I finally decided to take charge of my finances and researched investment companies and how they made money. The first thing I did was read the paper prospectuses and annual reports that I got in the mail every six months. These documents are intimidating and there is a lot of tiny print in these documents. The only thing you really need to know is what the investment objective, performance and the annual fees of the fund. (i.e. expense ratios) A lot of mutual funds my financial planner put me in charged an expense ratio over 1% annually to invest with them. Now 1% doesn't sound like a lot of money, but if you pay 1% a year for 40 years, you end up losing 10x your initial investment returns to fees.
I remembered the Vanguard recommendation from my co-worker all those years ago and decided to look into them. Vanguard's expense ratios were much lower than the competition for similar mutual funds, and one by one I rolled over / transferred multiple accounts into Vanguard in 2004. I had to pay some surrender fees to move some of the money that was locked into loaded class B shares, and when I finally consolidated all of my accounts with Vanguard I was relieved to be out from under high investment fees. I went with the basic portfolio of Total Stock Market / Total Bond Market / Total International Market.
Back then, Vanguard was recommending 20-40% of your stocks should be in international stocks. International stocks are more volatile than domestic U.S. stocks, and sometimes U.S. stocks are the better choice, and sometimes international stocks are. Unfortunately we don't know ahead of time which one will outperform.
In 2007, my dad came to me and asked me if there was any place he could move his money because bank Certificates of Deposits (CDs) weren't paying squat. He was also upset that he had to pay taxes on multi-year CD dividends and he didn't have access to the invested money to pay the taxes because of early withdrawal penalties on CDs. My dad was an entrepreneur and I asked him if he wanted to invest in the stock market. He said he would rather invest money in his own business where he has control than to invest in someone else's business. Fair enough, so I asked him if we invested in bonds what he wanted. He said he wanted to invest in the thing that pays the most interest with no taxes. So we invested in the Vanguard Long-Term Tax Exempt fund. This is where my obsession with long-term bonds began.
In December 2007 The Great Recession started. It was caused by a housing bubble where excessive subprime mortgages were issued to people who didn't have the financial stability to repay them. When their mortgage payments increased, mass foreclosures caused mortgage backed securities to collapse and resulted in the stock market losing over 50% of its value in 2008. Still being in my accumulation years, I invested every bit of money I could into the stock market as it was going down until it hurt. It eventually bottomed out in March 2009. This paid off handsomely in the years to come.
Our first daughter was born in 2008. The following year we received a $1,000 child tax credit from the government. We took that money and opened a UTMA (Universal Transfer to Minors Act) account for college. We went with a UTMA account instead of an ESA (Educational Savings Account) or a 529 plan. ESAs and 529 plans have restrictions that the money must be spent on education. If the money is not spent on education then back Federal and state income taxes must be paid. If our kids are able to get scholarships then we will have to deal with that tax headache. With the UTMA account, the first $1,100 of dividend / capital gains income is tax free each year (as of 2019), and the amount between $1,100 and $2,200 is taxed at 10%. This income can be reported to the IRS using Form 8814. Each year we buy investments using their child tax credit and attempt to sell investments to realize a gain between $1,100 and $2,200 for each child. If any taxes are due from the previous year, it comes out of their next child tax credit.
To illustrate the time value of money and power of compounding, if you start investing $1,000 per year ($83 per month) at 8% return for your child when they are born and they continue until age 64, they will amass $1.7 million. The child tax credit in 2019 was $2,000 per child. If you want to try different numbers for your calculations, you can use our Retirement Calculator.