Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Quarter End: Q4 2013

What an absolutely incredible and breathtaking year. Sitting here writing at the end of 2013 my household net worth stands at $331,838.63 And a milestone has been surpassed during this past quarter. For this first time since I began recording my financial statistics, our cash and investments have now exceeded my partial piece of California real estate in value. This past quarter alone on my balance sheet really tells the tale of how the market has behaved over the last 5 years. During the last three months my partial piece of real estate declined by roughly $10,000, while our mutual funds sky rocketed by a little more than that same amount, accounting for the increase in our overall net worth from the 3rd quarter of 2013.

What is most impressive to me in the equities market is that there was an abundance of negative news that hit the news headlines over the last few months. Bernanke and the Fed set the tapering wheels in motion, the launch of Obamacare has been botched and left an even greater level of uncertainty in the health care industry than ever before and the budget deal that the Congress and Senate are ramming down our throats behind closed doors is an absolute abomination. And in the face of all this, the market has continued to rise like a magnificent sunrise over Lake Michigan.

I do not believe that we will see a freefall crash in 2014. In fact if we look historically in years past there has been a significant jump in equities between Q4 and Q1 and I don’t see a reason why Q1 company reporting in 2014 will be anything less than neutral. I do forecast though that Q2 and Q3 in 2014 will be more in line, possibly even negative, to balance out the last five years of this market surge to reflect more historical market averages.

Make no mistake about it, since the freefall in 2008 the overall stock market has been on a powerful surge that we have not seen since the tech boom that was the 1990s. I also am finding that it was no coincidence that roughly five years ago to this date I first picked up Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover,” and started my journey to becoming debt free and steadily investing with confidence and a game plan. I had absolutely no idea five years ago that getting on a budget and living on less than I make, becoming debt free and regularly investing for retirement and through a taxable brokerage account, that I would be sitting here today with the types of numbers that our balance sheet is reflecting. I mean our average annualized return percentage across our investments are in the 20s, our investments (yes excluding cash, art and jewelry!) are worth more than the piece of California real estate owned and we are essentially on cruise control as we move toward the pinnacle point.

But I’m finding my peace and happiness in more than just numbers and percentage returns. I am also grateful to have had the opportunity over this last calendar year to give more than I ever have before in my life. We’ve tithed our *net income across sponsoring 3 children overseas and giving to our church. Plus we have provided offerings above and beyond our tithe to help contribute to various causes that God has presented before us during the course of this past year.
*Note: we tithe our net income because I feel that it takes the hand of God through a miracle to lower our t axes, so the way I see it is if God wants more, He knows exactly what to do!    

While I know the direction we are heading with our household finances, it’s our consistent and prioritized giving that I think is laying the foundation for my contentment and happiness currently in life. In Dave Ramsey’s class Financial Peace University, he talked about the paradox that as you give more that you will have more. When I first heard and reflected on that message I understood and expected that as we gave more that we would receive from God the love and fulfillment from helping grow His kingdom here on Earth and that would be the extent of it. Today I’m of the belief that while this previous statement is true there is another piece that I crucially missed. And that piece is this: At the start of my financial journey God entrusted me with a little and through following His word on how to handle His resources that reach my bank accounts, He has only provided more and more for me to handle. I honestly can’t seem to out give God. Since becoming debt free we sought out and found a church and programs that we send our tithe to, and during THESE last 5 years when the news headlines scream about a disparity between the rich and the poor, He has provided my wife and myself with pay increases, bonus after bonus, company matches and mutual funds with returns that have beat my expectations.

So needless to say I am very much looking forward to 2014. As the market continues to rise and as it comes back to more normalized historical patterns we will continue to invest steadily and readily into our small army of mutual funds. We will also push forward on doing a little more spending, a little more giving and of course a little more investing ! So from my family to yours I genuinely wish you a Happy New Year and all of the best for 2014. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Book Review: "The Blessed Life" by Robert Morris

“The Blessed Life” by Robert Morris is quite a gem of a book and I would highly recommend this fine piece of reading to anyone within earshot. Aside from the central message of the book, which speaks about following good stewardship with our dollars and cents, I felt Morris did an excellent job with the flow of the book. The first part of the book eloquently conveys the biblical principle and importance of first fruits giving, and then transitions smoothly into what that example looks like for a modern day household, and finishes with what a lifetime of biblically based financial stewardship looks like over the long term.

I especially liked Morris’ message that highlighted and gave an overview with bullet points about those with the gift of giving. He goes into why accumulators of wealth that prioritize giving do a complete evaluation and thorough inspection of the projects and missions that they give to. Morris also addressed and challenged the viewpoint of seeing wealth as evil, and challenges the reader to see wealth instead as a tool that can be used to further the kingdom of God on Earth.

On a personal level I have been debt free for 5 years and within the last year have just begun to spread my wings financially speaking by doing a little more investing, spending and giving than in years past. And though I take a rough and tumble type of attitude when it comes to Christians/the secular world that calls for poverty and views wealth as evil, I found Morris’ book to be an unbelievable breath of fresh air. In my point of view, “The Blessed Life,” is a great foundation and the type of book that I am going to seek out to read more and more in 2014 and beyond. I really feel that it provides the spiritual guidance and angel in the ear type of advice that I need reinforced as my wife and I help build God’s resources during our time on this Earth.

His countless stories in the book about being in tune to where God wants to direct His resources were remarkable to me and have given me confidence to continue on in our financial journey. In all honesty, at least in concept, the early stages of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps were easy. At least for me they were simple: Buckle down, live on less than you make, work like a madman, budget, trim the financial fat and get the hell out of debt. On the other side of that though is where I’ve found myself at and snowballing into more and more year after year. And that’s the steady investing, increased lifestyle and increase in prioritized and spontaneous giving. It’s in these latter places where I have felt a bit insecure. How much is enough? How nice is too nice? Am I really capable of being the good steward that God needs when we have several million dollars in our accounts decades down the line?

It’s definitely going to take a ton of prayer, working together with my better half to be in tune with where God wants His resources to go, but books like this are definitely a great starting ground as my wife and I move towards baby step 7, building wealth and giving a bunch of it away.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Coming of Age

As 2013 comes to a close and 2014 is appearing on the horizon, one inevitable change in my life is coming and there’s nothing I can do to stop it; And that inevitable change is the closing of my 20’s and the start of my 30’s. Before our calendars turn to 2014 I will be celebrating what will be the last year of my 20’s and that in itself has caused me to reflect a lot on the last decade that was.

My 20’s can be best summed up in three phases. The first of which was my early 20’s, during this time of my life I had youth and independence on my side, and none of the knowledge and wisdom to go along with it. By this point in my I had been living outside of my parents’ house (and entire state for that matter) for a few years already, but I was only just beginning to learn what it meant to be an adult. I made a lot of stupid mistakes, mistakes that ran the spectrum from dating, to my use of time in college, to part time work choices and not spending any time or effort addressing my hurts and hang ups that had followed me from my youth. But somehow through God’s grace I had managed to meet the woman of my dreams that would eventually become my wife. And from that starting point I had no idea the growth and connection that we would eventually find within ourselves and each other.

My mid 20’s were a period of revelation, healing and getting my life together. I had come clean not only to my best friend but most notably to myself about the addictions that were plaguing my life. And probably more importantly, I began to address where those demons had come from and started to put the work into dealing with the pain and hurt that I had experienced but hid away from myself so long ago. Coincidentally this was also the same period of time that I was introduced to the world of Dave Ramsey. And Dave’s financial baby steps I think laid the groundwork for me to move forward and began my journey of emotional healing and learning to love and forgive myself as well as others.

By my late 20’s I hit full stride in each of the areas that I had spent my time and energy working on. I feel that our marriage is thriving thanks to the work we put in with individual and couples counseling, we are on track with our household finances having become debt free and having a plan for all of our disposable income, my career is on a great track with an excellent company, and overall I feel like I have my head on straight and am taking the right approach and attitude with a lot more aspects of my life than when I did when my 20’s began.

So this is it! The last year of my 20’s. I don’t exactly know what my 30’s will bring but I’m pretty sure it is going to be a blast getting there and seeing what life has in store for this next decade of my life. But for now I am going to do my best to relish and enjoy these last 365 or so days that I can call myself a 20-something. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My Season of Giving

This Christmas season has been a very joyous and heat-felt one for us thus far. It has been close to a year and a half that my wife paid off her student loans and we officially became a debt free household, and this Christmas season has kind of been the first in which we are coming to realize just what that means.

In addition to our Christmas budget we also have been saving even more than in previous years to do spontaneous giving. It has been absolutely incredible, fulfilling and humbling to help out various causes and needs within our families and the city we live in. Our home church participates in an excellent program, partnering with a local organization that provides year round education and care to single-moms and their children here in Chicago. For the Christmas season our church placed a Christmas “Wish List” for the organizations participants. Lists included the bare essentials for children, socks, underwear, gloves, coats, shirts and jackets, and shopping for these items was an unbelievably humbling experience for me.

Usually when out shopping, especially for clothes, I do my best to get in and get out of the store as quickly as possible, finding only what I need at the lowest price. It wasn’t until I was in the store with my chosen child’s list in hand, that I slowed down, sought out quality and honestly would have been perfectly okay blowing my entire giving budget to help meet this child’s needs. I remember being the age of my chosen child and having a selfish list of toys and various other items that I didn’t need. Instead this child was in need of clothing essentials and basics, and in the climate I’ve grown accustomed to here in Chicago, can honestly make the difference between life and death when the Lake effect weather takes grip on the city.

So I paused a lot and did my best to stretch my budget as far as it would go while buying items that were of the best quality. I stopped often and had tears fill my eyes in the store, because I really did want to fill my cart to the brim with everything and then some for the child I had chosen. I couldn’t remember the last time I wanted to spend so much while shopping. It was quite an interesting place to be at given my frugality over the years, but I suppose that was the point now wasn’t it? I whipped my budget into shape, got out of debt, am steadily investing for the future and freed up my monthly income to be able to give where there is need. And while I didn’t buy out the entire store, I genuinely hope that my child’s Christmas season is a happy and loving one, and I hope that somehow my gifts will help in some way to add to that.

In addition my wife and I chose this year to open up an Educational Savings Account with a considerable initial contribution for one of our nephews. This was something that we had been talking about doing for a few years and we finally decided to pull the trigger on it this year. Admittedly a part of my motivation to finally do it came from my own extended family.

I received news just a month ago that one my nephews, a current Senior in high school, will be enlisting in the US armed services at the conclusion of his Senior year. I asked him why he would chose this, and a part of his reason was to be able to fund his way to college.

And that piece of his reasoning gave me a pretty solid punch to the gut. Up to this point my wife and I have done an excellent job of taking care of our own household first to be able to give, and I think God wanted to show me that the time to step up our giving is now. While we are on a trajectory through our investing, budget planning and plentiful household income, there are opportunities to give that we don’t have to wait to reach the pinnacle point to hit.

While I am proud that my nephew is willing to serve his country and not take on debt to finance his college education, a huge piece of me wonders, “what if?” What if I had opened an ESA for him, say when he was 10 years old and our extended family helped fund it until now? If the money was readily available, would he consider the military as an option for his future? The truth is that I don’t know. This is the current reality that we live in and I can’t go back in time to change it. Instead I told him that I love him and I genuinely hope that God leads him to where he is supposed to be in life. And while is in service, to be the best Christian example that he can be and to let his light of faith shine bright each and every day to those around him. And I also saw it as a reality check to not wait for some giving opportunities to come to me and instead go out and make them happen.

So as the sun is beginning to set on 2013 I feel like we are getting a good running start on spending, saving and giving our disposable income in ways that bring happiness and enrich our lives while paying attention to the needs that God calls us to wake up to.

Friday, November 29, 2013

My Career Choice

I wanted to spend today’s post sharing about my career track. For just about six years now I have spent my career working in back and middle office operations for a couple of large and internationally known financial firms. Before my recent transition to my current employer, which took place a month ago, I weighed my options of embracing my passion for personal finance and considered a track to becoming a financial advisor.

I feel that I spent the better part of six months doing informational and formal interviews, networking and reading articles, all in order to get a proper gauge on what a career as a professional financial advisor would entail. Through this part of the process I met with some great people at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Fifth Third Bank and ING Financial.

And in taking the time to learn about the career path, I learned that it was not an avenue that I wanted to pursue with the backing of medium to large sized institution. Now please don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great people and advisors at the aforementioned firms that take care of their clients and approach with the heart of a teacher rather than the heart of a salesman.

But when I dug into the details I found that this career path with a larger sized firm was not for me. Without fingers pointing or names named, all I will say is that the “formal” system around breeding financial advisors focuses on generating sales rather than taking a holistic approach with helping clients. The general idea that I walked away with was that the advisor’s focus at larger sized firms is to generate new clients and grow the assets under management through volume rather than working with clients to improve their personal financial situations.

For me personal financial advising should have a holistic approach. As an advisor I would want my focus to be on helping clients see the importance of having an emergency fund, paying off all of their debt to open up monthly cash flow, consistently saving for retirement through 401ks and IRAs and having the right kinds of insurances in place, rather than moving from client to client just to beef up my reported assets under management and let a cookie cutter and “conventional” investing approach speak on my behalf.

In truth I do see working as a financial advisor in the near future. I do however I see myself opening up my own boutique firm once our household investments reach the pinnacle point in which said investments earn more annually than we make annually, which in truth is a long term goal for us that will be a decade or so in the making. This way I can run the show the way I want under my terms with a focus on improving the financial households of clients rather than building a client rolodex. 

For now I thoroughly enjoy what I do completing middle office support for traders and portfolio managers for my current employer. From my point of view I am a part of a larger team that is handling God’s money. After all the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The money being managed by my employer, which in name is legally owned by large institutions namely for pensions, from my perspective, belongs to God. We are collectively preserving and growing God’s money so that when it is funneled to retirees, that money is used to help seniors meet their financial needs in retirement, make donations for charitable organizations, pay for college for future generations and even more things beyond what I have mentioned here! And each and every morning as I hop off my bus and make my way to my office in the loop, I pray that God guides my heart, spirit and mind to make sound decisions as I handle His money and resources to the best of my abilities.

It’s kind of an interesting place to be. I enjoy my team and the work that I am currently doing every day and I am also excited for the future to see what life will look like after we reach the pinnacle point. It is an incredible blessing to be at this point in life and my career and with Thanksgiving being this past week, that is something I am certainly thankful for this year.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My Return

Greetings my friends! I would certainly agree with you that it has been far too long since my last post but be rest assured that much has taken place and I’ve been one busy little bee! So let’s get caught up.

The Move
My wife and I decided to move from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which has been home to us for the last 5 years and move a few neighborhoods north to Edgewater. Previously in Lincoln Park we were living in a cozy 1 bedroom that was priced several hundred dollars below market in the area, mainly because it was on the first floor of the apartment building. Which apparently has some kind of stigma with it, but I loved it because were in a sizeable unit in a nice neighborhood for well under $1,000 a month and never had security issues.

But now we’ve reached a point in our lives where we wanted a bit more adventure, a little more elbow room and of course a nice lake view. The search was long, strenuous and frustrating at times. But when we finally came back from Europe we came across the unit that we are in now, and I must say that I instantly fell in love with it. There’s killer views of Lake Michigan from our living and bed rooms, parking in building (even though we still don’t have a car, the option still is nice to have!), there’s a party patio on the roof deck, a doorman 24/7 and we are quite literally steps away from the beach. And it was literally only $200 more in rent from our Lincoln Park digs.

And the apartment unit itself, man, all I can say is that our landlord (an individual condo owner) did a great job renovating and knew exactly what he was doing. So we have a little bit more elbow room, a newly renovated place and are in a more family friendly neighborhood where I am no longer one of the oldest guys on the block. Which I have come to appreciate as 30 is creeping up on the horizon.

Even better is the fact that our landlord ran a full “credit check” which included reviewing our credit reports and employment history. So I, having lived without credit for 4 years am able to rent a great apartment in Chicago, so take that credit myth monsters! No headaches, no hiccups, no defending of my debt free lifestyle was even needed during the process. So now we are settling into the new apartment and learning a whole new part of the city, which leads me to.

The Job Change
I had spent 5 years with my previous employer in what honestly was my first “real job” out of college. And although I did not see myself being a part of the changes that my particular division was going through, I appreciated my time spent there and certainly have a flood of great memories and met some amazing people there and for that I am forever grateful. But most of all, I used those paychecks to become debt free, plant a solid financial foundation and of course cash flow my wedding.

So when an opportunity presented itself to continue doing the same line of work for a new employer, I weighed my options and had a few months worth of interviews to go through in which I met with the entire team that I would eventually be joining. And yes I will brag that I am completely debt free and having a 0 credit score had absolutely no impact as I applied for and currently work for a global financial services company. So please, please oh please don’t let anyone EVER tell you that you need a credit score to find employment. It’s just not true and you can point to me as an example, I’ll gladly take the heat for you! And if an employer does weigh your credit worthiness as a factor on whether they will bring you onto their team, trust me, you wouldn’t want to work for someone that stupid (Although bankruptcy and being behind on payments is an entirely different story, I’m speaking entirely on an employer basing their decision on hiring you on your credit score). And after prayerful consideration and weighing several competing offers, I happily agreed to join my employer and have now been a happy team member for almost a month now.

Although we are still in the honeymoon phase, I genuinely feel happy to go to work each and every day. Now please don’t get me wrong. Every place has its own ups and downs and I have been working in finance long enough to not be na├»ve enough to believe that everything will be peaches and cream each and every day forever. But I am taking a different approach with this role. Each and every morning before stepping one foot into the office building, I pray to God that he brings clarity to my mind, guides and helps me build knowledge and helps me perform at the best of my abilities as I handle His money every day.

And I think the approach that I am handling God’s money has made monumental difference in how I approach work. I feel more eager to take on extra tasks outside of my daily responsibilities, I am not as easily frustrated when work volumes tick up and I have found myself not groaning when our team is faced with being shorthanded during the work week. The best example I can give is on Fridays. The typical verbiage (and I have found this to be “typical” in most work environments) at the end of the work week is to hear colleagues say out loud, “Thank God it’s Friday,” or something along those lines. But for me this role has re-energized me and I am actually pretty happy to come to work and even stay late. I am enjoying what I am doing day in and day out and have found myself the last few Fridays telling my wife, “Man, I seriously can do that for another 5 days in a row.’

Which certainly has made things very interesting for me the last month or so. I love waking up and coming home to our sweet new apartment and I love going to work every week day. I’ve seriously taken a few step backs almost every few days and have been amazed at how much change has taken place and how happy I am in life.

My wife and I are firing on all cylinders, our monthly disposable income has been more than anticipated and we have seamlessly been on the same page regarding how to allocate that money (I’ll give you a hint, we’re saving some of it, spending some of it and investing some of it!), work is great, the home life is great and I honestly don’t know what we want to set as goals next. We are in cruise control to pay cash for our first home within 5 years and have a few travel trips planned, and I’m becoming inspired to find new ways to creatively give. But I think 2014 will be a time for me to re-examine my goals, hopes and dreams. And I’ll be happy to share these with you and so much more in future posts.

So for now thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to sharing my journey with each and every one of you.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Amazingly Awesome Trip to the South of France

It is without hesitations or reservations, partnered with the fondest of memories that I share with you that the French leg of our European holiday was my favorite part of our vacation. We set out for the south of France from Frankfurt. But we opted for an 8 hour train ride as opposed to a flight. Two factors weighted into this, the first was that the price difference was substantial, but the other piece was that our train ride would take us along the gorgeous and picturesque German and French country sides. And with an itinerary that made our train trek during daylight hours, we simply could not pass it up. Here’s a few pictures of us at the train station and during our embarking journey to the south of France.



The only downside to European rail travel that I could find was the meal offerings. I had genuinely expected full meals to be available for longer routes such as ours and while our train did have a cable car, I was underwhelmed by the sandwich offerings. Had we known this ahead of time we would have packed ourselves a lunch with a bottle of wine during our journey, as several of the seasoned European travelers had done that sat around us. But nevertheless the views were breathtaking and, although scary at times, the speed of the rail was impressive and I found it very cool and rather manly to be traveling at such high speeds.


Our “home base” in France was a beautiful and romantic town called Aix-en-Provence. Many years ago, thanks to a wonderful site called couchsurfing.org, my wife and I met and hosted a French couple that we have since become very good friends with. Of course they had visited and stayed with us in Chicago, we had met up in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this year, and felt it was appropriate to meet up with them during our European holiday. And they were the most incredible hosts that we have probably ever stayed with. From the moment we stepped off the train and met up with them we felt at home, welcomed and loved. I feel immensely blessed to have friends like this in my life.


And man were we spoiled. Our breakfasts consisted of delicious French pastries and what felt like an endless supply of nutella. And I must say that our French friends know their way around a kitchen pretty well and we enjoyed probably the best meals of our journey in their home for lunch and dinner. It was everything I could dream of, a picturesque setting in the south of France with great friends, wining, dining, laughing and catching up on life. I mean it when I say that I would seriously consider moving to the south of France.


Our friends lived within a reasonable driving distance of the city center in Aix, and the city center, just like the country side, took my breath away. There were endless streets in the marketplace with incredible architecture and I felt like every 5 seconds I was stopping to take pictures. And having our friends to help us navigate around town saved us so much time and hassle. I felt like we made a great use of time seeing the best sights and did not get lost one time, which definitely would have happened if my wife and I were left on our own. Admittedly, I have fallen in love with Aix-en-Provence. The city center goes beyond what I expected a bustling vintage European city to be like, and the rolling hills and lush green mountain sides, well, words on paper (or a web site) just do not do it justice!




From Aix our friends took us on a weekend trip to Avignon which, surprise surprise, left me speechless. The city center in Avignon felt a hair “more modern” than Aix, but the sunsets from this city were without question some of the best I have ever seen in my life. As if the sights were not enough, our friends also took us through a wine festival (a common occurrence I’m assuming that happens in France, which by the way needs to happen a lot more in Chicago), out to dinner for brick oven pizza that (and hopefully I don’t lose my Chicago card for this) puts deep dish pizza  to shame! And the highlight event during our visit to Avignon was a 3-d light show in the Palace of the Popes. Although the narration was in French and our friends did their best to translate for us, the views and images on the inside of the castle walls left my mouth agape for the entire show. It was without question the best visual eye candy I have ever seen and if you are anywhere near Avignon I highly recommend seeing the show.



And of course any trip to the south of France would not be complete without a stop in Marseille. Our friends pointed out that Marseille has an interesting reputation among French cities. Based on its location, Marseille is an immigration hub for the Middle East and North Africa for immigrants making their way into Europe. With that as a background, this city has seen its problems with trafficking, drugs and gang activity skyrocket within the last few years. So when our friends shared with their colleagues that they would be taking their American friends to Marseille, our friends were cautioned, “You must be careful, it is like Chicago down there.” To which our friends replied, “No, it’s ok, our friends are from Chicago!” To which our friends’ colleagues looked on horrified, wondering why they would make friends with American mobsters J!


All puns aside Marseille is a very interesting city. I think gritty is the best term to describe the city center. The center moves at a pace similar to New York with the external feel of Harlem. On any given block there are Islamic women dressed traditionally pushing  baby carriages, seedy looking characters walking from flat to flat and businessmen on scooters honking and speeding through like bats out of hell. Yet at the same time the architecture was stunning on every block. The Mediterranean influence was so much more present than I expected and really added to the flavor of the area. And once we were out of the city center and close to the Mediterranean Sea it felt as if the entire world had opened up. The streets were just a bit larger and the city center grittiness felt like it was replaced with a beach front metropolis, almost a healthy mix between San Diego and downtown Chicago. There we were greeted with even more stunning views that I’m more than positive made me look like a tourist every step of the way.



By the end of our French travels it was very hard for me to move onto the next and final portion of our vacation. I would like to point out that even beyond the food, the rich history and the picturesque settings, I really enjoyed France because of the company that we were with. I feel like friends that my wife and I both click with, let alone a “couple” set of friends, are very rare to come by no matter the continent. So I truly cherished every second we got to spend with our French friends. From the late night conversations, to the impromptu picnic to walking the street markets in Avignon, to seeing their hometown to the delectable breakfasts and dinners that our hosts prepared for us I genuinely enjoyed every second of it. Words alone cannot describe how humble and happy I am to have friends like these in our lives. And even though we live continents apart, I am positive that we will stay close and will see each other again soon.