Finance Basics

Datapoints logoThe basics of personal finance are pretty straightforward, but it’s easy for us to think that because we’re in a specific season of life, like graduate school, they don’t all apply. Here is a basic list of finance fundamentals as discovered through extensive research for books like The Millionaire Next Door:

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Those are pretty basic fundamentals – the only one I would quibble with is following financial markets, which many experts say is a waste of time. The reality is that following the market is probably an indicator of overall financial diligence. It’s correlation not causation.

It is easy to think that while we’re in a very tight season of life, as grad school is, that basics like spending less then we earn and savings aren’t possible.

While I would be the first to agree that it is very difficult, I would set it as a practice to live on a budget (spend what you earn) and save, even if it is a very small (almost token) amount. The point is that these practices will carry over into our future when our financial picture changes.

I’m continually challenged that to be “faithful with the little things” isn’t primarily a promise of future blessing, it is a promise that I will be changed. I continually screw it up, but let’s try again today.

Little things make big things happen.” – John Wooden

Additional Layer of Risk

parents defualt rateI believe one of the most important ideas in understanding debt is what we call “Layers of Risk”. One layer that I have not taken the time to fully consider was brought to my attention in an article today. That layer of risk is student borrowers with children, and specifically single parents:

  • Nearly 50% of undergrad students borrowers defaulted
  • Of those, 70% were single parents
  • 10% of borrowers are single parents, but they represent 40% of all defaults

These stats also include additional factors and layers of risk. For example, as the article points out if you’re a parent of a child under 3, a person of color, or enrolled in a for-profit school your default rates are even higher.

Additionally, many of these defaulted loans are for students that were unable to complete their degree so they are stuck with a non-bankruptable debt and no degree with which to increase their earning potential.

Any system that disproportionately penalizes the most vulnerable needs to be reformed.

REMINDER: INCOME VS EXPENSES

money tree

When I counsel people (including myself) on how to make their budgets work, I often find that they are much better at EITHER controlling spending OR earning money.

As a reminder, there are two sides to each budget/balance sheet:

INCOME

and

OUTGO (expenses)

The old cliché is that we tend to be ‘savers’ or ‘spenders’. While that is often true, it is very difficult to win with money if you a thrifty saver but don’t earn enough money. Likewise, no matter what my income is I can always find a way to outspend it.

To make a budget/balance sheet work, we need to earn enough AND spend it wisely. The majority of people that volunteer to come talk to me about their money (grad students), tend to be thrifty savers but are having a hard time making ends meet without going into debt – something they don’t want to do.

For them, they don’t have a saving/investing type problem. Instead, we have to put our heads together on how they can earn more money. That can be challenging with the time constraints of school and family. It also isn’t a quick fix – there isn’t one change to be made.

The good news is that there are lots of options. Earning more money is a skill that can be built. The reality is that someone that has earned more in the past is significantly more likely to earn more in the future. Why?

It may be that they are more apt to recognize financial opportunity, how to leverage their skills in the marketplace, how to ‘sell’ themselves as a bargain to potential employers, or how to provide and communicate their value.

More on that:

https://graduatefree.com/2015/01/20/part-time-jobs/

https://graduatefree.com/2016/11/17/how-to-get-paid/

https://graduatefree.com/2016/12/07/how-to-reset-your-life/

Step one to any change is making a decision. If we decide we need to make more money to make our budget work, we will begin to look for and see opportunities. Prayer is a powerful tool in this. God can open the eyes of our mind.

Free Webinar on Retirement for Pastors

From the event organizers:

“I’m pleased to announce we are hosting a free webinar at 12pm (Eastern) on Thursday, October 5, with attorney Richard Hammar on a critical topic: retirement planning for pastors.

Unfortunately, statistics from the National Association of Evangelicals suggest that few pastors adequately save for their retirement years. Often, it’s because the pastors and their church boards don’t know where to begin. In this one-hour presentation, Rich will cover key topics that pastors and boards should know with respect to the various plan options, how they work, and how to navigate the legal and tax implications of each. The material will be relevant to pastors at any stage of the career spectrum (early-, mid-, or late-stage). And perhaps most importantly, the information will be offered in a completely neutral manner, providing pastors and boards with an objective perspective that aids their planning and decision-making.

The registration link is http://churchlawandtax.com/webinar.

If you want more background information, this free blog post explains the event further: http://www.churchlawandtax.com/blog/2017/september/planning-pastors-retirement.html

 

Student Loan Reform in Future?

forbesAn article passed along to me this week with a lead that caught my attention:

A growing number of student loan borrowers — nearly one in three — aren’t making headway in paying down their loans five years after leaving school.

A couple of brief observations:

1.) 2/3 Borrowers with more then $50k in debt aren’t paying down their balances. It’s ‘compound interest’ in reverse – if you owe a lot, the minimum payments just barely – or in some cases don’t – cover the accruing interest. I noted this has a striking similarity to Negative Amortization Mortgages that contributed to the financial meltdown a decade ago.

2.) One of my major concerns two years ago was that the government could change it’s rules anytime on loan forgiveness. This article mentions several proposals that are on the table to do just that including eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan altogether. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t think using any version of the loan forgiveness plan should ever be your primary payoff strategy.

3.) We’ve noted before about how the government makes over $50 Billion in profit from the student loan program each year. That enormous cash cow for those in power is the primary reason I don’t predict significant student loan reform for the benefit of the borrowers. In fact, this article says the proposed reforms will earn the government an additional $104 Billion over the next ten years. Incredible.

4.) If the government was actually serious about reform for the benefit of the American citizen, there are a number of options. For example they could put a hard cap on total student borrowing at the median household income ($55,775 in 2017), limit borrowing to the cost of tuition, or financially involve the educational institutions.

Alternative path to wealth

Dollar signLast week I teased that aside from hoping to strike it rich with a miracle investment, there was a better route to go. Here is my brilliant three-step plan:

One: Earn More

Dave Ramsey teaches that your most important wealth building tool is your income. To build wealth, you need to generate income. Saving money (income minus expenses) and investing (return on saved money) are impossible without generating income. Obviously more income increases your chances (but certainly doesn’t guarantee) of having a surplus. If we aren’t currently generating a surplus, we need to either (or both) cut expenses and/or generate more income. Here is some advice on generating more income.

Two: Get rid of Debt

Getting out of debt accomplishes two super important things. First, you take over control of your income. Debt is a lien against your future income. Take control of your future income – it will allow you to save which is step one in accumulate wealth. Second, if you are paying interest on debt, you can have a guaranteed return on an investment by keeping that interest for yourself. See this.

Three: Save cash

This seems counter intuitive, but having a large cash reserve is valuable for several reasons. First, you can negotiate significant discounts on things you are forced to buy. Second, you are prepared when assets that we know and understand become significantly discounted. Like when we get our next recession.  There is a lot more to be said about the advantages of liquidity, but I recommend trying it to see how it feels.

 

Concession from last week. While I’m steadfast that we should let go of the myth of being a great investor, it’s really important to understand that yielding a couple of extra percent yields a massive difference in returns over time. Over 20 years, the difference between earning 6% and 12% on an investment isn’t 2x the return, it’s 3x. This goes up even more over time and/or return.

The Myth of Investing to Wealth

WarrenOur country loves the “Horatio Alger” story – the old rags to riches. In our culture, one of the most popular narratives to riches is through being a great investor.* If I can figure out the market, I’ll be able to see something others don’t and it will make me wealthy. Warren Buffett is the hero of this story. I poured through his biography (The Snowball, 832 pages!) when it came out looking for secrets and clues. One potentially controversial belief I’ve developed:

I don’t believe being a “great investor” is a reasonable path to wealth.

We need to let go of the myth that we are one hot stock tip away from financial success. This narrative is baked into our entire culture. TV networks like CNBC and Fox Business are built on this myth (Here is the 8 best TV shows ranked by a website dedicated to investors). Entire print industries (Money magazine, financial help books) have this narrative intertwined in their unspoken promise to the reader.

I’m convinced it doesn’t work and in fact it’s a massive waste of time and distraction from actually accumulating wealth. Why? Here are three of many reasons:

  • Not enough initial capital

A friend of mine recent came and asked for some advice on which stock to buy with a $1,000. I didn’t have the courage to tell them it didn’t matter. Warren Buffett, the wealthiest person in America and perhaps the best investor in our history has earned around 20% compounded return. Maybe you’re a better investor then Warren Buffett, but if you’re as good as him in 10 years your $1,000 will be worth $7,268.

The point is that most of us don’t have enough upfront capital to take advantage of outsized returns, even if we were to get them. Does this mean we shouldn’t save or make wise investments? Of course not. It should pop the bubble that I’m only one key investment away from financial freedom.

There is a huge separation between how it feels for my $1,000 to be up (or God forbid down) 8 points this morning and the actual impact that will have on my life. That’s why some of the best investors don’t follow the market or invest in individual stocks. That’s why it “doesn’t matter”. There are a dozen other more important financial decisions each month that will affect my financial future far more than the short term fluctuations a $1,000 investment.

  • Have to live on the returns

My dad went to a three-day seminar on how to use stock shorts and options to make a killing in the market. One major problem (beside the fact that nobody actually “beat’s the market”) is that if my dad did this from home he’d still have to pay for his regular living expense from his earnings. For example, if he earned 20% on a huge sum of money like $250k, he would clear about $50,000 in income before taxes. The problem is that he’d use most of that money up, you know, eating and stuff.  It would make it almost impossible to actually accumulate wealth unless you had your living expenses covered by an actual income or you had some amount of money large enough ($2M+) that $50k wasn’t a significant deduction from returns.

Another example. People have asked me about real estate investing. I think it’s a wonderful investment, but unless you have a significant amount of capital don’t plan on making a living doing it for many years. It’s a great side job, but if you’re living on the returns it’s a poor way to accumulate wealth. In fact, almost everyone I know that has done well in real estate has done it by working (improving, changing use, managing, etc.) rather then passive investing.

  • Not really an expert

This one hurts a little. My pride tends to try to convince me that I know more then I really do. I’ve noticed that the professional investors from books like The Big Short and The Snowball spend a tremendous amount of time and attention learning their craft inside and out. I know several professional investors personally, and I’m continually taken aback by how much they put into understanding each investment. Even after exhaustive consideration, they build investment models around the inherent acknowledgement that they will be wrong some of the time.

If someone says you should invest in such-and-such because the kids are using it or something, I beg you to stay away. Virtually all public information is trash. One of the core tenants of all investing is “Invest in what you know”. Being honest about what I really know isn’t easy, but it will save me a lot of dashed expectations and refocus me back on activities that pay huge dividends.

 

Next week: If you aren’t going to waste time/effort/dashed expectations chasing the next great investing tip, what should you do instead?

 

*This rags-to-riches through a great investment is woven into our DNA across all cultures. Jesus told a popular parable about this with a twist – investing everything you have to acquire the truest treasure of life.