9 Easy Steps to Buying an Index Fund

I’ve been asked several times, “How do I get started in investing?” Usually, my response includes several follow-up questions, such as, “What are your investing goals? What’s your risk tolerance? How much money do you have to invest? Have you started first with your employer’s 401K? Do you have debt? An emergency fund?” and so on. There can be dozens of factors to consider.

Then, I recently came to realize that many of my friends were simply asking how to take the steps to open an investment account and contribute to it. Most had already decided that they wanted to invest a certain amount in the stock market but didn’t know how to actually start a new account (outside of 401K investing). Hopefully, the 9 steps below can be helpful to those who are looking for a literal answer to that initial question.

The guide in this post is specific to opening a Vanguard account because it’s the brokerage firm we use, but the process is likely the same or similar for other firms/banks.

Why do we choose Vanguard? We consider it to be the leader in low-cost index fund investing. After all, John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, was also the inventor of index funds. Vanguard makes investing easy and has several options for mutual and index fund investing. If you’re more interested in trading stocks, options, and ETFs than taking the simple path to wealth, those trades are commission-free. Vanguard also has great customer service, including agents who will answer even the most amateurish questions and will gladly walk you through every step if you get stuck while navigating the website. For all of these reasons, my husband and I have both our ROTH IRA’s, as well as a joint brokerage account, with Vanguard.

Other highly-recommended brokers include Charles Schwabb and Fidelity, which also carry a wide variety of funds and low fees for many of them. (We have investment accounts in both of these brokerages and a few others due to past employer offerings, but we are slowly transferring balances on accounts with higher fees to Vanguard. We’d like to consolidate and reduce fees as much as possible.)

If you’re ready to purchase index funds, here’s your guide on how to do it in 9 steps or less:

1. Have your bank account info available, including routing number.

2. Go to Vanguard.com and select the Personal Investors page.

3. Click on “Open an Account”, then select “Start Your New Account”.

4. Follow the prompts and answer the questions on subsequent pages.

5. Determine the type of account(s) you want to open based on tax advantages, income limits, and contribution maximums.

  • The max contribution for an IRA each year is $6,000 for under age 50 & $7,000 for over age 50.
  • Simple rule of thumb: Traditional IRA‘s give you a tax deduction now, but you will pay taxes on the withdrawals in retirement. ROTH IRA‘s require contributions from earned income and do not give you a tax deduction now. But they allow your money to grow tax-free and allow you to withdraw the earnings tax-free in retirement. Also, you can withdraw ROTH IRA contributions (not earnings) before age 59 1/2 after owning the account for 5 years. (So, if you contribute the max for 5 years, you can withdraw the $30,000 penalty-free as soon as that 5 years ends, but you can keep your interest earnings in the account.)
  • Brokerage Accounts, also called Taxable Accounts, General Investing Accounts, or Non-Retirement Accounts, have no contribution maximums, no income limitations, and also no tax benefits on the interest you earn or the sale of funds. You are subject to taxes on all of it the year you receive the money. These can be joint or solely owned.
  • The other available options are investment accounts for children or small business owners. More on those in a later post.
Types of investment accounts

6. Provide personal and banking info.

7. Complete required paperwork and send it in.

This may take several days for a response.

8. IMPORTANT: When you receive confirmation of funding via email, go back into your Vanguard account to select funds to invest in.

Index funds are recommended very often in the Financial Independence Community. VTSAX is one of the most common ones and allows you to be invested in ALL 500 companies of the S&P 500. Read more about index funds here. Index funds track almost identically over time, so don’t stress too much about which one you choose.

Keep in mind that an index fund is a 100% stock investment. If you’d like to limit your risk a bit and balance out your portfolio, you can invest in a bond index as well, which pays monthly dividends. (We reinvest ours.) Many investors believe that the closer you are to retirement age, the higher percentage of bonds you should hold in your portfolio to minimize risk. (Reminder – lower risk usually means lower return.)

If you’re still not sure how your investment portfolio should be balanced, Vanguard can walk you through a risk assessment quiz to determine asset allocation for your target portfolio before you choose your investment funds. You can also view how different portfolios have performed over the last 94 years.

9. Buy!

Follow the prompts to buy the funds you’ve decided to invest in. You’ll select the desired fund(s), choose the dollar amount you want to invest, and designate where you want the money to come from (likely the bank account you uploaded).

If, at any point, you’re stuck or not sure what step to take next, open a live chat with an agent, read FAQ’S in the margin, or call Vanguard customer service.

Voila! You’re invested in the stock market! Hopefully you’ll watch your money work for you! My husband and I have seen 30%+ returns in the last couple years. These gains are unusual as we’re still in a bull market. Fluctuations are to be expected, but because we plan to keep our money in these funds for over 10 years, we feel good about riding the waves.

For a more in-depth guide to getting started with Vanguard, go here.

Everything written in this blog is based on personal experience. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such. Personal finance is personal, and decisions should be made based on analysis of individual situations, as well as risk tolerance and financial position. 

Fuel your FIRE

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 30

Wow! We made it to Day 30! I calculated that I’ve written (and you’ve read) over 25,000 words in the last month. That’s enough words to fill 1/3 of a novel, and all of them were about saving money and investing for the purposes of financial freedom.

But why?

In my post titled, What Does Financial Freedom Mean to You?, I summarized what motivated me to jump on board with the FIRE movement:

“Financial freedom allows the ability to let go

of maintaining a specific image; of an addiction to other people’s lives; of the shackles of material goods; of the restrictions placed on me by others; of saying ‘yes’ when I want to say ‘no’; of saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘yes’; of negative relationships; of working to achieve someone else’s dream.

It provides the option to linger

with a baby in my arms; in bed all morning with my husband; on the floor in my kids’ playroom as they set up a tea party; at church after service or maybe on a Wednesday; on a restaurant patio with a friend; at a beautiful beach all day; in my sister’s living room catching up on a favorite TV show; at my mom’s house sipping coffee; at my children’s favorite museum; on the hiking trail or in the river at a state park.

It affords the privilege of indecisiveness

on whether to build a forever home, buy an investment property… or both; on whether to volunteer in local church ministries, start the business I’ve always dreamed of… or both; on whether to do travel homeschooling, keep my kids in public school… or both; on learning to play golf, participating in an over-40 soccer league… or both; on whether to write a book, start or podcast… or both.

It commands the responsibility to give

financial literacy lessons to my children; personal finance advice to the young and old; donations to charitable organizations; more time to important projects; opportunities to the underprivileged so that they can break the cycle of poverty; gifts to my church; more of me to those I love.”

It’s this final paragraph that makes the FIRE movement especially appealing, not just for myself, but for the entire community too. I recently heard that while others might see an individual’s push toward financial independence and early retirement as a selfish, greedy move, the truth is that most people in the community want to use their freedom for greater good.

Those who’ve reached FIRE write blogs to help others improve their money situations. They host podcasts and share the best tips available. They write books to make investing easier. They teach classes for free to the under-privileged, under-educated, and under-represented. They run fix-it clinics, start buy-nothing sites, and inspire minimalist movements. FIRE people don’t keep this to themselves; they share what they know and encourage others to make the best use of their money as well.

Consider the type of people who truly subscribe to the Financial Independence Retire Early life. These people are often intelligent, motivated, educated, persistent, goal-driven, risk-tolerant, and innovative. When people with these qualities are freed from the daily grind, their talents can then be put toward philanthropy and changing the world we live in.

Take action today on Day 30 by determining what fuels your FIRE and decide what good you could do in the world if earning a regular paycheck was no longer a top priority.

Thank you so much for going on this 30-day journey of action steps toward financial freedom with me! I truly hope it’s been helpful and that you’d be willing to share these tips with others.

I invite you to subscribe to this blog and follow Frugal_with_Four on Instagram. I’m looking forward to sharing so much more on living this frugal yet wonderful life with you.

Thanks for reading!!

Know Your FI Number

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 19

Whether you plan to retire early or work until the Lord takes you home, it’s helpful to know the magic number you’re aiming toward to no longer be dependent on a regular paycheck to pay your bills and live a full life. Your FI (Financial Independence) number is the amount of net worth you need to support you for the rest of your life moving forward.

The breakthrough Trinity Study published by three professors from Trinity University in 1998 determined a safe withdrawal rate* from stock portfolios despite the fluctuations of the market, and the conclusions they made have had a huge impact on retirement planning. Their research produced the “4% Rule” mentioned in yesterday’s post. What this means is that if you can estimate your annual expenses for when you plan to retire (or when you’re hoping to reach that state of financial freedom), you can multiply that yearly amount by 25. This is a simple way to calculate your FI number.

Here’s an analysis of how I’ve calculated my family’s FI number:

  • Anticipated Retire Early Date: January 1, 2030
  • Family Status (at that time): 2 children graduated from high school, 2 still in grade school
  • Potential Side Income: Real estate investing (monthly cash flow)
  • Estimated Annual Expenses: $70,000
  • Expenses Remaining after Side Income: $70,000 – (10 homes * $3600 cash flow) = $34,000
  • Required Net Worth: $34,000 * 25 = $850,000
  • FI Number (with RE investing): $850,000 … almost there!
  • FI Number (without RE investing): $1.75 million … NOT almost there!

There are so many variables, right? But that’s ok. The analysis is the the fun part. It’s a game to see how low you can get your expenses by paying off debts and cutting unnecessary spending. There are also so many ways to earn a passive income to offset your anticipated annual expenses and decrease your FI number; real estate is just one of them. What’s important is that you continue to keep track of your expenses and net worth with intentionality. If you do that, chances are that you’ll reach FI much sooner than planned.

In the example above, I conservatively estimated owning 10 doors in our real estate portfolio at $300/month cash flow, but our goal is to own 20, and maybe our average cash flow will be even higher than that. If so, we may be able to cover ALL of our anticipated expenses through those investments. We may also downsize our home with fewer children living with us or we may decide to do traveling homeschool, which will decrease our living expenses, and therefore, our overall annual expenses.

The point is that things will change; the future is unknown. The good news is that you now have a framework and an easy way to calculate your FI number even as income, expenses, and investments change.

Another aspect to consider is that many believe that the safe withdrawal rate is now higher than 4% and closer to 7%. This would significantly reduce how much you’d need in your nest egg. At a safe withdrawal rate of 7%, our FI Number (without real estate investing) drops to $994,000!

Today’s action step is to calculate your FI number. It’s ok if you have a few different scenarios with a few different outcomes. Just doing the calculation will give you a ballpark to aim for and get you in the habit of doing the math as things change. There are FIRE calculators online that you can use to find your FI number while taking into consideration your side hustles, higher or lower withdrawal and return rates, as well as anticipated expenses. So… what’s your number?

*The safe withdrawal rate (SWR) method calculates how much a retiree can draw annually from their accumulated assets without running out of money prior to death.

Set your Priorities

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 2

There are about 20,000 ways to set goals and about twice as many books, websites, worksheets, webinars, and videos to teach you how to do this the “right” way. Goal-setting can feel overwhelming, and figuring out how to start can be a deterrent to starting at all. Instead, I try to identify my top *priorities* first. I find it helpful to make a short list and a vision board of what’s most important to our family before thinking through budgeting, saving, investing, or goal-setting.

For us, those priorities are (in no particular order):

  • Travel (hoping to see all 50 states before first child graduates)
  • Family Traditions
  • Tithing/Giving
  • Saving 25% of income for early retirement
  • Real Estate investing (2 doors/year)

Other priorities that might make your list include: Career Advancement or Change, International Travel, Marathon Race(s), Visiting Out-of-Town Family, Ministry or Mission Work, Retirement this Year, Climb a Mountain, Vacation Home, Pay Off Debt, or Start a Side Hustle/New Business.

For today, make your family’s specific list. Write these down in a journal or under the net worth number you calculated yesterday. Once big priorities are set, it becomes much easier to set incremental, measurable goals. These priorities will also become key in establishing your annual budget. More on that tomorrow…

FIRE By 50… Starting at Age 40

Can it be done?

I had never heard of FI or FIRE until just before I turned 40 years old. At that point, I didn’t consider it a possibility for me and my family. I was turning FORTY. I was a stay-at-home mom. We have 4 children. We love to travel. Plus, my husband and I had recently chosen to move to an area with an esteemed school district and elevated home prices to match.

FIRE was not in our cards.

However, hearing about this movement and the different paths people chose to reach financial independence piqued my interest in a way that money and finances never had in the past. Money was simply a means to gain possessions, feed our family, and to pay for vacations. I had never considered money as a path to freedom….

But once my eyes were awakened to this idea, my brain couldn’t shut off. I made a list of books to read and devoured them quickly, often calling my husband mid-day, excitedly sharing new tidbits or strategies I had learned. I started binging podcast episodes and blogs during every free moment I had. I spent hours and hours learning. There seemed to be no end to the ideas and creative ways to completely change my life through better money management.

When it finally set in that maybe we could forge our own path to financial independence despite the obstacles I saw in our way, I scribbled down a list of requirements to get us to FI(RE) at 50. With that list staring me in the face, I was again inclined to say, “This isn’t in our cards.” But something stronger was tugging hard at me. It was an adorable toddler with bright blue eyes and blonde hair who was born with an innate spirit of adventure and risk-taking. As he tugged on my arm to lift him in my lap, I looked at that list in a whole new light. The fire in my belly surged and the smile on my face widened. I looked my baby boy in the eye and announced, “We’re going for it!”

Goals to reach FI by 50…

  1. Track spending every month and maintain an annual and monthly budget.
  2. Practice frugality consistently to decrease expenses and increase savings rate to at least 25%.
  3. Pay off debt (car loan) and don’t take on any new debt (outside of mortgage).
  4. Move savings/emergency fund to high yield savings account.
  5. Invest additional savings in Index Funds.
  6. Take part-time work for extra cash (me).
  7. Sell primary residence for profit and set aside funds for real estate investing.
  8. Buy new home with very low interest rate and in low tax rate neighborhood in same school district.
  9. Purchase 1-2 cash-flowing rental properties per year for the next ten years.
  10. Use equity or do cash-out refi of a few investment properties to fund college, technical education, or business start-up for each child.
  11. Continue to decrease expenses as first two children graduate, then sell/downgrade home and purchase one with cash or practice geographic arbitrage.
  12. Wes retires, and we live off of rental property income and investment dividends…

FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE!

As of today, September 11th of 2020, almost two years into our journey, we’ve accomplished the first 8 goals and started on #9. We’re in the process of purchasing our first long-term rental property. I never thought we’d be this far along in such a short time, but I also recognize that the last several goals will be the hardest, especially finding ways to fund multiple rental properties and learning how best to manage them. But we’ve made it this far, so there’s no turning back now. I hope this blog and my readers can help to keep me accountable. Please share what’s worked for you.

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Lao Tzu