The Best Websites & Apps To Manage Your Money

Pay off debt and accumulate assets ASAP should be everyone’s goal, and one of the things that makes the whole process bearable (and dare I say fun) is having the right software to measure our progress.

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Ready For Zero 

By the time word of Ready For Zero finally got to me, I was nearly debt-free. I remember hearing about the program before, but I think I misunderstood what it was or how it worked. Much to my surprise, when I checked it out recently I noticed it was FREE and had a really nice interface for tracking and managing your banking. The site boasts they’ve helped users pay down $150 million dollars in debt. They provide you with a personal plan that helps you get your finances in order and allows you to track everyone on your computer and through a mobile app.

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Money 4

I’ve been singing the praises of Money 4 for years, and it’s still the app I use for myself. Not only does it offer money tracking and budgeting tools, you can put in the holdings of your stock portfolio and it will update those values in real time. I LOVE seeing my entire financial picture in one place! You might be staring at the pricetag and thinking nearly $40 is too expensive for an app (especially when all the other options on this post are completely free!), but when it comes to managing your money, the one-time investment in solid software is worth it.  But if you’re still hesitant, there is the option to try before you buy: you can download a free trial. The downside? Unlike Ready For Zero which pulls from your bank accounts like Mint, Money requires you to enter spending manually. You can set up regular bills and paycheques in the scheduler, but otherwise you’re on the hook for remembering to enter in how much you spent at the grocery store.

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I regularly receive emails asking for investing advice, which tells me that many people don’t know what the good investing resources are. I’m still learning the ropes of the stock market, so I don’t offer too much investing advice on MAG. LearnVest fills the gap. This site does offer debt repayment help and budgeting advice, but it takes it one step further than Ready For Zero and Money 4 by offering investing plans. LearnVest pairs you with a Certified Financial Planner who walks you through setting up a portfolio and helps you monitor your investments. I haven’t tried this site yet myself but I really dig the idea of an online helping hand when it comes to investing.

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NetWorth IQ

One of the main attractions of personal finance blogs is seeing how someone else spends and saves their money. If you really want to scratch your voyeuristic itch, NetWorth IQ is the perfect site to creep on other people’s financial progress. Most of the profiles are anonymous (with the exception of some that link back to various personal blogs) and list all assets and debts of that individual overtime. Some people are uber-rich, some people may never recover from financial ruin, some people are lying. Regardless, one of the funnest things you can do is use the comparison tools to see where you stand relative to others in your age group, income range, or profession. I don’t use NetWorth IQ anymore, but sometimes I still like to peek in to see what other people have as far as personal wealth goes.

Any more best-of apps I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments below!

How to build an investment portfolio with ETFs

There’s a lot of clamour for more investing posts on MAG, so I think it’s time I gave in.Many readers are curious about how I’m managing my money, since so much has changed since I went from indebted undergrad to finance-savvy (maybe?) almost-MBA.

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A quick recap of my personal investment history:

I bought my first mutual fund in 2009 and started contributing $50 each month plus any extra money I had. Diligent investing and market recovery ensured this investment grew at a quick clip. I was blissfully ignorant of exactly how good my gains were because I had no frame of reference. In my mind, investing was supposed to be the best way to grow money, so my little mutual fund was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. (I would later cash this out after graduation to make a $5,000 payment on my student debt, eliminating my federal loan entirely.)

Fast forward to 2011 and I bought my first common stock. I was already blogging by this time and felt over-confident about money. Throughout 2012 and 2013, I profited big time on safe picks like General Electric and AT&T. My portfolio grew and spit out regular dividends, which I reinvested in more stocks. By the end of 2013, the once $20,000-in-debt-girl was now $20,000-stock-portfolio-girl. Talk about a turn-around! I would like to claim investing savvy for all my portfolio gains, but it was a matter of slow & steady contributions, market recovery, reinvestment of dividends, and the occasional lucky pop (like the time I bought shares Netflix under $220 and sold at $350). I still hold my original stable stocks, but in the second half of 2013, I started directing money away from common stocks and into ETFs.

Can you replicate my portfolio and its performance? 

NO!

The gains of my portfolio depend as much as when holdings were bought as what it was that I purchased. It’s a mixed product of my own management and market performance — this is why investing in stocks is risky.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t create a robust, profitable stock portfolio of your own.

When I started investing with Questrade, ETFs weren’t available the way they are now — otherwise I should have been all over them.

What is an ETF?

“an ETF is an investment fund that holds a collection of investments, such as stocks or bonds. It trades like a stock on a stock exchange.” – The Financial Post

A quick comparison of stocks vs. ETFs:

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Looking at that table, two of my favourite things about ETFs is 1) no fees to buy through Questrade and 2) receiving a monthly dividend. The combination of these two things is something awesome: as you receive dividend payouts from ETFs and stocks, you can reinvest them back into the ETF, even if you can only afford to buy one unit at a time. As a general rule, I don’t like to invest in stocks unless I have at least $1,000, but if I have $20 lying around in my brokerage account, I’m buying another unit in an ETF!

How to get started buying ETFs 

Firstly, you need to open a brokerage account. You can do this through any big bank or through an online brokerage like Questrade. You will generally need $1,000 to $5,000 to open the account. If you don’t have $1,000 lying around, start saving. Putting aside a few hundred dollar every month will give you time to research the ETFs you might be interested in, which brings me to the next point.

How to select an ETF

The easiest way to choose your ETFs is to review them online on a site like iShares. You’ll see something like this:

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this is NOT a recommendation to buy! I simply selected the first ETF on the list!

 This gives you the basic overview of the fund: when it was started, how its been performing, the value of the assets are under management, the number of holdings (thats the number of companies in the fund), and the fees. Note with ETFs the management fees are built into the fund — you won’t get a bill for them or anything! This is a great summary of the ETF, but all the information is in the prospectus, which you an receive as a PDF through the in the upper right corner there.

The next thing you want to look at is Holdings. This is what stocks are held in the fund and how much each stock makes up of the total fund value.

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You can see approximately 7% of this fund is made up of Royal Bank of Canada stock

As you can see, the ETF contains a lot of different holdings — in this case, from different industries. This is another reason ETFs are so great: they allow you to diversify your investments without you having to manage a number of different stocks.

Look at the holdings to see if the ETF contains companies and sectors you want to invest in. Note that ETFs are “exchange trade funds” which means they’re traded on the exchange — this means the percentage of each holding can and does change.

Receiving income from an ETF

If you click on Distributions, you will get a record of dividend payouts for the fund that looks like this:

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Note that this fund pays out quarterly, but there are many that pay out monthly. Others pay out annually or semi-annually.

There’s a bit of terminology on this page that you should be familiar with:

  • The Ex-date is the date after which, if you sell your ETF holding, you will still receive the payout for that month.
  • The Record date is the date by which you must purchase the fund in order to receive the payout for it that month.
  • The Payable date is the day you will receive your dividend payout.
  • The DRIP price is the Dividend Re-Investment Plan price – the cost to buy one unit automatically with the dividends being paid out to you. Using this method, instead of receiving cash, you will receive more shares in the ETF (this is set up through your brokerage and you can select how much you want to DRIP).
  • The PACC price is the Pre-Authorized Cash Contribution price – like the DRIP price, it is the cost to buy one unit automatically, but this uses cash in your account rather than dividends they just paid you.

Look at the dates to determine how often the fund pays out. Many ETFs are monthly, but others are quarterly, semi-annually, or annually.

To calculate the payout you will receive:

# shares you hold x cash payment declared = income 

The payout varies based on the holdings in the ETF. Some ETFs will be more consistent than others and always pay the same, others might vary. The best part?

You can hold ETFs in tax-friendly accounts like RRSPs and TFSAs. 

ETFs are a great way to get a lot of exposure to a number of different stocks, even if you only have a small amount to invest. Furthermore, receiving a regular payout from your investments that you continuously reinvest is a great way to build wealth.

For more information about buying ETFs, Rob Carrick did a great series on the topic for the Globe & Mail.

US Versus UK Stock Markets – What Are The Differences?

There are several different stock exchanges, and each market has its own benefits and downsides. The most well-known UK market is the London Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, the Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange are the biggest markets in North America. The key differences between those markets are their location (and therefore their trading hours), and the way the markets operate.

Understanding the London Stock Exchange

The London Stock Exchange consists of two core markets. The Main Market is made up of established companies, while the Alternative Investment Market consists of younger small-cap firms. Trades on the LSE use something called a Contract for Difference. This system was created in the 1990s as a form of equity swap that is traded on margin.

To trade using CFDs, a buyer opens a position on a stock and makes a deposit, the amount of which depends on the margin the broker offers. CFDs can be held for an unlimited length of time, but any profit or loss is calculated at 10pm UK time, so if the value of the stock falls significantly, the buyer may need to deposit more funds into their account to continue to hold the position. If the value of the stock rises, then when the buyer closes the position they will be paid the profits, minus any finance fees. If you want to start trading using CFDs, the best option would be to take look at online trading communities such as Interactive Investor.

US Markets

The Nasdaq is a virtual market. All trades take place via a complex telecommunications network. The New York Stock Exchange, on the other hand, is a traditional stock exchange, and all trades take place on a physical trading floor. The Nasdaq is a dealer’s market. Buyers contact a dealer to make their purchases. The NYSE is an auction market. A seller puts up stock for sale, and they will be matched with a buyer directly. Trading on margins is possible on US markets.

Trading on the LSE from Abroad

There are several ways to trade on the London Stock Exchange as a foreign investor. The easiest way is to contact a local broker that offers international trading services. Usually, these brokers act as an intermediary for a firm based in the UK. Another option is to open a brokerage account with a UK-based firm. If you choose to do this, you should familiarize yourself with tax laws relating to international investments, and don’t forget to factor in foreign currency exchange rates when you trade.

Why Is Investing Important?

Google searches for my blog give me the best post ideas. Someone stumbled on Money After Graduation by asking the web, why is investing important? It’s a good question. I know before I started managing my money I didn’t really get what the big deal with investing was, let alone how to do it. Now I know that simply paying off debt and budgeting is not enough: investing is essential to good money management.

What is investing?

Investing means to put forth an amount of something with the expectation that it will generate a return in the future. You will hear people talk about investing their time or effort, and of course, money. When you invest your money, it means that instead of spending it you are putting it in some sort of vehicle that will use it to make more money. And that’s why investing is important:

Investing creates wealth.

It’s easier to become financially independent when your money is working for you. The greater the return you earn from investments, the less you have to rely on your working salary to support yourself and achieve your financial goals.

How do I start investing?

Technically, anything that generates a return is an “investment”. This means even your piddly savings account at 1% interest is an “investment”. However, when most people, myself included, talk about investing, we’re referring to more profitable vehicles such a mutual funds, ETFs, and stocks. Personally, I think it’s best to start small and work your way up. Begin with a savings account so you can get used to putting away part of your income, and also accumulate some capital for investments that require a larger buy-in. Mutual funds will also let you start small, whereas opening on a brokerage account to begin trading stocks usually requires at least $1,000. Where most twenty-somethings seem to be afraid to invest in the stock market, I can’t emphasize enough how much opportunity there is to really kickstart lifetime wealth-building if you start now. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t have a lot to contribute, time is on your side.

Why should I invest in stocks?

Stocks can provide a better return than simply keeping your money in a savings account. I remember when I first learned about how stocks work, the things that shocked me most were:

1. you can receive money on a regular basis simply for holding a stock (this is called a dividend)

and

2. this money will usually increase the longer you hold a stock (many regular dividend payers raise their dividend annually, which means you’re actually paid more every subsequent year you hold an investment)

Now I take this information for granted, but I remember when I first learned it and thought, “why doesn’t EVERYONE do this?” and the answer is probably because, like me, they don’t know this is a thing. Likewise, I never realized how easy investing was until I started doing it. Online brokerage accounts make investing in the stock market more accessible than ever. There are tons of online resources to build and manage your investment portfolio, whether you’re investing in the USA, Canada, or the Australian share market. Investing is important because it makes achieving your financial goals easier.

Trading shares online as a small-time investor

The stock market had a bit of a dip the past 2 weeks so I took advantage by adding to my portfolio. I still find it hard to gauge when to hold off and wait for a better price and when to jump in, but overall I think I’m getting the hang of it.

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I feel like the hardest part of trading is knowing when to sell. It’s counterintuitive, but you never want to sell high because you become convinced the upward trend will continue indefinitely and you always feel motivated to sell low because you become certain all your money is being lost. It might take some time to train yourself to think the opposite, as familiar as the mantra is: buy low, sell high.

As a general rule, I try to purchase stocks I will hold for 5 years or more. Having a long-term perspective keeps me from making impulse decisions at temporary market highs and lows. Right now, my goal isn’t to add new companies to my portfolio, but instead bolster my current investments. I’m really happy with the selections I’ve made so far, and see a lot of long term growth for all of them, which is why my main motivation right now is to increase these investments instead of seeking new ones.

If you are a small investor (ie. a portfolio of less than $50,000) it doesn’t make any sense to hold more than a handful of different stocks. At best, it’s just too many tickers to watch, and at worst you’re paying too many fees on too small buy-ins.

There are investing blogs for every kind of investor, but I tend to side with the ones that encourage putting the bulk of your money in a select few shares, as opposed to dividing up a small amount over a dozen or more.

My portfolio is in the low five figures and I hold 7 different companies (1 of them is because another stock in my portfolio split, so technically I’ve only bought 6!). This is breaking my own rule to stick to 5 with under $20,000, which is exactly why I’m waiting for my portfolio to grow a bit more before I buy something new!

Nevertheless, it’s totally personal preference, and if you’re comfortable owning a dozen stocks with only $3,000 that’s you’re perogative — but it’s a lot of numbers to watch for such a little bit of money!

Buying and selling stocks can be expensive due to brokerage fees, so I always proceed with caution. I use an online brokerage to keep costs down. Depending where you live, different online brokerage firms will be available to you, but whether your looking for share trading Australia or in the USA, there will be some options to choose from.

When selecting an online brokerage make sure to look for:

  • the minimum amount of money required to open account (some start as low was $1,000)
  • the minimum amount of money you can transfer in and out of the account in one transaction (mine is $200)
  • FEES! Most brokerages will charge you anywhere from $5 to $35 per trade, but read the fine print to see if there are any monthly account fees or transfer costs when you open your account.
  • the costs associated with what you plan to buy. Both stocks and ETFs can be purchased online, and these have different costs associated with them — for example, Questrade has a $5 fee to buy most stocks but it’s free to buy ETFs.

Investing in the stock market is higher risk and more fees than keeping your money in a traditional bank account, but it has the potential for greater growth. Most people find these barriers too intimidating to overcome, but I’m still a big advocate that investing in the stock market is easy and fun.