The Complete Bitcoin & Crypto Guide: 3 Fresh Innovations
Updated on April 16th, 2021
First, I want to tell you what bitcoin is in a balanced light and first discuss the negative features of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. This is not an article about why bitcoin is bad, but in order to have a balanced discussion you need to be aware of its less desirable features. I also don’t try to sell you on why bitcoin is a good investment. I just present the facts, features and the best ways to participate.
All too many bitcoin investors and promoters extol its benefits and completely ignore anything negative about it because they have their own interests in mind (usually getting referrals to Coinbase, which I don’t recommend, by the way) or perhaps they don’t really understand it.
This article assumes you know the basic Bitcoin definition that it is a “digital currency” or investment. I don’t waste any time discussing the Bitcoin history since there’s no need for page filler when this article is already packed full of relevant, useful material for buying, trading, exchanging or storing it.
Is Bitcoin Really a Currency?
No. To be a bona fide currency it would need to be widely accepted for payment. Sure, there are a few niche websites that accept it for payment, but right now there are very few places that do so. Bitcoin adherents always point out that once in a while a large online store starts accepting it, and that as the technology matures it will become widely accepted. But Bitcoin has already been around for ten years at this point. How much longer does it take to become a widespread payment option?
It has to be easy for both consumers and retailers to use as a payment option and it certainly isn’t there yet and might never be. There are a whole host of issues with using cryptocurrency as payment, which I now discuss.
Bitcoin Costs Money
The first issue is that it is not free to acquire. What is going to motivate a consumer to first buy cryptocurrency to spend when they already have a bank card that costs nothing to use? Using those little pieces of paper adherents like to refer to as “fiat” works just as well.
Here’s the process to get Bitcoin, or other coins. You first create an account at a dealer (discussed below). You fund your account with USD, which generally has a fee. Then you buy your preferred cryptocurrency, for a fee. Then you send your payment, for a fee.
It’s Not Cheap to Send, Nor Faster Than Other Services
One of the early selling points of cryptocurrency and other digital currency investments was that it was supposed to be cheaper than sending money in other ways. It’s also supposed to be fast. In addition to the fees mentioned above to convert your fiat to crypto, during the Bitcoin mania at the end of 2017, the fees and transaction times to send money became enormous due to the sheer number of transactions.
Would you spend $28 dollars and wait 30 minutes for your coffee transaction to go through? Of course not. That episode showed how impractical it was at the time, and the developers have since made some changes to the block sizes to reduce the impact of that happening, but can it really support a worldwide payment system involving billions of transactions an hour?
A currency would need to have stability in price. Just look at these massive swings in the bitcoin price history:
Today my coins are worth $10,000, no wait, today they are $7,000…. Nope, $5,000. You don’t need a lot of bitcoin price analysis to see that it is volatile.
BTC is Not Anonymous
Bitcoin was also advertised to be like cash and be anonymous. It’s actually more of a pseudo-anonymous thing where every transaction can be traced to a wallet. So, is bitcoin traceable? Yes, to a degree.
The problem is, in the US and Europe, there are Know Your Customer (KYC) rules which means that you have to provide a copy of your identification to buy or sell it on their platform. If you initiate or receive a payment from that account, the government authorities will know who it belongs to and the transactions you make in those wallets are 100% traceable.
Even simple, routine things like moving your funds to cold storage (discussed below) can result in a taxable event because the money moved, even though you didn’t spend it or trade it.
Only some altcoins, coins other than Bitcoin, like Monero (also discussed below) and a few others have actual privacy safeguards built in. With Monero, coins can be received, spent or stored and no prying eyes are the wiser. There is some utility in that kind of privacy, but you can’t buy it directly from any fiat-to-coin exchange.
Few One Stop Shops
The desegregation of services can be confusing to consumers which limits mass adoption. This is mostly a result of government regulation around KYC rules. Firms will only offer services they have the licenses for and getting licenses to move money around isn’t routine after 9/11.
But if I go to to JP Morgan’s website, I’m quite certain I know what I will find there. I’ll see credit card offers, banking accounts and home loans. If you enter the website of a random cryptocurrency operator, do you know what you will get? You might get a wallet provider and a place to buy coins. You might get an exchange. Or you might get a payment processor for retailers. There are few one-stop shops that cater to the whole ecosystem.
Ask any random person how to buy 10 shares of Apple and they will say an online brokerage. Ask them how they can buy cryptocurrency, and I’d wager 99 out of 100 would have no idea.
Fees From Providers Are Often Hidden
Furthermore, when you do visit the webpages of the various service providers, the fees are generally not right at the front. You usually have to dig down multiple levels to determine how much the funding fee will be, how much the conversion fee will be and how much the transaction fee will be. It’s not a consumer friendly experience.
Is It Like Digital Gold and Rare?
One of the main selling points of a Bitcoin investment is that the number of coins that will ever enter production is limited. Some say its the only reason why bitcoin has value.
Millions of computers participate in validating transactions across the network and part of this is mining for new coins. The fact that there is a finite limit to the number of Bitcoin that can be in the system is a major selling point for many. It would theoretically keep up with inflation and increase in value as more users and participants join the system.
After the media started beating the drum about it nonstop towards the end of 2017, it became sort of a 1949 gold rush. Some of the earliest speculators bought in under pennies and rode it up to $20,000 a coin creating vast fortunes. That’s the kind of story that gets around – FAST.
We discuss how to mine for bitcoin later in the article.
Altcoins and ICOs Are Born
With these kinds of returns, everybody wanted in on the action, but of course, those returns were already in the past. What are scam artists to do to bilk people out of their money? Introduce new altcoins with grand promises about why they are so great. Coins started multiplying like rabbits and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) started raising millions of dollars based on nothing other than white papers or concepts of how their coin was special and worth your money.
How many coins are there now? Over 5000. How many coins have a possible legitimate use? Less than 10, most likely, but this is open to debate depending on who’s making the marketing pitch. Each one has some extra feature that supposedly makes it the next best thing.
Most of them are just forks upon forks off of Bitcoin (where the old coin exists, and a new coin is born) and it takes 5 minutes of time to create a new coin with no development experience required through various websites.
Tokens Are Born
Then we have tokens. These are like a quasi-coin for use only on a particular platform. Usually you have to exchange an altcoin into tokens which are then used on that platform. Say if you had a video site, you could buy or earn tokens, say by recruiting others, to have a certain number of viewing hours. The tokens are only usable on the specific platform and are not transferable. As of today there are 238,000 different tokens in existence.
So since there are so many places for a consumer to put their money, the main tenet of scarcity of cryptocurrency is lost. There may only ever exist 21 million Bitcoins once they are all mined, but when the dollars are being spread out over Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash and all the dozens of variants that have some semi-legitimacy, its value is watered down.
What is needed is a convergence to a small subset of coins, but that would require a centralized platform to weed out the junk, which would defeat the purpose of its decentralization principle in the first place.
Bitcoin Is a Tremendous Waste of Electricity.
You have these mining farms burning through megawatts of energy just basically guessing numbers. During 2018, article after article was coming out comparing the bitcoin energy consumption to small countries.
It stresses energy grids creating the potential for fires and raises the cost of electricity for everyone in the area. Ethereum at least attempts to put this computational power to good use through its distributed cloud based architecture and smart contracts.
If It Is Not a Currency, What Is It?
I have detailed a lot of the negatives and established that it’s not a currency. But cryptocurrency is not going away unless governments around the world attempt to ban it in unison and seize mining farms. They are decentralized by construction, so even that might not stop them if enough people run mining equipment out of their homes (more on that later).
Is Bitcoin gambling or investing? It can be both depending on what you do with it as described below.
Bitcoin is Speculative
It’s for those who are willing to make the bet that more people will come in to buy it after they do. The greater fool theory, or mass adoption theory, depending on how you view it. It’s not a bad strategy as there are legitimate ETFs and hedge funds that follow momentum strategies based on the same principles.
And this thesis has been pretty successful for Bitcoin during its ten year existence. It’s hard to find many assets that have gone up 100,000% in a ten year period. The more the media talks about its rise, the more awareness that comes and the more consumers come in to buy it. Entire businesses now exist with revenues in the billions just to service this crowd in buying, selling, spending and trading cryptocurrencies (discussed below).
Gold itself has few uses outside of jewelry and governments stocking up on it due to its perceived value. Therefore it is hard to argue that gold is so much more valuable than Bitcoin. Platinum is a commodity that has industrial usage.
Which Altcoins Are The Best And Have the Most Potential?
Everybody will have a differing opinion here and there will be people out there who will tell you why coin number #3475 is the best coin out there.
But really gives an alternative coin value?
- Some unique and real benefit (faster or cheaper transactions, anonymous, puts computational power to use.)
- Wide adoption
- Liquid market
- Not just a clever name (SolarCoin, GreenCoin, etc..)
In addition to Bitcoin, I only see two altcoins having a somewhat legitimate use, Ethereum and Monero.
Since Ethereum has created a platform to harness the computational power for a purpose, there might actually be some utility in the future that comes out of this altcoin.
Monero, with its Swiss bank account properties, is a secure space to store and spend money away from prying eyes. In my opinion that is what makes Monero the best altcoin to buy, because it is actually secure, hidden money and acts as cash without a paper trail.
However, new cryptocurrencies are coming out all the time and adoption is shifting based on features. If enough big businesses develop or adopt a cryptocurrency and promote it, like Ripple, then it can become a challenger. Personally I feel that if big business is involved in something then it kind of goes against what cryptocurrency represents, but that is just my opinion.
How to Get Cryptocurrency?
Trade Bitcoin Through a Brokerage
If you are only interested in speculating in the price of Bitcoin there are some cheap and convenient options, but be careful, cheapness and convenience usually comes with a hidden price. First we discuss the ways to avoid.
Grayscale Bitcoin Investment Trust (wait for NAV discount)
GBTC trades OTC and you can buy it with your existing stock brokerage account. Some people call it a Bitcoin ETF, but it is actually a holding trust, the same as the gold trust GLD is. The trust buys and holds Bitcoin on its balance sheet. This is a very simple way to get exposure and you can put it into your IRA. Not having to open additional accounts and submit extra paperwork is definitely a feature.
I have generally recommended avoiding this trust for two reasons. The first is that it has a high 2% annual management fee. However, when compared to services like Coinbase (discussed below) that charge you fees to do everything including funding your account, it doesn’t seem so bad.
The second reason is that it usually trades at a steep premium to the net asset value (NAV). Sometimes the premium can be 100%+ of the value held in the trust. What that means is that people are buying Bitcoin at $100,000 when they can buy it off a coin exchange for $50,000.
As of March 2021, it is actually trading at a 11% discount! Meaning you are buying $50,000 in bitcoin for $44,500! This is the first time in the trust’s history it has traded at a discount to NAV.
If you are looking to buy Bitcoin but aren’t interested in doing anything other than speculating on its price (you don’t plan to buy goods with it or want to hold it in your own secure wallet), this has become a good way to play it.
Robinhood Stock Brokerage (Avoid)
Read my Robinhood Trading Review article for why you should avoid them.
Traditional Commodities Brokerage (Good)
Another way to purely speculate on price is to trade Chicago Mercantile Exchange Bitcoin futures and options on futures. Most major brokerage houses offer a futures and options on futures account if you fill out some waivers on investment risk. Usually to trade a single futures contract for 5 Bitcoin, the cost at a typical brokerage is less than $3.
Of course, the size of the trade might be too large for what most people are considering for their Bitcoin exposure and you can’t trade a basket of cryptocurrency or anything other than Bitcoin.
But another bonus of going to futures route is that futures contracts generally qualify for favorable 1256 tax treatment, and it is PwC’s opinion that Bitcoin futures do qualify, but there hasn’t been an official ruling by the IRS.
You’ll have more flexibility with a bitcoin trading platform like eToro.
eToro (Best Option)
eToro is a very exciting product that has only been offered to the US market since 2018. Outside of the US, they are a traditional brokerage offering stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities and cryptocurrencies, but in the US, they only currently offer cryptocurrencies and they are licensed for business in most states. They have plans to offer more products soon.
It is an exciting product for many reasons:
- The fees are low and transparent [much lower than Coinbase].
- They offer ~25 cryptocurrencies that you can buy and trade.
- They operate their own bitcoin exchange & wallet system (fewer 3rd parties).
- Their trading platform design is pleasing to the eye.
- You can transfer (spend) your crypto to EXTERNAL WALLETS for FREE.
- CopyTrader feature allows you to copy the best traders for FREE.
- They are well capitalized (Spark Capital of Twitter fame is one of their investors, and Alec Baldwin is their mascot; wonder how much that cost, lol.)
This is a very cool feature that allows you to view the best crypto traders on the platform and then copy their every move for no extra charge. You can also see how many other people are copying them which is handy to confirm that a lot of other people are risking their capital on a trader.
They are really pulling out all the stops to have the best platform for traders of all levels with this feature because it allows new traders to wade into the water and provides an opportunity for advanced traders to make money off their trading skills.
You may wonder what the disconnect is on where the top trader’s earning fees come from, but they are actually paid by eToro themselves. It’s a major benefit to eToro if they can court the top crypto traders because that will be social proof for their platform and it will also bring in beginner crypto traders as well.
I recommend you check it out and see if it’s for you, but keep reading for more options.
Basically every page of a regulated US cryptocurrency trading platform is required to post scary sounding warnings like:
eToro USA LLC; Virtual currencies are highly volatile. Your capital is at risk.
Buy Through a Direct Fiat-To-Coin Broker
It’s no longer the Wild West that it was even up to 5 years ago. Dealers and exchanges that trade “fiat” for crypto all have to be regulated by the countries and states they operate in to comply with money laundering regulations. You generally can only buy cryptocurrency through a firm that resides in your country, so the crypto dealers are all very regional. The ones that allow you to send them existing cryptocurrency that you already own to exchange for another altcoin have looser standards since they aren’t generally required to abide by KYC laws since the money is already in altcoin.
In the US, Coinbase was one of the first to start marketing bitcoin to newbies and therefore became the most well known dealer. Today you can buy, sell, and transfer 5 of the largest market-cap coins including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin cash, Litecoin and Ripple.
You can buy Bitcoin and the others with a credit card, but with some hefty fees to do basically anything including funding your account. Unfortunately they even charge fees to fund your account with options that are usually free for typical bank transactions.
They capitalize on people being lazy and not performing any research. Avoid them.
Coinswitch & Changelly (Good)
One of the absolute simplest and fee transparent ways to buy a handful of coins directly from fiat through credit cards and debit cards is to use Coinswitch (get $5 from a $100 purchase using this link).
You don’t even have to even create an account and only need a wallet address (discussed in the next section), which is about as convenient as it comes.
Changelly offers a similar service and also accepts bank transfers.
Both services double as a bitcoin converter and offer trading between pairs for most coins.
This is important because if you want to buy crypto from any of the regulated US providers like Coinbase, you won’t be able to buy or convert bitcoin to any of the privacy coins like Monero directly. However, you can buy bitcoin or another altcoin from any service that allows you to transfer your crypto to outside wallets, like eToro does, and then use Coinswitch or Changelly to perform a bitcoin conversion into any other coin of your choice, including Monero (for a small fee, of course).
Of note though is that Changelly allows you to buy Monero directly from a credit card, which appears to be the only service that offers this direct transaction. Doing it directly minimizes change fees.
For Canadian readers, CoinSmart (MSB License #M18755033) has a very wide selection of coins to choose from and offer instant verification and 0% fees on wires and bank drafts, which is about the best I have seen. Use promo code ‘Getcrypto’ for $20 CAD when you make your first deposit within 30 days.
Grow It: How to Mine Cryptocurrency?
You can buy a ‘bitcoin machine’ that converts electricity to bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies through mining. Mining is the process of verifying the blockchain ledger that underlies the technology. Millions of computers are guessing random numbers trying to match the target hash, which is a one-way encrypted number. If the miner guesses the hash correctly, they are rewarded with a specified number of the coin they are mining for. This is what makes mining attractive because the reward can be large and it’s akin to growing money in your basement.
The earliest adopters could just run software on their home computers and participate in the mining operations and trade electricity for Bitcoin. Unfortunately it is not so easy anymore due to massive server farms running specialized hardware that finish computations far faster than bloated personal computers can. To compete against them with a PC is like trying to race an Insight against a Ferrari.
The exception to this specialized hardware requirement is for the altcoin Monero. Developers behind the algorithm deliberately change it regularly to limit the spread of these programmed hardware units. They do this to enforce more of a decentralized democratic environment to prevent large mining farms from taking over 51% of the computational power, which has power over the blockchain ledger that records transactions.
The earliest examples of specialized hardware for mining had a prerequisite that you were a technical person and required the assembly of various parts from a mining kit. You had to know what you were doing.
Fortunately that is no longer the case and the coolest innovation to come out since then is the CoinMine unit which is plug and play unit connected by WiFi. It can mine 6 or more coins (not simultaneously) and doesn’t require any technical expertise. It’s also very attractive:
Often individual miners join mining pools to mine as a team. The reward is divided among the team, but the chances of being rewarded is also higher, so it can be more steady, but smaller payouts. Each pool has its own fees they charge for being the captain.
Where to Store Your Bitcoin and Altcoins?
Bitcoin works through the principle of public and private key cryptography, where one links to the other. A wallet, also known as Bitcoin address, stores the private key which is used for spending, and the public key is used for receiving.
Exchange Wallets Where You Bought Them
Most people choose the convenience of storing Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies right in the wallets provided by the exchanges or brokerages where they were purchased from.
While you can store them in a wallet on the exchange where you bought them, you run the risk of the exchange getting hacked and losing your assets. This actually happened before at Mt Gox where $2 billion was stolen.
Again it was back in the Bitcoin Wild West days before regulation, so it’s unlikely that this sort of thing will happen again. But major banks have been hacked in recent times, so there is really no benefit for you to store them at an exchange unless you want fast access to your assets, or you are actively trading them.
There are various apps and computer programs that you can place on your computer that are not connected to the exchanges or large caches that are enticing targets for hackers. If the exchange where you bought them is compromised, your cryptocurrency is stored in another location and won’t be affected by the mass security breach. However, since your device is connected to the internet, you still run the risk that a computer trojan (virus) will copy your private key and send it across the internet.
Cold Storage Wallets
If you have any decent amount of cryptocurrency, most of it needs to be placed in cold storage for security since cryptocurrency transactions are non-reversible and if your private spend key is discovered through a hacking or computer trojan, all your funds will be promptly stolen. Cold storage means that the private spend key is stored somewhere away from your computer, mobile device or anything connected to the internet.
There are specialized crypto hardware wallets that store your crypto-keys on custom encrypted operating systems (The #1 best selling cold storage for altcoins & Bitcoin on Amazon is the Ledger Nano X), but a low tech solution of printing the private keys on pieces of paper and storing those in a safe place also suffices. The paper route isn’t convenient to type in when needed and is susceptible to fire risk.
There are a few paper wallet generators online, but I can’t really recommend any of them because it was discovered that some of them were hacked in the past creating deposit accounts for the hackers. So be very cautious here.
Bitcoin Self-Directed IRA
There are now options to buy Bitcoin and cryptocurrency directly in IRAs and 401(k)’s through self-directed accounts. This option is best for people who have most of their assets locked up in retirement accounts, who are looking to avoid taxes on gains, and are willing to deal with the volatility. You need a specialist to set this up for you since if done incorrectly, there is a tax liability and penalty from the IRS.
Crypto Lender – Earn Interest On Your Holdings
The latest innovation is the crypto lender and for me makes the most sense.
If you store your crypto at BlockFi, you earn up to 8.7% interest (as of Jan 2021) on your crypto assets and your interest can be paid in other cryptocurrencies which can diversify your crypto portfolio. Use that link and get up to a $250 crypto bonus with your deposit.
At first I was skeptical because I have come across a lot of bitcoin scams. Usually the scam requests that you send money to an address and then they will send you back double your ‘investment’ in a month, or something to that effect. Usually it comes from a random spam email, but a lot of people fell for a similar bitcoin scam when Twitter was hacked in July 2020. Of course you’ll never see your money again if you just send bitcoin to random addresses.
BlockFi is not like that at all. They are actually a legitimate regulated lender (NMLS ID#1737520) that makes loans to institutions based on the retail assets stored at their third party custodian, Gemini. Gemini, founded by the infamous Winklevoss brothers of Facebook fame, is regulated by the New York State Department of Financial Services. Therefore, you can be assured that this is a legitimate business and not some fly by night operation.
They also make money by giving secured loans to retail customers against the crypto assets they own (M1-Finance provides a similar service for stock investors and offers secured loans against your stocks in their custody).
Why would you want to take a loan against your own assets instead of just selling them? For two reasons:
- You want to continue to speculate on cryptocurrency.
- If you sell your asset it becomes a tax reportable event.
Therefore, borrowing allows you to free up some liquidity without incurring taxes and allows you to keep speculating on the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It’s the whole Bitcoin pizza argument; why buy 2 pizzas for 10,000 Bitcoin that later becomes worth millions of dollars?
Conveniently, the BlockFi loans can be paid back with either USD or other crypto, so if you are running a profitable mining operation or otherwise acquire additional crypto elsewhere, it’s a way to spend it back into the money you’ve already been lent, with a smaller paper trail.
They are also a trading platform, so you can exchange one cryptocurrency for another, providing you with the whole ecosystem for your cryptocurrency needs.
Being able to lend and earn interest is really the only thing that changes the cryptocurrency story from being pure speculation on price to an alternative investment. If you are going to “HODL” onto an asset that doesn’t internally generate its own earnings, like a stock does, then it makes sense to put that asset in a place where it is being lent to the firms that do generate earnings and some of that interest gets paid to you. It’s a game changer.
The World’s First Cryptocurrency Visa Credit Card
You can now get a cryptocurrency visa credit card through BlockFi with a $250 sign up bonus that deposits 1.5% cash back of the cryptocurrency of your choice into your account. You can be among the first to get this exciting innovation when you fund your account with them.
It does have an annual fee which reduces some of the fun, however.
Is Cryptocurrency Taxed?
One last thing, don’t forget that Bitcoin and Altcoin events including sales and transfers to another wallet outside of a coin broker are reportable to the IRS. All profits are taxable, so you will have to report cost basis for covered transactions to the IRS. All regulated US coin brokers will send you a 1099 form at the end of the year.
The IRS has made some additional cryptocurrency commentary in this guide around the various activities that covers things like Bitcoin mining profits or receiving cryptocurrency as payment and how to handle it.
In 2020, there is a section added by the IRS to the 1040 form that asks you direct questions about any cryptocurrency transactions you partook in. Therefore, if you use a tax preparation service like H&R Block, utilizing either the online or in-person option, during the Q&A don’t be surprised when the questions come up. With your answers, they will then fill out the appropriate forms so your reporting will be in compliance.
Taxes and government reporting are one of the many reasons that altcoins like Monero are important. It’s really the only option you have for privacy and minimizing your tax exposure. Once you buy Monero, the paper trail ends as long as the crypto never finds its way back to a wallet that has your personal information attached to it.
I know this was a very long article to read through, so I applaud your tenacity. I’ll highlight the major points here:
If you are interested in trading your cryptocurrency from time-to-time or plan to buy multiple altcoins to diversify your altcoin portfolio, eToro is your best option, as it has low transparent fees, you can CopyTrade the top traders, and you can remove your crypto from their system to your own storage wallets.
If you don’t want to create an account with any providers and just want to buy a cryptocurrency in a single transaction to hold in a wallet, buy from CoinSwitch.
If you want to buy a privacy altcoin like Monero directly, use Changelly.
If you already own Bitcoin and want to diversify your altcoin holdings, use either of the two services above.
If you want to earn interest on your Crypto (and you should!), use BlockFi.
If you are interested in mining your own cryptocurrency use CoinMine.
And of course you can combine these by first opening an eToro account to buy and trade, and then open a BlockFi account and make a free transfer from eToro to BlockFi a portion of your holdings to earn interest.
And finally, if you have a lot of crypto assets, make sure you use a cold storage ledger for altcoins & Bitcoin to keep them safe.
And finally, is bitcoin a good investment? Only you can make that decision after you’ve read through this guide. Hopefully I have given you all the information you need.
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