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June 2018

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Hearing Loss Solution for Free

My iPhone didn’t have quite enough volume. Meanwhile, Hollywood was going a bit loud on the special effects and music, making it hard to pick out the dialogue. And with a nod to Jerry Seinfeld, what is with all of these soft talkers?

About 20 years ago, I had a hearing test that showed some high frequency hearing loss. But I mean, come on, the beeps were so soft I could barely hear them. What could that test show? Another test, several years later, included a section on repeating spoken words. I did well until the technician covered her mouth with a sheet of paper and re-ran the test. I had no idea how much I relied on lip reading to understand speech.

Like most people with hearing loss I waited a good 7 years to get help. Actually that is the average, I likely waited more like 12 years. Why do people wait so long? Two reasons: vanity and the high cost of hearing loss solutions. But with a bit of digging, I found a hearing loss solution for free. If you suffer from the issue, blast out the family with the TV, or ask people to repeat themselves constantly, read on.

Start with a hearing test from a doctor

I began with a referral from my GP. Good to start with a doctor in case there are any other underlying causes of the hearing loss. After a comprehensive test with lots of very quiet (or absent) beeps, I got the results. Normal age-related hearing loss that arrived about 10 years early. Likely too many construction jobs in my youth before hearing protection was in vogue.

I left with an audiogram that showed good hearing at low frequencies, good for male voices, drum beats and doorbells. The high frequencies were the issue and they impacted the sounds of birds singing, water splashing and leaves rustling. Vowels are spoken in low frequencies, but consonants are high, which is why I can hear someone say “cat” very clearly. Unless it was “bat”. Or could it have been “that”?

The search for a hearing loss solution

I began at a well-known chain and was pleased to see that the aids were on a buy one, get 50% off on the other discount. The tiny machines were slick as can be. Barely visible and once in place, my hearing was nearly bionic. Incredible. So was the price at $6,500. Including the discount. The technician helpfully noted that the price included 3 years worth of batteries. Hmm. The battery savings could be a big deal. But these units were awesome and even connected right into my iPhone. I could take calls directly in my brain. Amazing. Could this be my hearing loss solution? Not so fast.

On to the next provider. Lots of gear plugged into my ears and more whispering beeps. Same results – significant high frequency loss. And significant high cost at about $6.500 for the pair. They recommended a different brand, but didn’t have a live set to try out.

I like to use Consumerreports.org to research major purchases (more on that here) and they showed that Costco was highly rated as a provider, so I made the pilgrimage. Yet more ear testing with a very similar result. The tech popped in a set of their house-brand Kirkland Signature 8’s. Yes, there is something a bit weird about buying hearing aids that share a brand name with courderoy pants, frozen broccoli, tool chests and Tilapia loins, but hey, they sounded great. Incredibly they were also Made for iPhone and even included a Lindsay Wagner type app (google it) that lets you check battery life, change the microphone focus and even use your phone as a remote mic. Very slick. Until I found the catch. No free batteries. What? How much for the batteries? $11.50 for 6 months of batteries, or $23 for the year! That first retailer that “included free batteries” wasn’t looking that great.

So what is the hearing loss solution for free?

Turns out that the Costco Kirkland Signature 8 Hearing Aids are only $1,900 for the pair. No tax. As in 1/3 the cost of the other quotes. Here in Ontario, there is a government grant of $1,000 for aids and I had enough benefit coverage to pick up the other $900. So the only real cost was the gas to get to Costco. I had a couple of fitting issues but they gave me an appointment one day later and got everything fixed. And yes, they are all licensed audiologists, just like the other retailers.

They have worked great for the first couple of weeks. I can understand speech in  TV shows and the waves in Lake Ontario have a “swish” sound now as well as a “whoosh”. Leaves rustling are loud enough to scare me. No more lip reading and I can understand people on the first try. Great to reconnect to the world. And no one knows they are there. Except my Cashflow Cookbook readers!

I saved enough to get a spare pair or two or just about make a whole TFSA contribution. Will they keep working this well? I will do another blog post in a couple of months with an update.

If you have hearing loss, don’t wait, get your ears checked. And there is a reason that Costco Hearing Centres are opening faster than Costco outlets overall.

Update – the results of my 6 month test report will be posted December 11th, 2018.

Do you have hearing loss? What have you found with hearing loss solutions?

Photo credit Ken Chan from Unsplash

5 Steps to Avoid Buyer’s Remorse

There’s no fun in buyer’s remorse. Maybe it was a minor blunder like the no-return shirt that doesn’t fit. Might have been a big one like buying too much house. Or a whole stack of purchases of questionable utility that did some “new math” to your credit card balance. Sometimes it is about a product you needed, but you just ended up with a lemon. I recall a Volvo that I bought new a few years back. Let’s just say that I could find the repair department without consulting Siri. On my fourth or fifth trip in as many weeks to replace yet another mysterious greasy part, the technician attempted to calm me by pointing out that all of the work was under warranty. I lost it completely as I explained that I had a full-time job apart from my new role as Volvo repair department shuttler. So how do we avoid buyer’s remorse?

Don’t shop just to shop

The science of shopping has developed immensely. Every aspect of retail is fine-tuned to make you spend. The lights, colours, music, product placement and pricing are all there to fill your cart. Store sensors are monitoring where you move, what you buy and what you look at. Online your results are tweaked based on what else you have been searching on. Read some articles on the science of shopping. Heading to the mall with no real agenda is like swimming with sharks. Whilst wearing a Lady Gaga meat dress.

Set a cooling-off period

Marketers do everything possible to create passion for their products and drive urgency into your buying process. I know, I used to be one. If the item isn’t a non-essential luxury, give yourself a little cooling-off period to regroup. Consult with some friends to get their thoughts. Set a calendar reminder to see if the item is still important in a couple of weeks.

Do some research to avoid buyer’s remorse

Once you figure out that you really want, but also need, the thing, do your research. On home renovations, get three quotes and references. Not unusual to see a difference of 2 or 3-fold on pricing and likely the same on quality. A friend  just got a quote for $34,000 to replace the boards on her 200 square foot deck. Hmm, about $1,000 in materials another $2,000 for labour and…a new car for the contractor. Shop around! For products, Amazon reviews are helpful even if you don’t buy from Amazon. Their process limits the reviews to actual purchasers and the large numbers help with accuracy. One of the all-time research bargains is ConsumerReports.org. Sign up for an online membership for $25/year. Completely unbiased reviews of everything from snow tires to sun screen, tractors and strollers. Saves you from being on a first-name basis at the repair department.

Find the best way to buy it

Or do you need to buy it? Could you rent or borrow one? Hard to have buyer’s remorse if you don’t actually buy it. What about a used one from eBay, kijiji, letgo, Tradyo or Craigslist? You can even set up alerts to get exactly the one you want. If it’s best to buy new (snow tires, beds, pillows or hockey mouth guards) do some online shopping. For car tires, as an example, you can go to 3 or 4 sites, enter your car details and have 3 quotes in 15 minutes. Try Kanetix for car, home and life insurance.

Skip the extended warranty

Think of it this way. The extended warranties are priced so that the company covers their costs for future repairs and adds a good 50% gross margin and that’s what you pay. The math says that over the long haul you are the loser. The profitability of extended warranties is always much higher than the product itself. The product may be good but the extended warranties themselves can lead to buyer’s remorse. That’s why the sales guys bite in and hang on like a  mosquito until you buy one. Car warranties usually exclude all of the “wear items” like tires, shocks, maintenance type repairs and brakes. Have a look at where you spent all of your repair dollars on your last car. Hmm. Skip the extended warranties, build up a cash cushion and self-insure on your cars and electronics.

And here is a bonus point:

Maintain your new purchase

Things with moving parts have a maintenance schedule for a reason. When one part wears or breaks,  it tends to screw up all of the parts around it. Making them fail and you poorer. Skipping regular maintenance is a great way to save. Like only taking birth control pills every other day. (Kidding, don’t sue me all you new moms and dads.) Do the maintenance on schedule.

What buying tips do you have? What purchases do you wish you could re-do?

The Secret to Great Investing

In Cashflow Cookbook, I curated 120 of the best ideas to free up cashflow for debt repayment or increased investment. Through the power of compound growth, relatively small monthly savings can result in building real wealth over time. Many of my readers have applied the concepts and are now keen to get their money to work for them. One of the most common questions I get is, “What is the secret to great investing?”

At a recent speaking engagement, a similar challenge was raised. An audience member was interested in the ideas in the book but questioned an example I had used of an investment growing at 7%, seeing that as unattainable. Looking at the history of the stock market over the long haul, the rate of return of money that stayed invested through wars, recessions, 9/11 and every other type of peril is about 7%. The Vampire that drains investing returns is usually the investor them self, pulling money out of the market when things look scary (selling low) then clamouring back in as markets rise (buying high). Not a winning approach. Studies have shown that fund investors typically underperform the funds themselves for exactly that reason.

So what is the secret to great investing?

But back to the question, what is the secret to great investing? There is no shortage of analysis of stocks, many with conflicting opinions. And many studies show that researchers carry a bias toward positive reviews to avoid the conflict that comes with a negative one. So how do you pick the winners and what is the secret to great investing?

I don’t know that there is a single secret, but I think that one of the keys is to understand the major shifts that are happening and ensure that your portfolio is on the right side of those shifts. Let me give you some examples from the last few years of some of these structural changes and some of the investments that I made.

 

Major Trend or Shift(s)

 

Company

 

Last 12 month’s Performance

Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, machine vision NVIDIA +82%
Outsourced IT, IT Infrastructure CGI +25%
eCommerce (software) Shopify +94%
eCommerce (shipping packages) FedEx +24%
eCommerce (core business) Amazon +79%
Mobile Computing Apple +32%
Out of Reach Housing Costs Canadian Apartment REIT +27%
Social Media and Digital Advertising Facebook +26%

 

Are technology trends the only thing to consider?

Did I win on every investment I made? Absolutely not. Could these stocks have suffered from some calamity that might have thrown off their returns? Absolutely. Should investors conduct other types of securities analysis and ensure that possible investments are secure. 100%. As an example, FedEx rival UPS was more or less flat over the past year. Not all trends are technology-related. The housing cost one above is an example. Global warming leading to more violent storms is another. And bear in mind that a trade war, misguided nuclear missile or even, ahem, a bad tweet could drive a big dip across the overall market.

But all things being equal, why not have the wind at your back as an investor? By overlaying known trends in addition to sound analysis, there could be some incremental gains to be had. Could Lance Armstrong beat me in a bike race? Sure. But what if I had a huge downhill and he was climbing over the same distance? Well, OK, he would likely still beat me. But you get the idea.

What are the shifts ahead that will impact stocks?

So the history lesson was great, but what is the secret to great investing going forward? And where do we find the trends that will provide the right kinds of tailwinds? One of my investing favourites is Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. It comes out every year around June 1st and it is one of the best ways of learning about the tech trends in the year ahead. Best of all, it is free. You can have a look at it here. The McKinsey Insights iOS app is another great and free source of information on emerging trends. The Motley Fool website has tons of great articles on these kinds of trends. For each trend, think about the securities you hold. Will the company benefit from using the new technology? Are they a maker of the technology? Or will their company become roadkill as the technology becomes more popular? Younger people aren’t familiar with the old red and yellow Kodak logo, but today it serves as a grim reminder of the effect of being on the wrong side of a technology shift.

How do you apply your knowledge of the trends?

Once you build your knowledge of the trends, how do you apply it? Work with your financial advisor to discuss how some of these trends might affect your portfolio. If you invest on your own, look at your holdings to see how they might be affected by some of these technology shifts. For many of these trends, there are exchange traded funds that focus on the themes. Examples would be Vanguard’s VGT, which holds high technology names, or HACK, a cybersecurity focused fund. Be sure to balance these ideas with other blue chip holdings of the broader market.

The securities mentioned are for illustrative purposes only. Investors should always conduct their own research and consult a financial advisor before buying any security. Stock markets are subject to volatility and investors should ensure that any investments are suitable for their risk profile.

Disclosure, I hold all of the securities above personally.

Where are you getting your information on trends? What trends will affect share prices going forward?

Photo credit Chris Lawton – Unsplash

Do It Yourself Savings. With Help!

The boards were rotting and turning black in spots. A racoon tribe had been digging into the wood for unseen treasures. Some of the planks had split open and a previous deck expansion had made the surface look a bit like a patchwork quilt. Eventually most of the usual husband denial tactics failed and it was time to actually get the deck rebuilt.

Getting the work done by a pro would cost a good $8,000. Enough for a fun trip, 1/3 of a year of university costs, some debt pay down or savings. A do-it-yourself deck replacement was an option, but the thought of prying out 250 square feet of old, nailed-on 2×6’s and replacing some of the framing underneath was a bit daunting. The deck is an irregular shape which would lead to  some tricky angle cuts. The clock was ticking though, as the deck had to be ready for our daughter’s 19th birthday.

Was this a candidate for do it yourself savings?

I costed out the materials and everything could be had for just over $1,000. Time to call my buddy “Rip” – a retired high school shop teacher turned home renovator and get a sense of what he might charge to get the work done. I then offered up myself as a helper, unsure as to whether that would raise or lower his price and whether I would speed or hinder his progress. He agreed to take me on as an apprentice and we booked a weekend for the work. I ordered the materials and had everything on site ready to go. Rip’s skills gave me the confidence that the job would end well. How can you go wrong with a home renovator named Rip? The greater concern was the 56-year-old “apprentice”.

Rip arrived brandishing the nation’s largest pry bar and a pickup truck filled with enough power tools to make Mike Holmes blush.  We filled fresh mugs of black coffee to add some workman vibe, then intimidated the planks off with the monster pry bar. By noon, we were down to the bare framing. Which was great, other than trying to get around on a deck with no planks, 10 feet off the ground. Rip had a good laugh at my knees knocking, even though we had appropriate safety measures in place.

I tried to minimize my interference while he worked

After lunch, we added some more framing underneath and then started screwing in new deck boards in a “frame and panel” approach that had a “frame” of 3 planks all around the perimeter, then boards installed in the usual way inside the frame. This design meant a better looking deck, but more work.

On Sunday, lots more coffee and some tricky angle cuts, which were no problem for us.  Actually, they were no problem for Rip and I tried to minimize my interference while he worked. After a while, we got into a rhythm; hauling planks, cutting and screwing them into place.

By Sunday night, the sun was low in the sky, the deck was beautiful, we were covered in sawdust and aching muscles.  We loaded the last of the tools into Rip’s truck and high-fived our success. A big pile of wood offcuts was next to the garage. I learned a bunch of new skills from Rip and he learned a few old jokes from me. I swept the new deck as Rip’s truck backed up our driveway.

The do it yourself savings weren’t the biggest part of the story…

The deck replacement was a success and saved thousands vs hiring out the whole project. But the do it yourself savings weren’t the biggest part of the story. The fun of learning from a pro, and of building something with my own hands led to a great sense of satisfaction. And there is something about a couple of days of hard work under a beautiful blue sky with an old friend.

Learning some DIY skills can provide major savings, the fun of learning and the buzz of accomplishment. Working with a pro helps you learn how to build things to code and work safely. Skills learned on one project let you take on the next one with confidence.

Where do it yourself savings aren’t an option, always be sure to shop around for price and quality – it works on just about everything  – even veterinarian bills. Pay special attention to recurring monthly costs as I did in a post about commuting costs. Use the freed up cash to pay down debt or build savings.

What do-it-yourself projects have you tried and did you get help from a pro, a book or a YouTube video? Let me know!