Archive for August, 2012

How I Invest My Money

Friday, August 31st, 2012

I have often heard people complain about the bad treatment they receive from their bank and I completely understand why so many people hate theirs. I hate mine. I also encourage people to move their banking services away from the big banks and towards mutuals (credit unions, building societies and mutual banks – you know, the ones that give a rat’s about their customers). Sometimes it’s not viable to take your business elsewhere, leaving you in the situation where you have to stay with a bank you hate.

Some people have the attitude that if you don’t like being screwed over by a company like a big bank, become a shareholder and share in the profits every time they do something like fail to pass on interest rate cuts. I don’t encourage this behaviour and I don’t have any money invested in the shares of big companies who put profit before people. It means I sleep well at night (well, I would if I wasn’t being woken up by one screaming daughter demanding a breastfeed and the other screaming daughter wanting a cuddle, but hey, I do enjoy those middle of the night hugs).

For more than 10 years I have invested my money in places most mainstream investors don’t now much about. I don’t hold money in mining companies, I don’t receive a cut of the profits from poker machines, and I don’t make money from companies that produce weapons. The money I invest doesn’t go into areas where children are forced to work rather than attend school, and it doesn’t go into the pockets of greedy bankers.

My money goes into healthcare, education, recycling and renewable energy, companies with labour force standards that see their workers paid fair wages, companies that actively support the participation of women in the workforce. My money is invested in ethical investments.

Photo of a man surrounded by pv solar giving the camera the thumbs up.There are two very good reasons for this. The first is that I strongly believe those companies who look to the future are the ones that will have long term sustainable profits. They are the companies that will be the leaders of tomorrow, rather than the ones who dread what the future of plain packaged cigarettes means for their bottom line. And the returns for ethical investing are consistently showing that they are outperforming their mainstream rivals.

The second reason I go for ethical investments is because I want to leave this life knowing that the world will be a place my children, their children and even their children’s children will want to live. A world where more money is going into research to fight disease and less going into research to fight wars. A world where more kids have the opportunity to get educated, and ignorance and prejudice is rapidly confined to the history books.

Ethical investment may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s sure worth considering.

Cooking Efficiently

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Disclosure: I wrote this blog with significant input from my wife Claudia! Anyone who knows my knowledge of the kitchen could tell you I can mix cereal with milk, turn the dishwasher on and, um, well that’s about the extent of my cooking abilities.

Cooking at home can be a great way to save money when compared to eating out or buying takeaway, but there are even cheaper ways of doing it.

There are a few websites out there that encourage doing big cook ups, say, once a week or even once a month. It’s a great idea and can be taken one step further to make it even more efficient. Most ovens can fit a fair bit of food in them, and if you have the space, do all your oven cooking at the same time. So much energy is used up each time you need to preheat your oven that if you were to do a month’s worth of baking all at once, you would save yourself a decent amount of energy and money. It all adds up and you can squeeze a few more savings if you are able to do your big cook ups during off peak or shoulder electricity times.

Leave the food for freezing out on the bench until it has cooled to almost room temp otherwise you will just heat up your freezer. It can be a balancing act between going into the freezer too early and spending too much time on the bench beforehand – the last thing you want is food poisoning. But if the food is cooked right through and reheated properly when you eat it you should be safe.

If it’s really cold in your house in winter and you normally need the heater on, try to time the start of your big bake up to when you would have to get your home warm. Many ovens, especially fan forced ones, spit out a lot of warm air doing the job of a small gas furnace and warming the room as they cook.

When boiling on the stove, turn your hot plate off about 30 seconds to a minute before you need to pull the pot off. The heat retained in the stove will continue to cook your rice/pasta/2 minute noodles ‘til they are ready (obviously this won’t work with gas). Ok, so you won’t buy yourself a return airfare to Paris with the savings from this tip, but it does lessen your chances of forgetting to turn the hotplate off. To give you an idea of my level of culinary skill, I once left a hotplate on overnight. At my sister’s place. She never asked me to housesit for her again.

Most amateurs know that black bananas can be turned into a cake, but there are a few other tips for avoiding food wastage. When you’re cooking pavlova, don’t chuck out your egg yolks. Throw them into a pan with a couple of whole eggs for a yellower-than-normal but still tasty omlette. Rather than throwing them in the compost, leave the ends from your bread loaves out to dry and crush them up to make great breadcrumbs (I believe they are made from the same ingredients).

If you have a bunch of ingredients in your fridge that don’t go together to make up a normal meal, make an abnormal meal. You might be surprised how good random bits and pieces can taste when thrown together.

I’ve Won The Lottery… Again!

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

A quick check of my emails shows that I am an extremely lucky man. According to my junk email folder, dating back to November last year I have won the lottery three times for a total of about $11,530,000 (seven million Euros + $US 2.5 million), and received over $22.4M from estates of people I never even knew. So the grand total of my windfalls, which I am yet to claim, comes to over $33.9M and two Toshiba laptops (don’t these people know I’m a Mac man?). And that doesn’t include another 400,000 Euros I won via text message. I’m a lucky man indeed!

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Australians lost $85.6M in scams in 2011 (yeah, it appears none of the lotteries, which I didn’t enter, were actually real). What I find really shocking about these schemes and the ACCC figures is that not only are there intelligent, hardworking Aussies who fall for them, but that the rate we blindly reply to these emails with all our personal data is increasing. Given the high level of embarrassment felt by the victims, the true figures are likely higher than the ACCC numbers. Boy, there sure are some rich Nigerians out there!

In investing there is a simple saying that holds true not just of investing but everything to do with money – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you receive an unsolicited email, treat it with caution. If the email mentions money, treat it with very high suspicion, and if it asks you to send your name, address, bank account numbers, date of birth, occupation, tax file number or an amount of money required to release much larger funds for you to receive, delete it immediately.

That there are so many sharks circling on the internet, you could consider yourself a lottery winner if you avoid getting bitten. In fact, I feel like I have won the lottery.

I’m a middle class white male, speak fluent English and have never fled a war torn country. I received a good education and live in a developed country whose economy is the envy of the rest of the earth’s 7 billion people. I am in good health and if that changes I can call an ambulance and receive some of the best healthcare available at the hospital just down the road. As a matter of fact I have been visiting that hospital a bit recently.

When our healthy baby girl was born last year I felt like I had won the lottery. I was so happy I bawled my eyes out for the best part of three days as I rang family to tell them “I’m a dad!” It is a feeling that just can’t be matched. Until, that is, it happens again.

Claudia has just given birth to a healthy baby girl.

I truly have won the lottery again.

Financial Illiteracy

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I had the opportunity this week to hear the very sad story of a widow who was exploited by people she trusted. Just after her husband died she made the decision to leave Victoria where she had lived her whole life and move north. Leaving behind painful memories of a happy life was a big and difficult decision, and the last thing someone in that situation expects is be to be screwed over by their bank.

This lady was classified as asset rich cash poor – she owned property worth a significant sum but had no income, not even a pension. The family finances were always something that her late husband had organised. After all, she is from the generation who would quite naturally see money matters as being the man’s responsibility.

When she came to purchase a new home her troubles began. Among the loan documents, written up by her bank, were figures showing that her income was around the $80,000 mark. It turns out that her signature had been photocopied from one part of the documentation and pasted into a number of other parts of the forged papers. The first that the widow herself knew of this was when she obtained copies of the paperwork from the Financial Ombudsman Service.

This story of fraud involving mortgage brokers and bank staff (including managers) is now part of a parliamentary inquiry where hundreds of ordinary Aussies have fallen victim. On the surface it would appear that the fraud was a result of bankers putting large commissions and threats over losing their jobs before the lives of the people sitting across the desk seeking loans. It would also appear that the targets by the financial institutions were not random.

In her story, the widow described herself before all this took place as being financially illiterate. She has since found herself being forced to learn quite a bit about money.

Moments after hearing her harrowing story I had the opportunity to ask a number of other people who had experienced similar situations with their lenders what their level of financial literacy was before they were defrauded.

I asked them, on a scale of 1 to 10, one being very low and ten being very high, what they considered their financial literacy to be as they walked into the first interview where the trouble started.

All of them had the same answer – zero.

Where would you score your level of financial literacy?

Gold, Gold, Gold!

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

It’s a cry we love to hear every leap year around this time, even if it’s for an athlete we’ve never heard of before and in a sport we didn’t realise was part of the games. I always find it amusing to see how many commentators on the telly who normally don’t cover any sport but football suddenly become expert enough to call Olympic events.

Australia’s fascination with gold goes further than whether we will end up in the top seven in the medal tally. There are plenty of experts around who will only be too happy to tell you when you should be buying the precious metal itself.

Gold tends to come in two forms – gold that has a function and gold that doesn’t. Functional gold is not just jewelry but also the stuff that you find in computer boards and that dodgy person’s smile. Gold that has had its purity lowered to 18 Karat or 9 Karat will obviously not have the same value as its 24K pure counterpart. And any premium paid for jewelry designs like the ol’ love heart may have value for you but doesn’t add anything to the worth of the metal itself. Anyone who has wanted to get rid of that ring or necklace from their former lover knows that the price you are offered at the pawnbroker is only about 10% of what it cost. As if you needed another reason to hate that person even more.

You may be fortunate enough to have in your possession some gold jewelry that has value because of its age or the significance of the previous owner, or coins that were pulled up from the ocean floor many years after the pirate ship they were aboard sank. But the problems surrounding the value of these items and the security issues of holding them are similar to those for the gold that doesn’t have a function.

When you see the gold price on the news, it refers to the price of 24K gold per ounce in US dollars. Most investors know it as bullion and there are plenty of people who talk it up when the price is high. When you think about it logically, this is really weird. Why buy something that is really expensive if you want it to go up in price? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to buy that item when it was cheap, especially if, like gold, the price goes up and down so much?

Gold’s greatest problems are that not only does it have no income flowing from it (like the income you can get from shares, property and savings accounts), and not only do you have to rely on someone paying more for it than you did to make a profit, but that you have to store it somewhere. I guess you don’t have to store it somewhere secure, but it kind of makes sense to do so. If you are anything like me, the only safe you ever see is that little one in the wardrobe of the hotel you stayed in on your honeymoon.

So next time you hear someone talking up the merits of gold as an investment, just remember that the gold worth getting is the one draped around your neck before the national anthem is played. If you have as much chance of getting that as I have, aim for a ring from a loved one and leave the bullion to the mugs.