How much income paid for rent?

Intrigued by an MSNBC’s article titled Americans becoming increasingly house poor, Golbguru recently write an post inquiring people’s expense on housing. The MSNBC article only revealed that an average homeowner spends nearly 21% of their household income on housing, up from under 19% in 1999. Percentage-wise, Californian spend the most, 25.4% in 2005. The data includes many homeowners who bought their houses before the boom, thus, the 2 to 3% increase does not seem very dramatic. For more recent buyers, I do not know any friends who spend less than 25% (one couple bought earlier with 200K annual income) of their income on housing, most between 30 to 40%!

However, I did not find any percentage for renters. My further research found that the ratio really depends on the locality. In Golbguru’s case, he was able to pay only 11% of his gross household income (mainly two graduate students’ stipends) on rent, likely around $500 in a University subsidized apartment. Yes, an excellent job of Golbguru!

New York City is likely the other extreme, high rent and low vacancy. People not only need to get in line to rent an apartment, but also need to hire a professional broker for apartment hunt. According to New York City’s Economic Snapshot July 2006, the average monthly contractor and increased by 25% after adjusting for inflation, from $767 in 1991 to $956 in 2005. From the following picture, we can see average rent as % of average renter’s household income has also swelled from 34.4% in 1991 to 36.7% in 2005. It seems that not only the housing price soared, the rent was raised significantly too! I hope no one pay so much to stay in NYC. Of course, if you’re earning more than average renter’s household income and live under your means, you can beat those ratios.

I attended graduate school on the west coast, where rents are high. University housings are both cheaper and more convenient compared to local rental market. I was earning 23K annual stipend, but paid about 28% of my gross income for one room in a 2-bedroom university dorm. Despite the small annual raise of 1-3% of my stipends, when I finally graduated, I was paying 39% of my gross for the same room. A very good strategy to move out PhD students faster!

Right now, with 2 full-time job income, Jacqui and I are paying about 7% gross including cell phones and utilities, not much better than Golbguru, but way better than people in NYC and myself before. However, we’re looking for a reasonable upgrade in the next few months to have more space.

Now expensive U.S. Healthcare is also inefficient?

Two days ago a report from Commonwealth Fund came out comparing healthcare in five developed countries: United States, Germany, Britain, Australia and Canada. And the conclusion: “The U.S. health care system ranks last compared with five other nations on measures of quality, access, efficiency, equity, and outcomes.”

It is well-known that we have the most expensive healthcare in the world. And many people are proud of the fact that the U.S. has the most vigilant and productive market for biomedical research and pharmaceutical companies. I even read about envious comments on U.S. healthcare industry from a British economist on The Economist. However, it is undeniable that the paid price might be too high: we have fast growing insurance premiums; about 1/6 of total population is uninsured mostly because of affordability; need to pay the most for prescription drugs compared with everywhere else in the world…

How much more do we pay for health care compared to other countries? “Per-capita health spending in the United States in 2004 was $6,102, twice that of Germany, which spent $3,005. Canada spent $3,165, New Zealand $2,083 and Australia $2,876, while Britain spent $2,546 per person.” $6000 annual expense per-capita is a lot of money. For a family of four, that’s $24,000 per year. Twice that of other rich countries is simply too much, not a good buy!

However, U.S. healthcare providers are usually very proud of themselves for being the best in the world. Medical students have been trained to give patients the best care possible regardless of the cost, and we also know very well that how long (months and years) patients need to wait inline to have a non-emergent medical procedure done in UK and Canada. We actually read some similar stories on HMO or Medicare patients in the U.S.

Now why is U.S. healthcare also inefficient? Let’s take a look at the primary measures: infant mortality and healthy lives at age 60. Given the high prevalence of obesity and diabetes, I can understand why the U.S. did not do well in the later measure. However this is hardly the responsibility of the healthcare system alone, given the powerful commercials from fast food chains targeting our young children. Another convenience measure is also understandably low for the U.S. healthcare system: emergency room waiting time. If you have 1/6 uninsured people who on average need more serious interventions and only get medical care in various emergency departments of hospitals, how fast can you expect patients turned around there?

“The area where the U.S. health care system performs best is preventive care, an area that has been monitored closely for over a decade by managed care plans,” I am rather surprised by this measure. Vaccines in U.S. are usually expensive and not covered by health insurance. In fact, there are many such examples that private insurance companies put their short-term profitability above long-term societal values, which in the end, leads to higher medical cost for everyone.

In the end, I think that we are indeed paying too much for healthcare. Ethically and economically speaking, we should have a national program to cover uninsured 45 million people and free ERs from providing the care though expensive, but usually very late. Educating people to have a healthy life-style is at least as important as medical technology to reverse the increasing prevalence of chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Michael Milken — A Medical Research Innovator?

Ever since I read Den of Thieves two years ago, I thought that people like Mike Milken would be despised everywhere, by Wall Street, by the media, by the general public — He traded on insider information, he accumulated enough market power to inflate the junk bond prices, and many middle class who followed were left with worthless papers; he fostered corporate raids and destroyed many business. How can the public tolerate such a person?

I was so naive! My first surprise came from Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street. Obviously, Michael Lewis did not think Milken as a criminal when he wrote “Liar’s Poker”. And in some sense, Michael Lewis thought that Milken spotted a good financial innovation opportunity (junk bond) that Solomon Brothers missed.

My second surprise came when I was listening to the radio. The radio broadcasted an ad for Wharton economic summit , where Milken is listed as the number one keynote speaker, even ahead of the finance professor Jeremy Siegel. I can’t help to look for the ads and see how they advertise the “junk bond king”. And to my surprise again, now he is “The Man Who Changed Medicine”! And obviously, his name is what attracts people to come to the summit.

Obviously, he has many followers, particularly from Wall Street. Everyone can have his/her own take on Milken’s past. I am fine with that. But from what time he has become a Medical Research Innovator ? By giving some money to some medical research center to get tax deduction? This will be an interesting path to be a medical research innovator 🙂

And what’s more interesting is that he will team up with Professor Jeremy Siegel, the author of The Future for Investors: Why the Tried and the True Triumph Over the Bold and the New. He “is a buy-and-hold kind of guy who predicts that an unprecedented wave of discovery and innovation will fuel economic growth in the U.S. and provide superior returns for investors who are patient.” What is his take on Milken’s junk bonds?

Should be an interesting speech (at least to me). But $499 a ticket, plus travel expense… no way for a deal hunter like me.

Cooking skills and personal finance.

Just read my money blog (MMB) expenses. As a housewife, the first thing I noticed is grocery spending. MMB’s budget for grocery is $300, dining out is $250. Last year, our budget for grocery was a poor $250. I hit budget several times, which made me very unhappy. I consider myself a deal shopper, which is one of the attributes of a “good” housewife (my definition). When MS Money showed that I always hit budget for grocery shopping, I felt… hurt!!!

So I negotiated with Yannick to increase the grocery budget to $300 this year. I know this is a little like “cheating”, but at that time, psychologically, I really need it.

Now, reading MMB, I just found a new solution to solve the budget problem. Our dining out expense is almost zero! I am attributing this to my successful grocery shopping — I do not just shop for deals, I shop for deals of good quality products. I feed Yannick with premium food from organic food store, so he does not want to dine out any more!

I presented this argument to Yannick immediately, and got an instant budget re-allocation approval– we will allocate $100 out of our $150 dining out budget to my grocery shopping! Now, I will always spend below budget. “Exceed expectation”, that’s the review I want to get for my work!

My next mission–improve my cooking skills. I heard that many famous chefs actually used very common ingredients — such as Heinz ketchup, Morton salt…Why can’t I? Someday, I want to hear Yannick saying: “I would rather have Jacqui’s cabbage soup than Arby’s roasted beef burger” (he sometimes indicates that he wants to go to Wendy’s, but dismissed by me for “health” reasons. 🙂

Improving cooking is one of the most rewarding investments a housewife can make: it keeps the family stay at home, it keeps the family healthy, it keeps the family money in the investment account grow… it keeps the whole family happy!

Even More Unpleasant Tax Return Filing Experience

I have been quiet for a while. The reason? Quite exhaustive travels, reading a good investment book and filing for tax returns.

Tonight I had been working on a state income tax return, whose tax forms were in encrypted PDF format. It means that you can only print it to a physical printer, but not save it with data filled in, which is really a pain in the neck. I could not file online because of some complicated issues. However, I would like to fill the data in the pdf files electronically since it’s cleaner and I can also keep an electronic copy of my tax returns. I do not understand why they wanted to create even more trouble for poor people who need to file off-line! It’s a well-known trade-off between convenience and security, however, I can not believe that people would create such unnecessary inconvenience for no gain in security at all!!!

I was a bit nervous because it was not easy to work back and forth between 7 forms (Federal plus State) and quite a few browser windows without making any mistakes. I was unlucky with my computers many times, thus, even I didn’t close any window mistakenly, the applications and Windows may well crash when I was working.

After a whole night’s hard work, I finally got to print them out before losing them despite a glitch in printing. Whew!

Welcome to Late-Starters’ Journey to Financial Freedom!

This is our 1st post, Feb 09, 2007. We are Yannick and Jacqui, a happily married couple, both in our 30’s already.

We are Late-Starters — on blogging and on the journey to financial freedom.

We have already learned a lot of personal finance “theories”, we have been reading personal finance blogs for years, … yet, we did not start practicing the “theories” till recently, we did not post our own blog till today….. We are truly — Late-Starters!

We had a lot of excuses to start late.

We did not learn English till secondary school, so we were scared of writing blogs in English.

We came to America after college. America is a completely strange world to us, we needed time to adjust.

We were in graduate schools for 6/9 years. The stipend to graduate students were so low that we thought it impossible to practice those personal finance theories!!!

Now, after reading so many people’s stories to financial freedom, we know that we should not wait any longer. We need to work hard on winning our financial freedom right away.

This is a diary of our journey to financial freedom. We want to use this diary to share our experience on the journey, to encourage people in similar situations, and to hear from people on the same journey. Let’s help each other, late-starters can catch up!