The DIY Investing Environment

October 6th, 2015 by Potato

Had a great chat on Because Money about who might be well-suited to being a DIY investor, what traits you might want to focus on as a DIY investor, etc., which should be airing later in October. I want to use this post to go down a side alley we didn’t talk much about in the episode.

Only ~13% of Canadians are DIY investors, and most of them started in the last 5 years. While we didn’t quite agree on precisely how many people should/could use a DIY approach, we were all giving estimates well above that figure. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

So what is stopping people from becoming DIY investors, what are the barriers? I like to think in terms of intrinsic and external factors.

For external factors, the environment has been getting a lot friendlier for individual DIY investors over the past few years: low-cost ETFs increase the cost savings available and make it very easy to create broadly diversified portfolios — whatever your position on efficient markets and index investing, it’s undeniably easier to implement than value or dividend or day-trading or whatever DIY strategy, which is part of why gurus like Warren Buffet recommend it for regular people. Brokerages like Questrade offering free purchases makes those ETFs accessible to investors with smaller starting portfolios, and even the bank-affiliated brokerages have extended $10 commissions to all customers without a net worth test. On the other end of the spectrum, Tangerine and the robo-advisors have made it very simple and easy to be a DIY investor — about as easy as a visit to the local bank branch salesperson/”advisor” was, at less than half the cost and without having to find a slushy parking spot in February.

The environment and the tools available to be DIY investors are quite good now — massive leaps ahead of what potential DIYers faced just a few decades ago.

So the remaining barriers are inside people’s heads. Not just their behaviour, but their biases and assumptions that are stopping them from starting, or even looking into whether they should start. Things like assuming you need to be rich before you think about investing, that you need to be a genius or use a lot of math, or get some kind of license or certification to purchase investments on your own.

All of these are easily solvable with a bit of education. Of course I have my own solution for that in the form of The Value of Simple (plus this other thing that I’m working on).

And of course, doing DIY investing doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own. You can find planners, accountants, coaches, etc. to help with any parts you’re not comfortable with.

So there are a great many people out there — maybe half of you reading this or more — who could move into doing DIY investing to save on fees, or get started with investing in the first place. So what are you waiting for?

As a side point to this side point, there was a bit of disagreement on what DIY is, and I’ll just say I’m not too worked up on the semantics either way. In particular, the question was raised as to whether using a roboadvisor or all-in-one fund with automatic rebalancing like Tangerine was really DIY? For myself, I would count them as part of the DIY route as they still require following your own plan, picking your own product (even if that product is just Tangerine premix #2) and not getting sold on the fund of the week, pushing money to your investments vs having a salesperson trying to pull, and above all, reaping the main benefit of DIY: lower costs.

Anyway, there are a few Because Money episodes from season 2 up now, and be sure to watch for my guest appearance comes out later this month.

Word on the Street After-Action Report

September 27th, 2015 by Potato

Word on the Street was super depressing.

It was the first time at Harbourfront, and there were road closures and a Jays game (who are actually popular at the moment) working against it, but on the other hand the weather could not have been more perfect for an outdoor festival.

I have a lot to complain about, and that’s pretty much all this post is, so feel free to skip from here if you like. One note before you go: the lack of attendance means I have a lot of inventory on hand at the moment, so I have extended my free shipping offer if you buy the Value of Simple from my direct site.

First is how confusing the new Queens Quay is as a roadway. I was just commenting to Wayfare about how weird it was and how all the reports I’d heard of collisions and streetcar problems were making sense after seeing it for myself. We saw an SUV make a left turn against the left-turn light (but there were four other green lights on at the time and no one coming the other way, so kind of understandable), and I said someone’s going to not expect the streetcar to be coming up on their left, not see the red light for the turn, and hit it one day. Well sure enough the next light cycle that’s exactly what happened. The guys manning the gate at Word on the Street said it was the second such collision they’d seen that weekend, which sounds crazy to me.

Harbourfront is not a great location for an event like this because it’s so isolated down by the water: it’s not on the subway, it’s hard to drive to, and people can only approach it from one direction, which leads to a lot of congestion as people move in and out at peak times.

Then parking is such a rip-off at Harbourfront. It’s not just that it’s expensive, it’s expensive in a really aggravating way. WotS officially ran 11am-6pm. Parking was flat rate, pay-in-advance until 6pm, and then a second flat rate pay-in-advance if you stayed after 6pm. Well, I had a booth that was supposed to be open until 6, so I figured I wouldn’t be leaving until 6:30 or so with teardown and stragglers and packing up, and had to make that call in advance. But as it turned out other people started packing it in early, which led to the attendees filtering out early, and then the organizers started tearing down the signs early and telling people to be ready to move out because getting cars on site to unload everything was going to be a nightmare. So we were packed up and out of the parking spot by 6:05pm — that 5 minutes of parking cost $14 because of the flat rate system with the really stupid break point. For a 6pm event, stretching the parking flat rate to 7pm or so would have made sense, but no, they had to try to gouge the exhibitors those last few bucks. That also likely had an effect on the attendees disappearing by 5:30 — those who drove were probably aiming to make sure they were long gone by the 6pm cut-off on the first rate. And one more parking/Queens Quay annoyance is that there isn’t a right-turn lane or right-on-red allowed to get out of Harbourfront, so at each light cycle all the pedestrians would block the cars from turning right, who would then block the cars from going straight, and it took forever for people to just get off the site and on to the road, two cars per light cycle at a time. They could have really used a cop or two directing traffic to get a few more in a row getting out and going.

As for the festival itself, it was very weirdly laid out — and from my vantage point — a practical ghost town. To be clear, there were a fair number of people in attendance overall, but it was very unevenly distributed.

On the layout, it was spread around Harbourfront, with buildings separating it roughly into thirds. There were many people who had no idea very large sections of WotS existed because they didn’t go through one or both of the buildings to explore the other parts. There were many, many lost people, and not many maps or signs saying things like “more WotS this way!” I think they needed to define a traffic flow pattern and put some arrows down to help people hit all of it, or even just put up more signs saying “independent authors this way! More kidstreet this way!” I think we spent more time at the booth helping people find other booths than we did selling books and talking about investing. I heard from other people that were touring more of it that other parts were much, much busier than where I was, but even then there were a lot of dead pockets: a tent might have been divided into four booths, one facing each direction, and two sides of it would get no traffic, with people not even knowing they could go around the other side of the tent. Or booths set up in weird, dead corners — the kids area had a healthy crowd, but most of it was set up outside and the stuff inside was so dead that Wayfare took a break to sit down in a corner in there and do some work on her laptop.

My location was terrible. They put booths facing both directions down a little alley between the buildings. That alley did not get much foot traffic in the first place, and splitting it to either side further cut it down. Unfortunately it wasn’t evenly bisected, so ~3/4 of what traffic there was went down the side opposite me. In the sales material for authors they highlight that (in the past) 225,000 people attend Word on the Street. I had maybe 2,000 people walk by my booth all day. Not stop to chat or even let their eyes focus on the signage, just walking by in total. I didn’t have a great view of the main entrance, but I know what 50,000 people at a Jays game looks like and I don’t think there were even that many at the whole event.

To talk business for a sec, I had brought just under 100 books, hoping to sell nearly all of them, plus 200 bookmarks to give away and 100 postcards with some quick facts about RESPs for all the parents with little ones that would be going for the kids stuff. But because of the segregation there were hardly any parents coming by — the kids’ stuff was on the other side of the Harbourfront building and they had no reason to come down my little alley (those who did to go the long way around to the TVO stage did so on the other side of our tent where the alleyway was wider). I only managed to give away (for free) maybe ~40 RESP cards and ~60 bookmarks. I sold 14 books (I needed to sell ~55 to break even on the day).

I know it was hard in advance to figure out if this would be worth it for me — I couldn’t find other authors blogging about this or similar events. So I went through a bit of a Fermi calculation, figuring that of the wildly inflated 225k attendance figure, maybe 20k would make it within sight of my booth (which would average just about a person walking by per second over the 7 hours — basically some decent milling crowds, which fit well with my memory of past events and didn’t seem too extremely optimistic). Then of that, maybe 5% would be interested in the topic and slow to have a look, and maybe 10% of those interested would buy a copy after talking for a bit — which would have worked out to selling a book every 5-10 minutes, and a healthy margin of error above the break-even level. The big kicker for me is that I actually wasn’t too far off on those estimates that should have been harder to guess at — about 4% of those who did pass by did pause to pick up a card or bookmark, and possibly chat for a bit; about 17% of those did make a purchase — it was that first traffic number that was off by an order of magnitude that spoiled the predicted success. (Though I did vastly underestimate how much time people would need to talk about investing before making a decision on whether to buy the book).

Now I made some marketing mistakes that could have helped get people who did walk by to stop and check it out in more detail, the biggest one I think was to prominently feature the cover of the book in a large, eye-catching poster when instead I could have used that space for a large, eye-catching poster that somehow got people to stop and check out the book — whether that was summaries of reviews, a few bullet points about how the book helps, or leading questions to get people to come in. But the fact is whether my “conversion rate” was a factor of two or three times better just wouldn’t have mattered given how little traffic there was there in the first place. But either way, from a business perspective, WotS was totally not worth it for selling books (or even just exposure — only 10 people visited the site today).

Of course, all this whining about the space and layout and lack of traffic is from the point of view of an exhibitor. As I was writing this I saw on Twitter someone praise this year’s layout, because it clumped together all the booths on that person’s hit list so they didn’t have to walk around the whole event: just a surgical strike to one corner and they were out. Wayfare rather liked the extra stage space that Harbourfront offered because it made it more of an “event” versus the book sale frenzy it started off as. Which highlights part of the problem for people like me: it does no good to bring in tens of thousands (if not the hundreds of thousands in past years) of people to see big-name authors or local magazine offerings or kids’ musicians or whatever if those are all clustered together and then hardly anyone explores the rest of the event.

I recall in past years that everything was laid out fairly logically, so you knew where to go to hit everything (up and down Queen St., or around the loop in Queen’s Park, with IIRC a bit of a grid of tents in the middle). Most trade shows are similar: nice, neat rows so you can come up with some kind of logical search path and hit most of the things to explore. And then the vendors are somewhat randomized in there, so you get a reward for exploring further — ah, another SciFi (or whatever you’re into) booth down this row, let’s go (and also stumble on something nearby). Here it was confusing, and the clustering meant if you were primarily looking for one thing, there was no reward for exploring further (and because it was confusing, if you did want something else you had a hard time finding it).

Harbourfront offered more large stages/auditoriums for particular events like the performances from TVO shows for kids, or authors doing readings, but it also brought those people away from the rest of the festival, again segregating more. But, it was more of a “cultural event” — which is fine for attendees, but vendors should be wary.

So in short, from the perspective of a local author, in one of the dead spots in the layout, I think the new Harbourfront location for WotS was a complete bust. Possibly the old ones were too and I was just mistaken in my attendance assumptions or got swept up in their fancy marketing (though if you do a google image search you’ll find more people with umbrellas in the rain at Queen’s Park than on an absolutely gorgeous day at Harbourfront). Either way, for those following along here for self-publishing anecdotes, it looks like a booth at a generalist literacy event is not a great choice for spending your precious marketing dollars (unfortunately not much else is).

The other reason it was depressing was the reasons people were giving me for not buying the book. There’s the usual catch-22 I’ve faced with the book all along, too: those who are interested enough in investing to stop and have a look at the book generally don’t feel they need an introductory, practical guide because they’re already doing it. Those who could really be helped by a book like this just walk on by without making eye contact. That sort of thing is helped a lot by audience selection at other events like Money 201 talks at the library. But while I haven’t come up with a good solution to the problem yet, I’m used to facing that one. What was really depressing was seeing so many people with debt problems to tackle before they could even think of investing. So many who didn’t even want to try to learn, because “simple investing” was an oxymoron. A few who at one point I thought must have read my blog and were out to troll me because they didn’t need to invest because they had real estate. I didn’t give anyone the RE bear hard-sell, but when I mentioned that this offered an easy way to diversify, one guy actually said he didn’t need to “because it’s different here” — he said the literal words and I was like “Am I on camera here? Is this really happening?” A few were a little older than me, and didn’t like the sounds of moderate, long-term growth that focused on costs — they needed to beat the market and get rich quick because they didn’t have enough time left to save for retirement the slow way.

Fortunately, 100% of parents at WotS already know about and use an RESP for their kids.

Basement Suites Are Not Magic: MoneySense Edition

September 21st, 2015 by Potato

I’ve written many times before about how basement suites (BS) are not magical. They are a way to live in less space, in what becomes a non-detached house, with an option to take it over and make a SFH detached again. However, if the rental market in general is crazy, the added costs of a basement suite generally is, too.

Well MoneySense recently featured a very short article touting how a BS could help a Vancouver couple become mortgage-free faster. Unfortunately given the length, they didn’t examine any of the underlying assumptions.

The assumption was that they could renovate their house for $75,000 to create a two-bedroom BS, which would then rent for the princely sum of $1800/mo. There are no additional costs with this rent — which either means they had an even higher gross rent, or neglected the added costs entirely.

So, reality check time, how might this actually play out?

Firstly, $1800 sounds really steep for a basement suite. I know Vancouver is a bit pricier than Toronto, but really. So I did some checking on Craigslist. I found one outlier basement suite at $2495/mo, one at $2150/mo, a small handful at $2000/mo, and then just 10 starting at $1800 — so that might be possible for them, but it’s at the very upper end of the basement suite market (and at that price point I can see they are competing with a number of above-ground units or exceptionally large basement units). Even at $1700 many of the suites were above-ground or fully furnished. $1650 seems to be a more reasonable rent expectation.

And that is not going to come free. In addition to the effort and loss of privacy (which we won’t slap a price tag on), they’ll have increased utilities usage1 and likely a higher insurance premium. Let’s call that $50/mo. So they’re now bringing in $1600/mo.

But they’re going to have some other expenses to account for, like vacancy and maintenance. Let’s be generous and assume the unit turns over every four years, with just a month of vacancy and a quick paint, patch, and appliance tune-up of $3000. Now they’re down to netting an average of $1500/mo. On which they have to pay some tax — sure, they’ll have some interest and property tax to write-off, but even figuring on 4% of the $75k invested, if they’re in the 40% tax bracket their after-tax amount to help pay down the dreaded mortgage is just $9k/yr.

Bring that figure back to the mortgage calculator and their mortgage-free date goes from age 68 to… 68. Yep, taking all that risk, living first in a construction zone and then with lowly basement-dweller renter scum beneath their feet will likely leave them paying off the mortgage on the very same date as if they had done nothing. To be fair, that’s using a 5% mortgage rate as in the article. If their base case is topping up a (today’s) realistic 3% mortgage to the same $3k/mo as used in the article, then they’d be done at 67.7 in the base-case payoff, and 67.5 in the rental suite case — ahead by two months.

Not examined in the article is the other alternative: downsize. If all they need/want is the space in the upper unit, and obviously don’t mind sharing walls, then they could move to a townhouse (or rent or move out of the GVA entirely) and move their mortgage pay-off day to right now.

1. Contrary to stereotypes, basement-dwellers2 do shower, which adds to the water and water heater (whether gas or electric) bill. Plus the other incremental utility usage.
2. Again, 96% of my readership, so no offense intended in tackling these persistent stereotypes head-on.

Non-Registered Investment Tracking Spreadsheet

September 8th, 2015 by Potato

In a non-registered account you will at some point have to pay tax on any capital gains, and you have to report that amount yourself. You’ll need some method to properly* track your cost base so that when you sell you know how much of a gain (or loss) to claim on your taxes. [TL;DR — click here to download the spreadsheet]

I often get asked whether tracking ACB yourself is really necessary. Brokerages and mutual fund dealers will track your book value for you, and most of the time they’re accurate. So you could save yourself a fair bit of effort by just relying on their calculation for tax purposes, especially if all of your accounts are in one place. However, if you have holdings of the same ETF/stock/fund at different brokers (e.g., if I had an account at TD Waterhouse holding VDU and one at Questrade holding VDU) then they wouldn’t talk to each other and there would be no option other than to track it myself. They also don’t seem to catch superficial losses. The bigger issue though is that the brokers sometimes make mistakes in the book value calculations, and it is ultimately your responsibility to report correctly to the CRA.

So the only proper advice I can give is to carefully track it yourself to double-check your broker/mutual fund dealer because the onus on being correct will fall on your shoulders. But that said, I do personally know a few people who do not track it themselves and who come out fine (either because the broker/dealer gives them correct information, or because even when there are errors they don’t get audited) — in the real world it’s very tempting (and understandable) to take the free tracking offered. With mutual funds there’s one less step for information to go wrong (at least if you’re buying funds from the issuing company, like TD e-series at TD), so it’s even more likely to be correct, but you’ll never know if you’re the one unlucky customer with a bad book value calculation until you get audited. And of course, the errors they’re making could be costing you money. If you do let the company track for you, at least be sure to hold on to the statements you’ll need to re-do the calculation if it comes to it.

Tracking it is not all that hard a mathematical exercise, the tricky part comes in being careful to put everything on the right side of the ledger and to follow-through each year. There can be a lot of transactions to put in there, including annoying “phantom” distributions that change your cost base but didn’t actually show up in your brokerage statement. There are a number of tools out there to try to help you with your ACB, including a web-based calculator and spreadsheets from several sources, like this classic (if sparse) one from the old Canadian Capitalist blog.

I myself use a very barebones spreadsheet similar to CC’s, but it’s not a great model for others to use because it depends on me knowing what it is I’m doing with the ACB calculation to create each new row as needed.

So I’ve created a new template that I hope is better suited to the target audience for the Value of Simple (click here to get the sheet). This sheet assumes that you’ll have a fairly typical experience of buying/DRIPing many shares/units over time, and only occasionally selling. So rather than save space and intersperse all the transactions as they happen, it’s set up to go with your workflow. I assume that you’ll go through various modes. First you’re buying and holding, then it summarizes your ACB for a sale with all the adjustments from RoC and capital gain distributions, then you make a sale (or series of sales), and then get back into buying mode. Then each of your funds gets its own tab.

As with many ACB trackers, the superficial loss rule can throw you for a loop. It’s hard to catch everything that can trigger a superficial loss, so there is no automatic check for it so you won’t have a false sense of security — you’ll have to catch those situations yourself (though there is a sample of that case so you can see how to adjust your cost base for when it does happen).

* - I often stress the importance of tracking this yourself. That’s because it’s so tempting to not track it properly and independently and rely on the “book value” or “cost” listed on your brokerage statement. Most of the time this will be correct and you could have saved some record-keeping effort. However, sometimes it won’t be, and then you’ll be mis-reporting to the CRA. It’s analogous to tracking your TFSA contributions yourself: the CRA online tool or phone reps may be able to accurately tell you how much room you have left, but in the rare case where that’s wrong the penalties will still fall in your lap. So I’ll try my best to tell you how to track and report properly, and make it as easy as possible; if you choose not to and get audited, at least you’ll know what you did wrong!

Gearing up for Word on the Street

September 7th, 2015 by Potato

Word on the Street is just three weeks away, and I’m excited to have a booth there this year, where I’ll be hawking the Value of Simple (the booth will be called Simple Investing).

It’s tough to estimate how many copies I’ll need on hand, so I just figured that if I sold a copy every five minutes I’d be doing pretty well, did the math, and will arrive with just under 100 copies. Running out would be a good problem to have, so I’m hoping that it turns out to be a conservative estimate — but if I’ve over-estimated, expect a sweet sale for xmas orders this year.

I’m gearing up for it in other ways too. While I’ve long been with PayPal to accept credit cards for orders through my direct site (and to invoice for credit cards for side business stuff), for this kind of event I wanted to get a mobile card reader to take payments on-site. I was briefly excited to see that PayPal had one called PayPal Here — and it even supported Windows tablets! — but then saw that they don’t like Canadians and I had to go find someone else until some indeterminate future date when the rollout came north of the border. Intuit has an option for Canadians, but only works on iOS devices. That leaves Square1, which I had actually heard of and knew as the little start-up that kicked off the use-your-mobile-phone-to-take-credit-cards business. Though they don’t support Windows tablets or Blackberries (the devices I will have on-hand at WotS), they did support Android, and Wayfare is currently shopping for a new cell phone and will likely go Android.

I have to say I was impressed with the whole process — easy to sign up, and the hardware is tiny and light and arrived in just a week. Thanks to this thread at CrackBerry I was able to get the app working on my BlackBerry (which does run many Android apps — getting them on is usually the tricky part), and have charged myself a $1 sample transaction just to see how it worked. Other than having to sign with my finger (no pen or stylus I have seems to work on the BB’s screen), it was incredibly smooth and easy. As an aside, given that new BBs run Android apps, I’m surprised companies with apps like this don’t bother to port their apps over so us dinosaur BB users can download them without workarounds. I know we’re a small and dying breed, but it’s not nothing.

Other than that I’m trying to come up with all the material I will want at the booth to give away and help with promotions. I’ll be bringing along some hardcopies of the reading guide, which makes me wish I had designed it for standard print sizes instead of for screen display. Bookmarks tend to be a standard thing, but I’m not sure what to put on mine that would make it useful or stand out against a sea of hundreds of other bookmarks (maybe one of the comparison tables? “Don’t Panic”?).

Wayfare had a great idea to take advantage of the family-oriented nature of WotS: have stickers for the kids and RESP info cards for the parents, so I’m working on the design for that, with not much time left to send it to a printer and get it back before the big day!

Readers, anything else you think I should include? Or is this getting to be too many little bits of cardstock at the table?

1. This is an affiliate link, but that didn’t affect my review of Square. If you use this link to sign up they’ll waive my credit card processing fees, but if you do so after WotS it’s likely that will be of no benefit to me anyway.

Investing Should Be Boring

August 27th, 2015 by Potato

Stamp collecting is pretty much the definition of boring. Yet stamps are useful things that enable exciting mail to happen. Most people just care that they can put a stamp on an envelope and a birthday card or letter will show up in someone else’s mailbox a few days later. So if we had some big national collective worry that not enough people were getting birthday cards, I don’t think we’d start by trying to get people excited about stamps in and of themselves — we’d just want to get people using them. And to stretch the metaphor, we may see people using high-priced couriers and worry that they’re not getting value for money. Maybe FedEx comes right to your door, but for just a bit of effort to walk down to the post office and source an envelope yourself, you could get your mailing done a lot cheaper.

Because you read the post title, you know this is turning into a stretched analogy to investing.

A few months ago a writer for the Globe contacted me for a short interview1 around the premise of how to make investing more exciting.

I think investments and the whole process of investing are — to most people — pretty boring. And that’s a good thing: investing should be boring. No one’s going to text their friends about putting their money in a diversified, balanced portfolio with reasonable fees and deciding on a level of professional advice that they think they need and is appropriate and delivers value. It’s like watching a kettle of water boil or paint dry or grass grow, except instead of a few minutes, hours, or days to see some action you’re talking decades for your investments to do their job for you. It’s beyond the scope of our every-day sense of scale. Fortunately, with index funds and automatic purchases the boredom doesn’t have to be noticeable, either: you can do some reading and come up with a basic plan over a weekend or two, and then your plan only takes a few minutes or hours per year to maintain — the boring investing stuff can become a background process — so you can get on with your life and do all the fun, exciting stuff you want to do.

And then that’s ultimately what the point of investing is: to help you meet your goals. Watching your child graduate from university, that’s exciting — and having the resources to help pay for your child’s post-secondary education helps make that happen. Clocking out at your job for the last time and knowing you’ll have the money to enjoy a comfortable, stress-free retirement, that’s exciting — and signing up for a company RRSP match and investing some savings yourself can help make that happen. Having an emergency fund to act as a cushion so you’re not constantly stressed out about your financial situation… ok, well that one isn’t terribly exciting, either, but it’s nice and a lot better than the alternative.

Putting money away and investing it — using your RESP, RRSP, and TFSA — will help get you to those exciting goals, but that part of it is dull dull dull2. And that last point about having an emergency fund for security so you know that if your furnace breaks down you can handle it speaks to the other side of the coin for not trying too hard to solve the problem of your investments being boring: they should help remove stress from the rest of your life, not add to it. There are some weeks where boring would be just fantastic.

So rather than trying to shift the way you view investments from boring and stressful to some form of exciting, I think they should be boring — complete with all the wonderful things that being boring brings.

As for getting motivated enough to take that first step towards investing, instead of gamifying investing or finding some way to make it feel exciting, instead I suggest asking yourself what are some things you’d like your investments to do for you? What are some of your dreams or goals that your investments may help you realize?

For me, I like to view my investments as a great pool of potential, all the future stuff I will want and need, just gestating and developing. Somewhere in there is the seed of the new car I’m planning to get in about 8-10 years when my current one (now 5 years old) is ready to be replaced — it’s maybe got vestigial gills and a tail, but it’s starting to take shape. There’s all the stuff I’m going to have in retirement, which are little more than blastocytes out there in this stretched metaphor, but the seeds have been sown, and I’ll just have to wait to see how they develop.

1. Given the time that’s passed, I suppose it’s safe to say that that interview is never going to see the light of day and I’m not scooping anyone by sharing some of what I said.
2. Well, for most people. Some of us, like stamp collectors and baseball fans, are totally engrossed in this activity which to outsiders is totally boring.

Directory of Fee-Only Planners and Coaches

August 17th, 2015 by Potato

I’ve talked about fee-for-service planners before, and how I think it’s how the financial advice industry should evolve — it’s a model that removes many conflicts of interest from the relationship, and maximizes transparency. I’ve even said that as a heuristic for finding an advisor it’s not a bad one, especially as at this point only a few have opted to go down that road.

So it was great when MoneySense created a directory of fee-only planners. ‎I linked to it a lot, it’s included in the book as a valuable resource, and lots of other people liked having it available, too.

They’ve now scrapped the list and are starting something new where they will not just provide a list of planners and what some might see as implicit approval, but also give them ‎an explicit seal of approval. The new process involves a hefty application fee, which will help pay for the magazine to do a survey of past clients, but will mean many fee-only planners will not choose to pay for inclusion so the list will be less inclusive. $2500 is a big fee for a directory listing, so the MS version of the directory is likely to become substantially smaller, and likely skewed towards the most expensive advisors.

I think there’s a lot of value in a free and open directory of fee-only planners.

So I’m going to create my own directory of fee-for-service planners. This will be a more buyer-beware type of directory. It will have no seal of approval, and use free tools and a minimum of volunteer effort (so forgive the barebones look). The only requirement for an advisor to get listed is to fill in the intake survey and have the appropriate business model (i.e. primarily fee-for-service). Those caveats out of the way, I think it will also be hugely useful to the community and capture a lot more planners and coaches than a closed directory with a high entry fee.

The directory is a simple Google Docs spreadsheet and there is also a sidebar link for the directory that more plainly introduces it than this post — please link to that version of the post and directory.

The intake form for advisors/planners/coaches to use is here.

Caveats: the important caveat is that this is meant to be an open listing and these are not recommendations. I don’t have the resources to vet any of these listings. I’ve mentioned a few more on the permalink.

Through the rest of this week I will start contacting the advisors that I know of to start filling out the form and adding themselves, so expect the directory to be a bit barren for the first little bit.

Thanks, and I hope you all find it helpful!

Where’s Potato Been?

August 16th, 2015 by Potato

You may have noticed that the blog is even quieter than normal the past few weeks. To start with there’s the subject of the last two posts: my cat dying didn’t put me in much of a mood to write. Then last week my desktop computer died (hard disk failure), so I’ve been spending the past few days trying to rebuild it and recover some data.

First of course the public service message: back your stuff up. I’ve been very lax about backing up the last little while, and it’s biting me now. My last full system image is from December 2014 — eight months ago!! I have a partial backup of some important folders from June. Thankfully that means I won’t have to repeat all my year-end bookkeeping and taxes, but it still sucks that I’ve lost two months’ worth of work (plus eight months of whatever files weren’t important enough to include in the partial backup — things like media and saved games). I’ve been trying to think of what’s been lost and thankfully can’t come up with much. I know I totally reorganized my book business accounting excel file just last week to make it easier to track unit sales (before I was only tracking revenue and expenses), but given how much time I’ve spent on recovery at this point it’s just easier to re-do the work (and that was open at the time my drive blew up so I guess it’s gone for good).

I was greatly let down by the windows restore tools — my backup boot CD wasn’t able to restore windows, refresh windows, or reinstall windows. The drive had somehow become locked and many of the files were supposedly corrupt in the recovery command prompt environment, but I could still see the directory listings which gave me hope for recovery. So I popped in another hard drive and restored my December backup image (the one I thought I made in April — not much better — was unreadable) so I could boot to windows and see what was going on. I hooked up the original system drive as a secondary drive and fired up the computer. Before I knew what was happening, Windows was running chkdsk on the damaged drive, which wiped out most of the directory structure that I was able to see before. Ugh. Then I wasn’t able to access any of the contents because I wasn’t the “owner” of the folders. When I tried to take ownership the system bluescreened and I was back to the command prompt from the recovery CD. There was a very brief “if you don’t want chkdsk to run, press any key in 1 second” message, which is not enough time to actually hit the key. Given that I’m pretty sure chkdsk made my life more difficult here, I have to recommend that if you’re trying to repair a drive that you find a way to disable auto-chkdsk on startup.

So, days later now, I have a system that thinks it’s December 2014, with some of my files from the June backup. I still wanted to see if a more advanced recovery tool could pull anything from the borked drive, so I googled around and tried a few.

Pandora Recovery was able to scan the drive for document files (.doc, .xls, etc.), and found a lot of files and fragments of files. However, it was a lot of work to sort through the results — the original filenames and creation dates were gone, so Pandora created names based on header information (e.g. file creator). That let me cut out a few to search through, but I was still left with hundreds of documents to open and see what they were. I ended up finding a few invoices that I would need to rebuild my accounting spreadsheet, but no accounting spreadsheet. Most of the documents appeared multiple times, likely an artifact of how Windows saves a new version behind-the-scenes (or in some cases, an artifact of how I’ll go back to a website and re-download a document rather than try to find it in my recent downloads folder).

So I moved on to Recuva. This tool didn’t turn up as many potentially recoverable documents, but what it did pull out of the damaged drive had original filenames and dates modified, which greatly helped me exclude the ones I didn’t need to check in detail (for instance, anything before 2014 would already be on my xmas backup image — I was mostly hunting for recently completed documents). This helped turn up one other document file missed by Pandora (though I can’t say whether Pandora missed it, or if I missed it because the meta information wasn’t helpful), as well as some email files (eml) that Pandora doesn’t seem to check for.

It’s a few days later now and I still am not yet up and running on my desktop. I figured I would take advantage of this “opportunity” to upgrade to a solid-state drive as my boot drive, so I’ve got some more work to do on that (which I was hoping to finish tonight but looks like I will likely be offline until Wednesday).

To get the blog back on track, I have an exciting post coming up for tomorrow.

My Amazing Cat: In Remembrance

July 31st, 2015 by Potato

My cat died today, 18 and a half years old — almost 18 years to the day since we got her. I moved out at 23, when my kid sister was 12, so in many senses I was closer to that cat than my own sister (certainly in terms of time spent within a few feet of each other). Forgive me if I’m a bit of a mess for the next few days.

I’ve often said she’s the best, most amazing cat in the world — you all think that of your cats but you’re wrong because it was my cat (well, now one of you might be right). However, it’s always been hard to explain why she was the best cat, so I suppose I will just throw pictures and mini-stories at you (keep scrolling), and otherwise just remind myself that I don’t need to convince anyone else that she was not just awesome and sweet and loving but the best cat ever.

What’s really amazed me the past few years is how good she is with Blueberry (and vice-versa).

After she stopped pouting in the basement, kitty was fascinated by baby Blueberry and breastfeeding.

Even before she could properly focus, toddler Blueberry was very gentle with kitty and they were great friends.

A fairly recent photo of toddler Blueberry and kitty giving nose kisses.

Together in the sunshine. This is in front of the same window where kitty and I spent our last day together.

She liked to hide behind my big 19-inch CRT, probably because it was made of warm. When I got an LCD she started sleeping on the case of the computer itself -- to the point where the network name of my current computer is CatBed.

Sweet sleepy kitty on the couch. Up on the back of the couch was a great place for her to deploy her soft little paws to rest on your head so you knew she loved you.

She liked to lounge upside-down like this on the floor. Only I may give her tummy-rubs though -- all others will get teeth. That's the kind of special relationship we had.

She really liked sleeping in my laundry. And really hated it if she jumped into the hamper and it was empty.

She loved ribbons. Fun to play with, delicious to eat.

One of the earliest photos I could find, of her lounging on the stairs at my parents' place. A few near-misses of getting stepped on and nearly killing her humans and she learned to find better places to lounge... mostly.

Xmas tree set-up in London (incidentally, this was the first xmas Wayfare and I had together after getting married). Kitty was there with me for most of my life's big events.

A last meal shared with my very dear friend -- even when she didn't want cat food, it's hard to resist the allure of licking the cheese sauce off my leftover mac 'n cheese. I like to think that her weight loss at the end was her slow-motion way of becoming a Force spirit like Obi-Wan.

The Origin Story

We got her years ago, on PEI. At the time I didn’t want to get a cat because I had had dogs until shortly before my sister was born, and my dad promised I could get a dog as soon as he stopped smoking (aside: he would not quit for ~7 more years, when he went cold turkey after a cancer diagnosis). I never saw her at the combination vet clinic/pet store where they got her, but supposedly she was super-friendly with all the people coming in to the store, and was nearly 5 months old (she roamed the store, she wasn’t in a cage). There wasn’t much of a market for pure-bred Himalayan cats on the Island, so the store owner said she was going to adopt her herself if no one got her by 6 mo. My mom and sister fell in love and raced back to the cottage to try to convince the rest of us that we needed a cat. My dad had a conference call, and my sister kept trying to ask him to get the cat. He kicked my mom and sister out of the cottage for making too much noise while he was on the call. My sister made pleading faces and hands at him through the window. Still on the conference call, he scrawled across a piece of paper “FUCK OFF, get the cat.” And so they hopped in the van and went right back to adopt her.

Taking her from the pet shop to our place seemed to break her brain: she couldn’t handle more than two people in a room and was constantly under a bed or the couch. I liked to stay up late into the night reading (some things never change), so I was often the only person up when the nocturnal cat came out to explore. We became best buddies. She immediately started sleeping under my bed, hiding from the others during the day, then snuggling with me in the recliner at night while I read. It took a few weeks, but soon enough she was sleeping on top of the bed with me.

Back in Toronto she started sleeping not just on my bed, but up on my pillow. She used to lick and groom the top of my head before we’d go to sleep. As my hair started falling out she seemed to have a realization that it was not a thing to do any more (I like to humanize it by thinking she mistakenly blamed herself for the hair loss), and instead slept beside me for bit, until a few bad nights of getting nearly rolled on and twitched out of place drove her to the foot of the bed. She also loved the basement. It was full of boxes and dust and places to hide, and being a teenager and the oldest child, I had claimed the basement as my own lair, so once again we became the two souls out on our own, and I started to think of her not as the cat that my mom and sister brought home on an impulse, but as my cat.


She hated driving. Supposedly she yowled the whole way back from the pet store in the first place. When our month-long vacation on PEI was over, we had to get back to Toronto in the van, and she yowled until about Moncton before settling back with me on the very back row of seats in the van.

When I moved to London, which was about a 2-hour drive away, she would cry for about the first hour and a half of the trip. Every time. The first time I took her out with me it was a terrible snowstorm, and I think it took nearly four hours to do the drive. On that one I swear she figured out how to modify her meows to call to me (and later Wayfare) by name. “Meeep, meeep, meeeowww, jeeeeow, jeeooon, jeeeooon, jeeeooon… [Way-fr; way-fr]…” After I stopped taking her back and forth every weekend she seemed to settle down about driving (a bit).

Even after she stopped crying the entire trip, we’d still get subjected to the protest pee when we tried to drive with her, where she’d pee in her travel crate as soon as it was placed in the car. We got that treatment on her very last long-distance trip, our return drive from the cottage two weeks ago.

Kitty and Blueberry

One thing that never ceased to amaze me is how this shy, skittish cat became fast friends with a toddler. I know Blueberry is awesome and very good and gentle with the cat, but she’s still a toddler and kind of unpredictable. Blueberry would “read” bedtime stories to the kitty while she napped on the couch, and was constantly bringing her toys and interesting things to sniff. Kitty would follow Blueberry around for a surprisingly large part of the day (given how much elderly cats sleep), and often came in to sit and listen to me read bedtime stories to Blueberry. They’d “ooga-mooga” (rub noses) together, and roll on the floor in the sunbeams together. Blueberry was excellent at giving kitty just one or two treats, and kitty was always super-excited to hear her politely ask “Daddy, can I give the kitty a treat please?” and start crinkling the bag.


She was super, super fluffy (Himalayan). But underneath all that fur she was always a small, dainty cat. She was a grazer who always left lots behind in her food bowl, just naturally skinny. All that fur was constantly flying off, and for a long time my wardrobe tended towards grey to hide the omnipresent cat hair.

Wayfare is incredibly allergic to cats, but had almost no problems with my kitty as long as she didn’t take a nap on Wayfare’s face. Many other people I’ve known with allergies didn’t even know I had a cat until they saw her, because their allergies weren’t triggered. I never thought I had cat allergies, but now I wonder if that’s just because of how awesome she was, as I find I get itchy eyes every now and then when I go visit my sister’s cat. It’s too soon to seriously consider whether we will get another cat, but I wonder if Wayfare’s allergies (and possibly Blueberry’s allergies, who also reacts to my sister’s cat but never to my kitty, even when smooshing her face into her side) will preclude us from getting another in the future.

Fur like that needs brushing, and for many years she would willingly come up on my lap and let me brush her. Normally she wasn’t allowed on my desk, but I’d let her up if she let me brush her for a bit. Starting a year or two before Blueberry was born, we were having more and more trouble getting her to accept regular brushing — she’d bite at the brush, or stop coming up on my lap entirely. So we got into a regular habit of cutting out big knots of hair as it bunched up instead. As she got older and less flexible, we had to really thin out the hair on her back near her tail because she couldn’t keep up with her grooming, and wouldn’t let us brush her. The past few months she wasn’t brushed at all: with the weight loss and dehydration we were just too afraid of hurting her or stressing her out, so she was just a big ball of mats across her sides and tummy — though miraculously the fur on top was still pristine and gorgeous (even the vet commented on it).

Goodbye My Dear Friend

I stayed home from work and spent the day with her today, doing a bit of work on the laptop in the living room while she snoozed in a sunbeam from the front window. I’d pet her, and cry, and she’d purr for a few seconds and go back to sleep. At lunch I had mac ‘n cheese, and she woke up to lick some cheese sauce off my noodles, just like old times. I tried offering her food and treats, and while she took 3 treats she only touched food twice, and even then only got a few teaspoons in.

A half hour before it was time to go to the vet she woke up, had a bowel movement, and visited her food bowl. Just like a cat to make the decision hard on you at the last minute. I figured if she was indeed doing a bit better with a few more good days in her, the vet visit could just be a chance for some more subcutaneous fluids and a checkup. We started the vet visit with a health check to kind of assess where we were at in terms of quality of life remaining and make sure that this was a helpful move. She was down to 3.5 lbs, her kidneys had atrophied, she was anemic, and above all, she just lay down on the examination table and didn’t try to get away. I offered her more treats and she wouldn’t lift her head up to take them. Those last two were the deciding factors for me. She died peacefully while I pet her.

The house feels so empty. Which is weird, because I’m up working on my computer, and for the past few weeks she would have been down on the windowsill at the opposite end of the house, not able to manage the stairs to come up here and visit me. There’s no way I could hear or otherwise sense her from here if she were here, but somehow I can just feel the emptiness (the rest of the family left for the weekend in part so Blueberry wouldn’t have to deal with kitty’s death and daddy being a mess). In some ways I’ve slid into the loss gradually — for instance, she used to always steal the footrest under my desk for a bed, but her limited mobility has meant that she hasn’t been there for weeks, so checking before I put my feet up was already a thing I was getting over. I’m not sure I’ll be eating mac ‘n cheese or laying in the sun in the living room for quite a while though.

She was a loving, gentle cat, and she was loved by all who knew her. I miss her terribly.

My Poor Kitty

July 31st, 2015 by Potato

Warning: this post is about sad stuff while I’m grieving, and writing it may just be more for me than you. Feel free to skip this one. Comments have been disabled.

My cat is downright ancient by feline standards, pushing eighteen and a half. Like many older cats, she has kidney failure, and we’ve known for a while now that her days are numbered. The past few weeks she’s had a rather poor trajectory, and it’s clear the end is going to come very soon.

So I’m left with a very hard decision on timing. She barely ate anything yesterday, and refused food this morning, along with other troubling signs like urinating on her cat bed and only having two tiny bowel movements this week.

With my dogs, there was absolutely no question about euthanasia — either as the right move or on the timing. They were in distress, and their health declined hour by hour, rather than day by day. Their deaths came quickly and suddenly, rather than at the end of a chronic illness, and euthanasia was an unquestionable mercy.

With my kitty it’s a much harder decision. She is on a path to basically starve to death, and that is not how I want her to go — I’m comfortable with a decision on euthanasia as an endpoint. But the timing is so hard.

She’s not in distress, she’s not yowling in pain… she’s just lying here in the sunshine, snoozing. But she hasn’t eaten more than a few mL of food in the past few days, and her energy is so low her awake time is measured in minutes, and if she does try to get up and walk she stumbles and falls. Her tummy groans, and she looks nauseous when she does eat, or falls asleep mid-chew. However, she could go on like that for another few days.

It’s hard to say for sure that an injection today is a more compassionate thing to do than one tomorrow, or waiting for some other end at home over the next few days.

I think it’s time. I’ve made our final appointment with the vet. But it’s hard to say goodbye to a dear friend and companion, and I wish I was more sure about this than “I think it’s the right move and the right time.” But waffling on the fine timing is not going to change the fact that I do have to say goodbye to my sweet fluffy baby sometime very soon.

Goodbye, old friend.