– Ben Martens


Picking Stocks

A relative is going through a class in school where they are picking stocks to see who can make the most play money over the course of the class. On the surface, I think it’s a fine idea, but if this is the only exposure that the students have to the stock market, it might do more harm than good. Picking individual stocks is risky at best and pure gambling at worst. It can be a fun hobby but it should almost never be used as a real investment strategy. So what to do? I sent them some thoughts and figured I would post it here as well.

John Bogle, the visionary behind Vanguard, shares his wisdom in the book “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing” which I’ve written about before. It’s concise, backed by research, and a must-read for anyone thinking of investing their money. Bogle’s book dispels common myths about investing. Here’s the bottom line: picking individual stocks or relying on mutual funds managed by others is a losing game over the long haul. Sure, there might be temporary hot streaks, but consistently beating the market over decades is effectively impossible. The market wouldn’t work if it was possible to consistently beat it.

So, what’s the winning strategy? Low-cost, total market index funds.

  • Total Market Index Funds: These funds bundle everything in the stock market. When you invest in them, you’re effectively buying a slice of the entire economy. It’s the ultimate diversification.
  • Low-Cost: The fees associated with these funds are ridiculously low—around 0.03%. Why? Because there’s no human actively managing them. It’s all math, ensuring that the fund mirrors the composition of the entire US market. If a company represents 3% of the total US market, its stock will constitute 3% of the fund.

The only thing left at that point is to figure out which actual funds to buy. This is where strategies can vary a bit, but they’re generaly fairly similar. Here are two popular strategies:

  1. VTSAX and chill. This is the simplest version of investing. VTSAX is as low cost fund that covers the entire US economy. Buy this one fund, don’t touch it, and reap the benefits when you need the money.
  2. Split between US, international, and bonds. You can vary the percentages based on your stage in life, but here’s a good starting point:
    1. 70% VTI – Low cost, total US market index ETF.
    2. 10% VXUS – Low cost, total international market index ETF
    3. 20% BND – Low cost, total bond market index ETF

Of course it’s important to remeember that all of this investing has a bigger tax burden than tax-advantaged accounts like a 401k or IRA. Investing directly in the market is generally only something to consider after you’ve maxed out your better options. Financial health can feel overwhelming but as I’ve written about before, this flow chart does a great job of breaking it down. Or if that’s too much, start with Dave Ramsey’s 7 Steps.

I’m no expert and you shouldn’t blindly follow anything I’ve written here, but you should have your own opinions about this. If you’re going to rely on individual stocks, you should read Bogle’s book and be able to explain why you think he’s wrong. It’s so easy to get sucked into thinking this has to be complicated, but the complicated route will almost always lose you huge amounts of money down the road.

Come to the WELS

I belong to a national church body called the “Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” Every month, they put out a video called “WELS Connection” to share what’s happening around the rest of the synod. The videos are short and are usually shown after church. As a kid, it was always fun to see the TV wheeled out and the VHS tape popped into the VCR. Each video started with a very 90s song called “Come to the WELS.” (Any of you fellow members over the age of about 25 now have this song stuck in your head.)

The videos use a different song today, but it got me wondering how long that song was used. It’s fairly difficult to find any information partly because there isn’t much available and because there’s a more popular Counting Crows song called “Come to the Well.”

After searching around on YouTube for more time than I’d like to admit, I realized I should check the WELS website and sure enough, they have an archive that goes all the way back to 2009. In September 2009, the videos switched from “Come to the WELS” to “Jerusalem the Golden” and then in June 2013, they switched to “In Christ Alone” which is still in use today.

But I still have unanswered questions. Who wrote “Come to the WELS”? Who sang it? Who decided to replace the flutes at the end with kids singing? Was the whole song rerecorded for that change? What does Pastor Rosenau think when he looks back at his Jan 2009 appearance? What’s Pastor Bill Burnhardt up to? What would happen if you listened to that song for an hour straight?

Merry Christmas


1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

PacNW Christian Men’s Retreat 2023

Every year, the area churches affiliated with the WELS and ELS combine to host a men’s retreat. I’ve known about this for years but have never attended myself. This year when I got the email, I thought, “Hmmm… I think I want to go to this one. I need to remember to bring it up with Tyla and see what she thinks.” A few minutes later, she came in reading the same email and said, “Ben! You have to go to this retreat! Professor Paustian is amazing!” Mark Paustian is a professor at Martin Luther College, and she had him for a couple classes. He was scheduled to be the guest speaker at the retreat. I took her advice and signed up immediately. Over the next week or two, three other MLC grads heard about the retreat and encouraged me to attend so I could hear Professor Paustian.

The event was held at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. It’s only about 35 miles away but it either requires a ferry ride or a drive around the south end of Puget Sound. The event starts Friday evening so I checked in, met up with a couple other people, and we got a quick dinner at a Mexican food truck called Burritos y Tacos on the northwest side of the golf course. Then we headed back for the opening session where Professor Paustian explained what he’d be sharing over the weekend and talked to us about being “transparently Christian.” He shared examples like purposely reading Christian books when he’s out in public or simply including church activities when people ask about your weekend.

There were 76 of us in attendance so that requires a lot of sleeping space. We stayed in building 225 which is a group housing dormitory. It’s a historical site so the accommodations are simple, but I had my own room and a shared bathroom. Our group brought a large selection of snacks, drinks, and games so there was optional fun happening there until late into the night.

After waking up early and walking around the park, Saturday morning started with breakfast in the group dining facility and then we headed over to the USO Hall for more classes. Our course was on apologetics which is an intellectual defense of the truth, rationality, and core beliefs of Christianity. We went through various aspects of it, but the repeated message was that you’re not there to argue specific facts with people, but the goal is always to point people to the message of the gospel. Our consciences tell us that things are wrong, but only the gospel reveals the saving message of Christ. Jesus died for our sins. There’s nothing we have to do or can do to earn heaven. He did it all for us! This is a simple message that is unfortunately unique to Christianity and even unique within many circles of Christianity. Human reason says that there must be something we have to do, but God’s mercy is an affront to human reason. He loves us more than we can ever imagine.

There were a few hours reserved on Saturday afternoon for people to do whatever they want. Some went back to the dorms to take a nap while other groups went hiking, golfing, and shooting. I went with a group of about a dozen people to play disc golf. It was fun playing on a new course and introducing people to the sport.

After dinner, we headed back for another session before going back to the dorm for more fellowship and sleep.

Sunday morning was the end of the event and we met one more time. Professor Paustian gave a devotion/sermon and as part of a short service. Hearing a big group of men singing some favorite hymns is a treat!

If you’re in the area and are at all intrigued by these, please consider attending! This event has been going on for over 20 years except for a short COVID pause and they’re planning to hold it again next year in mid to late April. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be encouraged by your fellow Christians and hear a great speaker. Professor Paustian lived up to the hype! Tyla and I are already going through his “Our Worth To Him” devotion book, but now I’m also looking forward to reading Prepared to Answer and the cleverly titled follow-up: More Prepared to Answer.

COVID-19: Day 1095 (Three Years)

Three years ago, our family went into lockdown, not knowing what COVID would mean for the future. After three years, life does seem to be returning more to normal. Through a combination of vaccines, immunity from previous infections, and better treatment options, the death rate is falling. The media is tired of talking about it, and I’ve had multiple people tell me that COVID is over.

While things are certainly better than they were, it’s still killing ~2500 people per week in the US. That’s an improvement from where we were, and it has been holding steady in that range for a few months. But even at that rate, it is still the 7th biggest killer in the US ahead of diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Higher vaccination rates, more home testing, and isolating when sick could save around 100,000 lives per year. How many lives could we save if people know that COVID is still killing this many people? Would they care?

We had a chance at getting people to care when there was a personal threat, but how do we get people to make sacrifices to help someone else? This challenge isn’t unique to COVID. With other global threats like our changing climate, we have an idea of which activities are making things worse, but how do we get people to make a financial or lifestyle change for results that won’t show up for a few decades? The real solutions seem to work around the need for individuals to make sacrifices, but will we find something like that for COVID?

Long term, I think we solve these types of problems by educating the next generation to do a better job of consuming information. I’ve been very happy to see Elijah’s school teaching how to differentiate facts from opinions, look for supporting evidence, and identify experts. A population with those kinds of habits would hopefully have a better response to situations like this in the future.

For now, we have to work with the tools at our disposal. The good news is that compared to the original lockdown, these tools are pretty easy to use:

  • If you haven’t gotten the updated vaccine shot that came out last fall, get it.
  • If you are sick, take a COVID test every couple days until you’re better. You get 8 free per month with most insurance plans.
  • If you get COVID, follow the guidelines and isolate.

For a mix of social and scientific reasons, it looks like COVID is here to stay, and while we don’t need to stay locked up in our houses, we also can’t ignore the continued impacts.

COVID-19 Day 1000

One THOUSAND days of the pandemic. Where are we now?

In my county, somebody is still dying every day from COVID. It’s a big county and I don’t fall into the categories of people likely to die from it (5x more likely to die if you’re not vaccinated and boosted, 23x more likely to die if you’re over 65), but still, I don’t want to be involved in the spread of the virus in any way. It’s still the third leading cause of death (behind cancer and heart disease), and in 2022, we’re going to end up with more COVID deaths than we had in 2021. It will be about the same as Alzheimer’s (#4) and accidents (#5) put together.

All three of us were happy to get the new “bivalent” booster shot. Those shots offer protection against both the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the Omicron variant BA.4 and BA.5. We were pleasantly surprised by how full the appointment schedules were to get one. If you haven’t scheduled yours yet, now is the time! With good habits around keeping up to date with the shots, staying home when we’re sick, and lots of at home testing, we should be able push this farther down the “causes of death” list than #3!

P.S. Wondering if you’re eligible for a booster shot? Check the CDC COVID page and click “Find Out When to Get a Booster.” If you haven’t had the updated booster shot yet and it’s been more than 2 months since your last shot, then the answer is probably yes!

P.P.S. Did you know that most insurances cover 8 at-home test kits per month for free? Just walk into your favorite pharmacy and they’ll get them for you.

P.P.P.S. Consider scheduling a flu shot as well if you haven’t had one yet. We’re in a very bad flu season and it’s ramping up earlier than normal. It’s the worst since 2009 or 2010 depending on whether you use reported cases or hospitalizations, respectively.

Artificial Accountability Partner

Back in January, I wrote about using a habit tracker app to help me keep up with my back exercises. Every morning at 8am, I get a notification on my phone asking if I’ve done those stretches yet. It’s amazing how much that little question keeps me honest! And now that my streak is over 300 days, it’s even more encouraging for me to spend a little time on those stretches.

A few months after I started that, I decided to try it on a couple other habits too. I set up one that asks me how many pops I’ve had that day and then there are three others that say “Did you have zero/one/two alcoholic drinks today?” Both of those habits slowly creep up over time if I don’t pay attention. There’s always an excuse about why I deserve to have a pop at lunch or why I should have a drink before bed or how I’m on vacation so I can splurge a little. But having those stats in front of me and knowing that I’m going to have to answer those questions every evening is a great motivator. My pop consumption has come down from a peak of two per day to two per week! And with all the camping trips, grilling, and vacations in the summer, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of having a drink every night, but that’s going well too.

I’ll be putting that habit tracker to the test in December. I bought one of those beer Advent calendars. I’m excited to try all those different beers but I’m already bummed about how it’s going to impact my habit tracker stats! Hopefully that feeling continues into January and I can bring the stats back up quickly.

Xfinity Mobile – 16 Month Review

Time flies when you’re… saving money? It’s been 16 months since we ditched Verizon and went to Xfinity Mobile. As a quick recap, Xfinity Mobile uses the same cell network as Verizon but it’s cheaper and lets you easily switch your plan from month to month with no contract. Because it’s Xfinity and because the deal is so good, it feels like there should be a catch… but there’s not.

For the last 16 months, we’ve averaged $25.78/month total for our two lines. Not per line. Total. Granted we use a small bandwidth plan of 1GB shared between the two lines per month, but for our usage, that’s fine. In those months when we just use the 1GB, our bill is just under $20. We had one month where we bumped up to 3GB and another where we bumped up to both lines with unlimited data. If we had stayed with Verizon, and if Verizon hadn’t increased prices over that time (HAHAHA), we would have spent $78.50/month including my 20% employer discount. So we’ve saved $843.52 or over $50/month and our service has been the same.

To make it even better, the cost for the Xfinity Mobile plans has gone DOWN over time. It used to be $40/line/month for unlimited data but now it’s only $30/line/month. So if/when we change up to that again in the future, it will be an even easier decision and that’s getting cheap enough where I wonder if we should just use that all the time.

If you have Xfinity internet, give Xfinity Mobile a hard look. Unless they don’t support the phone you like, I can’t think of many reasons to not use them.

Getting Rid Of Junk Mail

Like most of you, we get lots of junk mail. It’s kind of absurd. It all just goes straight in the recycling and aside from wasting my time, it feels like a waste of resources too. I’ve used Catalog Choice in the past to try and stop some catalogs. (I never kept track of the ones I tried to stop so I don’t know if it worked.) Now I’m trying six months of Paper Karma. I’ve been throwing junk mail into a box for a couple months so that I can make good use of my subscription time for the service.

The way the app works is that for every piece of junk mail you get, you scan it with your phone as a quick way to search for the sender and then they take care of contacting the company to try and get you removed from their mailing list. They have direct access to the recipient lists for quite a few companies, but for others, they have to take slower methods of notification that may or may not work. I scanned in the whole pile shown in the image and probably about half of them have a “success” status already which means that I shouldn’t continue to receive those mailings. It’s not a guarantee, but even if it cuts my junk mail in half, I’ll be happy.

Streaming Packages

For our TV watching, we almost exclusively use streaming service. We do have an antenna set up for some locals with a DVR hooked up to it, but that’s only used for some Seahawks games. We always have Amazon Prime Video since that comes with our Amazon Prime subscription, and we pay for YouTube with no ads, but otherwise, we rotate our services so that we only pay for one other one at a time.

That’s the goal but it doesn’t always play out that way. For the past few years, we’ve had Disney Plus. In November of 2019, we did a three year pre-paid deal which came out to less than $4/month. That is expiring in a couple months so it has me looking at streaming service prices in more detail. Netflix is expensive but it’s a single service so it’s easy to add and drop. The complexity comes with Disney Plus and Hulu. Those prices are all going up by a few bucks on October 10. They make it tricky because they offer a bundle of Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus that is less a pretty good deal if you’re ever going to have two of those services.

  • Hulu $14.99/month
  • Disney+ $10.99/month
  • ESPN+ $9.99/month
  • Bundle all three for $20.99/month

I don’t know that we’d ever watch ESPN+ but it’s hard to decide if we’ll do monthly Hulu and Disney+ alternating individually or get the bundle. (Those prices are for the services without ads. I will pay to avoid ads anywhere possible.)

The nice thing is that these decisions are low cost and effort. It’s so easy to subscribe and unsubscribe from month to month. I’ll frequently hit unsubscribe on whatever service we have an see how long it takes us to notice that it died off. Otherwise, it’s easy for the costs to pile up quickly and silently.