The Mentality from an MLM

These days, you’re probably not immune to being asked to join or buy from a multi-level-marketing (MLM) business. Also known as network marketing, it a way for companies to sell their product through individuals who market product(s) to their sphere of influence. It gets a bad reputation with “pyramid scheme” and the like, but it’s legitimate and makes sense if you take the time to step back and learn about it instead of repeating the rhetoric you’ve heard from your parents.

Our experience with an MLM led to being open to buying rental properties, which eventually led to me quitting my job and being happy outside of a career. Here’s what I learned by keeping an open mind to an MLM, even though we make $0 from that business today.

This is my experience with our time in an MLM. Mr. ODA would probably have something different to say. 🙂

AMWAY

BACKGROUND

By now, you may have seen the documentary on LulaRoe. Our experience was with Amway, and it was different from how LulaRoe operates. Now, Amway is the black sheep of the MLM world if you go just based on name. They’re one of the original MLMs. But they sell good products in the health, beauty, and home cleaning genres. As a “consultant,” you’re called an “independent business owner” or IBO. I thought the best part was that there’s no inventory you need to hold. If you want to do “parties,” then you need products on hand. However, it’s much different than how LulaRoe would have hundreds of leggings on hand and makes direct sales out of their on-hand inventory. To earn money, you can recruit more business owners, or you can have customers who just order directly from the Amway website each month. You make money off of what your customers buy, as well as the income that your IBOs below you generate.

TEAM SUPPORT

There are multiple “teams” associated with Amway. It’s the education arm of the business. Our team met once a week, and you were expected to be there if you really wanted to be in-the-know and considered serious about growing. They helped you structure your business to take advantages of bonuses offered by Amway, and they taught a lot about having the right mentality. Their goal was to foster personal and business growth, provide mentoring and coaching, and provide the tools to grow your business through conferences and seminars.

This is where we got our start. I know it’s hard to believe, but we both were exposed to a lot of growth through this team. The things we learned through the meetings and books we read during these couple of years gave us the courage to make the big decisions we did, getting us to currently having 13 rental properties.

THE CASHFLOW QUADRANT

Our introduction to the business was started by being given Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. The book references an earlier book of his, the Cashflow Quadrant. Each quadrant has its strengths and weaknesses.
– The upper left corner of the quadrant is for those who have Employee mentality. This is someone who is trading time for money. You work an hour and earn $20. If you’re not working, you’re not earning. You’re making money in someone else’s system, and there are people over you who are making more than you (e.g., a supervisor is making more than a secretary).
– The upper right corner is for Business Owners. You own a system that works for you. You have passive income in this quadrant. You may have an employee that is generating income that you earn.
– The lower left corner is for Self-employed people. Here you’re still trading time for money, but you have control over how much you earn based on how much effort and time you put in. This is a risky area because you don’t have security and may not have an established system to rely on and project your income.
– The lower right corner is for Investing. Your money makes money for you. This can also be risky because you’re not guaranteed positive returns on your investments. If you want to make a lot of money, you need to take on more risk.

The point here, according to the team we were on, was that you want to be a business owner. You want to generate passive income so that you’re not trading time for dollars. While someone else is selling to a new customer, you’re earning a percentage of that sale while not doing anything. As you grow your Amway business, you have more and more people generating income through these sales, which you get a percentage of. The kicker is that you need to hit a certain level within your own business before you earn. We set up recurring purchases to use the products we were selling, and had customers set up with recurring orders, so that we could hit that threshold to be eligible for the passive income.

OUR MOVE FROM MLM TO REAL ESTATE

The biggest hurdle to our success was the price of the products. We aren’t someone who values a better quality to be able to justify the higher price. There are people out there that value this, but it’s not our passion. A peanut butter meal bar comes to $3.14 per bar as a customer order (as an IBO, you get the product at cost, which would be $2.82 per bar). The peanut butter granola bars we buy are $0.50 per bar. Clearly, this isn’t a marginal difference in our expenses. The products were good, but not good enough for our finances to take such a hit. I tried to focus on the beauty side of the business and held parties where I recommend products and let women try it. I had passion behind it, but I wasn’t someone who washed my face regularly and put lotion on. I could see the benefits, but I wasn’t practicing what I preached, and I lost my drive.

The next hurdle was location. Our original meeting was with our specific team within the larger team (based on your “pin level,” you had a meeting with the people who were your “downline.”). We moved down to Richmond, and our closest meeting was Fredericksburg. It wasn’t insurmountable, but it was a 40 minute drive there and back once a week. The larger team would all come together in DC every quarter for a conference. We felt like time started moving faster, and we weren’t close enough to make these our friends between conferences, and so we stopped attending the big conferences. Then we stopped attending the weekly meetings. Then we cancelled our team membership. We still maintain our Amway IBO number, since it’s just $62 per year to do that.

The thought process that we learned from their weekly teachings and reading books we probably wouldn’t have read otherwise led to our desire to generate passive income. Mr. ODA had already been interested in the concept, and then when we were talking about venturing down that path with our Realtor selling our Northern Virginia home, he really got the urge to pursue it.

When we sold our Northern Virginia home, we had about $120,000 in our bank account. About $70k of that went to the downpayment and closing costs of our new house. The remaining went to finding a rental property… or two.

REAL ESTATE, PASSIVE INCOME, AND NO JOB

Real estate is in the business quadrant, but it’s not completely passive income. Truly, the Amway business wasn’t completely passive because you still needed to have the sales (either through your purchases or customer purchases) to be eligible to earn all the passive income available to you in the business. Most months with real estate, I take the rent money, pay out our mortgages, and that’s it. Sometimes I need to make some phone calls to contractors. However, we have to do very little to maintain our business of investment properties. We can also decide that we don’t want to field the phone calls and hand off the rest our properties to a property manager for 10% of rent. If we don’t have a new property or a property to turn over, then we probably put about 100 hours per year into managing the houses.

We knew we didn’t want to be in the employee mentality for the rest of our lives. Funny, because my goal when I was in college was to work for a “big 4” accounting firm and spend 80s hour per week at work. Then I started working for the government, and my goal was to be CFO in my 30s. Then I got to the headquarters office in my late 20s and hated the environment, so I decided I wanted to be no more than a state office’s financial manager. Then we had kids, and I decided I wanted to be home with them to see all the little moments. Things sure did evolve.

I believe that the time we spent with our Amway team changed my heart. I believe that time was important for me to see a different lifestyle and a different mentality. I don’t know that I would have seen the benefits of pushing ourselves to buy more rental properties had I not seen a lifestyle of entertainment.

I started to realize it would be nice to spend time with my family while the kids were little. Who wants to wait until retirement to spend time at home, when your kids are grown and moved out of your house? Why not spend the quality time in their early years? Let’s travel more and experience more in life. Let’s have more time with the kids than the hellish hours of 5 pm to bed time.

Our cash flow each month is about $7k, just based on the rental properties. That doesn’t include expenses that come up, and every once in a while we get hit with a major system that needs replacement, but most of the charges are a couple of hundred dollars here and there. Some days, I wish I could still do what I loved to do in the transportation world, but I don’t miss the office politics and the moderately strict work schedule.

I’m happy for all the experiences that have led me to this point in life. Perhaps you can read Rich Dad, Poor Dad or Cashflow Quadrant and learn a little bit more about all the options out there. Perhaps you just didn’t know that there are opportunities out there where you’re not trading time for money, or where you’re not cushioning the pockets of an executive while you make a certain salary. Perhaps you just needed your eyes opened to the chance to make your money work for you. Or, perhaps you’ll learn that you like the stability of being an employee, and you don’t want to change. But I urge you to take a look at the options and see what works best for you, now that you’re away that there are options.

February Financial Update

This month is basically just story telling, from insurance tidbits to mortgage annoyances, while not addressing the decline in the market and our investment accounts. 🙂

It seems all my mortgage payments are increasing on 3/1, so I’ve been managing those changes. I mentioned recently that one of our houses had the escrow analysis done incorrectly. Luckily, that was addressed, and the increase in our mortgage payment is only about $100 instead of nearly $200. Our personal mortgage increased by $16, another property increased by $52, and then our last 3 mortgages were all refinanced in January and this ‘first payment’ has been a bear. The information out of the refinancing company has been contradictory, they requested a bunch of information weeks after closing to support all the money they already gave us, and it’s just been rough. Rough enough that I ran to the post office to get a check in the mail at 4:48 pm today, only to get home to an email saying that I had to send that check (due tomorrow) to a different address. Ugh.

I was excited to share some positive news this month, but that got overshadowed by these mortgage payments! Anyway, we came home to some surprises after our vacation.

First, I had a medical procedure done in January. It was originally scheduled for November, but the week of the procedure, I had my heart go crazy on me. That cancelled my procedure because I couldn’t go under anesthesia until they knew my heart would be OK. We got my heart sorted out enough that I was cleared for the procedure, but once I was able to reschedule it, it went into 2022 ….. a new deductible year. They said that I needed to pay half the cost of the procedure before they’d schedule it. Since I had been waiting since September for this, I wasn’t going to question anything, and I gave my credit card number for $1200. Well, my insurance hasn’t processed the procedure yet, but I guess since I paid in advance, some sort of system review showed I had overpaid, and they refunded me $1196. I don’t know how they decided to keep $4, but I’ll cross that bridge when I see my claim is processed on my insurance website.

Second, I’ve mentioned before that you need to stay on top of insurance! I received a bill for my heart-related-ambulance-ride for over $900. The last time I was in an ambulance, I ended up owing the full bill, which was $500 at that time. When I saw $900, I figured, gosh 10 years later and a new jurisdiction, and THAT is what I owe. It said “we billed your insurance, and this is your balance.” Hmmm. Log into my insurance website and see there’s no claim history for an ambulance ride. I then learned, for the first time ever, how to submit my own insurance claim. I let the fire department know I submitted the claim, and then they said they’d do it for me! Why did your paper say you already did?! Well, the surprise I got was that my insurance covered all but $46 for the ride!!! I couldn’t believe it. That’s the happiest I’ve ever been to spend $46.

The most random thing that happened was a check from our electric company from our Virginia house. We sold that house in September 2020. Our mail forwarding isn’t active anymore and it was sent to our old address, so I really have no idea how we got it. It was $31.09 due to a required review of all accounts every 3 years. It’s not anything crazy or life changing, but that was truly a surprise!

RENTAL UPDATES

We had our usual suspects not pay rent earlier this month. One flat out said they won’t pay until the 23rd. I’m not even sure how to handle them anymore. I keep reminding myself that we raised their rent $150/month to get them to leave, but they accepted. So at least we’re in a good position there? The other paid us $700/$1150 on Friday (late). She at least emailed us with the awareness that we shouldn’t have to hunt her down for rent payments, so she got a pass because I was about to send the default notice at 12:01 am on the 6th. I’m also once again in a position of tracking down a rent relief payment on another house that’s supposed to cover December, January, and February. While the tenant ended up paying December rent, we’ve still been floating the January and February finances. The approval of their application (that was submitted in November) was January 10. As of today, no information from the State and no check in the mail.

I got a tenant renewal processed this morning. We increased their rent by $50/month (starting 5/1 when their current term ends), after it having been steady for 2 years. Our usual baseline to keep a good tenant is a $50 increase every 2 years.

We gave two property managers notice to increase rents on 2 properties that are up for renewal on 4/30. We do 60-day notices. It’s not entirely necessary, but I look at it as a way to negotiate with the tenant for a month, and then if they don’t agree to new terms, we have a month to get it rented. One ‘cried COVID’ last year, and we let her by. She’s been there 2.5 years at the same rate, and she even got the house under market value originally because it was November (bad timing). She’s at $875 and we said we’d go to $950. That’s a larger increase than we usually do, but the market rate for the house is $950-1000. If she balks, we’ll manage the turnover and get a new tenant in there. For another house, they’re at 1025 and have been since October 2019. They even negotiated a discount back then for an 18 month lease, so they’ve been under market. Despite our efforts to grieve our taxes, the City thinks this house is in an affluent neighborhood and has charged as such. We’re offering them a bump to $1100. Again, more than our usual $50 increase, but it’s been more than 2 years and $1100 is under market value. Then we had a 3rd person say she wants to stay in the house, but her lease isn’t up until August. She’s been there since August 2017 and has been at $850 rent since then. We’re looking to increase her rent to $900. She’s an awesome tenant that never needs anything, and I know she’s in grad school without much money. We’ve made her so happy for the last several years by renewing her without an increase, so I hope she understands the need to increase it now.

I paid the insurance on our townhome, which is a property we own outright, so I need to manage the escrow-type transactions. That was $210.

After our cash-out-refis in January, we have been looking for a new property to purchase. We’ve made 4 offers that have been out-bid. Mr. ODA has been trying to work the off-market angle. We made a full price offer for one of the houses contingent on seeing it, and the guy said that he’d now prefer to sell off his portfolio as one instead of each individual house. He declined our full-price-off-market offer. Sketchy. Then another guy said he wanted to wait until the new flooring was installed in his house before letting us see it, and then he won’t respond to messages now a week or so later. Interesting. We’re now trying to work another off-market deal through our Realtor, but the seller and our Realtor are out of town. I ran the comps on it and come to $235ish, while they were expecting $250k. I don’t deny that they’d get an offer in this market at $250, but I don’t know that it’s worth it to us. Then again, to be done with this driving around, seeing houses, making offers, and losing out, may all be worth an extra $15k.

PERSONAL TIDBITS

This month, we went on a trip for just about a week. The flight was paid for in a previous month, so that’s not captured in our spending. We stayed with a friend, and she made us nearly all of our food. We paid for our brewery visits with her. It was a great trip, and I definitely recommend Bend, OR! We did a last minute change from Touro for our rental car to a ‘regular’ car rental place at the airport, so that charge shows up in this month’s finances. We also booked 2 last minute hotel rooms, once for the night of our arrival and one for the night of our departure (we flew in/out of Portland, which is about 2.5 hours from Bend, so it was easier with the kids sleep schedules to be near the airport those two nights instead of arriving really late or leaving really early).

We bought Hamilton tickets. We were late on that band wagon until we finally found a friend with Disney+ who wanted to watch it with us even though they had seen it 257 times. Since December 2020, we’ve watched Hamilton a whole lot. We got on right when tickets were being sold and were about to accept the $200+ ticket price until Mr. ODA found the ticket sales through the actual venue were only $130! It’s not until June, but that’s something to look forward to!

We finished our basement over the last year and have been using for the last month now. We had a projector on hand that we used as our TV down there, but it started to die shortly after we hooked it up. We bought a new projector and have been really happy with it, and I was happy with it only being $270.

While our electric bill was surprisingly low last month, it was surprisingly high this month. They did an estimated meter reading, putting the estimated kWh usage at the highest it’s ever been. When I questioned their estimation process and shared the current meter read, they said that next month will probably be an actual reading and since it’s not more than 1000 kWh difference, they’re not going to change anything. Sure, I can afford this $414 bill that may be offset next month, but many people can’t. Their estimation process shouldn’t put the projected energy usage at an all-time-high, thereby dumping surprisingly large bills on people. Regardless, it’s something that works itself out, and isn’t something I’m going to fight any harder on right now. It’s just annoying knowing that our energy usage was high last year because we had a broken unit without our knowledge, and then with a working unit, they’re estimating that we’ve used more than ever.

Mr. ODA changed one of our credit cards, so I’ve been all out of sorts here now. The credit card was a travel-related card, and they increased their annual fee by $100. He ran the numbers and determined the benefits didn’t outweigh the cost increase. Instead of closing the card, they agreed to change the type of card. However, all the things we used that card for are now on different cards, and this change “activated” an old card of mine. Our credit card usage is convoluted; perhaps I’ll do a new explanation and update my last post on it (and then maybe that’ll get me to remember all the changes!).

NET WORTH

Our net worth dropped about $15k from last month, but that was due to the market. While not fun to see those numbers go down, it doesn’t affect our day-to-day. Our cash balance is really high right now while we keep cash liquid for a downpayment while finding another investment property.

Hear more from Mrs. ODA

Back in May, I was a guest on Maggie Germano’s Podcast, “The Money Circle.” I shared some of our background and how we started investing in real estate. We brushed on topics like establishing an LLC, tax advantages, and how you don’t need to start big to just get started. It was a brand new experience for me, but I’m passionate about our real estate experiences, and I loved being able to share. I hope you’ll check it out!

The 4% rule – How does Real Estate Play In?

The common goal in the FI/RE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community is to reach a point where your net worth is 25x your annual spending, meaning your expenses are 4% of your net worth. This is an extreme oversimplification of things because of the number of variables associated with where your net worth might be, and how to access it. For example, retirement accounts have requirements to be met before drawing funds; while you may have hit the 4% expense to net worth ratio, it may not mean that you have that money liquid to cover your spending.

When the ODAs started down the path of FI/RE, we did it with a real estate rental portfolio. This path of net worth growth really doesn’t fit the traditional mold. It provides regular cash flow, rather than an account with a balance that’s drawn down. 

As mentioned in previous posts, there are numerous ways to make money in real estate. The path we have taken is probably one of the simplest and most repeatable for anyone. We own a portfolio of single family rental houses, most of which were bought straight from the MLS. These basic properties are in basic neighborhoods with regular tenants. Nothing special. We acquired these properties by focusing on the 1% rule in real estate – try to secure 1% of the property’s purchase price in monthly rent. Another oversimplification of how things really go, but if we were able to find a $100k property that rents for $1,000 a month, we know we’re going to make money long term. 

For these properties, we typically put 20%-25% down and finance the rest through a conventional mortgage. We find a tenant, and then the 4 ways to make money in real estate go to work for us: appreciation, tenant mortgage pay-down, tax advantages, and most importantly for our situation and FI/RE – cash flow. 

I want to talk about how we can reach a FI/RE number through real estate cash flow differently and more quickly than using traditional stock market investing. 

The $100k house had a 20% down payment and mortgage rate at 5% interest, which brings the monthly principal and interest payment to $429. Add another $121 for taxes and insurance (using round numbers here!), $100 for maintenance and capital expenditures savings, and $100 for a property manager; this comes to $750 worth of monthly expenses. At $1,000 per month of income, you have $250 per month of cash flow in your pocket. $250 per month equates to $3,000 per year of cash flow. With the $20,000 down payment and about $5K in closing costs, it means that our $25k investment nets us $3k per year in cash flow. 

Circling back to the 4% rule for stock market investments, $3k in cash flow requires a savings of $75k. But we only had to invest $25k! We’re banking on the monthly cash flow, rather than a “stagnant” savings.

We took that math and ran with it. Our rental portfolio has 12 houses in it. While we’ve shown in prior posts that each house’s numbers aren’t as clean and simple as this example (some better, some worse), if we take that $3k annually and multiply by the 12 properties, we have $36k in annual cashflow for only $300k invested. 

What would you rather need to produce $36k income – $300k or $900k?

Can you scale a rental portfolio to reach enough annual cashflow such that you can live off the cash flow? 

Rental property investing is not completely passive. We have tenants to manage, properties to maintain, property managers to manage, income and expenses to track for taxes, lending efficiencies to explore, and the list goes on. But if you’re willing to put in a little work to reach financial independence (the FI part), you can do it substantially faster by finding strong properties to provide significant cash flow than if you were to take the totally passive route of simple stock market (index fund) investing. 

Note, there’s nothing wrong with that – we have a substantial position in the stock market due to the tax free growth benefits of retirement accounts. The power of real estate investing saw our net worth grow faster than we’d have ever dreamed since we bought our first rental in 2016. The proof is in the pudding and we advocate to anyone to just get started!

Contrarian View on an Emergency Fund

There are many teachings out there that talk about a safe, sustainable, and efficient way to wealth being many streams of income. This diversifies and provides multiple avenues for growth, but also mitigates risk and protects your larger portfolio against any one stream failing.

Our financial portfolio meets those goals. Instead of having an emergency fund sitting in a savings account earning 0.03% interest (that’s literally our savings account interest rate, and that’s the ‘special’ relationship rate), our money is put to “work,” earning more money for us.

INDEX FUNDS

Probably the simplest and most common example of multiple streams is index fund investing. A quick read of JL Collins’ “The Simple Path To Wealth” will teach you that through index fund investing, you have an ownership share of every company the index fund covers. Some are matched to S&P 500 companies, some to International, some to the DJIA, and most to the “Total Market.” Mr. and Mrs. ODA invest in the “Total Market Index Fund,” through Fidelity, in our IRAs and taxable investment portfolio. By owning a small part of every publicly traded company, we own that many streams of income. Any one company going belly up will only be a blip on the radar of that index fund, and, over enough time, it will go up, and up a lot. This is as risk free of a true investment as you can get. 

Being Federal Employees (Mrs. ODA no more, though), we both have access to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for our 401k’s. The TSP provides a group of 5 index funds to choose from: Government Securities, Fixed Income Index, Common Stock Index, Small Cap Stock Index, and International Stock Index. 

In times of market upheaval, we can ‘escape’ to the Government Securities fund, and pending a nuclear winter or alien attack, is guaranteed to be paid (TSP.gov). However, with this little risk also comes little reward, so it won’t grow fast. With index funds and a safety spot, our TSPs are about as low risk a retirement investment as you can have. Note that Index Funds through Fidelity or Vanguard (for example) and the TSP have the industry’s lowest fees on their funds, so we won’t lose our nest egg to management costs either. 

REAL ESTATE

Outside of anything related to the stock market, we have 12 single family rental properties. Each of these houses operate as their own small business, with long term tenants in most of them (that have thankfully all been able to maintain rent payments through the pandemic). If one or two houses did lose their tenant, or have an AC break, or a roof needing replaced all at the same time, the other houses (businesses) can pick up the financial slack. A few of the properties are owned outright, so the lack of a mortgage certainly helps the whole portfolio’s cash flow. And actually, we did have to replace/repair multiple roofs and HVAC units at the same time in the summer of 2020! On top of the individual homeowners insurance we have on each house, we have a Commercial Liability Umbrella Policy covering anything above and beyond the individual policies.

DIVERSITY

We also have some money tied up in more actively managed mutual funds – investments we owned before we discovered index fund investing – and individual stocks. However, I can’t bare the capital gains taxes required if I were to sell them and shift that money over to an index fund. But – they’re there in case of an emergency.

That Federal job I mentioned – I’m lucky to have about as much job security as any W2 employee can have in this great nation. Through the shutdown a couple years ago, I had 2 paychecks delayed, but my rental properties made it so that I didn’t have to worry about our finances. Otherwise, a safe, consistent paycheck is something I can count on – with health insurance for our whole family that comes with an annual out of pocket maximum of only $10,000.

So we have a W2 income, 12 rental property small businesses providing monthly cash flow, and a slew of stock investments diversified across all markets. We have diversity that mitigates risk and shields us from small “emergencies” manifesting themselves as such.

We view “medium” emergencies as something that can be solved with a new credit card deferring needing to truly “pay” for our expenses until life gets back to normal. You’ve seen a past post discussing our perspective on strategic credit card usage (and the Chase cards specifically). Twelve to fifteen months of no interest on a credit card can get anyone out of a financial bind when emergencies hit. We haven’t found a reason to NEED this option, but know that it’s always out there if the perfect storm of bad luck were to ever hit.

For these “small” and “medium” emergencies, stocks could be sold before we would need to be faced with something like not being able to pay utilities, buy food, or get foreclosed on. We simply don’t view a “large” EMERGENCY cropping up with any higher than a near non-zero probability given the shielding and structure we have built out of our total financial portfolio.

I can’t fathom what that perfect storm would look like. Six months of expenses can easily be found in selling our stocks if all of our tenants suddenly stopped paying rent, for example. But if a pandemic isn’t going to make that happen, what would?

All this to say – Mrs. ODA and I keep very little cash liquid to cover our “emergency” fund. Outside of a couple thousand in our checking account to cover regular monthly/cyclical financial obligation fluctuations, we don’t have any dollars NOT “working for us.” Whether it be investing in index funds, contributing to IRA/401k, or paying down mortgages to eventually achieve more cash flow, we put all our money to work. We see the rewards of this strategy far outweighing the risk of encountering a debilitating financial emergency, and therefore don’t follow the traditional personal finance advice of keeping X months’ living expenses in cash handy at a moment’s notice.