Why You Should Care About Expense Ratios

Think small

While I understand the basics of what expense ratios are – fees, so the lower the better – I have a hard time explaining what they are and their impact on your money. I’m not a financial professional, so this may be over simplifying. And please, someone, correct me if I’m way off.

I’m going to pretend I’m explaining this to someone who doesn’t want to understand investments, but perhaps should (mom!).

The first official definition I see is from Morningstar:

The expense ratio is the annual fee that all funds or ETFs charge their shareholders. It expresses the percentage of assets deducted each fiscal year for fund expenses, including 12b-1 fees, management fees, administrative fees, operating costs, and all other asset-based costs incurred by the fund.

What?! Am I supposed to know what 12b-1 fees are? The first line says it best: it’s the annual fee charged to shareholder. That’s you, the account holder.

But I don’t see it on my statement. How am I paying this fee? 

Nothing is free. Your investments are managed by people and companies that are in business to make money. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) bundle their fees into this “expense ratio.” You’re not going to see this as a line item on a statement of your account transactions, but they have an impact on your investment returns.

What are these expense ratio fees for? 

There are different costs with managing different funds and these costs are paid for (at least partly) through the expense ratio fees. These may include paying the fund manager, custodial services, record keeping, legal, marketing, auditing, accounting, etc. Basically, paying the machine that keeps the firm running.

Do I have to pay this? 

Yes, but you have some control in how much you choose to pay.

How much are we talking and how will it impact me? 

Expense ratio fees can range from 0.01% to 2.5%. To any retail shopper, this sounds like small potatoes, but over time, these rates can have a big impact. I searched for a calculator for this example, but found the results varied, so take this just as an example. I used the SEC’s Tool for Comparing Mutual Funds. 

Say you invest $10,000. Assume an average annual gain of a 10% over 20 years:

  • With 0.91% expense ratio = $11,241 in costs; Balance = $56,034
  • With 0.04% expense ratio = $536 in costs; Balance = $66,739

That’s over a $10,000 difference! This is a really simplified example with no additional contributions and without consideration for a host of other factors. But you can control this $10k difference and it only takes a few minutes.

So, what can I do?

Let’s look at your retirement account and see where it’s invested. With Vanguard, I can easily see the expense ratio by fund. Since my IRA is a mash up of multiple 401k roll-overs, my account was invested across over 10 different funds. I have gradually sold them, in order of highest expense ratio, purchasing low cost index funds instead (VTSAX). I’m down to these six (look at that Fidelity at 0.01%!):

I don’t sell them all at once because there’s a $50 fee for making more than one of these transactions within 60 days. And since I’m no good at math, I’m not going to calculate the impact of these waiting periods, I’m just avoiding the $50 hit.

To trade the high expense ratio funds for lower expense ratio funds, I follow the steps from my Vanguard account: 1) buy and sell and 2)  Trade an ETF or stock. I trade “all” of the high expense account. Once that transaction goes through, it will be held in my money market fund until I add it to my VTSAX fund.

I tried to keep this simple, but it’s not a very simple subject for the non-fiscally minded. And I know I don’t know anything – I’m just scratching the surface here.

2017 Recap: Where we started and where we are today

 

We started on this journey in May 2017 and I think that in our first eight months, we accomplished a lot. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for us: we know we need to save, but learning from the FI community, we realized that being more aggressive about both decreasing  debt and saving more will enable us to stop working our traditional office jobs in about 10 years (at age 54) … we hope. College for two kids is such a wild card. And I don’t even want to think about healthcare.

Our first eight months on the path to FIRE looked like this:

  1. Transferred both our Wells Fargo IRAs, rolled over prior employer 401k and an old pension into Vanguard IRAs, focusing on consolidating into VTSAX
  2. 401ks – we didn’t quite max these out in 2017; they will be maxed out in 2018 and super happy to see there’s an increase of $500 more per year in 2018 on the 401k max
  3. Continued to contribute $100/month into each of two 529s
  4. Maxed out pre-tax HSA and Dependent Care FSA
  5. Sold high expense ratio funds to purchase VTSAX (still working on this because there’s a charge of $50 when selling more than one non-Vanguard fund within 60 days)
  6. Successful job arbitrage saving city wage tax, commuting costs and time, plus a bonus and salary increase
  7. Tracked spending with Every Dollar; this was really helpful to understand where and when our money was going and helped us get started. I feel like we’ve got our finger on the pulse of this now and I’m not tracking every dollar.
  8. I’m addicted to the Personal Capital app. I love seeing our money grow and debt shrink and it also provides a spending analysis that has replaced Every Dollar for me, but it’s not as robust in that department. I was hesitant to provide all my account info and logins to a third party, but their superman encryption convinced me it was safe.
  9. Changed one of two cell phones to a low-cost, pay-as-you-go plan with Total Wireless, saving $45/month!
  10. Switched insurance providers for primary house, two rental houses and two cars: saving over $600/year.
  11. Increased rent in both rental homes; this wasn’t by design as much as strongly recommended by our property management company due to market trends in one and tenant turnover in another.

Whew! I’m proud of this. I wish we started 10 years ago, but there’s no looking back, just moving forward. We still have a long way to go: we have goals and we can see how we’ll get there. Here’s to 2018!

 

The Financial Rewards of Job Arbitrage

​Since my last post three months ago, we’ve hit a bit of a bump, but at the end of the day, it will get us to FI sooner.

Good-bye office view!

At the end of July, I knew I would be out of a job in 30 days. Not really ideal, but also not an ideal job. It was the kick I needed to high tail my job search, seeking a change in industry and location for the reasons listed below. After many applications and even more interviews, I got an amazing job offer just six days after leaving my job. This provided a 4-week, unpaid break in which I was able to knock out a lot of the household “To Do” items, but was a little financially tough.
This career change was necessary for my mental health, but was also FI-driven:

  • Geoarbitrage 1: Change from working in the city to the ‘burbs = save 3.5456% in city wage tax
  • Geoarbitrage 2: Change commute from daily $10/day train or $10/day parking to 25-minute drive with free parking = save $200/month ($2400 annual savings)
  • Job Arbitrage: 8.9% salary increase with signing bonus, annual bonus and employee stock purchase option

This is all pretty awesome and we’re in the process of adjusting our finances to ensure we take advantage of and max out our pre-tax contributions. And, more exciting, updating our spreadsheets and FI timeline.
Another financial advantage of this change was our shift to my husbands insurance. We were pre-FI when we chose our insurance with my old employer. Being on the path, we’re scrutinizing the details. We chose to stay on a high-deductible plan, but switched to his employer for these added benefits:

NEXT: I feel like the list of actions we need to take keeps growing. Here are the top three:

Changing jobs (and changing industries) is hard and it’s a lot of work, but because we’ve made some less-than-financially-ideal decisions in our past, we have to keep working for now. I love my new job and the financial rewards; the path to FI is getting clearer!

Better Late Than Never

Sunset & The Moon at Golden Gardens

A colleague mentioned she was inspired by a financial independence book. Intrigued, I did some searching and found the FI community. Wow. I am encouraged and determined by this community and I have so much to learn. I wish I would have found this 20 years ago (I’m in my 40s) rather than doing what’s expected: college, debt, work 40+ hours/week, retire at 65. No, thank you!

My husband and I are committed to achieving this and sharing this journey and knowledge with our two kids (under 10). I’m still trying to work out our timeline: the point we don’t have to work. We’re about one month into this new mindset and just analyzing our budget, fully understanding where we spend and making short- and long-term plans has really jumpstarted this for us.

Our journey begins with 3 tools: education, debt reduction and saving more.

  1. EDUCATION: It didn’t take much to get my husband on board, as I’m typically the spender for unnecessary stuff. There are so many great tools and resources. I started with the ChooseFI podcast – their Pillars of FI (episode 21) is the gateway drug. These guys are an amazing resource and have provided me with the resources I need to start on the path to FIRE.
  2. DEBT REDUCTION: Armed with little financial knowledge, we’re starting with what we know we can do – it’s common sense – debt reduction. Between job changes, cross-country moves and buying (and filling) a new house, we’ve managed to rack up an embarrassing amount of credit card debt over the last decade and just haven’t focused on getting rid of it. It’s stupid, we know … so we’re getting rid of it ASAP. Based on the debt reduction tracker worksheet I found through Choose FI, we’re looking to have our credit card debt paid off by May 2019. That sounds so far away, but at least we have a plan and end date now. I’m 99% sure that we are underestimating how much we can pay each month and I’m certain that we will be getting all that paid off months sooner.
  3. ​SAVING: Vanguard. It’s all over the FI community. I had no idea that I should be looking at fees or expense ratios. I already have 529s for both kids into which we contribute monthly and I opened an IRA into which I rolled over a Fidelity IRA, keeping a 401k with Fidelity. We’re going to keep our monthly IRA contributions low until we have the debt paid off. Then we’ll max it.
    HSAs … this little gem! I already had one and didn’t take full advantage. I’ve increased my contribution, lowering my income while socking away pre-tax earnings into an investment account. No brainer!

NEXT 3 GOALS:

  1. Transfer both our Wells Fargo IRAs into Vanguard.
  2. Better understand maxing out the retirement savings – I’m not clear on limits. I think its $5500 per year. Is that for IRA and 401k? I’m assuming that doesn’t include employee contributions.
  3. Set realistic goals for 529 savings and our FIRE date.