Passiv Review: A Robo in Your Pocket

November 29th, 2018 by Potato

Passiv is a tool to help you manage your investments more easily. It’s still a DIY idea: you make your own investment choices, pick your own funds, and have to press a button to execute the trades, but Passiv makes it all easier to manage on an ongoing basis. In a nutshell, if other robo-advisors are like chauffeurs for your portfolio, Passiv is like cruise control. Passiv doesn’t pick any funds or your allocation for you, and there are no advisors to call or email to answer questions about your plan or risk tolerance, but it helps make investing easier.

How it Works

Very simply, Passiv connects to your Questrade account to get the information needed to help manage your portfolio in a more intuitive way. You set your own allocation and pick your own products.

But Passiv helps bury some of the complexity of investing in ETFs: it lets you drag a slider to set your allocation in percentages, instead of having to look up the prices and figure out how many units of each fund to buy yourself. It does the rebalancing calculations for you, and will figure out how much of each ETF to buy with new money, and you can choose whether to only rebalance with new purchases, or to include selling funds.

Screenshot of Passiv with sliders for asset allocation.

It will send you an email when new cash arrives in your brokerage account, providing the prompt needed to go in and set up your trades — not quite fully automated, but getting pretty close. Indeed, while I personally feel like I was doing fine unaided, this feature alone is cool enough that I’m going to keep using it (because then I don’t have to keep in the back of my head that I should check Questrade 3-5 days after I send money via a bill payment).

And it can even set up a series of (market) orders to execute it all for you in just one click. That’s a paid feature, but at just $5/mo it can take a lot of that last lingering complexity out of the picture that might be scaring someone away from using a brokerage account and ETFs. And the cost is low enough that you don’t really need to worry too much about the precise break-even point for this versus Tangerine or e-series or whatever.

The way it simplifies investing in ETFs while giving you full control is kind of like having a robo-advisor in your pocket.

Screenshot of Passiv making a one-click trade setup.

Suggested Pairing: All-in-One Funds

Combine with VGRO/VBAL to make something that’s cheaper than e-series (for portfolios of ~$30k+) and almost as easy (not quite automated, but close). The automatic trade feature buries a fair bit of the complexity associated with buying ETFs, and an email prompt to log in and press one button is approaching (but not quite the same as) the behavioural goodness of automation. While you can also choose a 3- or 4-ETF portfolio and have Passiv smooth over the complexity, it’s even fewer things to track if you want to use an all-in-one fund, and also has the benefit of hiding the relative performance of the constituent parts.

Behind the Scenes

Passiv uses what’s called an API to access certain information about your Questrade account from Questrade, and (with your permission) to send orders. If you’re not familiar with how APIs work, what you need to know is that there’s a special way for Questrade to securely hand off some information, but that you are not providing your password to Passiv nor full access to your account. At the moment, Questrade is the only brokerage Passiv interfaces with.

For the Core-and-Explore Crowd

If you can’t help but dabble in individual stocks (or sector ETFs or whatever), Passiv lets you exclude some items from calculating your rebalancing needs. That is, you can focus on keeping your core in line (and in one click deploy new cash to those ETFs) while still playing around on the side, and not have to worry about an automatic calculation deciding that you need to plow more money into your loser picks (or trim your winners) in the name of re-balancing.

And the Passiv team has created a special offer for BbtP readers: a 50% discount on Passiv Elite for 2 years.

Disclosure: I did not receive any payment for this post — I know it sounds like an ad, but I genuinely like the tool. At the time it was written there was no conflict-of-interest with Passiv. However, we are talking about working together somehow, so there may be a conflict in the future. I do not receive any compensation if you use the link for the special offer.

Financial Literacy Month 2018

November 21st, 2018 by Potato

It’s a buyer beware world when it comes to your finances in Canada, with lots of high fees and a fractured regulatory system where we’re lucky if they even close the barn door after the horse has left (hi there FSCO).

And it won’t get better any time soon: as Sandi points out in this Twitter thread, the Ontario government is strongly signalling that this is going to be the case for a while. Financial literacy may not be the best answer for how we would arrange our society given the choice, but at this point it is our last, best hope.

So happy financial literacy month!

So how do you get financially literate? As loud as the call is to add this stuff to the curriculum, it’s too late for anyone reading this to be helped by a developing mandatory program for high schools. Besides, just-in-time education seems to work better. Though that means you will have to take it upon yourself (or hope that whoever is already financially literate and reading this post has forwarded it to you) to seek out appropriate resources and learn before it’s too late.

There are lots of ways of doing that. You could subscribe to blogs like this one and follow along for a decade or so. You could hit up the reading guide. You could take a course. You can hire someone (but then you need enough to know that good advice costs money and isn’t free at your local bank branch).

I love blogs — I have one! — and follow many. But if you’re just starting out, I think there’s value to some structure, so books or courses are likely the better way to go.

I have a course on investing. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not the only option. In a recent episode of the Canadian Couch Potato podcast Dan Bortolotti did a good take-down of the consumer-focused CSI course on investing (the segment starts at about the 37:50 mark), and I thought that the points he mentioned that a course should cover were really good, and also something that I think my course covers.

Need some other options?

In Toronto, Ellen Roseman and Teri Courchene teach courses through UofT’s School of Continuing Studies, with multi-day evening options (winter, fall), and a one-day workshop ($225).

Your local college or university’s continuing education department may have some offerings. Plus there are one-off seminars, like at the Toronto Public Library (and I’ll be presenting in the winter/spring).

And if you have a business (or are part of one), a somewhat common thing is to have lunch-and-learns, or other non-work-related educational seminars, where a someone comes in to speak to the group, which can be a good way to help improve your employee’s financial literacy. Sometimes these take the form of a sales pitch from the big banks and mutual fund companies (which you don’t want), but for a modest fee there are lots of independent people who will do this (I don’t advertise it but have done it once or twice, and know lots of others who do or would be interested if you can’t find someone).

Back to the online courses, Kornel Szrejber (Build Wealth Canada) has How to Invest (for Canadians), an online course focusing on ETFs ($125). Bridget Casey (Money After Graduation) teaches the online Six Figure Stock Portfolio (~$495 CAD) which includes trading as well as passive investing. Aman Raina (Sage Investors) has two How to Invest in ETFs for those looking to take a passive approach ($149), and a more expensive one for would-be active investors. And those are just the ones on investing — I’m not sure I could catalogue the books, challenges, programs, and courses out there for budgeting.

And a final tip for financial literacy month that comes from Sandi Martin: “Start talking to other people about money. Normalize conversations about the choices we make about our investments (beyond “I’ve got a guy” or whatever it is people say) and spending. If we imagine the bad/lazy/corrupted actors as the enemy, our job as the resistance is to conspire with each other by sharing information and overcoming the urge to either feel shame (because we’re not doing the “right” things and want to wait before we share until we are) or shame others.”

Head Protection for Curling & Skating

November 8th, 2018 by Potato

Concussions are no joke. The more research we do, the more caution it seems we should be taking. We’re learning about the dangers of second impacts, and concussion protocols are more common in lots of sports, and after a suspected concussion players are getting benched more consistently. Helmets for more and more things are becoming a bigger part of our lives.

I’m good with that trend for the most part. I was wearing a bike helmet at school in the 90’s, before it was mandatory and when it was still kind of dorky (though that quickly changed with the help of the law). I still wear my helmet every time I go out on my bike. It just makes sense, and it’s totally socialized now to be the norm: you protect your lid on your bike.

I go years between falls in curling, and have never hit my head… so far. I fall more in recreational skating, but despite slapping a helmet on my kid, don’t wear one myself in either sport.

Plus, as such things go, a friend had a concussion (not from curling, but it still makes you think) and I had one of my rare, once-in-a-hundred-games fall a few weeks ago (not on my head, but again, it makes you think). There were some cases in the news, reminding us that while you fall less with experience, even pros take a tumble, and in rare cases they can be deadly. This year I’m playing mixed doubles, too, which involves more jumping up to sweep your own rock and generally more sliding around without a gripper on, which I figure is slightly more risky. So I think I’m ready to once again be the dorky kid protecting my noggin before it’s totally cool, which is helped along by my birthday present from my very generous parents: they gave me money for a whole new set of curling gear: new shoes, new pants, new brush head, and a head protector.

Recently, some head protectors that are not helmets have come out for curling and skating: some variation of a hat or headband with extra padding. And I’ve seen more being used on the ice (still a small minority of players, mostly older or newer players, but it’s moved beyond the “that one guy” phase to a growing trend).

And even without a standard to say exactly how much they help, any one of the options should be better than nothing (indeed, the warning label on one says that it’s not designed to be a helmet, just to be better than nothing). The different companies have tested their gear, with the two Canadian ones passing (of course) the test hockey helmets use for falls. I don’t know if I can reproduce the testing results they sent me, but roughly speaking these will cut down the impact of a fall by about a third to a half.

My research turned up three companies to look into:

So I ordered a few for myself, and for Wayfare for skating… enough to fit out a whole team so I could share with friends (with medium-to-large heads) when I inevitably try to drag them out to learn to curl at a funspiel, and of course write about them for the blog!

Ice Halo

I tried a flexfit ballcap style Pro-Hat and a Halo HD. For protection, Ice Halo uses a high-density foam: this will compress and spring back into shape if you give it a firm squeeze, but it’s for higher impacts, so this is not like a squishy pillow. The halo is, as the name implies, a ring all the way around, and will stretch to fit a few different head sizes. The had just has foam in an arc around the back and part of the sides, about half the thickness of the Halo HD. Both the hat and Halo HD use elastics cleverly built into the product to keep it snug on your head, and it does fit snug. Which, I suppose it has to in order to stay on your head in the event of a fall. The hat didn’t bother me while wearing it, but I was left with a bit of a mark from being tight on my forehead. I found the Halo HD could get uncomfortable after a while, especially if I tried to wear it right against my ears (and thus my glasses). However, if I positioned it just right, the gap where the two arcs open for size created a nice little nook for the top of my ears and the arms of my glasses. To be fair, I’m right at the upper edge of what the medium is supposed to fit (though Wayfare also thought it was snug and she’s in the lower end of the size range). The instructions say to pull at the front, which does loosen it up, but the elastics will tighten it up again in a minute or two, so you kind of have to constantly do that.

I didn’t mind it without my glasses (indeed, all of these options will be fine for people who use contacts to sport or who don’t need vision correction), but then I can’t play like that.

The Ice Halo products had no weird chemical smell when arriving, and coming from within Canada the shipping was the fastest. Though the impact testing results for all options look to be in the same general range, the Ice Halo HD did look to have the greatest cushioning of the options here (which fits with intuition, as there’s the most foam there to compress), but I’m not sure how meaningful the difference is — in my non-expert view, finding a head protector you’ll actually wear consistently may be the best criteria.

An Ice Halo HD on my head.
It’s a slightly thick headband that I’m not wearing over my ears.

An Ice Halo ProHat ballcap on my head.
It looks like a ballcap, with a bit of a bulge.

An Ice Halo ProHat ballcap on my head, more rear-view than the previous.
You can see the bulge of the protective foam from the back.

Crasche

Crasche builds their products around modular protective inserts, backed by strong polycarbonate and lined with neoprene, which would be reusable after impact.

I got a Crasche Curler touque, which has two thinner protective elements in the front and two tall, regular thickness ones in the back, as well as a Middie (designed for skating, but I might also wear it curling sometimes). The Crasche products are soft material with special pockets to hold the protective inserts, which you can easily slide out to clean or to adjust the fit (e.g., they suggest turning some pads upside-down to make your middie fit tighter, and presumably you can sacrifice some to make it fit looser).

Though the protective elements are rather different from the Ice Halo, for the Middie the look from the outside is quite similar: a black headband of about the same thickness. I found the Middie a touch more comfortable, despite their size guide suggesting my head was too big for the size I got. On my head it naturally sits just a bit above my ears (and glasses), and the segmented nature let me adjust the front a bit independently of the back (i.e., it could bend a bit in the middle to go around my ears while still being low on the back of my head). However, the harder inserts do play greater havoc with glasses if the fit does put them over the ears.

The touque I found quite comfortable to put on for short periods. However, it had a tendency to skootch up my head when I tilted my head far back (for instance, when throwing a stone) so I had to keep pulling it down. The band around the edge is also fairly tight (which I suppose it has to be to stay on your head in a fall), and the hat wasn’t quite big enough to totally cover my ears, which was awkward and meant that as I was adjusting it, I’d often end up screwing up how my glasses sat on my ears, which would lead to a cycle of adjustments. Wayfare thought it fit her well, so even though my 23″ head should fit the 21.5-23″+ size, it might be just a hair too small for me, which is affecting the comfort. I might try it with just the rear pads installed and update later.

A few nitpicks on the choice of neoprene: the Crasche products smell strongly of neoprene when they first arrive, which may be an issue for those with sensitive noses — they may need some time to off-gas (after about a week the smell is not noticeable to me). Neoprene also doesn’t absorb moisture, so if I’m doing anything more energetic than holding the broom, I’ll find droplets of sweat lining the pads (on the flip side, they’re easy to wipe down).

Also, the site also says that Canada is duty free for shipping, and while that’s technically true (no duties or crazy brokerage fees thanks to using USPS for shipping), I did have to pay HST to pick it up at the post office, so be prepared for that.

A Crasche Middie on my head.
The segmented plates let this bend around my ears a bit, but otherwise it looks very similar to the Ice Halo HD.

A Crasche Curler hat on my head.
In terms of style/look, the Crasche Curler was actually my favourite. Despite my lack of photograhy skills making this look black, the hat is their dark grey option.

Goldline

The Goldline headfirst line uses expanded polystyrene (EPS, the hard foam in bike helmets) to make their pads, which go inside a variety of holders — hats, bands, or visors. Whichever style you choose, the pads all cover the back of the head only.

This is by far the most common style I see other players wearing, perhaps in part because Goldline has a store on this side of town so people can buy in person rather than ordering online, and their products are also available at Spokes & Sports in Toronto.

A Goldline headband and Ice Halo Pro-Hat side-by-side on a table.
Side-by-side photo of the Ice Halo Pro-Hat and Goldline protective pad in a headband style.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find one in my size to show side-by-side with modelled on my head, but their marketing photos do a good job of showing what they look like. I did borrow one to show side-by-side with my Ice Halo pro hat how much thicker the pad is.

Summary

Really, any of these is likely better than nothing when out on the ice.

I preferred the hat styles to the band styles, and have the Ice Halo Pro-Hat and Crasche Curler in my curling gear bag to try out further, though after a few games I’m quickly gravitating toward the Ice Halo hat as my main choice. After all, a ballcap style is a very natural style fit for me (I often wear one anyway). I do want to give the headband styles (Ice Halo HD and Crasche Middie) some more game time, as they do seem to offer a bit more protection than the ballcap, and I like the idea of having some padding on the front as well as the back. However, while I shouldn’t be able to feel shame at this point my life, and certainly not about curling fashion, I’m not sure the headband is a look I can pull off.

I have to say that all three companies were responsive when I bugged them for more details, and you should be able to find something that works for you from one of them.

As much as I’m high on the idea of something is better than nothing, I need to be clear that it’s hard to protect against concussions, and hard to test for that. There’s no guarantee that wearing one of these will prevent one.

There’s still a lot of research to do on concussions and how they happen and what a safe level of impact might be. There still isn’t, to my knowledge, a standard way to test for reducing concussion risk: the standards for hockey helmets and the like are designed around reducing traumatic brain injury and skull fractures. Don’t get me wrong, that is also good and should likely help with concussions, too, but for curling I’m not quite as worried about severe traumatic brain injury because it isn’t hockey: falling is the big risk, not getting beaned by a slapshot or checked into the boards at high speed or taking a skate to the forehead after falling in a tangle. So perhaps soft impact-dampening padding/foam is more important than a hard shell for mTBI. All products are careful to say that they are not helmets, cannot guarantee that they will prevent a concussion, and are designed simply to be better than nothing.

Note: All gear was paid for by myself or my parents, or borrowed from fellow curlers for pictures.

Another helmet option, not tested is from Asham. Consider this a kind of honourable mention

New RDSP Options

October 29th, 2018 by Potato

For the longest time, TD Direct Investing was the only game in town if you wanted to invest in a low-cost way in an RDSP. Big Cajun Man detailed the quirks of these accounts (and has provided lots of info on RDSPs in general).

Fortunately, there’s some competition now: National Bank Direct Brokerage is now offering RDSPs.

And NB is Nest Wealth‘s custodian broker, which means that there’s now a robo-advisor option for RDSP! I’ve long thought that the robo-advisor method would be really welcome for RDSPs, but it just hasn’t been an option for the first several years. I’m glad to see that it’s now possible, though there will be some manual processes to make it happen on Nest Wealth’s end (so you won’t yet see a link on their site — you’ll have to contact them and ask).

A few details: RDSPs are only available to those on their top-tier, $80/mo plan. That’s normally for accounts over $150k in assets, though you can opt to pay it if you want to open an RDSP even without the assets. Of course, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth it vs. using TDDI or NBDB (or high-fee mutual funds with other banks) if your accounts are small. There’s a $100/yr admin fee for additional accounts, and since your RDSP isn’t likely the only account you’ll have with Nest Wealth (e.g., if you’re opening one for your kids, then you may have your own RRSP/TFSA as well), you should expect that as well when doing your cost-benefit analysis. Still, that should be welcome news for a few people!

Disclosure: I’m a member of Nest Wealth’s affiliate program and have used the affiliate link above — see the side bar for more.

Robo-advisors and Taxable Accounts

October 25th, 2018 by Potato

Let’s make it clear up front that I like robo-advisors as an investing solution for many people — lots of people might save money learning how to DIY, but that is certainly not for everyone.

One lingering point of uncertainty was how they would deal with taxable (or “non-registered”) investment accounts. Once you’re out of TFSA/RRSP room, you’re left to invest in a taxable account, which means tracking and reporting requirements. Typical robo-advisor portfolios have upwards of 10 ETFs, and if you’re automating your contributions with bi-weekly contributions, you could be looking at hundreds of transactions to track for tax purposes. Their websites were certainly not clear on the point — if addressed at all, the language tended to say that they would “provide all necessary information” for taxes, which to my reading sounded like they would just dump the transaction reports from the custodian broker in your lap and tell you to handle it. That could be more work than the robo-advisor was saving you in the first place, and you might be better off with Tangerine or a simple 3/4-fund ETF portfolio on your own.

I had heard from a few users of difficulties along these lines, but didn’t have hard data, so I put some general warnings in the book and in a Because Money episode and left it at that — after all, most people will have plenty of RRSP and TFSA room and never need to worry about adjusted cost base (ACB) or realized capital gains/losses. But hearing some horror stories, it looks like a few are really falling down here and making life hard on users who are specifically trying to avoid this kind of complication when investing.

So I reached out to people on Reddit and my newsletter subscribers for user experiences, and also contacted several robo-advisor firms to learn more about how they handle this. I don’t want to bash anyone here for not stepping up, and I did not reach out to every firm so this is certainly not exhaustive, but I’m happy to say that there are at least three good options for those with taxable accounts:

Justwealth

I spoke with Andrew Kirkland of Justwealth, and they saw that the tax documents produced by the custodian broker would leave their users with some work to do. They wanted to go above-and-beyond, so they produced more usable realized gain/loss reports. At this point that is a manual process for them, but they’ve had two tax seasons as a firm to give them experience, and are working toward automating this.

I received sample reports and for what it’s worth the information you need for your tax reporting is summarized and easy to find.

Nest Wealth

Their unique flat-fee cost structure makes Nest Wealth better-suited for large accounts, where you might be more likely to have used up your TFSA and RRSP room. So I’m glad to have heard from them that they also help simplify reporting by tracking ACB and producing a simple realized gain/loss summary. They also sent me a sample of their reports to review and confirm that in my opinion a typical user would be able to find the information they need for taxes.

Wealthsimple

As the most popular robo-advisor, it’s good to see that Wealthsimple is tracking ACB for its clients. However, I have to add a tiny, itty-bitty asterisk to that, because some of their clients don’t seem to know it.

Documentation is comparable to regular broker. They will prepare a report with all transactions for the year. The ACB calculation you have to do yourself.

Most of the responses I got were about Wealthsimple, so it’s possible that there’s a PBKAC issue, or that older accounts (the account’s age, not the client’s) are on a different brokerage platform (because behind-the-scenes, Wealthsimple bought their own custodian brokerage but started on VB and some clients might have still been there in the last tax year and, well, it’s a long story). It’s also possible that their user documentation and guides just aren’t super-clear even when they are doing the work.

For example, they use non-standard terminology, which I mean I can’t totally fault them for because “non-registered” is just the worst descriptor for an account ever and writing for a lay audience is a constant challenge, but calling taxable accounts “personal” accounts is not super-clear either. To quote one user who got back to me:

They use “Personal, Joint, Corporate, and Smart Savings”. As a person who knows nothing, that confuses me. I don’t know what my accounts are. They’re all ‘Personal’ to me.

But of course, many people have no problem with it:

They track everything for me. Taxes this year was a breeze.

I’d say that if you’re starting from now, odds are good that if you go with Wealthsimple, they will track your ACB for you and make tax reporting easy.

Giant Caveat

For some reason, a few people like to spread their money out: opening accounts with multiple robo-adviors, or dabbling in DIY investing while also having a robo-advisor invest for them. A robo-advisor or brokerage or any firm cannot provide you with adjusted cost base information if they don’t have access to all the transactions that are happening for you. So if you’re out of RRSP/TFSA room and open up multiple taxable accounts, you are setting yourself up for a fair bit of work, as whatever numbers your robo-advisor provides will no longer be accurate. It will be up to you to track across your accounts.

To put the caveat more plainly, try to stick to one brokerage/robo-advisor if you have a taxable account. Having multiple accounts means that you will be the only one able to track your ACB/capital gains and you will have to ignore the figures a helpful robo might provide you.

Quick disclaimer: I am a member of referral programs for some of the robo-advisors mentioned — see the sidebar for affiliate links and deals. However, this is not in any way a sponsored post, and in at least one case the causality worked the other way around.