The season is upon us when parents threaten their kids with spies who report directly to Santa Claus and children add new toxic plastic molds of superheroes to their mountains of toys. Yes, it’s time for Consumeristmas Christmas!
So why would I – a guy with no kids – be an authority on what to give kids? Because as I discussed last week, I have my own blog so I can spout whatever nonsense I want! But, this nonsense has met the approval of my nieces and nephews parents, and the kids aren’t too horrified by it either. In fact, I think the older ones actually like it.
Instead of adding to their ever growing use-once-and-never-touch-again toy pile, my wife and I have instead opted to start buying them stock. Yes, the stock market stocks. Now, instead of owning a piece of cheap crap the company produces, they can actually own a part of the company peddling junk everyone else! Continue Reading…
According to my 21 year old self, I was going to be a multi-millionaire at my current geriatric age of 35. Sure, this was the same 21 year old who was doing death rides in shopping carts, throwing watermelons off of apartment balconies and drinking too many Natty lites*… so I don’t really care if he’s judging me now!
I didn’t have a plan then, I only had hope. Hope won’t make you rich, but I have learned what will – something much more exciting than watermelon tossing – passive income!
What I’ve learned is most of us can’t become rich off of our salaries alone due to two reasons:
Lifestyle Inflation: spending will increase to consume full income no matter how much one makes
Salary growth (or lack there of): our salaries won’t grow fast or high enough on our own to make us rich
We live in a system that uses our emotions against us to drive us in a direction that’s not to our advantage. You were more than comfortable in your sweet 1993 Chevy Lumina with maroon interior and cheap Ikea furniture when you graduated college and got your first job, but it’d be an utter embarrassment if you still had the same dull trophies one full year after that, right?? I sure thought so, and I let lifestyle inflation dictate a very small savings or investing rate.**
As for the salary growth, unless you’re able to pull in a huuuggeee income from doing things like being a dirty politician or packaging bad car loans into debt instruments to leverage against and sell to Wall Street banks, you’re going to need some additional assistance to get rich. This might seem dire, but there is hope.
Hello lack of hope, meet Passive Income
Passive income is money you get through automatic channels you’ve previously set up that require very little effort from you. They’re sweet, but they take some time to get going because usually it is returns you make off of your own money. Other people define passive income more loosely like selling a book you wrote on Amazon or selling handmade leather bracelets on Etsy, but those don’t sound passive to me because they require a lot of work and I’m not good at leather working***.
Let’s review the more common types of passive income:
Building a network of drug dealers
Rodan and Fields
I’ve been investing since I was 14 when I bought some gold coins that I would later sell to purchase my first truck. My first stock investments came in the biotech and dot com bubble in 1999-2000 when my dad let me throw in some money to his account as we played the market. It was amazingly fun when our portfolio was going up 10% a day, but when it all came crashing down it took my dreams of my first million before high school with it. I could’ve worn a class ring on every finger and had my own harem of cheerleaders.
My next investments came after college with my first company-provided 401k and an eTrade account with a few hundred dollars of “play money”. It started building up very slowly after a few years to five figures (probably less than $11k) and this is when I realized I would need to make the returns come faster if I ever wanted to be rich. Forgetting my earlier lesson of getting burned in the market, I started playing with futures, options and penny stocks and once again lost most of it. If anyone tells you to day trade or start playing with those dangerous asset classes to get rich, run.
It took me quite a few years to finally realize what investing was all about. Small additions of money invested consistently over the long term in a safe, diversified portfolio. No get rich quick schemes, no day-trading and no pyramid schemes. As you progress in your career, you’ll need to continue bumping up your dollar contributions to really see your nest egg grow and you’ll start to experience compound interest, which Einstein called “the eighth wonder of the world”.
Compound interest happens when your money has babies of its own, and eventually those babies start to have babies. Obviously, the more money you have, the stronger and faster the effects of compound interest. Once your nest egg starts growing big enough, you’ll see passive income really kicking in as your stocks start throwing off dividend payments. Also, unless you’re wasting all of your money on penny stocks, you should see some major gains in the values of the stocks which you can eventually sell for a profit… yielding more passive income.
2. Real Estate
We jumped into the real estate game when we rented our house out in Dallas after fixing up the ‘ol Airstream and traveling North America. We’re lucky to clear over $1,000 a month on our mortgage, so we’re creating a positive passive income. We may lose this stream of passive income when we’re done traveling, but for now it works.
I don’t have too much experience with real estate yet, so I’m not going to BS you, but it’s definitely a secondary passive income stream I want to develop. My goal would be to start acquiring some properties using the 1% rule (gross income should be greater than 1% of the house value) and see if I like it.
The problem is you still need your salary to have enough money to invest in the beginning.
Even when we were both working last year, there were days when the stock market movements would make or lose more money in a day than we made from work! That’s when passive income starts getting exciting… especially when we’re in the middle of a bull market like the one we’re in now. However, obviously, you gotta have some money before you can start buildling these passive income streams.
You need to do all of the dirty little things like budget, sell stuff on Facebook, live off of one income (if your family has two), put the kids to work, make sure the pets pull their own weight and work more. You have to be serious about this for a long time before your money can start making money. You’ll have set backs along the way like a big drop in the stock market, but as long as you’re still investing, that’s a good thing, because you’re able to buy stocks for cheaper.
This is how getting rich will work for the majority of people. Sure, there are phenoms like Mark Zuckerburg who invent an entirely new industry and make billions (maybe this is what my 21 year old self planned to do), but for the majority of us, it’s nose to the grindstone… or better yet, budget to the grindstone.
*Don’t judge me, it was in college… and those particular memories were from the summer when I stayed in Stillwater and co-directed a summer camp
**I think it was actually a negative savings rate
***You’d think I could learn while living in a camper for a year, but much like “learning to play the guitar”, my lack of artistic ability may always prevent me from being a proper hippy
As I’m writing this, I’m looking through the window of our vintage Airstream trailer and onto the beautiful black sandy beaches of the Lost Coast in Northern California. The foggy mountains provide an incredible backdrop as the waves continually pound the coast. I keep thinking we never could’ve done all of this if not for the sacrifices and hard work over the last ten years. This is how I went from $50,000 in debt, to us having enough money to do this. I’ll share these steps with you, so you can do the same.
Here are the six basic steps:
Complete a current assessment
Track your spending
Create a spending plan
Monitor plan and adjust as necessary
Save some money
Attack your debt
1. Complete a current assessment
The first thing you need to do is complete a current assessment, which is nothing more than a quick balance sheet to see where you stand with your assets and liabilities. To do this, gather all financial documents relating to debt (mortgage statements, credit card, student loan, personal loans, etc.) which should include amount owed, interest rates, and minimum payments. Take a look at my example current assessment and begin filling it in with your information.
1. Fill out the liabilities section of your current assessment with all debts including short term and long term (mortgage) 2. Fill out the assets section. List out the money in bank accounts, stock accounts, and retirement accounts
Update the spreadsheet to include all of your short term assets and liabilities for now, so you can see where you stand. After you do this, you can also read how to track your net worth and fill out the long term section as well.
2. Track your spending
Can you tell me how much you spent on groceries last week? How much did you spend on going out to eat or little luxuries like Starbucks? If you’re anything like me, this step will be incredibly enlightening because you’ll be surprised to see where the dollars are going.
There are a few different ways to track your spending. When I went through this step, I downloaded credit cards statements from the previous two years, categorized each item in a spreadsheet and totaled them up. This gave me a good idea of what was happening with my money, and it wasn’t pretty.
The scary part was that in 2005 which was the first year I went back and calculated my spending, I was making $45,000 a year, which equals $2,561 per month. However,I was spending $2,588 per month which meant I was in the hole by $17 every month… but actually it was much larger than that when accounting for all of the taxes, insurance, etc taken out of my check! I was obviously financing a lot of my living with debt.
There are a few ways to track your spending:
1. Old School: write down every expense on a notebook and carry it around with you each day. You can then add these up manually or into a spreadsheet. Keep each item under a general “category” and try to limit to 6-8 categories total.
2. Automate: use a site like mint.com which links all of your credit cards and will create a nice history for you
Most credit card websites will also have information categorized, but it’s a little harder as you can’t get them all in once place. Here’s an easy spreadsheet to use a tracker, you can print it off or use it in Excel/Google Sheets Spending Tracker.
If you’re serious about getting your financial act together, don’t skip this step. Most people will think they have a good handle on their spending, but after this step they’ll realize they’re spending like a drunk on Bourbon Street*.
3. Create a spending plan (Budget)
Now, you must tell your money where to go (like you might already want to tell me where to go). You have to control where your money is spent and this happens through a budget, and not one of those “I’ll do it in my head” budgets.
The key is to keep it simple and not try to have a 100 line item budget, that’s doomed to fail. Take your biggest categories of spending that can fluctuate (clothes, groceries, going out to eat, etc) and create a goal for the amount you want to spend each month. Use your previous month totals from step 2 as a guide to set your total monthly amounts. Here are some sweet examples of budgets:
If you’re really serious about doing this, here’s a pro tip: cash budget, baby. This is the most effective way to stick to your spending plan because there’s nothing that makes your spending more real than pulling out a $100 bill every time you got to Wal-mart or go out to eat. You’ll experience the psychological impact as you see Benjamin leaving your pocket and paying for Chili’s two for two with too many margaritas, and it will start to change how you spend your money.
Check out the full details here on how to use the cash budget, but we literally went to the bank each month, pulled out $1,200 in cash, stuffed four envelopes, and then spent from them. If you weren’t watching your spending closely before, I can almost guarantee by doing this, you’ll quickly find an extra 20% of your dollars back in your wallet. These were our envelopes:
Lucy/pet spending ($100)
As you can see, it doesn’t include all of our expenses because some are too convenient (who wants to pay for gas with cash) and others aren’t as easy to constrain (utilities). This was also a few years old and our numbers have changed since then… based on our latest monthly spending report while traveling, we’re over $800/month for food.
4. Monitor plan and adjust as necessary
Now that you’ve created your spending plan, you need to track against it as the month goes on. As I mentioned in step #3, you may be surprised about how much you are spending on certain areas, so see what happens now that you’re tracking it. Feel free to move your numbers up or down in certain areas as the months progress. Use the same tracking methods mentioned in step 2.
Now, for one of the most important parts… don’t give up! If you do, you’ll be in the same position that you were in before. Use the knowledge you have gained from analyzing your spending and spending plan and keep the momentum going. This needs to be a change in the way you live, not a temporary diet in your spending.
5. Save some money
At this point, you should have a good idea of where your money is going and how much you have to save. You’ll inevitably have some crazy thing happen right as you start making progress, so you’ll want to quickly build up an emergency fund so you don’t have to use your credit cards. Let’s see… some of my fun ones over the years have included a towed car, minor wreck, sick dog, ruptured achillles tendon and lots of fun house repairs.
Let’s start with two main savings tips:
A. Create an emergency fund
The minimum amount you need to save is $1,000 to cover unexpected expense like the ones I mentioned above. If you already have this money in savings or you’ve now saved it, it’s time to move on to the big savings fund. You need to build up your emergency fund to 3-6 months of expenses so you can cover major issues like the loss of a job or a major injury. You should keep this money in liquid assets like savings accounts where you can quickly access the money. Now that you know your complete budget from step three, you should know the amount you need to save.
There are two main obstacles for most people on this step. The first, is you’d rather pay off debt. I agree that’s important, so you can always do both simultaneously, but I’d try for at least three months of spending saved before you go full on debt. The other obstacle is for nerds like me who’d rather invest it. This money is your security blanket or your “tell your boss off” fund. Keep it in a place where a major market correction won’t hurt it…. because your boss could become unbearable at any minute!
B. Pay yourself first
Another important part of building your savings is to pay yourself first. It’s tempting to “save what you have at the end of the month”, but more times than not, you’ll find not a lot of money at the end of the month. If instead, you put money into savings before the month starts, you’ll be amazed at how you get by without it.
Setup an automatic withdrawal through your bank and time it so it happens a few days after you get your paycheck. Just like you’re hopefully doing with your retirement accounts, the money will get pulled before you even had your spendy little Donald Trump hands on it.
6. Attack your debt
Debt is one of our biggest obstacles to freedom, and there’s a lot of people who profit off of you being in debt. It’s time to cut that, time to kill all of your debt so you’re working for you and not for GM auto financing. I hate debt – especially short term debt. The only debt I plan to ever have in my life is a mortgage debt, but I’d like to even get that knocked out soon. My distaste for debt came from back when graduated college and within a year of working, I was already $50k in debt and had a stupid car loan** which I’ve since vowed to never have again.
Now that you’ve followed the previous five steps, you know where your money is going, how much you have to spend, you’ve saved up some emergency funds and now it’s time to kill the debt.
There are many plans that give you the steps to pay off your debts but my favorite is Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, and it’s the plan I used to pay off my debt. He has a method called the “debt snowball” where you list all of your debts from smallest to largest on a piece of paper. You can even right this on a poster board you attach to your refrigerator so you know every day what you’re fighting.
Start with the smallest debt on the top of the list and pay only your minimums on the rest of the of the debts. Attack that smallest debt with the rest of your money until it’s paid off. Mark it off the list and do a happy dance. Now, it’s time to attack debt number two – this time using the extra money you were paying off the first debt with — thus, creating the snowball! This really does work and there’s a lot of psychological benefits for doing it this way versus going after the highest interest accounts first. Check out this great template from Kyle to track your debt snowball.
This is how you start to take control of your life, so you can call the shots. You need to have complete control of your money, and you need to be on the same page with your spouse if you’re married. If both of you aren’t bought in on this plan, there’s a high likelihood that it won’t work.
Next, we’ll talk about working smart to maximize your income and also get into investing. If you’ve made it this far, you must be serious about taking control of your money! Seriously, I think I was going for a record long post!!
*Incidentally, I had that problem on Bourbon street once and only realized the next few days how much I spent as the credit card charges kept coming
**One of my controversial and popular posts is the 20% rule for buying a car, if you have about three days, you should read through the comments as they’re quite entertaining.
I still remember driving to the car dealership in my sweet 1993 Chevy Lumina with the maroon interior. With my degree in Finance and a good job making $45,000 a year, I deserved a new car but I didn’t consider how much car I could afford.
They only gave me $500 trade-in on my Lumina, but it didn’t matter because I was ready to buy and they were ready to sell! They happily complied with my “confidence” and financed my new $28,000 Xterra with payments for the next five years.
Two years later, it all fell apart. I was tired of working my butt off and not making any progress on paying off my over $50,000 in debt. Something had to change. That’s why I now use the 20% rule to determine how much car you can afford based on your salary.
How much car can I afford?
The math is simple. How much money do you make in a year? Take 20% of your gross annual income (before taxes, social security, etc) and that’s how much car you can afford. Preferably, you should purchase with cash as well.
If you are in a relationship and you combine salaries and own two cars, you should add up both incomes and divide by two. If you want, you can split the amount up differently (60/40, 70/30, etc), but make sure you don’t surpass the 20%.
Quick example: one person makes $40,000 and the other makes $30,000. The combined salary of $70k means $14k worth of cars can be purchased. If you need to buy two cars in one year, you can split up the $14k however you’d like – keeping in mind the majority will probably go to the wife.
Cheat sheet on how much car you can afford:
$20,000 salary = $4,000 car
$40,000 salary = $8,000 car
$80,000 salary = $16,000 car
$140,000 salary = $28,000 car
$200,000 salary = $40,000 car
That means when I purchased my $28,000 car, I should have spent $9,000 instead (based on my $45,000 salary X 20%)! I was $19,000 over which explains why I was broke.
Can you afford a $30,000 car?
Most people aspire to a certain car and then work backwards to see how they can afford it, and it seems $30,000 is a pretty common aspirational car. Working backwards, to afford a $30,000 car using the 20% rule, you’d need to make $150,000! I know it seems crazy, but this is how millionaires do it.
Adopt a millionaire mindset
Even though I was a finance major, I never learned how to get rich. It took me three years of bad decisions and perpetual brokeness to finally realize I didn’t know what I was doing. Now, thanks to people like Dave Ramsey and books like The Millionaire Next Door, my wife and I are in the mindset.
According to Dr. Thomas Stanley, “86% of those who drive prestige makes of motor vehicles are not millionaires [having an investment portfolio of $1M or more – see Stop Acting Rich].” Contrary to the crap we see on TV like the Kardashians cruising around in new G wagons, the majority of expensive-looking cars aren’t driven by millionaires, they’re driven by people only trying to look rich!
How much do millionaires actually spend on their cars?
Dr. Stanley’s research shows “the median price paid for the most recent motor vehicle purchased by a millionaire was $31,367 [for decamillionaires-$41,997].” That’s right, millionaires only spend on average of $31k on a new car, or 3.1% of their incomes!! We bought a used car last year at 7-8% of our annual income and it’s been great.
Buy a Car With Cash!
The next secret to buy a car you can afford is to pay for it with cash. That’s right. Cold, hard, cash. We’ve been duped into spending our hard earned money on expensive cars for way too long and it’s even easier now that we can get 72 or even 84 month loans.
I don’t know if I would’ve done it differently ten years ago if I had the choice because it taught me to hate car loans and only purchase cars I could afford. It helped us travel the world in 2013 and travel North American in renovated vintage Airstream in 2017.
Imagine how great it would be… you have your own personal jet that flies you anywhere you’d like. You can get tickets to the toughest venues, and most of your stress comes from deciding which summer house to visit (Hamptons or Aspen). Imagine…
No, WAIT, stop imagining that!
It’s our imaginations that are making us broke! We imagine living a life we can’t afford, but then we actually buy things that we can’t afford. That’s why people are house poor, or car poor or going out to eat poor. They want to see themselves in this lifestyle.
Note: this thought originated from the father of Economics, Adam Smith – so don’t blame me if you don’t like it!
In one of my favorite books, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, the author Arthur Herman presents many ideas of great philosophers from the Scottish enlightenment, and I think this is one of the most powerful passages in the book. In fact, I’ve reread it three nights in a row because it struck such a powerful chord with me. Here goes:
And here imagination turns out to be the driving wheel of that system as well. Our imagination, the inner picture of ourselves being as rich and comfortable as the Duke of Argyll or Bill Gages, spurs on our efforts, focusing and directing our energies toward a single purpose. “It is this deception”, (Adam) Smith adds, which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. it is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths…”
This “deception”, as Smith called it, is major driver of our career ambitions as well. We want to leave a lasting mark on society and one of the easiest ways to do it is by becoming rich and famous. Or it might be the reason so many people willingly throw their current lives away in hopes of “making it to the top”.
I was well on the way after graduating college. I wanted to be a big, powerful CEO of a global company. In the first few years after I graduated, I worked tirelessly in this pursuit and small rewards starting coming. A promotion here and a raise there made me feel like I was on track to becoming what I wanted. But then, only five to seven years in, I found my career ambition waning, and I wanted out.
My deception was possibly identified as I realized what it would take to make it to the top. I realized I wanted to live my life now instead of sacrificing current time to chase bigger dreams that would only take me further away from what I wanted now – a lifestyle where I could enjoy my time and time with friends and family, and make a difference to others.
In the beginning, my imagination fed my ambition which in turn, fed my consumerism. I went $50,000 in debt two years out of school, and I felt like I was working just to pay for my crap and continue living the concept of the company store – even if it was through my own choosing.
I get it, we need jobs and we need careers. There are families to feed and babies to clothe. Also, some people really need the career pursuit to feel successful in life. But don’t make bad financial decisions that continue you down a path you don’t want to go. Don’t let a picture of success painted by society or the movies deter your way of life. Think about what’s most important to you and ask yourself if you’re working towards it, or if your deception is pushing you in the wrong direction.
As you might know, I quit my job a month ago and my wife is quitting soon as well. We hope to set off in a month or so for another adventure. We couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for making sacrifices and saving and investing hardcore over the last 10 years. Maybe our imagination to travel with complete freedom will one day make us broke, but we’re willing to take the risk!
Here's my story: I went $50k in debt at 25, but now I'm partially retired at 34. Traveled the world with my lovely wife in 2013; traveling the US in a vintage Airstream with her and pup Lucy now. Take control of your money so you can do what you want with your beautiful life.