Money is fungible, but only if you funge it

Back in October, over at the Saverocity Observation Deck podcast Joe Cheung interviewed Noah from Money Metagame and they discussed a post Noah wrote last year asking the question, "Is Anyone Actually Saving Money By Travel Hacking?"

Read the whole piece, as they say, but rather than respond directly to him, I am going to be more proactive and explain how how you really can save money using the tools of travel hacking.

Money doesn't funge itself

Perhaps after opportunity cost, the fungibility of money is one of the most popular concepts from economics applied to travel hacking. If money is fungible, then it doesn't matter how you earn income: whether from employment, reselling, manufactured spending, or high-stakes poker, every dollar you earn goes into the same pot, out of which you make decisions about consumption and savings.

This is true as a description of money, but need not be true about your own behavior towards money.

Ringfence your profits

One way to turn your travel hacking into asset-building is to identify and isolate your profits from travel hacking and direct them exclusively towards long-term asset accumulation. For example, if you have a Fidelity Visa Signature card earning 2% cash back, you're already depositing your cash back each month into a Fidelity account. Instead of withdrawing it into your regular checking account, where it will funge with all your other money, put it into a separate account (I personally use a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account that pays 3.09%+ APY).

The key point is that it has to be additive. If you already have an IRA housed with Fidelity that you would max out each year anyway, you aren't increasing your savings by depositing cash back rewards into it, you're just changing the funding stream. Instead, you could open a brokerage account and use your cash back rewards to fund investments in that account.

Buy travel from yourself (with a friends and family discount)

When I'm booking travel for other people, I normally charge them either the cash value of the points I redeem or the fairest price I can think of, for example one cent per mile for airline miles and half a cent for Hilton Honors points. Since in virtually all cases I would rather have money than miles and points, this is usually a way to get my friends and family big discounts and turn my stagnant balances into cash — a win-win.

I don't pay myself for travel I redeem on my own behalf, but you could! After all, if you treat a 25,000-point Hyatt redemption as "free," instead of costing as it does $250 in transferred Ultimate Rewards points, you might travel more than you really, objectively speaking, can afford to. If you instead sold travel to yourself (with the same friends and family discount you'd give anyone else) and moved money permanently into an investment account or other place you were sure you wouldn't spend it, you might develop a more tangible sense of the costs of your "free" travel.

A related issue arises when you redeem bank points like those earned with the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, Capital One Venture, or Barclaycard Arrival+ against travel purchases: the redemption really does reduce your outstanding credit card balance, and so is clearly some form of "income," but you never actually see a deposit into a bank account. Instead, you simply don't pay off part of the credit card balance you incurred booking your travel. "Buying" travel from yourself is a way of dealing with this curious situation and converting hypothetical profits into long-term assets.

Liquidate into your net worth, not your bank account

I've written before about using Plastiq to liquidate tiny-denomination prepaid debit cards, like the balances left over on 5% Back Visa Simon Giftcards (you can find my personal referral link on my Support the Site! page). Plastiq has a lot of billers in its database, so you might be tempted to use it to pay monthly recurring bills, like your rent or utilities. But making those types of payments won't help you accumulate assets, they just leave extra cash in your already-funged checking account.

Instead, you could deliberately target those payments towards long-term debt reduction, like making additional payments towards your mortgage, auto loans, or student debt. That way, instead of replacing payments you are already making anyway, you're using travel hacking to pay down those debts more aggressively and both increase your net worth and reduce the interest you'll pay over the life of the loans.

Conclusion

The economics professors in my audience are welcome to tut-tut me for suggesting such degrading psychological tricks, but it seems crystal clear to me that if you don't use one of these or some other method of isolating and investing your profits from travel hacking, then it's exceedingly unlikely to actually improve your overall financial position. On the flip side, a few additional thousands of dollars invested in sensible low-cost index funds have the potential to turn your short-term travel hacking profits into long-term financial success.

The many flavors of negative-interest-rate loans

A negative-interest-rate loan is one which, over the course of the loan, requires the borrower to repay less than they originally borrowed. Such loans have received a lot of attention in the business press lately since countries like Germany and Switzerland began issuing bonds with negative yields.

But negative-interest-rate loans aren't just for industrial and financial superpowers anymore! Here are three flavors of negative-interest-rate loans available to the enterprising travel hacker (and one bonus flavor), sorted by the duration of the loan, and suggestions for how to maximize their value.

25-55 days: manufactured spend

Most people think of the profit from manufactured spending as coming from the rewards earned on their spend, and that's true if you liquidate your spend directly back into the cards used to manufacture it.

But when you manufacture spend on a rewards-earning credit card, you're also borrowing money that can be used for other purposes. If you manufacture and liquidate spend on the day your credit card statement closes, you may be able to use the funds for up to 55 days, depending on how long your statement cycle is and how many days your bank gives you to pay.

Possible uses: Besides short-term liquidity, you can get even more value from these short-term negative-interest-rate loans by funding bank accounts that require large deposits in order to trigger signup bonuses. For example, Citi is currently offering a $400 signup bonus for opening a checking account with $15,000 in new money, which has to be kept with Citi for 30 days. $15,000 manufactured on a 2% cash back card and 1% "all-in" cost will net $150 in credit card rewards and $400 from Citi. Since the money was borrowed, that's the equivalent of a negative 44% APR loan.

6-12 months: interest rate arbitrage

If you're anything like me, you're constantly getting balance transfer and cash advance checks in the mail from your credit card companies. For the last year it felt like I was getting two or three offers from Discover every week! The offers can take many forms, but usually include a promotional interest rate on the amount you write the check for, while charging a balance transfer or cash advance fee in the range of 2-5%.

These offers are very bad for short-term liquidity because those fees act as an up-front interest charge which can't be avoided by paying off the balance early, as is the case with manufactured spend.

Possible uses: for medium-term needs, these offers can give you the opportunity to swap out higher-interest-rate debt for lower-rate debt, while generating valuable liquidity. For example, if you have 12 months remaining on a car loan at 5% APR, and are sent a 12-month 0% APR cash advance offer with a 3% cash advance fee, you will not just save money on the total interest you'll pay, but also have the option to swap equal-installment car loan payments for 11 minimum credit card payments and a "balloon" credit card balance pay-off in the 12th month. That added liquidity can be plowed back into manufactured spend, reselling, or any other high-value investment you have available.

12-21 months: savings and investment

There are a range of cards available that offer 0% APR on purchases and/or balance transfers. When those cards are also rewards-earning credit cards, these act as longer-term negative-interest-rate loans. For example, a new application for a Chase Freedom Unlimited will earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent and charge no interest on purchases for 15 months. $10,000 manufactured with that card will earn 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points. If you redeem 10,000 points to cover your manufactured spend costs, the 5,000 remaining points are the negative interest on your 15-month loan.

Possible uses: Depositing the same $10,000 in a 4.59% APY checking account will produce another $459 or so per year, driving the APR on your borrowed funds even further below 0%.

This technique may also be useful if you don't have the funds to maximize your annual contribution to an IRA or other tax-advantaged savings vehicle: using negative interest rate loans to cover your expenses while deducting retirement contributions from earned income can generate valuable savings on federal and state income taxes.

Up to 20 years: federal student loans

Whether or not you think college students should have to borrow to pay for higher education, for many students there is in fact a stark choice between borrowing or not attending college at all. The good news is that as long as long as students borrow exclusively from the federal government's Direct Loan program, they're eligible for the income-based repayment plan, or IBR. Under an IBR plan, any principal and interest balances that aren't repaid after 20 years are forgiven.

This too meets our definition of a negative-interest-rate loan: for borrowers whose repayments after 20 years don't add up to the amount they borrowed, the difference between the amount repaid and amount borrowed will constitute the negative interest they earned during the repayment period.

Possible uses: I don't know if there are actually any ways to leverage these negative-interest-rate loans, so just consider this an advertisement for the income-based repayment program and Federal Direct Loans.

On the other hand, no one should ever take out private student loans, which can be almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy and offer few or none of the alternative repayment options the federal government makes available.

Conclusion

For now, we live in a low-interest-rate, low-yield world. Juicing your investment returns and reducing your interest payments with negative-interest-rate loans is one way to squeeze higher yield from a market that has run out of low-hanging fruit.

What's the return on a diversified portfolio of hip alternative investments?

There's a healthy overlap between people with an outside-the-box attitude towards funding travel and those interested in alternative approaches to savings and investment:

  • Kiva has long been a (controversial) tool used by travel hackers and outside-the-box thinkers to earn miles, points, and cash back by making short-term loans funded with rewards-earning credit cards.
  • More recently, Greg the Frequent Miler has been doing yeoman's work (followup here) reporting out the similar, albeit much riskier, possibility of funding Kickfurther (my personal referral link) "Consignment Opportunities" with credit cards to earn both credit card rewards and investment returns.
  • At some point I must have signed up for a Fundrise account, and they've been badgering me to invest in their "Income" and "Growth" eREIT's for weeks now.
  • Finally, if you listen to any popular ad-supported podcasts you've likely heard about Wunder Capital and their solar power investment funds.

Now, the last thing you want to do is put all your speculative eggs in one basket, so I got to wondering, what kind of return might you get from an equally weighted portfolio of all these investments?

Annualizing "target" returns

The first thing to take into account is that the investment horizon for each of these vehicles is different, so we need to adjust the various returns appropriately. I'll use $1,000 investments in each example for ease of comparison.

  • Kiva loans funded with a 5% cash back credit card might earn more or less than 5% because of the varying term of Kiva loans. A recent search for short-term, high-quality Kiva loans returned 15 loans, all of which had a duration of 8 months. Assuming you wait to reinvest your Kiva repayments until all your loans have been repaid, and you suffer no defaults or delinquencies, you could invest $1,000 1.5 times per year, for a total annualized return of 7.5%.
  • Kickfurther consignment opportunities funded with a 2% cash back credit card will yield 2% cash back, plus your total Kickfurther principal and interest payments, minus 1.5% of your Kickfurther principal and interest payments. In other words, a 12-month consignment opportunity offering a 16% return on a $1,000 investment will pay $20 in cash back plus 98.5% of $1,160 ($1,142.60), for a total annual return of 16.26%. Assuming the four currently available consignment opportunities are typical in both length and rate of return, we can mechanically compute an average annualized return of 14.65%.
  • Fundrise works a little bit differently since you're investing in eREIT's which are designed to be held for the long term and which pay out throughout the life of the investment and then return remaining (potentially appreciated) principal at the end. Under the "accountability" tab for each eREIT, you can see the returns Fundrise seeks from each investment fund. For the Income eREIT they will charge no management fee if the annualized return is less than 15%, and for the Growth eREIT they'll pay a penalty if the annual return is below 20%, so we can use those as the "target" returns for each fund.
  • Finally, Wunder Capital is currently offering a "Term Fund" with a target return of 8.5% and an "Income Fund" with a target return of 6%.

Building a diversified hip alternative investment portfolio

If I were interested in building a portfolio of these alternatives, my model would be diversifying across the four platforms somewhat like this: by putting $1,000 in as many suitable Kiva loans as possible, $1,000 across as many Kickfurther consignment opportunities as possible, $1,000 in each of the two Fundrise eREIT's, and $1,000 in each of the Wunder Capital funds.

That would produce a $6,000 investment with a target annualized return of 11.94%.

This would be a very stupid thing to do

There are at least two questions worth asking about such a diversified portfolio of hip alternatives:

  • How likely am I to make more money with this portfolio than I would with conventional investments?
  • How likely am I to make any money at all, versus losing some or all of my principal?

The first question speaks to the question of whether the higher target return you're seeking will adequately compensate you for the added risk you're taking with these bizarre, untested investment vehicles. After all, Vanguard will sell you a low-cost mutual fund invested in corporate junk bonds any day of the week. Why buy untradable junk from strangers when Jack Bogle will sell you relatively liquid junk?

The second question is whether you'll be compensated at all, or whether an economic downturn, poor management, and/or fraud will wipe out your investment completely with little or no warning.

But, gambling is fun

There's a painful irony to the fact that these alternative investment vehicles have been legalized and are being aggressively promoted at a time of low interest rates and pessimism about future returns in the stock market, because those conditions have retail investors desperately fishing around for investment opportunities with a higher return than their passively managed index funds. Frantically taking bigger and bigger risks makes the problem of low returns worse for all the investors who pick the wrong alternatives to invest in (and there are a lot of wrong alternatives).

On the other hand, for the dwindling number of investors with a secure path to retirement and enough money left over to gamble with, these alternatives seem like they'd be fund to play with. And who knows? You might even make some money.

Final status report on my personal finance application cycle

Last June I wrote about my personal finance application cycle, in which I applied for a Chase Slate and Citi Double Cash credit card in order to run up high balances and use the resulting negative-interest-rate loans to finance other projects. Since my 0% APR introductory periods are coming to an end, I thought readers might enjoy a final update.

Did it work?

My strategy worked perfectly, as it had to.

Fees and interest rates, unlike other terms and conditions of credit card agreements, are heavily regulated and cannot be changed by the banks to retroactively apply to existing balances (as long as you stay current on payments). In fact, even if my Chase and Citi accounts had been closed for some reason, I still would have been entitled to continue making only the minimum payments on the two cards until the introductory interest rate period elapsed.

I had no trouble moving my existing Chase credit lines to my new Slate card, as I explained in the original post, and was able to transfer $15,000 in balances to the card at the promotional 0% APR. I also didn't have any problem manufacturing my $5,200 credit limit on the Citi Double Cash, maximizing the amount of cash I was able to borrow at a negative interest rate.

What happened to my credit score?

When reading about this tactic, many of my readers grow agitated about the horrific damage that must have been wreaked on my credit score by nearly maxing out two credit cards on an ongoing basis.

In the 12 months of FICO score history Barclaycard provides, my score has bounced around between 677 and 729. In the last 6 months, Citi has me between 667 and 683. And in the last 12 months American Express has my FICO score between 670 and 720.

But I don't care about my FICO score, and the "damage" didn't keep me from being approved for a new Chase Hyatt credit card.

As should be obvious, everyone's situation is different: if you have just a few cards, or a short credit history, then high utilization on one or more cards might do significant damage to your credit score, potentially keeping you from getting approved for the credit cards you want.

If you have a lot of cards, and a long credit history, it's more likely to have only a nominal effect on your score, as it did on mine.

What did I do with the money?

Not much! I funded my Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account with $10,000, and used the rest of my newfound cash flow to increase the speed and convenience with which I manufactured spend on my other credit cards. Even if you diligently pay off each of your credit cards with the same spend manufactured with that card, there are still inevitable delays connected with depositing funds and making payments. Having a substantial amount of cash on hand smooths out those inconvenient delays and increases my overall return.

What's next?

This month I paid off the balance on my Citi Double Cash, and have already started using the card to manufacture unbonused spend. It's a somewhat inconvenient product since you have to pay off your balance in full before your statement closes in order to earn a full 2% cash back on your spend each month. Still, 2% is a perfectly reasonable return on unbonused manufactured spend, so the card still has its uses to me.

After I pay off my Chase Slate balance at the end of the month, I'll call to request a product change to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere, and that card will enter my rotation as a go-to card for unbonused manufactured spend.

Once that's complete, I'll wait a few weeks until I'm safely out from under the shadow of Chase's 5/24 guideline for new account approvals, and apply for another Chase Slate. I'll move available credit from my new Chase Freedom Unlimited account, and start this process over again.

Should you do this?

I don't give advice. I don't know your situation, and have no idea whether a 15-month, negative-interest-rate loan is right for you. But there are a few reasons you might consider it.

First, there are purchases that you might be considering paying for over time, like a car, which will cost less in total if you accelerate your payments using a negative-interest-rate loan.

Second, holding borrowed cash in a high-interest checking account, as I did, can serve as an "emergency fund" to protect you from job loss, emergency medical bills, or losses in the stock market. Even if, like me, you don't find the idea of an emergency fund particularly interesting from a personal finance perspective, you'll still earn more in a high-interest checking account than you will in a fixed-income mutual fund, a subject I've written about elsewhere.

Third, if you're a reseller or the owner of a business that needs access to capital in order to grow, you might consider financing expansion with a negative-interest-rate loan, especially if you work with vendors who only accept cash or give a discount on cash transactions.

Microhacking: ATM fee refund edition

Even before most travel hackers' American Express prepaid cards were shut down last year, American Express had restricted Bluebird and Serve cash withdrawals to ATM's in the United States. That was a shame since they had previously worked as fee-free ATM cards around the world, and with reasonable exchange rates.

Fortunately, I have a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account, which offers as one of its rewards "No ATM fees - CCU will reimburse all ATM and surcharge fees." I'd never actually made an ATM withdrawal with the card (I bank with a local credit union), so I was eager to see how this benefit works.

My experience withdrawing money in Europe

It works really well!

I made three ATM withdrawals during the two weeks we were in Europe, and incurred ATM fees on each withdrawal:

  • 30,000 Hungarian forint ($109.40), $0.87 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($226.85), $1.81 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($225.96), $2.26 ATM fee.

On the first of July, I received an ATM fee credit of $11.19. Since only $4.94 had been charged to my account in separate ATM fees, that leaves $6.25 in ATM fee refunds unaccounted for.

That $6.25 happens to be the sum of the difference between the first two ATM withdrawals in dollars and the next lowest multiple of $5 ($109.40 minus $105, plus $226.85 minus $225).

Now, maybe that's a coincidence ($6.25 is the sum of a lot of numbers, real and imaginary). But it's my current best hypothesis, although it doesn't explain why the odd $0.96 on my final ATM withdrawal wasn't refunded.

Microhacking ATM fee refunds?

If my hypothesis is correct, that means a simple hack is possible: intentionally make ATM withdrawals that are at least $1 more than a multiple of $5, getting the additional amount refunded the following month.

The only ATM's I've ever seen that allow such odd withdrawals are TD Bank ATM's, which allow you to specify the exact composition of a withdrawal, including $1 and $5 bills.

According to this CNN article, Chase and PNC were rolling out ATM's with this function back in 2013, but some light Googling didn't turn up any more recent information than that.

Have you tried this? Does it work? And do you have a better explanation for my mysterious $6.25 ATM fee refund?

I listened to every episode of "Masters in Business." Here's what I learned.

In March, I asked on Twitter for suggestions for podcasts about business and finance since I found the Planet Money podcast from NPR and the Slate Money podcast to be infuriatingly juvenile.

One of my followers suggested the Bloomberg Radio podcast "Masters in Business," hosted by Barry Ritholtz of Ritholtz Wealth Management.

Ritholtz interviews some of the most famous names in business and finance and explores their background, philosophy, and investment strategy in wide-ranging, free-form interviews. It's fantastic.

In the last two months, I've listened to every episode of the podcast. Here's what I learned about success in business and investing.

Read books

Personally, I like to go down to the public library and check out dead-tree books. You might prefer to read books electronically on your phone or on a dedicated Kindle or Nook. But every one of Ritholtz's guests has a list of books they've either read recently or are in the process of reading.

Have a list, and find the time to read. Work your way through your list, and always be on the lookout for new titles to add to it.

Own Stocks

Share prices are an inflation-protected asset, in that the revenue and expenses of the companies held in a sufficiently diversified stock portfolio will rise at the same rate as inflation in the overall economy, unlike a portfolio of fixed-income investments.

So own stocks: it's good for you.

Successful businesspeople are obsessed with bad evolutionary analogies

It is embarrassing listening to Ritholtz and his guests make constant references to "the savannah" where human psychology supposedly evolved oh-so-many millions of years ago, with "lions" waiting in the shadows to snatch unwary humans from around their "campfires."

I don't blame Ritholtz and his guests for this, and I don't even really blame the evolutionary psychologists for promoting this nonsense: they're just talking their book.

I blame the cultural anthropologists who have abdicated the field of popular non-fiction to these charlatans who preach that the behavior of early hominids on their mythical "savannah" explains human behavior in the advanced economies of the 21st century.

But let me be clear: the quick resort of successful capitalists to evolutionary analogies is no harmless affectation. If most people make investing mistakes because of their primitive evolutionary heritage, the ability of a select few to achieve success in investing must make them more evolved, more sophisticated, more worthy exemplars of the race.

And that, handily, excuses their worst excesses.

Jack Bogle is the only person on Earth who believes in passive indexed investing

Jack Bogle is the legendary founder and former chairman of the Vanguard Group.

Jack Bogle will sell you and manage for you a market-capitalization-weighted S&P 500 index fund for 5 cents per $100 invested.

If you prefer a wider stock index, he'll sell you and manage for you a market-capitalization-weighted total stock market index fund for 5 cents per $100 invested.

You should take him up on this offer. But you won't. No one does.

Passive indexed investing has one big advantage and one big disadvantage.

The one big advantage is that it's free. Since Vanguard passive index funds are market-capitalization-weighted, they are never rebalanced. If a stock goes up in price, it becomes a bigger portion of the index. If it goes down in price, it becomes a smaller portion of the index. Shares are not bought and sold to rebalance the portfolio, since the price movements themselves perform that function. No trading means no trading costs.

The one big disadvantage is that when you contribute money to a market-capitalization-weighted passive index fund you're buying expensive stocks when they're expensive, and when you redeem shares in a market-capitalization-weighted passive index fund you're selling cheap stocks when they're cheap.

Jack Bogle will tell you the one big advantage outweighs the one big disadvantage, but you won't believe him.

Probably because of the savannah.

Bonus fact: Barry Ritholtz blocked me on Twitter

At the end of every episode Barry Ritholtz tells listeners to follow him on Twitter. I thought this was a pretty good idea, so I checked out his account @Ritholtz, and somehow he had already discovered my subversive tendencies and blocked me:

"Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is a pretty good book

This is a review of "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" by Fred Schwed Jr. You can find all my previous book reviews here. If you're interested in buying a copy, I hope you'll consider using my Amazon Associates referral link.

I have a technique I like to call "reverse showrooming." In retail parlance, "showrooming" is when a customer comes into a physical store to inspect a product, then ultimately orders it for a lower price on Amazon.com. I "reverse showroom" by keeping track of books I'm interested in reading by adding them to my Amazon wish list, then checking them out for free from the public library.

"Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is the first book I've ever checked out from the public library that was so good I immediately ordered 2 copies from Amazon in order to lend them out to friends and family.

It isn't the only book you'll ever need to read about investing in the stock market, but it should be the first book you read about investing in the stock market.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes

Fred Schwed Jr. originally published "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" in 1940. Despite the intervening years, with all its wars and revolutions, there's scarcely a single word in the book that doesn't apply just as accurately today as it did when it was written (with one exception, below). Moreover, a vast corpus of economic research has developed to provide statistical proof for what Schwed learned from practical experience.

Schwed is much funnier than I am, but I will attempt to do justice to his basic attitude towards investing:

  • Making predictions is hard, especially about the future;
  • If someone can consistently and accurately predict future price movements, they are able to command vast sums for doing so;
  • But even someone who consistently and accurately predicts price movements is almost certainly just lucky.

Schwed predicted almost every development in the world of investing

Decades of economic research have now established that active mutual funds perform no better than passive index funds, after management fees. But Fred Schwed doesn't need your decades of economic research. In 1940, he wrote:

"The subject of choosing profitable financial investments does not lend itself to competence. There is almost no visible supply."

It is breathtaking to read Schwed recommend — in 1940 — a primitive system of passive index investing:

"The average small investor needs a certain amount of diversification, but he can get it for himself by buying five-share lots instead of hundred-share lots. The added expense of doing his business this way is negligible. If his funds are too limited even for that procedure, the only diversification he needs is to put some of his money into life-insurance payments, some into the savings bank, and the remainder into his right-hand trouser pocket."

Michael Lewis catalogued the difficulties large investment banks have buying and selling large blocks of shares in his 2014 book "Flash Boys." Fred Schwed described them in 1940:

"An investment trust [i.e. mutual fund] should be good and large, because this tends to make the expenses of running it a negligible percentage of the whole. But when the trust is big in size, the investing problem becomes increasingly difficult. A fifty-thousand-share position is a hard thing to buy and usually a harder one to sell. If the quotation on such a position rises twenty points in the newspaper, the trust scores up a million-dollar profit on their book value, but of course actually realizing on profit on such a block is apt to be quite a different thing."

Schwed is curiously obsessed with margin investing

The only part of "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" that doesn't seem as relevant today as it was when it was written is his discussion of "margin." Margin, for those born after 1930, refers to the regrettable willingness of brokers to allow their customers to buy stocks not with money, but with a line of credit backed by a small amount of collateral. As Schwed explains:

"We assume that it is a wise and profitable venture to buy 100 shares of United Fido at ten, paying $1,000 for it. Ergo, wouldn't it be even better to buy 200 shares paying the same $1,000? And even better to make it three or four hundred if we can find a sufficiently kindly broker to do us this favor?

"The answer is no. But I only know one way of proving it to you conclusively. Go try it."

While investing on margin is still legal and, I assume, encouraged by the more unscrupulous stock brokers, it doesn't occupy the American imagination in the way it seems to have when Schwed was writing. Although in fairness, Tim Geithner did something indistinguishable when he borrowed money from JPMorgan in order to back his stake at his new Warburg Pincus gig.

Let's check back in 10 years to see how that plays out.

In 76 years, investor psychology has changed not one jot nor tittle

Ultimately, "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is a book about psychology: specifically, the psychology of people who decide to put a little bit of money to work for them in the stock market. If you don't recognize yourself in it, then you've probably never put a little bit of money to work for you in the stock market.

Fortunately, you have one great tool Fred Schwed Jr. and his clients and customers didn't have and indeed didn't imagine: low-fee, passive, indexed Vanguard mutual funds.

Unfortunately, you can only take advantage of those funds if you can convince yourself to actually invest in them. And as much as it pains me to say it, neither Schwed nor I are going to be any help in that department.

Personal finance digression: Robinhood is a pretty good app

Every once in a while I take a break from blogging about travel hacking and write about whatever personal finance topics are on my mind. For the past few weeks I've been playing around with an app called Robinhood, and thought I'd share my impressions.

Robinhood is a mobile-only trading platform

I don't exactly understand why mobile-only applications are so popular at the moment, but Robinhood is a good example of one. As far as I can tell, there is no way to log into your Robinhood account on their website to view past trades, deposits, withdrawals, dividends, etc.

Fortunately, the app is pretty good! The main page of the app shows the current value of your account, including cash and the market value of all the shares you currently own. Below that, there's a newsfeed that shows headlines based on general market events and news specific to the shares you're tracking. Finally, the main page shows your current share positions and any ticker symbols you've saved for the app to track.

That latter functionality works even if you don't have any shares deposited with Robinhood. In other words, you can use the app to simply track the price of any stocks and ETF's you're interested in.

I've always been curious why most brokerages report share prices with a 20-minute delay, which doesn't seem particularly consumer-friendly. In any case, it's cool that Robinhood reports share prices in real-time.

Buried slightly deeper in the app's menus are the options to view past transactions, make deposits to and withdrawals from your Robinhood account, cancel pending orders, and all the other things you might want to do with a brokerage account. They even show you all your scheduled dividend payouts on a single screen, which I've never seen in a brokerage account before (although my experience with them is limited).

Robinhood executes commission-free trades of US stocks and ETF's

Now we come to the real point of the app: Robinhood doesn't charge any commission to buy or sell US stocks and exchange-traded funds.

Most brokerage firms will charge you $7 or more to execute simple trades. If you want to buy or sell a single share, that commission can easily dwarf any paper profits you made on the underlying security.

There's not much else to say: Robinhood doesn't charge those commissions. They do list a number of fees for trading listed foreign securities, "Euroclear," and "Canadian." Those situations haven't come up for me yet.

Robinhood makes deposits from a bank account immediately available

This is a neat gimmick: in order to get you trading as soon as possible, Robinhood makes funds available immediately when you initiate a deposit from your linked bank account.

When I initiated a purchase in my Vanguard brokerage account the other day, it took 3 or 4 days for the funds to become available and the price had already moved away from me, so I do appreciate this feature of Robinhood.

Two minor problems and one philosophical grievance

There are two things that will become immediately obvious as soon as you start using Robinhood:

  • Robinhood does not service tax-advantaged accounts. You can't set up Robinhood as a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Health Savings Account, 529 College Savings account, or any other kind of account besides a taxable brokerage account. If you're in a tax bracket where short term and long term capital gains are taxed at different rates from ordinary income, you have to be aware of what kinds of capital gains and losses you create through the app. For my sins I've already earned $15 in short term capital gains which I'm not looking forward to reporting next year.
  • Robinhood's newsfeed function is not hosted natively in the app. I think the newsfeed is a sort of silly gimmick, but if a headline does catch your attention you have to wait for your mobile browser to load the website, which more often than not has a paywall keeping you from reading the article that interested you! Note to all app developers: If you're going to have a newsfeed, host the articles on your app!

Still, those are both quibbles. The real problem with Robinhood is that it makes day-trading incredibly easy, and more or less encourages its users to day-trade. It does this in two ways.

First, by not charging fees for each trade, Robinhood removes any disincentive from quickly moving in and out of stocks. Don't get me wrong: I don't think it's good that brokerages charge fees for trades. That's money customers would rather keep. But that basically bad practice does at least discourage people from buying and selling stocks based on minor price changes. It acts as a subtle encouragement to hold securities for the long term.

Second, the newsfeed is, more or less, a stream of constant headlines telling you to buy, sell, or short whatever stocks you happen to have loaded into Robinhood. Their algorithm simply shows all headlines related to your shares from a range of financial websites, blogs, and actual news sources. For ConocoPhilips, my current newsfeed shows:

  • ConocoPhilips: Shorts Closing In On The Bottom
  • How To Play The Growth In US Oil Exports With Fat Dividends (Part 1)
  • Oil Patch: The 'Circle The Drain' Phase Begins
  • Short Conoco Philips Now

You can, and should, ignore the newsfeed, but as far as I can tell you can't hide or mute it, and it creates this sensation of light dread whenever I open the app.

Conclusion: Gambling is fun

Robinhood should not be your main brokerage account. That should be some place like Vanguard, where you can buy low-cost mutual funds without paying a commission, and set up tax-advantaged accounts like IRA's.

But if you have some money set aside for fun, Robinhood really does allow you to buy and sell US listed shares and ETF's without paying a commission, leaving you all the upside — and downside — risk from your stock market hunches.

Besides that, Robinhood allows you to buy and sell Vanguard ETF's like VTI (Total Stock Market ETF) and VXUS (Total International Stock ETF). As I like to say, although the personal finance and financial planning industries are obsessed with tax-advantaged accounts, there's no law against holding securities in a normal, taxable brokerage account. So if you'd like to save more money than you're able to in your IRA's and 401(k) accounts, you can buy and hold low-cost Vanguard ETF's in Robinhood without paying any commissions for the trades.

P.S. My top-secret gambling strategy

It seems crazy to write this much about a trading platform without revealing my proprietary gambling strategy. I have a simple rule: always bet the hard ways.

Wait, that's craps.

My proprietary gambling-on-the-stock-market strategy is to buy consistent dividend-paying stocks when they near their 52-week low. If the stock price recovers, I sell it. If it doesn't, I collect the dividend until it does. So I bought Royal Dutch Shell at an average of $38.73 and sold it at $44.86 (for my sins it's now at $45.27). Currently I'm holding BP, International Paper (IP), ConocoPhilips (COP), and the aforementioned VXUS.

I don't recommend this strategy to anybody, since it's based on nothing. But gambling, famously, is pretty fun.

Personal finance digression: putting Mango in "time out"

I periodically write about high-interest accounts which I think are obvious choices for people with basically unlimited access to cash. In June I wrote that Mango prepaid cards had stopped accepting new applications. Shortly after that, the similar Union Plus Prepaid card was discontinued and cardholders were told that our accounts would be closed and a new prepaid card provider would contact us by September 16, 2015.

Reminder: why these cards were great

Although it was never advertised or clearly communicated, the Mango and Union Plus prepaid cards were great savings vehicles for two reasons:

  • the linked 6% APY savings accounts did not, in fact, require any employer direct deposits to have their well-above-market interest rates triggered;
  • the prepaid card balance allowed Automated Clearing House (ACH) "pulls" initiated by most credit cards and banks.

That meant that simply parking $5,000 (or $15,000 — cardholders were allowed 3 distinct accounts with a $5,000 limit on each 6% APY savings account) in the linked savings accounts allowed cardholders to generate a little over 5% APY (after a $3 monthly fee) on what were completely liquid funds: each month, the interest could be moved from the savings account to the linked prepaid card account and withdrawn as a transfer to most bank accounts or as a credit card payment.

The new Mango product is not the same as the old Mango product

In July, Mango announced that they would transition from their existing MasterCard prepaid product to a Visa prepaid product, and invited existing cardholders to apply for the new product.

I've now completely transitioned one of my accounts to the new Visa prepaid product, and am not impressed. Here's what I know so far about the new product, and about transitioning from the old product:

  • Once you activate your new Visa prepaid card, your prepaid and savings account balances instantly transfer to the account you access at my.mangomoney.com, rather than at rev.mangomoney.com;
  • You can continue to make ACH deposits to your new, Visa prepaid account using the First Bank & Trust routing number you used previously (114994196) using your First Bank & Trust account number;
  • You can no longer make ACH withdrawals using that account information;
  • You can also not make ACH withdrawals using the Sunrise Bank routing number (091017138) that comes with your Visa prepaid card.

The new accounts have been around for too little time to provide definite answers to the following questions:

  • Do you need to receive $500 in direct deposits to qualify for 6% APY on the new savings accounts?
  • If so, what direct deposits qualify?
  • Is the $2,500 daily purchase limit enforced?

The answer to these questions is essential since the principle benefit of using these accounts for your high-interest savings was their liquidity. If the $2,500 daily purchase limit is enforced, than it would take 2 full days to withdraw $2,500 from the prepaid account by buying, for example, money orders. If the daily purchase limit is not enforced, then while there would be a slight inconvenience, you could still withdraw a $5,000 balance by simply buying five $1,000 money orders at a cost of roughly $3.50.

Likewise, if a $500 direct deposit is required to trigger the savings account's high interest rate, that will require also finding the time each month to move that $500 back to cash using a method besides ACH pulls.

Neither of those are deal-breakers, but they're both far short of complete liquidity.

I don't trust this company enough to find out

I'm not planning to close my Mango accounts for now, but I am putting them in "time out:" I'm withdrawing all the money from my accounts and redistributing it. In the case of my "old" MasterCard account, that means simply making ACH withdrawals from the linked checking account. In the case of my "new" Visa account, it means buying cheap money orders, since ACH withdrawals no longer work. Since I haven't maxed out my Consumers Credit Union Rewards Checking account yet, I'll park the money there until the dust settles and earn a "mere" 5.09% APY on it.

I'll keep an eye on the situation and if the state of play evolves significantly I'll be sure to update my readers.

In the meantime, here are two invaluable resources regarding all things Mango (if you don't mind wading through the personal attacks):

Triggering high-interest savings accounts

Last month I wrote about two high-interest savings accounts linked to the Mango and Union Plus prepaid debit card products. At that time, Mango was no longer available for new signups, and I speculated that Union Plus would soon be closed to new cardholders as well.

Doctor of Credit reported yesterday that, sure enough, that day has come, and it's no longer possible to open new Union Plus prepaid accounts.

If you were lucky enough to open accounts in time, however, you still have access to those accounts, including their linked high-interest savings accounts, and you may be wondering how to trigger those high rates.

Rêv gives detailed information on deposits

When you make a deposit to a Mango or Union Plus account, it appears in your transaction history with a fair amount of detail. Here are four different transaction types I tried in order to trigger my second Mango card's high-interest savings account (I did two of each):

An Amazon Payments transfer:

A transfer from the Stripe account where my monthly blog subscriptions are deposited:

A TopCashBack redemption:

And a Chase Ultimate Rewards cash redemption:

And sure enough, in June I earned 6.02% APY on my savings account.

The problem is, Mango doesn't tell you which transactions triggered the higher interest rate!

Narrowing it down to 2

That's where the process of elimination comes in, since I opened both a second Mango account and a Union Plus prepaid account. But I haven't made a TopCashBack or Amazon Payments deposit to my Union Plus account: I've only made Stripe transfers and Chase Ultimate Rewards cash redemptions.

But in June, I earned $0.27 on an average daily balance of $66.66 in the savings account linked to my Union Plus prepaid card. Since these savings accounts compound daily, that puts me right in the ballpark of the promised 5.10% APY. In other words, one or both of Chase Ultimate Rewards redemptions or Stripe transfers qualified as direct deposits for the purposes of triggering the high-interest savings account.

If I had an additional account, I would see if Chase Ultimate Rewards cash redemptions alone are enough to trigger the higher interest rate, as I suspect they are.

I'll be maxing out these accounts as quickly as possible

Now that new applications are closed for both products, it's unclear how long existing cardholders will be allowed to keep their accounts. With that in mind, I'll be maxing out these accounts as quickly as possible in order to earn the full interest rate for as long as possible before existing accounts are closed.