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:

datapoints snap.png

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.

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.

Order

Benedict Option“If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order. If we don’t have internal order, we will be controlled by our human passions and by the powerful outside forces…”

That quote opens Rod Dreher’s discussion on Order – one of the Rules for Living in his latest book The Benedict Option. As I read the book, the intersections of our personal finances and living a counter-cultural life are everywhere. Some obvious (forgoing materialism for simplicity), some subtle.

One common characteristic of people that win with money is that their personal finances are in Order. It doesn’t have to be a fancy system. It doesn’t have to be electronic with spreadsheets and apps. It doesn’t have to be super nerdy with detail down to the last penny. However, people that win with money have their “house in order”. They display what the author of Proverbs called “diligence”.

It might be infinitely practical; I might need to track my spending in writing. Maybe create a file folder for next year’s taxes. Do a simple budget every month. Balance my checkbook. These are all examples of creating a life of order.

It can also be a grand vision of my place in the universe. Dreher highlights three understandings of order:

  • Discovery of The Order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of creation and seeking to live in harmony with it.
  • Realization of natural limits within Creation’s givenness, as opposed to believing that nature is something we can deny or refute, according to our own desires.
  • Disciplining one’s life to live a life to glorify God and help others.

This week, if it is as grand as seeking to live in harmony with the universe or as imminently practical as opening and processing all our mail each week, lets seek a life of order.

Interview: David Hyams

david_hyams.jpgI had a chance to interview David Hyams, a Denver Seminary graduate and current practicing attorney. You’re really going to enjoy his wisdom – especially his personal story of navigating student loan debt.

David, you have a unique background – you are a practicing attorney but you also attended and graduated from Denver Seminary. Why did you pursue those seemingly very different directions?

The short answer is, because I was trying to follow God’s call on my life. What this looked like in reality, of course, was a serpentine path to law shrouded by fog, marked by stints of clarity. My undergrad degree is in Sport Medicine, which was never a good fit, but when I chose that major as a freshman, like most 18-year-olds, I didn’t know myself and certainly was not considering career options in terms of God’s calling on my life. Toward the end of college, I fell in love with Jesus and apologetics, which led to seminary. While at D. Sem., I learned my giftings trended more academic, so I pursued the M.A. in Philosophy of Religion. Upon finishing that degree, despite numerous red flags cautioning me otherwise, I was convinced a Ph.D. in Philosophy was what God had for me. Toward that end, I picked up another M.A. in Philosophy from Georgia State University. Eventually, in a most unfamiliar and uncomfortable act of humility, I surrendered to what the Lord had for my career instead of imposing on Him what I thought “made sense.” That led to law school, which wound up being a perfect complement for my background and giftings. In fact, I’ve met quite a few seminarians over the years who’ve entertained the prospect of attending law school, and lawyers who’ve wanted to go to seminary. Few have had the privilege of doing both. Thus, becoming an attorney was not the product of a planned career path, but was the result of my (highly imperfect) attempts to daily follow the Lord’s whispers.

 

You and I have talked briefly about your personal interaction with student loans. I know you have really sacrificed to pay those down – what has your journey looked like?

I’m not proud of my journey. Had I to do it over again, it would look very different. Nonetheless, if through my weaknesses and the ensuing suffering Christ’s power may rest upon me and others may be comforted (see 2 Cor. 12:9; 1:3-4), I gladly share it.

Thankfully, my personal interaction with student loans stemmed solely from my law degree. My parents paid for the B.S. We paid for seminary through a combination of work (my wife and I both worked, though she was the primary breadwinner), scholarships, and church contributions. The second M.A. was paid for through work (again, my wife mainly supported us, though I worked as well), and grants from the university.

By the time I started law school, however, we were burned out on school and were ready to cast off the shackles of financial restraint we had worn for the years of student life and start living like “grown ups.” Thus, despite having very good jobs for the duration of law school, instead of using our income to actually pay for tuition, we financed the entire degree with student loans. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip over the multitude of other financially-ruinous decisions we made over the next several years and focus on the loans.) I thus graduated from law school in 2008 with approximately $125,000 in student loan debt.

Aside from the sloth, prideful sense of entitlement, and utter foolishness that informed the decision to borrow all that money, I never once stopped and put pen to paper to determine the answers to such basic questions as:

How much money am I going to have to make each month in order to pay these loans back in x years?

If I don’t pay at least $x per month, what is the interest going to do to the principal?

What sort of jobs am I either going to need to apply for or walk away from because of my obligation to service this debt, and how does that align with God’s call on my life?

What sort of opportunities am I not going to be able to pursue because of the commitment I’m making to my lender?

Instead, in repeated acts of cowardice, I stuck my head in the sand and, semester after semester, took on more and more debt. Of course, I never abandoned my faith along the way, so, on those rare occasions when I’d actually entertain post-law school financial realities in a general sense, I would sanctify my naivety with such theological quips as, “I don’t know how, but God will provide.” (All the while ignoring that God was actually providing the entire time, I was just choosing to squander his provisions.)

After narrowly avoiding personal bankruptcy following law school, we went through a major life overhaul and (finally) started living on a budget. After eight years of attacking debt, belt-tightening, and the selling of two houses in 2016, we are, praise be to God, debt-free. The student loans had ballooned to ~$165,000, for I had put them in deferment and had entered into a federal “repayment program” while I repaid other debts. And while we’re now starting over in some ways, we’re finally complying with the Lord’s command in Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything except love. It feels amazing.

 

Financially, what word of advice would you give to someone just entering into seminary?

Generally speaking, you need to understand that, while the degree you’re about to earn is extremely valuable and worthwhile from a kingdom perspective, the world does not place the same value on it. And, by and large, the world’s value metrics determine the amount of money you will earn upon exiting seminary, regardless of your place of employment. And while it may feel a little “dirty” to the seminarian who is dutifully following the call of God on his or her life, they need to get comfortable talking about money and the financial realities that come with it. The last thing you want to do is in one breath say, “God, I will go anywhere and do anything you call me to do,” and in the next breath say, “so long as it pays at least $x per month because I’ve got to pay these student loans back!” At its most basic level, taking on student loans is taking on the yoke of another master, and the Lord has warned us about the feasibility of serving two masters (Lk. 16:13)—especially when that other master is Caesar himself (i.e., the federal government)). Moreover, many (most?) of the life crises of the people you’ll be ministering to involve finances in some capacity.

Moreover, you have no idea what will happen in life. Yes, God will provide for your needs. And yes, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. But this world we live in is fallen and suffering and persecution is a part of the path of righteousness. Why purposefully compound that by fiscal irresponsibility?

Accordingly, I’d advise the seminarian to avoid student loans at all costs. If need be, take your time getting through seminary. (For most of you, being older and wiser upon exiting seminary will only help your future ministry.) Get creative by working multiple jobs (even jobs that might be “beneath” you), take night or weekend classes, check your textbooks out from libraries, live on a budget, beg, pinch, scrape, whatever, just stay indebted only to the Lord.

 

 You have a unique background in Bankruptcy law. I believe one of the biggest issues with large amounts of student loans is that personally you can’t bankrupt out of them. That makes it almost impossible to escape them should you become overly indebted or should life change radically. Obviously bankruptcy has been abused by some people over the years, but can you help us understand why it’s important to our economic process and what risks someone takes by taking on non-bankrupt-able debt?

In its simplest form, bankruptcy is about the unmerited forgiveness of voluntarily-incurred debt. As people of the gospel, we should be able to appreciate this, especially given bankruptcy’s biblical roots in the year of jubilee (see Lev. 25). By allowing a debtor—whether an individual or a company—to make a “fresh start,” risk-taking activity is encouraged. Starting a business, pursuing an idea, investing in something you believe in—all of these are risks. If failure would result in a lifetime of inescapable debt, fewer people and companies would be willing to take risks. Thus, fewer jobs, inventions, and fulfilled dreams, i.e., less human flourishing. Bankruptcy allows the risk-taker to minimize her risks by providing a means to discharge or reorganize her debts in the event of financial calamity. Likewise, creditors are encouraged to invest in the risk-takers, for their rights are protected under the Bankruptcy Code as well. Of course, certain types of debts are offered very little protection, but most creditors will work the prospect of bankruptcy into their pricing and they understand the risk of participating in the market.

By taking on debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, such as student loans, the debtor is taking on the risk that, despite Jesus’ promise that we will face trouble in this world, “everything is going to work out.”  Unlike other debts where the debtor and creditor share the risk and therefore want to see the debtor succeed, student loan creditors bear virtually no risk by extending the loans to the particular student. The student bears all the risk, the debt is completely unsecured, i.e., the debt does not attach to any collateral that can be liquidated to satisfy the debt, and it will follow the student all the way to the grave.

 

What have you learned from your unique background working with religious institutions about how occupational ministry and finances collide?

There are of course numerous and beautiful exceptions I’ve seen, but here are a few trends I’ve noticed.

Often, ministry leaders are incredibly gifted at relationships, but they do not have a very keen business sense.  This can have the effect of a poorly run organization that is out of tune with realities its donor base grapples with on a daily basis, even if the leader has good intentions and the doctrinal statement is sound. Of course, there are problems that come with unreflectingly adopting “secular” business principles, but at a minimum, a basic understanding of budgeting, business, and economics (and law) would help ministry leaders.

By embracing a negative mindset toward finances, pastors contribute to the sacred/secular divide, and stymie their flocks’ ability to think Christianly regarding money and work.

Many younger evangelicals who do not feel called into pastoral ministry come to the conclusion that in order to faithfully serve God, they must start or work for a non-profit, because, in their mind, they cannot work for a for-profit company because “profit equals greed,” which is, of course, a sin. But profit and greed are distinct concepts that are not necessarily correlated. This mindset has deprived us of thoughtful Christians in the marketplace and given us too many non-profits, which has had the concomitant results of draining kingdom resources and increasing ministry redundancy. (Not to mention the sympathies toward Marxism this general disdain toward capitalism has engendered—an economic philosophy whose utter failure to actually work in reality has only been surpassed by the torrents of blood that have flowed everywhere it’s been implemented.)

Many believe that by getting too far into the details of finances, they aren’t trusting God or would be idolizing money. A quick survey of Proverbs should put that fear to rest. (See, e.g., Prov. 27:23.)

There is also the risk of the pendulum swinging the other direction toward the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel, which also prevents thoughtful, biblical engagement with finances.

Jesus rightfully warned of the dangers of money. But by failing to help move their flocks beyond “money is bad” (except when the offering plate comes around), the church is left ill-equipped to expose the idols of the age and model a biblical counterexample.

Thank you for your wisdom, vulnerability, and leadership in this area. We are deeply grateful.

 

If you’d like to learn more about David in is own words you can visit a longer bio here: www.sdglawllc.com and if your organization has any legal needs feel free to reach out to him here or 703-771-4671.