not a licensed professional and nothing I say should be taken as a solicitation or endorsement of any financial products. But I did spend 32 years working in various administrative and support roles for some very well-respected financial institutions in New York City and San Francisco. Not intending to make this an economics lesson or online college class, I’ll keep the teaching down and include an educational link when I use financial terminology. With lots of great blogs focusing on how to retire early, not that many focus on what to do once you’re there so I’ll give it a shot. While never wanting to manage anyone else’s money, I’ve been a “self-directed investor” for over 20 years and that’s enough time to analyze all the graphs and after almost three years of early retirement, I can say we’re ahead of the curve so if you don’t mind some boring graphs to make my points, read on. Please also note that since we’re both American citizens, some strategies I discuss only apply to U.S. residents but the concepts are universal and can be applied from almost anywhere.

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Plan “B”; Short for Brexit

Waking up at my usual pre-dawn hour, twelve time zones ahead of New York, I clicked the financial software update button to assess day two’s catastrophic results thanks to the world’s stupidest voters. Honestly, there’s no words that express how I feel after a two-day portfolio decline equal to nine months living expenses. Frustration, anger and disappointment seem like obvious but useless reactions so instead I offer this piece of moronic wisdom written from the lead story about Monday’s market plunge on the Yahoo Finance webpage:

The momentum has continued downward because there continues to be a lot of uncertainty,” said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer at North Star Investment Management; “It’s important to note that it’s orderly. It doesn’t feel panic-inspired.”

Almost making me sympathetic to the wave of populism sweeping the world’s developed nations, I pondered how much this might affect the chief investment officer of any financial company. Or any governor, senator and congressional member. In case you live in a cave and don’t know the answer, try Goggling how many Wall Street bankers responsible for the last round of “paper-loss” poverty are reading this from a jail cell.

wealthThreatening our Experimental Early Retirement, another unexpected financial shock unleashed its ugly head thanks to xenophobic voters happy with being poor as long as there’s no non-white immigration in their country. Serving up a dose of reality to the populist movement, the Brexit vote serves as a wake up call. Thankfully, we’re not in dire straits because of a debt-ridden young couple working in the Bay Area tech industry that paid us 12% over asking price for our modest suburban home last year. (All of our house proceeds are in cash or fixed deposits). But let’s realistically glance at the future. While younger readers have their entire working lives to sack away income, those of us who entered the workforce at the beginning of “The Great Decline” are the real losers. Having done everything the way the pundits told us to, we prepaid our mortgage diligently, maxed out our tax sheltered retirement plans, sacrificed weekend outings in favor of nights at home with DVD’s, and invested diligently. Designing a carefully structured asset allocation plan designed to shelter losses during unforeseen events like the 2008 Financial Crisis, adding another huge setback only eight years later almost makes me mad enough to pull the lever for Trump. But that would mean buying some aprons for my inevitable Wal-Mart greeter job.

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The Sky is Falling

In case you haven’t noticed, the world’s financial markets are in a state of total chaos . Normally avoiding financial topics, I’m compelled to post some thoughts and comments. For those unfamiliar with the jury-rigged world of investing, let me share a few basic concepts. First comes the disclaimer. Spending 31 years in the financial services industry, I’m not a licensed professional and you should never base any financial decisions on anything I write. Having said that, I did toil away in administrative and support roles, working mostly on the investment advisory side of the business. Known as “the buy side“, these are firms that manage assets for institutions, pension plans, and high net worth people. They buy and sell securities from brokerage firms and large banks known as “the sell side“.

INVESTOR-EMPOWERMENT-2Having worked side by side with many portfolio managers, I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open and learned enough to call myself a “self-directed investor“. This means we avoid paying exorbitant fees to advisers and instead, we use discount brokerage firms and manage our own assets. Intimidated by investing, many people avoid the topic and with no mandatory financial education requirements in our schools, it’s no surprise. Not really as complicated as you’d think,  anyone can put together a well diversified investment portfolio designed to either be aggressive, moderate or conservative, depending on one’s risk tolerance. Through mostly no-transaction fee low-cost mutual funds, a few ETF’s and the occasional growth stock, we’ve earned about a 7.5% total return since the mid 90’s and no financial adviser can do better without taking on an extraordinary amount of risk.

Understanding the first rule is key to anyone thinking of retiring early and counting on the financial markets to fund your retirement:

The world’s financial markets are intentionally rigged against you. Run by a surprisingly small group of elites and with the world’s politicians and central banks, they exist only for the benefit of keeping the power and wealth in the world in the hands of a very small group of individuals. They are NOT there for average investors to make money and they’re certainly not designed to help you retire early. Period. End of story.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you should avoid the stock market. In fact, the only way to get ahead in a world driven by consumer debt is to be invested in the market. Anyone waiting for the return of  “normal interest rates” on fixed deposits and other bank savings accounts products is in for a rude awakening. Interest rates are permanently lowered for the rest of our lifetime, banks no longer make money taking deposits and the expression “too big to fail” basically means world governments and central banks will never let the capital markets run themselves. In a nutshell, the world is now paying the piper for 40 years of financial government mismanagement, poor monetary policy and a convoluted belief that issuing debt is a never ending piggy bank that keeps churning out easy cash and financial profits for centuries to come.

fedBack in economics class, we all learned supply and demand and a company’s fundamentals drove financial markets. Sadly, the 2008 Financial Crisis ended that and the seven-year bull market that’s dominated since March, 2009 is perhaps the biggest fake bull market ever seen, perpetrated by a world reliant on central banks policy (especially the US Federal Reserve) that’s provided trillions of dollars in fake money, easy liquidity and confused a generation of traders unable to cope with the end of the wild ride. Without the need to fully understand “QE” and all the other jargon you’ve seen in the headlines, all you need to know is basically the central banks are quickly running out of ammunition to artificially prop up your investment portfolio and the next few decades will be challenging to say the least.

Sparing you any technical lingo, I’d be the wrong person to explain the details that back up what I’ve just written but for anyone interested, I highly recommend all of Michael Lewis’ books. Easily the financial industry’s best author, Lewis worked on wall Street and uses easily understandable language written for average people in all his books. Helping make sense of all the crap they spew out on CNBC, his candor is excellent and he’ll help you understand how to set your expectations. Don’t ever listen to Jim Kramer or any of the TV personalities. Like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, they only spit out rhetoric for the network’s benefit, not yours.

timing1Normally not worrying about our portfolio, I’ll share another reality; timing is everything in life. Sadly, you can’t always control that but you can set yourself up for a better chance of success. Diane and I returned to the USA after six years in Canada in 2007, the start of the biggest financial market calamity of our lifetime. Fortunately, my 401k plan started on 1/1/2008 and Diane was lucky enough to take part in a 403b and a 457b (two similar tax sheltered retirement plans) starting in late 2007. Get to know the term “dollar cost averaging. Simply put, it means investing at regular intervals throughout the year, allowing you to buy more shares when markets go down and vice versa. Paycheck deductions are the easiest and most painless way to accomplish this and I suggest doing the math so you’re investing for all 24 checks during the year (or 26 if you get paid bi-weekly). Although you’ll think you can’t afford it, always try to max out your retirement plans every year. Since we’ve always done that, we’ve never missed the extra cash because we never had it. For early retirement, you can’t afford not to do this.

Reiterating I’m no professional, I do know If you follow the plan outlined above, you’ll cut your taxable income significantly and here’s why. (Note this applies to US tax policy). Not only does maxing your retirement plans lead to large tax refunds since your taxes are withheld at rates that assume no reductions of annual taxable pay, it also frees up room to invest even more in a ROTH IRA.

If you’re unfamiliar with ROTH IRA’s, it’s worth reading up. Simply put, it’s a tax sheltered plan that allows tax-free withdrawals after age 59 1/2 assuming you’ve had all the principal you withdraw in the plan for a minimum of 5 years. The catch is you contribute using non-deductible post-tax dollars so you obviously need spare cash to use this tactic. 

The IRS allows contributions to an IRA even if you contribute to a retirement plan at work up to a certain threshold but the catch is they use adjusted gross income to calculate eligibility. Diane and I earned too much gross pay to qualify, but by maxing our retirement plans and itemizing large allowable deductions on our taxes like property taxes on our home, mortgage interest and state payroll tax, we reduced our taxable adjusted gross income so much, it allowed us to then max out two IRA’s every year.

Frugal-Living-by-www.GoGingIf you’re thinking we lived on a lot less than our earnings, you’re spot on. Using our highest earning wage year as an example, we contributed 44.7% of our gross pay towards our work sponsored retirement plans. Working for large companies helps because they usually offer quality companies like Fidelity who offer lots a supermarket full of good investing options and support but the point remains no matter who your plan is with. Our monthly mortgage payments accounted for 15.5% more of our pay and we made bi-weekly prepayments that ate up another 9.5% of gross pay. (Using a 15 year mortgage and prepaying diligently can have you debt-free in 8 to 9 years and then all the house money is yours to play with assuming you don’t buy another one of course). Leaving us only 19.6% of our annual gross pay, we lived a perfectly comfortable middle class suburban lifestyle, albeit it way below our means. Originally planning on retiring about six years later than we did, sacrificing expensive dinners out and watching free TV series available from our local library on weekends paid off handsomely when deciding to take the plunge at such an early age.

With one exception, starting a retirement at the beginning of a bear market is devastating to a portfolio and drastically decreases the odds of outliving your money without making major lifestyle changes and nobody wants to live poor after working their asses off for decades. Diane and I “officially” retired on May 15, 2015, the last day we received employment income. Checking the stats, you’ll notice the seven-year bull market’s top was May 21, 2015 (as measured by the S&P 500 index.) Normally a recipe for disaster, we lucked out by selling into a housing market short of supply and in more demand than anywhere in the USA.


Commanding five offers after one open house, we sold for 12.7% higher than asking price. Understanding everything I’ve written here, we smartly chose to sack the entire amount into the highest yielding CD’s available. (We suggest a large online bank; paying a sad 0.85% to 2.0% depending on the term, the rates are still twelve times the national average and your “too big to fail bank” will offer literally pennies in interest no matter how much you give them.) As for your investments, here’s what I know from experience:

In general, a well diversified investment portfolio with moderate risk (perhaps 65% in stocks, 35% in fixed income) will be worth about 1.6 to 1.8 times more than it is today in 15 years, assuming reinvestment of all dividends, little trading and no more contributions.

Believe it or not, the above statement holds true in any set of given market conditions. For example, Diane and I started our investing career with almost nothing in 1997. Catching the tail end of the tech boom, we then lived through the tech crash of 2000, the Enron corporate scandal years, the  “US Treasury downgrade scare“, a host of other events that caused high volatility and of course, the worst calamity since the Great Depression known as The 2008 Financial Crisis. Through it all, we kept investing regularly despite market conditions although while we lived in Canada, we left our US assets mostly in IRA Rollover accounts and invested in the Canadian markets until we moved back and began new retirement plans from our new jobs.

Shown below, the two graphs show mutual funds we’ve owned since 2004 and 2001. The first one is a U.S. stock fund that invest in mid-sized companies; the numbers at the top show the yield over time (7.1% since 2004) and the numbers on the side represent the real “true” return on the investment including reinvested dividends (up 110%). The second one is in our Canadian portfolio, holds mostly Canadian bank stocks and some Canadian bonds. While it’s boring, notice the fund’s never had a major downturn including 2008. (Yield is 7.3%, value is up 150%; the dots show monthly reinvested dividends). Find what works and stick with it.

trp graph

manulife graph


The last point I can share is perhaps the most important. Known as asset allocation, experts agree it’s the most important part of your investment portfolio. Again, please refer to professional websites for the nitty-gritty but it basically means owning the right mix of asset classes is more important than any individual securities because it helps shelter losses in a down market. Many people miss the main point, especially if early retirement is a goal; it’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep. Wealth preservation is far more important than capturing large gains in bull markets and we aim to lose no more than 50 to 60% of the broad market’s loss on any given down day.

ginnie-mae(1)Lately, that’s been very difficult and I’ve shifted some of my riskier fixed income (high yield, bank loan and foreign bonds) into classes that are ironically safer than most fixed income during the current run of volatility. At the moment, that means Ginnie Maes (GNMA’s) and bond funds investing in securities backed up by the US government housing agencies (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Yes, the same agencies that started the mess in 2008 thanks to immense greed and Wall Street corruption are currently enjoying positive returns thanks to investor perception that the US housing market is “safer” than everything else. Ridiculous? Yes, totally. But if you understand how to look for trends and occasionally shift your asset allocation, hopefully you’ll lose less during the next 45% drop (and the current environment may very well be the early part of the next worldwide financial disaster).

Summarizing all this, returning to California in 2008 in the middle of a financial crash but with the start of a new bull market looming proved very lucky. Starting new self-directed retirement plans a few months before the bottom and seven years of investing allowed us to increase our net worth 168% by last year. Landing in Malaysia, we’ve now taken the scary switch from investing to capital preservation. With no more available income to invest, my personal research suggests our inflation adjusted investment portfolio should support a 30 year retirement when we’re actually old enough to use the tax sheltered plans without early withdrawal penalties. (assuming we live on 80% of what we did while working as most retirement specialists agree is reasonable).

Our House for 30 more days

Our last house in The SF Bay Area

Even with low fixed deposit rates, selling our overpriced California house was an enormously lucky windfall that should allow us about 13 to 15 years of living expenses before needing to use our small pensions and begin withdrawing from our investments. With longevity running in our families we may need to go as much as 40+ years with no employment income and our minimal pensions aren’t even close enough to support a middle class lifestyle. Admitting I’m a bit concerned about a possible catastrophic financial loss to our investments while we’re so young, I’ll take the high road and hope that while history is no guarantee of future performance, the elites that run the world’s capital markets will eventually step in and adjust to a new set of challenging circumstances like plunging commodity prices, sub-stratosphere returns from China and clueless central bankers out of ideas. Hopefully, we can avoid the Wal-Mart greeter option at age 80.

Comments and questions about anything I’ve written are more than welcome. Please keep in mind I have no crystal ball; just 30 years of watching the casino known as Wall Street.