Reboot Your Portfolio Review

January 24th, 2022 by Potato

I wasn’t sure how I would react to Reboot Your Portfolio: 9 Steps to Successful Investing with ETFs by Dan Bortolotti after his announcement post, which said “What was needed, I recognized, was a step-by-step guide to designing, building, and maintaining a portfolio of ETFs over the long-term.” My Dude, I thought, that book already exists and it is called the Value of Simple.

But that’s the reaction of someone who spent too long in Science, where you have to cite prior work and it’s hard to publish replication studies. In art there’s all kinds of room for cover songs, and RYP actually has a really nice harmony with VoS.

Preaching to the Choir

RYP fully assumes that this is not your first book on investing, and so doesn’t spend much time on the basics like “what’s a stock?”. It dives right into “stop trying to beat the market!” Which I suppose fits very well with the title: you must first have a portfolio to reboot it.

Dan clearly and convincingly makes the case for why you shouldn’t try to beat the market, and why indexing (and specifically market cap weighted indexes) are the way to go. There’s a good section on factor/smart beta and why he doesn’t go for it.

He also has much more on building your plan before you invest, and how that influences your choice of investments and your ability to stick with them. Importantly, the planning section includes some key questions you should ask yourself as you’re building your plan.

RYP includes much more detail on how ETFs are built and the alternatives (e.g. smart beta), currency implications, etc. The book spends a bit of time digging into tracking error and transaction costs: the more advanced stuff that VoS doesn’t touch — again, a great complement. He also addresses head-on the common misconception about ETFs that track similar indexes having different prices: one is not “cheaper” or “a better value” just because the price per unit is lower. The price per unit is fairly arbitrary.

He also has a section on cutting ties with your advisor, to prepare you for the common arguments they might make. One addition I like a lot is his point that “You don’t need to change each other’s minds.” “There’s no point engaging in an argument with an advisor you’re planning to fire. He or she may be using fear tactics to encourage you to stay, which is unprofessional and provides another reason for you to cut ties.”

Then he has guidelines for how to buy your ETFs. He doesn’t go into quite the screenshot-level detail of VoS (which will also save him from having to release a new edition every 3 years — smart compromise), but hits all the main generalizable points, including using limit orders and rounding down your number of units.


It wouldn’t be a BbtP review without nitpicking, but I have basically none. {gasps from the crowd}

The one thing that got me was my own bugbear (which is admittedly being pedantic on one page): in the TFSA-vs-RRSP bit, his RRSP description is missing the pre-tax nature of RRSP contributions. You should not pick an RRSP over a TFSA because it gives you a tax refund — you should be re-investing that refund anyway (or getting it back after grossing up or whatever). Yet Dan says “And if your income is significantly higher–once you’re in the six figures, you’re being taxed at more than 43%–then prioritizing the RRSP is almost a no-brainer, because that tax deduction is so valuable.” [Emphasis mine] This is the thinking that gets people to not add more to their RRSP to account for that gross-up/pre-tax bit, and then complain when they hit retirement that they have to pay tax on their RRIF withdrawals.

If you’re in a high tax bracket the RRSP is usually the better choice because there’s a higher chance you’ll be in a lower tax bracket later. The current tax deduction has nothing to do with it. If you have say $5k to save today and are debating between putting $5k in your TFSA or RRSP, putting $5k in your RRSP and enjoying a tax refund means you’ve really only saved $2850 — you had to contribute $8.77k to your RRSP [at that 43% tax rate] to have an equivalent situation to $5k in your TFSA (and then your tax deduction just brought you back to the same state as the TFSA, it was not valuable on its own).

I will note that he got it right immediately before that: “if you were in the same tax bracket for your whole life, the TFSA and RRSP would be essentially the same… an RRSP is particularly useful if you make contributions when your tax rate is high, and then make withdrawals when it’s low.” And to be fair, that this is something tonnes of otherwise careful experts get wrong (sometimes on purpose — people are irrationally motivated by tax returns, so selling them on saving and investing in their RRSP to get one works to get them to save and invest something much more so than a long, carefully worded explanation about pre-tax amounts — investing the same amount in a TFSA may be better, but that’s not always the counterfactual).

So Which One Should I Get?

As much as I have a conflict of interest, get both Reboot Your Portfolio and The Value of Simple. The lessons are important and it’s good to reinforce it, and now you’ll get it from two different voices from different angles to really help drive it home.

VoS is very purposefully designed for people who are not (yet!) DIY investors. It’s main criticisms have been that it is too simple, which I eat up. So if you’ve never made a trade on your own before (or are shopping for a friend or relative in that situation), I would suggest that you start with VoS, and then read RYP to reinforce the take-home messages of indexing and the value of all-in-one funds, and get those extra details on why you should pick certain index funds.

If you are already an investor, and are confused by all the different strategies out there (growth? dividends? crypto? meme… stonks?) then get RYP. VoS has more detail on what happens next for beginners (how do you read a statement, what are taxes and what do I have to do) if you’re confused on that after reading RYP, but if you’ve already opened a brokerage account and know how to use it, and are mostly stuck on convincing yourself to go with a simple index ETF route, BYP will probably be better at convincing you of that and will likely be all you need.

The Rule of 30 Review

January 9th, 2022 by Potato

TLDR: The Rule of 30: A Better Way to Save for Retirement is focused on a singular question: “how much should I save for retirement?” This one is central to personal finance, and worth some discussion. Vettesse approaches it in a neat way, looking for how to smooth your consumption over your lifetime. I love that this book exists and takes this seemingly simple question seriously. However, I have some quibbles with the titular rule of thumb, largely because it doesn’t work for my particular situation, and he didn’t lay out any guidelines for when the rule breaks (not even “if you’re a sentient tuber, this rule may not be for you”). The discussion to get to the rule-of-thumb and some of the considerations are good and important to read, but I didn’t personally care for the book’s narrative format.

I don’t like finance books that try to teach personal finance things through a narrative, it’s just a pet peeve. I know, the Wealthy Barber is one of the most successful books ever, but not everyone writes as well as Dave Chilton. Well, it’s not just a pet peeve, it really doesn’t work in some ways. I felt that way with The Rule of 30: A Better Way to Save for Retirement — there was a lot to like with the book, but the filler really detracted from the experience.

“You mean we won’t be finishing today?” asked Megan, looking a little disappointed.
“I’m afraid this process we’ve embarked on will take a while, if you want to do it right. This seems as good a place to break as any.”
“Of course,” Megan responded, “but you should know we’re not going to be able to sleep until we know what happens with our $2.7 million. Are you free tomorrow?”
“I think so,” Jim replied. “I’ll check my calendar at home and text you with a time. Next time we’ll meet a my place…”

This is not a rich and engrossing story that happens to also teach a lesson, it’s a narrative device that makes the book about 3 times as long as it needed to be.

“But Potato, the book is only 190 pages long as it is. How else am I supposed to pad it out?” Fred Jim asked the freelance substantive editor and subject-matter expert in an email.
“Jim, I don’t know what to tell you. To say that the characters are one-dimensional is to besmirch the character development of lines,” Potato said, sharing a harsh but necessary truth. “The book requires significant re-writes before it will be engaging. Plus you don’t spend nearly as much time as you could discussing the titular rule itself, or it’s shortcomings.”
Jim, the findependent former actuary, thought about that for a bit. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was an important lesson from an independent voice in the field — and not something his publisher’s copyeditor was telling him.
The next day, he invited Potato over to discuss it more. He started setting up lawn chairs in the back yard for a discussion, oblivious to the frigid December air. “Potato, I’ve given a lot of thought about what you said about my book needing to be padded out.” He waved a new manuscript in front of his face. “What if we add a bunch of unnecessary actions and establishing text too?”
“You’re not hearing me, that’s slowing the reading down without making it more interesting,” Potato said, direct and to the point. “If the characters are just saying the things you want the book the say, there’s not much point in having the characters there.”
“Hmm, you’ve given me a lot to think about here, my good Doctor Spud. May I call you Stormageddon, Editor Extraordinaire?” Jim said, gathering his lawnchairs back up.
“Please don’t, that’s just a cheap callback to a previous post. I do have one final piece of advice for you before you go: read the dialogue out loud and see how it sounds. Does it flow naturally like human speech, or are you just throwing quotation marks around an essay?”
The next day, Jim knocked on Potato’s door at the crack of noon. Potato stumbled out of bed to get the door, threw on an N95, and answered the door otherwise in his PJs. “What?!” he demanded.
“I did that thing you suggested and read the dialogue out loud. It sounded exactly like how three actuaries talk to each other,” Jim proudly announced.
“Only one of the characters is an actuary, though.” Potato pointed out, rubbing his forehead. “The other two are supposed to be normies.”
“The dialogue is fine,” Jim insisted. “Just fine.”
“Ok, well how long did each scene, which was supposedly stretching on so long that the characters had to break to pick the discussion up later, seem to take?”
“Exactly two minutes,” Jim proudly stated.
“Yes, it’s like they’re talking between commercial breaks while watching old-school TV. People have Netflix now, Jim, and anyway, there was never a TV on in the background.”
“My media manager says I have to convey information in two minute chunks so I can be invited back on BNN or get a YouTube channel,” Jim said.
“But this is a book.” Potato flatly stated.
“Yes. And it needs to be about 200 pages to get published.” After a moment he added, “Plus I added one part where they’re watching Jeopardy so it could be a commercial break.”
Potato sighed. “Look, Jim, if you’re committed to this narrative device of having the characters talk out all the financial information you’re trying to convey to your readers, just take one more stab at making this interesting and readable, and we can move on to copy-editing. Have the characters say or do something interesting, or introduce a few more to see how your Rule of 30 works for people in different situations and life stages. I know you can do this!”
Three weeks later, Potato saw that he had a new email from Jim. Subject: I TOOK YOUR ADVICE AND NOW THERE ARE MORE CHARACTERS AND ALSO AN ORGY SCENE
Potato hit reply: “Jim, let’s revert to the previous version of the document and proceed with copyediting. It’s fine. It’s just fine as it was.”
Jim replied immediately: “Thanks so much Potato, your advice helped shape the book for the better for sure. Now I’ll give you some: don’t be so critical in your book reviews. You’re not working as an editor for the author, you’re just giving your thoughts to people at large, and if people think you’re an asshole they’ll be less likely to be nice to your book.”
Potato replied back: “Speaking of which, there was a perfect moment to plug The Value of Simple when the couple needed to know how to invest to capture those returns your actuary character was projecting for them. Why didn’t you?”
Jim’s final reply was BITFD material: “I really want to, it’s truly an excellent guide for the do-it-yourself investor. Really every young Canadian should pick it up, if only so that they know what they’re paying their advisors to do. But my hands are tied here, I’m working with ECW Press and we can’t go slipping in a mention to other books, especially not a self-published work. It’s like that whole conversation about government pensions. My hands are tied, here… Plus if we remind people that other books exist, there’s a danger they might put this one down before they get to the good stuff.”

Ok, I hope that vignette thoroughly demonstrated my point that I did not care for the framework story and how much the extra description slowed down getting to the point, and how very little happened before they had to break and start with a new scene. Plus I can’t imagine anyone will want to go and hire a planner if it takes four months of nearly weekly sessions just to be able to answer the first question in creating a financial plan.

So what about The Rule of 30 itself?

The book is centred on an important topic: how much should you save? From there, it takes off into a discussion of what shape your savings should take: should you aim to save a set percentage of your income for retirement from the time you start work, or should you aim to save more later — you’ll have less time for the magic of compounding to work, but it will be easier to save a higher portion of your income once the costs of childcare and a mortgage are through with.

Fred makes an important point in Chapter 5: “You want your spendable income to be at a tolerable level in all years and to be rising over time in real terms. In fact, I would argue that this should be the second-most important saving goal.” This is in the context of showing that after having kids, or upsizing a house or facing an increase in interest rates on a mortgage, the amount of income available to spend may decrease.

The way to achieve that is the titular “rule of 30”: have the sum of your mortgage, daycare (and other temporary unavoidable costs), and retirement savings be 30% of your income. So when you have high daycare and mortgage expenses, you save less. When your income is higher and your daycare days are behind you, you save much more, ending off with saving 30% of your income in the last few years when your mortgage is paid off.

It’s a neat idea, but I don’t love it. Partly because my own life immediately shows aspects where it doesn’t work. Chapter 7 is on “stress-testing the rule of 30” and mentions some of these factors but doesn’t actually address them to my satisfaction.

What if you get knocked out of the workforce (or off your career trajectory) early, say by untimely disease or caregiving duties? Isn’t back-loading almost all of your retirement savings incredibly reckless? Fred mentions this problem, but just leaves it as a problem: “What I see as a bigger problem is if you are forced to retire much earlier than planned. As with everything else in life, one’s retirement plans do not always pan out. Unplanned early retirement represents one of the biggest challenges to saving for retirement. This is true no matter what rule you follow to save, but it may be a bigger problem with the Rule of 30, since that rule tends to backload your retirement saving.”

What if you’re a renter? Fred suggests that you just use rent in place of the mortgage and carry on. But as housing bulls are so fond of pointing out, rent doesn’t end, so you can’t make the same assumptions about the ability to back-load savings.

What if you live in an expensive city and rent or mortgage is more than 30% of your income? That’s the case for us, and many renters in Toronto pay more than 50% of their salaries on rent. “I can sympathize, but ultimately it means that saving adequately for retirement is going to become more of a challenge.” Yes, and the “rule of 30” will break, but he doesn’t give us a guideline where the rule may or may not apply. I would have preferred some rails on that: e.g., the rule of 30 works great for couples who buy their house by the age of 33 and whose mortgage starts at 33% or less of their pre-tax income, and who will work into their 60’s without getting sick or fired along the way. So anyone living in Toronto or Vancouver should not buy this book, nor anyone who does not have a crystal ball to see the future (or at least who doesn’t have a rock-solid disability insurance policy), nor anyone interested in early retirement.

The last factor that he doesn’t mention influencing the rule of 30 is inflation. Much of the rule of 30 depends on hand-waving wage inflation: your mortgage will be less, or your rent will be less in the future, because your wages will increase faster than your costs, giving you the ability to save more at that time. However, for many in the public service (or other situations) wage inflation running ahead of cost inflation (especially housing cost inflation) is not a given. Here are the salary inflation adjustments for the last 5 years as compared to CPI for an Ontario non-union public-sector employee chosen completely at random out of the sample of convenience we have here at BbtP:
2017: 3%, CPI: 2.1%
2018: 0.86% CPI: 1.7%
2019: 1.6% CPI: 2.2%
2020: 2% CPI: 1%
2021: 2% CPI: 4.7%

Our poor public sector idiots have fallen behind inflation by a cumulative 2.1 percentage points. Ok, but Vettesse wasn’t just talking regular raises that attempt to pace inflation, he also included getting promoted as part of the increased earnings. What if you include that? Including all merit bonuses and seniority promotions for an Ontario public sector employee with consistent top-quartile performance reviews only gets ahead of inflation by a whopping 0.9 percentage points after 5 years — some progress, but not enough to handwave away the assumption that back-loading retirement savings would work out, especially if your mortgage or rent payments are high (he appears to be assuming real gains of 6%/yr in earnings, based on the numbers in figure 7, a figure that I find unfathomable from the flat-as-a-pancake organization I sit in).

Wayfare also works for not-for-profits, and her wage increases (nominal) over the last five years have been:

So you see my problem with the underlying assumptions of the Rule of 30. Yes, Wayfare in particular is perhaps a rare edge case, but I just don’t think the approach to back-loading your retirement savings to the degree the rule of 30 suggests is prudent enough. I don’t think we can safely assume that wage growth will show up as a general feature to make saving easier later, and I don’t think the rule applies as broadly as Vettesse makes it out to be in the stress-testing chapter — at the very least there are not enough warnings or discussions on when it will fail you.

Anyway, my main two issues with The Rule of 30 are that I didn’t care for the narrative framing padding the page count, and that the rule itself didn’t apply to me for at least 3 different reasons.

Beyond that, which is me nit-picking, it was a good book. This is an important question. A vital one: “How much should I save for retirement?” is central to personal finance. And the discussion to get to the rule-of-thumb and some of the considerations are good and important to read.

I like that there is a book that discusses how much you should save, and how much it is a surprisingly hard problem, and takes the whole thing rather seriously, including the trade-offs that saving entails. But I don’t love the replacement of one poor rule of thumb (save 10-15% or whatever) with another, slightly better rule of thumb (mortgage + daycare/some other exceptional costs + savings = 30%) where the limitations are not clearly laid out. I wish that the book had introduced more characters or scenarios to show how the rule works in different cases (rather than just handwaving that it’s robust), and more importantly, showed better where it doesn’t work.

At the very end, he presents an alternative formulation that fits the larger goals of smoothing spendable income over a lifetime that underlie the rule-of-30: “If I could express it differently, I would suggest saving 5 percent of your pay in your thirties, 15 percent in your 40s and 25 percent in your 50s. This alternative represents a rough approximation of the Rule of 30.” I like this alternative much better. Firstly, it sets a floor for saving, so you’re always saving something (even when it’s hard) — that removes the temptation to come up with “extraordinary” expenses that never get you to a point where they’re under 30% so there’s something left to save, and also helps get around the issues where high housing costs may take over 30% of your pay. Saving something early on also makes it more robust to getting kicked out of the workforce early.

Just unfortunate that “the 5/15/25 rule” is not quite as catchy as “the rule of 30”.

And a nice little touch: the book is printed with a two colour process. Really cool to see and props to the graphic designer who used the extra colour well in all the tables, graphs, and chapter titles. It made things pop just that little bit more (and was absolutely necessary for a few of those stacked bargraphs with 6 items).

Curling Headgear Update

January 24th, 2020 by Potato

After almost two full seasons with my protective headgear for curling, I thought I’d provide a quick update.

Firstly, there have been too many falls and close calls at our club, which reinforces the idea that it’s worth putting something on your head. One of my leads fell in practice, got a concussion, and has to sit out for several weeks (he’s still out of the game as I write this). Just last week, another experienced player fell in a game and paramedics were called (though it looked like she might have hit her head on the ice at the time of the fall, thankfully it was “frame damage” with a sore tailbone being the main complaint).

More and more people out there are wearing something on their heads, whether it’s a bike helmet, curling helmet, or hat with protective elements (and I know I’ve managed to convince at least a handful of curlers to buy a Crasche or Ice Halo). I think we’re moving from the “early adopter” phase to the “mass adoption” phase — it’s no longer remotely strange to choose to wear something protective while you play, and I’d estimate that 20% or more of the adult curlers (and essentially all the kids) at our club are now sporting protection. While I don’t have appreciable hair myself, I am told that it’s exciting that Ice Halo now offers a hat with a ponytail hole.

I’m still wearing all my options in various rotations. It didn’t take long to get over myself and wear the headband-style ones without feeling any sense of fashion awkwardness. Indeed, the Ice Halo HD is the one I most commonly wear, particularly when I play mixed doubles (where I feel I have the greatest chance of a slip as I jump up after throwing to sweep). I also exclusively wear it when I volunteer with the Little Rocks, in that case I want my head protection to be obvious and not hidden within a hat so that I can be a good role model for the kids. Blueberry for her part wears a hockey helmet to Little Rocks.

I’ve found that the Ice Halo HD band has really settled in — I can position it nicely so it doesn’t interfere with my glasses, and the elastic has stretched out a touch so it’s more comfortable and sits in the right spot (without being loose — I’m not afraid it will fall off my head when I really need it). After a month or two (~6-8 games with it?) I no longer had to keep adjusting it from getting too tight.

When I skip in 4-person curling, I tend to go with one of my hat options. I like the Crasche Curler touque because it’s a little warmer and I get cold when I’m just holding the broom, and go for it a bit more than half the time. Unfortunately, while I’ve gotten used to it and figured out how to position it a bit better, it does still catch the arms of my glasses a few times per game, and sometimes will creep up out of position. I only tried it once with only the rear set of pads, and didn’t think it helped much, so I’ve still been using it as delivered. The Ice Halo ball cap is quite comfortable now (though I sometimes still get a mark on my forehead from the snugness, I don’t feel any discomfort when wearing it), and great when I think I don’t want to be warm, as it breathes better than the Crasche. I tend to go for the ballcap or Ice Halo HD when I play a position that involves sweeping on 4-person curling.

When I go to spiels (i.e., play multiple games in a day), I take two of my options with me, because if I get a little sweaty it’s good to have the option to rotate out and let one dry between games.

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 $3.33/mo [new pricing as of summer 2019 with their Questrade partnership] 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 10% discount on Passiv Elite.

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.

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:

[Update Nov 2020: two more to mention are a full helmet option from Asham and a new entry from Dynasty Curling in touque form.]

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 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.


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.


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.


Now that I’ve had almost two seasons of curling to evaluate them, I posted an update here. The main thing that changed from this review is that the Ice Halo HD stretched out a bit so it’s not uncomfortable, and I got over myself, so I have no issues wearing the headband styles.

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

Nov 2020: Another entry is from Dynasty Curling