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Miter Boxes, Mallets & Money: Just A Bunch Of Useful Tools, Sometimes!

Know Your Tools

It is important for a carpenter to know his tools. For instance, a carpenter who is a cabinet maker intimately knows how to use a miter box. And most people, especially carpenters,  know what a hammer is and basically how to use it. Actually, there are several types of hammers that specialize for different functions. There’s is the claw hammer, sometimes called a common hammer, a ball pein hammer, a club hammer, a framing hammer, a sledge hammer and many more that make up the hammer family. Then there is a mallet, which is similar to a hammer but not exactly the same thing. A mallet is a hammer with a large, usually rubber or wooden head, used especially for hitting a chisel. It is the right hammer for wood carving and delicate wood working. But when you use the right hammer in the wrong application, it can be bad, even painful. See, one day, a while back, I used a mallet to try and knock some flooring into position. The flooring was heavy and I  didn’t want to mark the flooring so I used a rubber headed mallet to try and knock it into place. I should have picked up the flooring and moved it by hand, but I was tired and it was late and I had the mallet readily available. So I pounded at the flooring to move it across the floor into place. All went well until it didn’t…on one particular swing I got distracted, took my eyes off the flooring and proceeded to hit myself in the foot with a heavy blow. My initial reaction to hitting myself in the foot was one of embarrassment. But as the sensation made its way to my brain, my embarrassment was quickly replaced with severe pain. It hurt so bad. Bad hammer!

You see, this was a classic example of using a perfectly good tool the wrong way, which resulted in the tool not being productive at all, but being a pain (literally) that hinders progress instead of contributing to it. I guess the moral of the story is that tools are very useful when used (and viewed) correctly, but can be counterproductive if used incorrectly.

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Money Is

Money is similar to a hammer in that when viewed and used properly, is a great tool that can help you achieve your goals, but when used incorrectly, can be counterproductive and possibly painful. Money, being a central part of financial freedom, must be viewed and used properly or else be counterproductive to the pursuit of freedom. This is a good lead-in to defining what money is, and by extension, what money isn’t.

  • Money is: A medium of economic exchange and a tool to build wealth. As a tool, it is like a hammer in that you have to get it (some), learn how to use it, take care of it, use it correctly and manage it so that it provides value to you.
  • Money is: A temptation. If you let money be your goal, be the focus of your desires and the answers to your problems, it can tempt you to worship it, hoard it and let it define you.
  • Money is: A test. As we learn each lesson about money we walk away a little bit wiser and a little better equipped to use it going forward. But if we don’t learn our lessons, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
  • Money is: A testimony. Our decisions (wise decisions or struggles) with money and finances in general, are a large part of our testimony to our spouses, peers, neighbors and children.

 

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Money Is Not

It is just as important to define what money is not. Although our western culture wants to paint a picture that money is the root of happiness, power, status and popularity, money is just a tool, not the basis for our identity. Let’s take a look at what money is not:

  • Money is not: A measure of success or our sole goal. There are many successful people that have a lot of money, but not having money does not make you unsuccessful. Likewise, there are/were some incredibly success people that had virtually no money. Many, if not most of your artists, missionaries and teachers fall into that category.
  • Money is not: A component of self-worth. Money is a tool, not something that defines who we are or our value to our families, communities and corporations.
  • Money is not: A reward for good living. Money doesn’t care if you are good or bad. Good living is a reward in itself. If you are a person of faith, you know that the true blessings are things such as peace, joy, love, grace and contentment.
  • Money is not: A guarantee of satisfaction. Money does not guarantee happiness or contentment. In fact, most people who look to money to be their source of satisfaction  never seem to have enough of it.

 

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Use It, Keep It, Take Care Of It But With The Proper Perspective

Money, when kept in the proper perspective (as a tool) and used correctly (as a medium of economic exchange and a tool to build wealth) can lead to financial freedom that includes peace, contentment, options and freedom from worry. But when used incorrectly, as a measure of success, self-worth or a guarantee of satisfaction, can lead to the opposite of freedom: Entrapment, discontentment, misery and, yes, pain, just like that mallet story I told earlier. Our lives change for the better (financial freedom being the main objective) when we view money as a tool and not as our goal.

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness
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Dumb Financial Freedom Dichotomies & How To Avoid Them

Dumb Dichotomies

So, you’re eliminating your credit card debt. And your friend tells you that they know a thing or two about personal finance and tell you that you MUST quickly choose between using the Debt Snowball method or the Debt Avalanche method to pay off your debt or else you are making a huge mistake. Which method are you going to use?

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Really? There’s only two choices and I MUST pick only one right now and use it forever? Not true! Although there are pros and cons for these two popular debt elimination approaches, nothing says you must only use one of the two methods and be faithful to that method forever.  That’s a dumb dichotomy. You don’t have to pick one over the other. In fact, many times, a mixture of the two methods might be best. Why would we want to put that kind of unnecessary pressure on anyone who is trying to do something as important to personal finance as eliminate their credit card debt? Debt elimination is hard enough without undo requirements. Dumb dichotomies can get in the way of financial freedom because they make the task that much harder to accomplish. Here’s a look at some financial freedom dumb dichotomies and how to avoid them:

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Snowball Or Avalanche

To finish the discussion of which debt elimination approach is best, we first have know a little about the person eliminating the debt. Does that person need constant motivation to stay the course? If so, then the Debt Snowball is perfect, where the focus is to pay off the smallest credit card balances first and then work off the larger accounts as the smaller ones are paid off. This approach motivates the debtor in that the debtor sees a rapid reduction in creditors and uses that motivation to continue the debt elimination effort.

Another valid debt elimination technique is called the Debt Avalanche, whereby the debtor pays off the highest cost debt first. In other words, the debtor pays off the credit card that has the highest interest rate first, then works his way down the list towards the lowest interest rate card until all debt is repaid. This technique may interest a “math person” or a cost conscious person. This approach affords the debtor the lowest cost approach to debt elimination. This blog is not judging one approach versus another, but intends to highlight that you don’t have to pledge allegiance to one or the other. In fact, a combination of the two can very effectively motivate the debtor to eliminate the debt AND minimize the amount of interest paid during the debt elimination. For instance, some people have had success starting out with the debt snowball by paying off a small balance to get a quick win, and therefore boost motivation, and then switching to the debt avalanche to reduce interest payments.

From my point of view, “just tackle the debt!” Eliminate it as fast as possible and at the lowest cost as possible because debt, especially consumer debt, is the biggest obstacle to building wealth and more importantly, financial freedom. Debt snowball, debt avalanche or a combination of both…use either or both but just kill the debt!

Looking for a great resource to lead you through debt elimination? Check out Dave Ramsey’s book:

The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

Emergency Fund: In Savings Or An Investment?

An emergency fund, money set aside for when, not if, you have a real financial emergency, is central for financial freedom. In effect, an emergency fund is self-insurance to ensure that an emergency  1) does not force you into deep credit card debt or 2) cause you physical and emotional stress from money worries. And for some time there has been an ongoing debate where that money should reside. The two loudest groups suggest that an emergency fund show either be placed in a savings account (because it is the most readily available) or in a secure mutual fund (because it can earn a “greater than inflation” return while sitting in the account). In reality, this is a dumb dichotomy, because you don’t have to choose one or the other. While both are valid options, you could also split the money between an account that is readily available (like a savings account, understanding it will have a very low or no return) and a safe investment like a mutual fund or something similar that produces a larger return on your money. While leading experts, like Dave Ramsey, suggest you have between three to six months of expenses in your emergency fund, you can allocate that money according to your priorities and risk level.

Investing: Active Or Passive?

Active investing, defined here as using professional investing resources to buy and sell investment instruments, is an effective investment approach. So too, is passive investing, where investors invest their money in simple automated investments, like index funds or ETF’s. I recently witnessed a lively debate where people took sides on the “right” investment approach. The battle was focused on the slightly better returns of the active investment approach versus the low cost and low stress of the passive investment approach. There is no one right answer! This is a dumb dichotomy. Both approaches work and the right approach for any investor is based on that investor’s needs and approach to investing. Some people, like me, have both active and passive investments. The point is, there’s no one right approach and you don’t have to unilaterally choose.

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Budgeting: To The Dollar Or With Margin

Budgeting is essential to achieving financial freedom because the budget “tells our money where to go instead of just wondering where it all went” (Dave Ramsey quote). Yet most Americans don’t take the time to budget and the results are not good. The facts are that the same percentage of people in America that do not budget (roughly 74%) equal the same percentage of people who are living paycheck to paycheck! Budgeting is important. But the debate between the experts that say you must either budget “to the dollar” and have every dollar accountable to a category, or, budget with a large amount of margin, or reserve cash, has formed a dumb dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be one form or the other. Pick the budget form that works for you and follow it. Since only 26% of Americans budget anyway, any form of budget would be better than the norm! There’s just a couple foundational rules that a good budget must follow to be effective and sustained: The budget must balance, must be measured and must be followed to be effective.

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Financial Freedom Is The Point

Eliminating debt, having an emergency fund, investing money and having a budget are all essential to developing financial freedom. But the approach to accomplish each one of these elements is dependent upon the person or persons involved, and any person suggesting that one approach is inherently better than the other is causing a dumb dichotomy, which is both unnecessary and distracting. Eliminate your consumer debt as fast as possible, using the method, or methods, that work best for you. Make and keep an emergency fund and reduce your financial worries. Invest money to develop wealth in the way you are most comfortable. Last, make a budget and follow it to ensure proper allocation of your precious dollars. Don’t let any dumb dichotomies distract you from your pursuit of financial freedom! These dichotomies are just…dumb.

For more information on financial freedom, check out Dave Ramsey’s book:
 
The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness
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And Then There Was One

 

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On The Path To Financial Freedom

To this point, the path toward financial freedom has been straight forward. The budget is in place. All consumer debt has been paid off, including cars, student loans and credit cards. Emergency fund is all set. Same is true with college savings for our last child in the house. We are saving and investing 15% toward retirement and tithing 10% to our church. And any left over money gets invested in a taxed account that will be used for future purchases.  Last, everything is automated so it “just happens”. Now, time and compound interest should produce results that lead toward freedom freedom. So far, so good. Now there’s only one debt left to deal with, the home mortgage, so the big question is: Do we pay off the mortgage, our last debt,  or do we invest that money to meet future needs?

Two Choices, Is One Better?

I think the choice between paying off an existing mortgage on a primary residence or investing that money to growth wealth is a matter of priority between financial freedom and financial independence. They are the same thing, you might say? I don’t think they are. Financial freedom puts peace of mind at a priority, including freedom from money worries and anxiety. So that would favor paying off the mortgage, because a debt, any debt, is an obligation that presumes we know and can control the future. Unknown-3It presumes we can make all the payments, but that is not a sure thing. Because in a 30 year mortgage, (15 year mortgage if you are really savvy), a number of things can go wrong that are out of your control and could prevent you, or hinder you greatly, from paying the mortgage like job loss, physical injury or other family health related issues. Yes, an emergency fund certainly helps in these circumstances, but if peace of mind and total freedom from money worry is the top priority, you probably would pay off the mortgage as soon as possible to ensure you always have a place to live.

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

Financial independence, on the other hand, prioritizes choice over freedom. And it is quite possible that investing the money, instead of paying off the mortgage, can provide more choices. Choices like work (or not to work) choices, location choices and purchase choices. The assumption here is that the return on the money invested is greater than the savings in interest paid on the mortgage. And for the last ten years, including the financial recession of 2008-2009, that has clearly been the case. First, let’s look at the math.

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The Math – The Easy Part

Simply put, the cost savings by paying off the mortgage in the last ten years has been significantly less than the return on investment if that money was put into any S&P500 Index Fund for investment. This is how it works out for me: Mortgage interest rate of 3.875% minus the mortgage interest tax break (use a conservative tax rate of just 10%) gives you an effective cost of the mortgage money around 3.5%. Another way of saying this is that the financial benefit of paying off your mortgage is roughly a 3.5% return on your money. Compare that with investing that same money in a simple S&P500 Index Fund for the same time period, ten years, which according to Fidelity Investments, returned 7.5% annually, not including dividends. Minus out the taxes on that return and you have an after tax return of roughly 6.7%, or almost double the return when compared to paying off the mortgage!

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But There’s More

The math between our two choices is the easy part. Clearly, investing money instead of paying off the mortgage will generate more value. In my example, investing produces almost two times the return as paying off the mortgage. But there are several other factors to consider:

  • Peace of mind – Clearly paying off the mortgage will give you great peace of mind but it will cost you. In my ten year example, the investment difference of investing the money instead of paying down the mortgage is worth over $115,000! That is a high cost for peace of mind but for those that are truly risk adverse, it may be still worth it to pay off the mortgage.
  • Cost of the mortgage – If your mortgage interest rate is over 5%, the financial freedom of paying off the mortgage may be worth it, since the financial benefit of investing the money is much smaller. But, something else to consider, if your mortgage interest rate is that high, consider refinancing your mortgage. Today’s rates are much lower.

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It’s A Personal Decision, Possibly An Expensive One!

For me the decision is simple, because my investments actually did far better than average over the past ten years, (10% including reinvested dividends) and my mortgage rate is fixed at 3.875%, I choose to continue to invest our money instead of using that money to pay off the mortgage. Our six months of expenses emergency fund gives us peace of mind as far as making the mortgage payments, as does our long term disability insurance. Worst case, I can change my mind any time and pay off the mortgage with a portion of the investments. But the priority is to invest the money for a greater return. Assuming my wife and I live an average life span and we keep the money invested in the market, we can expect to earn about $400,000 more dollars by this decision than if we decided to pay off the mortgage. That certainly helps calm the nerves about having a mortgage!

What do you think? This is what I think: Financial freedom (or independence) is hard work, but it is worth it!

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

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Kissing Frogs & The Pursuit Of Financial Freedom

 

It’s Been A Long Time

It seems like I have been really busy working on our family’s financial freedom since the start of the new year, but you can’t tell by the number of posts I have made (three). We have now officially completed one quarter of the new year and as I looked at my progress toward financial freedom, I see my blog post productivity going down, but seemingly my effort going up. What gives? So I took an inventory of what I have been doing. This is what I found: I made a lot of progress in finding side hustles and passive income. By that I mean I found what works and doesn’t work for me and my family for side hustles to help us meet my financial freedom goals. I want to share both our side hustle successes and failures to help others finds their path to financial freedom!

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Kissing Frogs

At the start of the new year I made it a goal to find side hustles that could grow our passive income or side income. I found some great ones that I can see my wife and I doing for the rest of our lives. But not before trying a whole bunch that just did not work out with our lifestyle and priorities! Like the fairy tale says: Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince! We kissed a lot of frogs and found a couple princes.

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Before we take a look at what works for us, let’s review the side hustles that I pursued that did not meet our goals. Note: This is not to say these side hustles are bad and you should never try these. These all worked to some degree over a three month period but were not what we were looking for. Take a look at what didn’t work for us: Our Frogs

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First, I tried to make money with the apps Ebates and Ibotta, getting rebates on household purchases but I found that our frugal lifestyle doesn’t gain much in the way of rebates. In fact, I found the opposite, I found the temptation strong to buy stuff I didn’t need in order to get the rebate (That’s probably the point). So I stopped those.

Second, I tried the apps, Swaybacks and Receipt Hog, where you scan and track your receipts and earn money doing so. But after three months I only made $10 bucks, so the payback was not there. What did I expect on only grocery store and gas station receipts?

Then I tried flexjobs.com doing data transcription, but that was a lot of work for just pennies an hour, literally. Not right, so I stopped.

As a budding photographer, I wanted to see if selling stock photography on iStockphoto.com could earn us some good money, but after 3 months I learned that I can only make about $2/hour selling my stock photography online. So it is not a good source of side income.

I learned a lot by trying these forms of side hustle, but they weren’t for me. The payback was too low and the impact on our lifestyle was too great to keep pursuing them. So I looked for other sources of side income, and found a couple that really worked, sort of:

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Downsizing Pays Dividends

My family decided to downsize and de-clutter our home. We didn’t physically move, just simplified and changed our style to one of a clean, de-cluttered look. In the process of repainting, recarpeting and removing all the old knickknacks and decor, we developed a huge pile of stuff to get rid of! That pile was the “inventory” for a huge garage sale, quickly followed by online selling through Craigslist, Facebook and Ebay. The results were great! We sold almost everything, including old stereos, clothing, furniture, cameras, shoes, jewelry, toys, stuffed animals and anything else you can think of. It kind of stung at first, getting rid of all that stuff. Some of it sentimental. But once we got started we made over $1500! The good news is that we made good money for such a small amount of work. The bad news is, we ran out of stuff to sell! However, this selling spree did open the doors, and our eyes, for us to sell other stuff we find in our travels on Ebay and other online marketplaces. I would characterize this side hustle as a huge success but you need constant inventory to keep selling online. We would need to find a source if that were to become a regular part of our side hustle income stream.

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From Frogs To Princes

One of our 2017 side hustle goals was to generate $2,500 a month in side hustle income. The online efforts listed above weren’t going to get us there and the reselling of stuff on Ebay helped a lot but would not be consistent because we ran out of inventory to sell. So the next thing we tried was dividend investing and options trading. Now these forms of side hustles are not for everyone, but I’m pretty sure they are perfect for us!

First, dividend investing. I have been an investor in stocks for a long time, but only recently adjusted my investing strategy to dividend investing. For many years I was simply a growth investor, investing in growing companies who, for the most part, reinvest all their earnings into the business. This type of investing had done well for us but it was not generating any side income. And the vicissitudes of the stock market were not letting me experience financial freedom. I was not free of worry and until I sold the stocks, there was no real profit. But dividend investing seems to be my thing! In November and December I researched everything I could about dividend investing and made a plan which I executed in January. I reorganized my investments to include many dividend champions and aristocrats that started paying dividends right away. For each of the last three months, our dividends have increased and the payback on the time invested to research and buy stocks is exceptional. Far better than the $2/hour I was getting woking on selling stock photography! Our goal of averaging $1000/month in dividends is well within reach and something I really enjoy.

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The other side hustle I really enjoy and have had some success with is options trading. Again, option trading is not for everyone, but it is for me, because I love the research and technical analysis. And with the help of some really smart mentors, I have come up with a simple and easy way to generate income, leveraging my stock investments that are already in place. My process is really pretty simple: Each weekend, do my homework and make a plan that I then execute the following week. The time commitments are not very taxing and so far, for the first three months of 2017, have been quite fruitful. So much so that I believe our $2,500/month in passive income is doable and sustainable.

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Lessons Learned From Kissing Frogs And Finding Princes

As you can see, I was really busy pursuing side hustles for financial freedom these last few months, but you can’t tell by the few blog posts I made, (now four). But the lesson learned is that it takes a while to find your financial freedom voice and pursuit. For us, financial freedom is in the form of frugal living, ample savings and some extra income through two side hustles: Dividend investing and options trading. It took us a long time, and a lot of effort to sift through a number of side hustle opportunities to find what works for us. And we are not done yet by any means. We will keep trying new things to build our passive income in pursuit of financial freedom. I hope I get back to sharing more financial freedom via this blog over time too. In the meantime, keep on hustling and never stop pursuing your financial freedom. It’s hard work but worth it!

Need help with your personal finances and don’t know where to start? Start here:

The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness
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The Financial Freedom Letter I Want To Write To My 30 Year Younger Self

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Letter To Self

Dear Self,

Freedom is a big deal. Great people in our country have fought and died for it. And financial freedom is no exception. If you start early and 1) aggressively save,  2) use the power of compound interest and 3) exercise some budget restraint, you can achieve complete financial freedom and transition into retirement at an early age. What does this mean? You will have the freedom to choose if and where you work. You will have freedom from worry about money and the anxiety of debt. You will have freedom to chase your dreams and spend time in those things you are passionate about. Sound good? I think so too. If you are seriously interested in financial freedom, listen carefully. There are just a couple simple actions you need to take right away. They require immediate commitment and action. Still interested? Then read on…

Begin With The End In Mind

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The first step toward financial freedom is to know your “why”. Actually, it is to know your “what” and your “why”. The what we already discussed. The what is to retire from full time employment at an early age and to experience financial freedom. To go a little further, let’s be more specific. The what is to retire by age 55 and have the freedom to pursue the passions of your heart, namely: tropical beach centered living, travel and generously giving back in my community. That brings us to the why. The why is that financial freedom allows me to contribute the most to my family and to society in general. I am more valuable to my family, community and God if I am financially free to live and serve others without the constraints of a full time job or full time financial worries. Let’s get started.

Save And Invest From The Start

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You’re 22 years old and fresh out of college, making a good salary in a growing industry. Your first step is to save aggressively. You just came out of four years of living frugally on the college campus, so before you expand your cost of living with the new salary, dedicate yourself to save 30% of your salary from the first paycheck on. That’s right, 30% right off the top. Have the savings automatically deducted from your paycheck before you see it in your checking account. That way you don’t even miss it, because you never had it to spend in the first place. Where will the savings go? Three places to start: 1) 10% of your paycheck will go into an emergency fund until it gets up to one month’s of expenses. 2) 15% will go into your retirement account, offered by your employer, and includes a matching program. 3) The balance, 5%, goes into a new investment account. Once the emergency fund totals the equivalent of one month’s of expenses (enough for a single guy with a stable job, for now), that 10% of your paycheck will be added to the investment account (now totaling 15%). It’s that simple. Do this and your on your way to financial freedom…but not there yet.

Keep It Simple And Watch It Grow

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You were taught compound interest and investment principles in college, but go back and learn them again. What will you learn? That compound interest of savings that is invested in low cost, equity based investments develop rapid growth of wealth. Let’s go over the basics in some detail. The emergency fund goes into a checking or savings account and does not earn any investment return, but acts as self-insurance. This is called “sleep at night” money because it helps you sleep at night knowing that you can cover most of the unexpected little costs that come up in every day life. The emergency fund is the single biggest deterrent to mounting credit card debt. In turn, credit card debt is the single biggest threat against financial freedom, so we want to avoid consumer debt at all costs.

For all things investing, try The Street

The retirement account goes into the company 401K program as a pre-tax investment which lowers your taxable income and is eligible for the company matching program. That means the 15% of your income that you put aside from each paycheck automatically gets another 5% (50% match up to 10% of your income) added to it and then gets invested in low risk equity based mutual funds. This retirement savings, match and investment gets done automatically, each paycheck, before you see your paycheck.

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

Last, your regular investment savings goes straight into a low cost equity index fund. Specifically, an S&P 500 Index Fund, which over the course of history has produced a 10% return annually. It’s that simple. Save money, invest money, let compound interest do it’s thing. What’s the key? Have the money automatically taken out of your paycheck so you don’t see it or be tempted to spend it before it goes to your investments.

Embrace The Budget

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To ensure you stay disciplined in your regular savings, embrace living on a budget. What does that mean? Develop a spending plan and learn to live (and spend) by it. Take the 70% of your paycheck that is left after savings is invested and allocate the money for living expenses. It’s pretty straight forward but you would be surprised how many people do not have a budget and lose track of their spending, only to end up broke or in debt. Here are the big budget items and targets for spending:

Housing (house payment/rent, utilities, insurance, taxes, HOA): 30% of net monthly pay

Auto (Car payments, gas, repairs, insurance, etc): 15% of net monthly pay

Food (Groceries, toiletries, eating out): 15% of net monthly pay

Debt Payment (No debt payment, no credit card balances, start off right!)

Generosity (Tithe, donations, etc): 10%

Entertainment (Fun, travel, vacations, pets, hobbies): 10%

Living Expenses (Clothes, gifts, household stuff, medical): 10%

Misc. 10%

Make a budget, live by that budget and get comfortable living well below your means by learning how to find low cost or free entertainment, food, transportation and household needs. You will not miss anything important by keeping your cost of living down. It’s that simple: Save, invest, live on a budget…and oh yeah, compound interest!

Enjoy The Ride

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I’ll say it again, it’s that simple: starting right out of college, save 30% of your paycheck, invest in an emergency fund, a retirement fund and low cost equity investments, and live below your means using a simple budget. Those are the primary vehicles to financial freedom. Because, over 33 years, from age 22 to 55, using the power of compound interest, those investments turn into something much bigger than the sum of the savings made over that time. Let’s take a look at the math with a couple assumptions:

Starting pay right out of college: $50,000 annually.

Assume 3% annual salary increases, pay by age 55 is $128,000 annually

Total savings over 33 years at 30% of income (Age 22 to age 55): $1,030,550 including company match

Investment value at age 55, given the following returns: emergency fund 0%, retirement fund 6.5%, investment account 10%: $2,991,000

That much money, almost $3M, produces $120,000 a year in annual income at age 55 (4% rule) or $10,000/month, which supports just about any lifestyle. More importantly, this income, allows for full financial freedom! And this does not include other income sources such as social security. In addition, by starting your saving and living on a budget early, and investing regularly, the process to achieve financial freedom was simple and easy. Compound interest does the heavy lifting. It turns your million dollars of savings over 30 years and into three million.

Start early, be disciplined, trust investments over time and the power of compound interest. It’s that easy!

Sincerely, The older you.

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

Financial Freedom Geek Fest // Budget By The Numbers

Many, if not most people, start off the new year with new goals and dreams for the upcoming year that include budgeting and financial goals. When it comes to personal finance, that is the easy part. The hard part can be following that plan during the course of the year. Now that we are several months into the new year, we can look at our budget performance and see if we are sticking to our plan. We can compare our financial goals and corresponding budget to our actual spending. Simple enough. Then we can make adjustments, if needed, to keep on track on meeting those goals.

But there is another budget exercise that is also worth doing. How does that saying go: “A manager makes sure things are done right, but a leader makes sure we are doing the right things?” So it might make sense to spend some time making sure that we not only are staying on budget but to make sure we have a good budget in the first place. What is a good budget?  In fact, let’s go one step further. Let’s look at the budget through the lens of financial freedom. Let’s make a budget that not only makes sure the bills are paid and our goals and dreams are being funded, but is also optimized to let us experience ongoing financial freedom, and eventually, financial independence.  It may sound complicated but it is not if you have the discipline to stay the course!

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Budget: A Dirty Word

Let’s just put it out there. For some people, a budget is an awful thing. It is hard to make, confusing, very confining and seems to steal joy from life. But let’s start by change our perspective on the budget for this discussion. A budget is simply a tool to help us meet our goals.

“The budget is a plan for our money so that it goes where we want it to go, instead of getting to the end of the month and wondering where it all went.” Dave Ramsey

Don’t think of it as constraining or difficult math, but simply as a useful tool. A good budget can be as brief or detailed as you need to meet your goals and experience the financial freedom you want.

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Financial Freedom: What is it? Why Do We Want It?

If a budget is a tool to help us meet our financial goals, then what is the overall purpose of having financial goals? Is it simply just to afford more stuff? Or to be rich? No, the purpose of having financial goals and a good budget is to achieve financial freedom and hopefully, financial independence. Financial freedom is discussed a lot but what is it?

“Our definition is having the attitude and resources to live abundantly in each stage of life, free of worry and free to completely live out the full purpose and goals of one’s life.”

This freedom allows peace of mind, security and choices, which usually result in a fulfilling life. So let’s get started to define a good budget that can get us on our way to financial freedom.

Typically, a good budget has four characteristics:

  1. The budget has clearly defined goals
  2. The budget funds those goals
  3. The budget has margin, breathing room,  to account for emergencies, opportunities and life challenges, in general
  4. The budget defines and prioritizes needs over wants

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It Starts With A Prioritized Set Of Goals

Before we start talking about making a good budget, we need to define our financial goals.  Goals should be the priority in your budget. They should be funded first. Goals should include responsibilities, short and long term plans, life goals, passions of the heart and family goals. Common goals include:

  • Home ownership
  • Financial security or financial independence
  • Large expenditures: cars, vacations, travel, furniture, etc
  • Retirement
  • Kid’s education/college
  • Hobbies/side businesses
  • Bucket list items

Make a list of your goals. Then ask yourself: Am I willing to fund these goals at the expense of other possible uses of my money? If not, drop them off your list and go through the process again until you have a set of goals that you are excited to pursue AND are willing to fund. Here’s a sample list of 2017 goals with dates and amounts:

  • Max out 2017 401K retirement savings, to support a 2020 retirement from full time work. $18,000 this year
  • Family reunion vacation in July. $3,000
  • Braces for our teenager in June. $3,200 out of pocket (Insurance pays the rest)
  • Tithe, charitable giving, to my local church. $9,000 a year

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Needs vs Wants: Knowing The Difference

One more step before we start making our budget. We need to know the difference between needs and wants, and make sure needs are funded before any budget money is used on wants. A need is something required for basic living. Needs usually fall into six basic categories:

  • Housing and utilities
  • Reliable transportation
  • Groceries/basic food needs
  • Clothing
  • Medical/prescriptions
  • Insurance

One more thing on needs. What you need to spend is just the amount for basic living so as to keep you safe, secure and functional. Anything more is a want that will be discussed later. An example of a need versus a want: The transportation need for a family might be a basic four door sedan or SUV, but a transportation want might be an expensive European sport car.

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Margin Means Freedom: What Does It Look Like In A Budget?

Margin, or breathing space in a good budget, is fundamental for financial freedom and usually takes two forms:

  • An emergency fund (usually between 3 to 6 months of expenses saved for emergencies)
  • Adequate insurance that usually includes: medical, property and long term disability insurance

The amount of money in an emergency fund varies depending upon your situation and risk-adverseness level. Once you reach your goal, you do not need to keep contributing to it but each time you use money from the emergency fund, the money should be replaced for the next emergency. What constitutes an emergency? Job loss, auto repairs, housing repairs, deductibles for medical issues and such.

Many people working full time today have medical, dental and vision insurance (medical) through their employers, but one way or another, we need to have medical insurance to have financial peace. The same is true with insurance for our large pieces of property (home and auto) and with employment insurance (long term disability). Note: Short term disability insurance can be your emergency fund.

One more note on having margin in our budgets. We know each year that we have seasonal expenses coming, like presents at Christmas time and for birthdays. We should budget for them. You might say, what’s the big deal about birthdays? But if you have an 8 year old, that is in a class of 21 students, and has the same school invite policy as our school, you know that you are required to invite all classmates to your birthday party AND you should expect to be invited to ALL 20 of the other classmate birthday parties too! That could be $400 or so of presents each year you should be setting aside for financial freedom in your life.

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Pressing The Information Into A Good Budget

Let’s recap: We know what our goals are and how much money they require. We know what margin in our budget looks like and we’ve identified what that costs. Also, we defined our basic needs in our budget and classified everything beyond those needs as wants that should be funded last, if money is available. Now we can start allocating money to make a budget.

Where to start. A GREAT place to start when forming a budget is to use tools by successful organizations who specialize in budgets and budget allocations. Two such tools are made by Dave Ramsey, http://www.everydollar.com,  and Crown Ministries, http://www.crown.org, that provide guides as to how much money should be allocated to each budget category. Here is a great starting point for each budget category:

Take your net income (net pay after taxes) and allocate as such:

Budget Category       Percentage of Net Pay     Description                             

Charity (tithe)              10%

Savings/Investment   15%   Retirement, emergency fund,

Total Housing             30%    Mortgage, taxes, utilities, cable, HOA, insurance, repairs

Auto                              12%    Car payment, gas, repairs, insurance

Food                              14%   Groceries &  eating out

Entertainment              6%   Recreation, pets, travel, gym, gifts

Household                      6%   Clothing, phone, beauty, services (lawn, cleaning, etc)

Medical/Insurance       3%

Children                         4%   If no children, go towards savings or a college fund

100% of net pay. Can’t be more than that or we have an unbalanced budget (Read: debt!)

What Makes For A Good Budget?

What makes this budget any good? First, it funds our financial goals (In this case, retirement, travel, children’s needs and entertainment). Second, this budget amply provides for all our needs (housing, food, transportation, insurance and clothing) and many of our wants (cable, eating out, etc). Third, this budget provides savings for an emergency fund and prevents the accumulation of credit card debt, which is the biggest wealth stealer around. Notice what this budget doesn’t have in it? It doesn’t have debt payment as a line item, consumer debt that is. That is because consumer debt is not a financial freedom maker, it is a financial freedom stealer. So pay off your credit card in full each month, while sticking to your budget. It also doesn’t have any money that is not allocated in the budget. Unallocated money usually results in mindless spending. In fact, in 2016, Fidelity reported that 22% of all discretionary money is spent on items we don’t remember just 24 hours after the purchase. Mindless.

Recap A Good Budget

Let’s go through our “good budget for financial freedom” checklist:

  1. Our budget clearly funds our current goals, In this case retirement, travel, children’s needs and entertainment). Check
  2. Our budget has margin built into it in the form of an emergency fund and insurance. Check
  3. Our budget has funded all our needs (basic housing, transportation, clothing and food), all of our goals (previously stated) and some of our wants, like cable TV, pets, etc.

There’s one more important thing our budget provides for and that is charity or generosity. It is the first line item in our budget, because generosity helps us keep money in its proper place as a tool, nothing more, and it is a huge component in financial freedom!

Wait! You say, you have completely different budget needs to obtain financial freedom. Ok. Just re-allocate the money according to your goals and/or lifestyle and as long as you are living within your means, savings for your goals and dreams and have ample margin for life’s challenges, you will be all set.

There you have it. We have a good budget that supports financial freedom. There’s nothing better than that!

 

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Financial Freedom: No Goals, No Plan, No Measurement, NO WAY!

Financial Freedom?

There are many definitions of financial freedom, but I particularly like this definition quoted from Kim Kiyosaki several years ago:

Financial freedom is much more than having money. It’s the freedom to be who you really are and do what you really want in life. And many of us… lose site of this by putting others first and playing many different roles such as parent, spouse, employee, friend, and more.” Kim Kiyosaki

I like this definition because it goes beyond money and possessions and focuses more on the freedom to pursue the vision, goals and passions in your lives. Who doesn’t want that freedom? But to be financially free, we need to have a clear view of what we want to be free FROM and where we want to be free TO GO. So we need to have a goal(s), a plan and some measurements to make financial freedom a reality.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true. If there is no goal(s), no plan and no measurement it is very hard, some would say impossible, to reach financial freedom. Thus, I give you Financial Freedom: No Goals, No Plan, No Measurement, NO WAY! to help us think through the basic mechanics to achieving financial freedom.

Financial Freedom Goals

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Where to start? Let’s start with some sound financial freedom goals. If you already have yours, then skip to the next part. But if not, take a look at these fundamental financial freedom goals:

  • Become and stay debt-free (consumer debt at least) 
  • Adequate emergency fund to handle life’s financial challenges
  • Savings and investments to fuel future goals, needs, passions and obligations
  • A financial system to eliminate the stress and anxiety of financial management

Do these goals make sense to you? The list starts with being debt free, primarily because debt is an expensive obligation that presumes that you can control the future in the form of future payments and that is not always the case. For instance, right now in America, roughly 6% of all car loans are delinquent or in default. That means that roughly one out of every 16 cars on the road are not being paid for, which could result in forfeit of the car. Those people who took out those loans to buy those cars didn’t intend to default on those loans. But for one reason or another they can not make their payments and will risk losing their cars. There’s no freedom in owing other people money, so we must have a goal to eliminate our debts.

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What about an emergency fund goal? Each of us pursuing financial freedom must have some sort of emergency fund to handle the expenses of unexpected, but inevitable, challenges and troubles in life. People get sick, get in an auto accident, get a leak in the roof, or have some other unexpected emergency.  The list goes on and on. We need to have money set aside for such occurrences. How much is enough? The traditional answer is three to six months of expenses but the actual amount depends on your situation and personal risk aversion. The emergency fund is the single biggest insurance of financial freedom. Why? It prevents debt and it gives emotional comfort in knowing that it is there. Some call this “sleep at night” money.

Savings and investments, what’s the right amount? The answer to that is based on your goals and objectives. For most people there are at least three goals to achieve with their savings and investments: 1) Retirement needs. Most people want to retire and the best way to do that is to start saving early in a tax-preferred plan, like a 401K. 2) Household needs. Cars, furniture and homes, among other needs, either become too small or wear out and need replacing. Money, properly invested producing compound interest, will provide the means to purchase these needed items at the proper time, without debt.

What financial system goals are needed to ensure financial freedom? Let’s start with a system to automate our payments and savings. If possible, isn’t it liberating to have a system that ensures your bills are fully paid, on time, every month? Just as important, or maybe even more so, is having a system that automatically moves money each month into your savings and investments to ensure you are funding your future needs and passions. Automated savings also has the added benefit of being done before you even see your net paycheck, so you don’t “miss” the money or be tempted to re-direct it toward other pursuits.

Take a moment and define what financial freedom means to you. Then, write down your financial freedom goals for your life. It is important to know what we are striving for so when the process gets bumpy, we can stay focused on the goals.

Freedom Plan

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What should a financial freedom plan look like? It should contain a set of coordinated actions that allow you to reach your financial freedom goals in an acceptable timeframe, that usually culminates in a detailed budget. Say, you want to be consumer debt free in 14 months. You would prioritize in your budget the debt payments that would allow that. Say you want to have a fully funded Emergency Fund in 12 months. You would prioritize a savings line in your budget that would make that a reality. In these two examples I used the word “prioritize” because the plan to meet your financial freedom goals must take precedence over daily living expenses. What does that mean? It means that if debt elimination is a true goal for you, you must ensure you make those debt payments BEFORE you allocate money in your budget for discretionary things like entertainment, eating out or clothing. It means you may have to forego some entertainment or cable TV for a season to fund your financial freedom goals. It is a small price to pay for freedom. In the case of debt elimination and savings to meet your financial freedom goals, we can adapt a quote from Warren Buffett that says “Don’t save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving and debt-reduction.”

I would suggest your financial freedom inspired budget should have four prioritized allocations before you spend anything on discretionary spending: 1) Debt elimination, 2) Savings for the emergency fund, retirement, kid’s needs and future purchases, 3) Basic living needs including shelter, food, needed clothing and transportation, and 4) Generosity of some kind to keep us humble, grateful and generous. I would also suggest that savings would be automatically withdrawn from each paycheck, BEFORE you see your balance for bill payments and that bill payments would be automated to ensure prompt payment and to lessen the need to think about and stare at your obligations. Last, I suggest reviewing the budget periodically, to ensure it is still accurate and it is still supporting the achievement of your financial freedom goals.

Measurement

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Measurement, what does that look like? Most people I know prefer to measure their financial freedom progress with a Net Worth Statement that compares your net worth (assets minus liabilities) over time, usually month to month. Take a look at this sample net worth statement:

Net Worth Statement
Assets Current Month Last Month Difference
Cash/Savings $3,000 2800 $200
Emergency Fund $24,000 22500 $1,500
Investments $95,500 95000 $500
Home $217,000 217000 $-
Car $21,000 21300 -$300
Total $360,500 $358,600.00 $1,900
Liabilities Current Month Last Month Difference
Mortgage $180,000 180550 -$550
Car Loan $12,000 12300 -$300
Credit Card $2,500 2750 -$250
Student Loan $11,000 11150 -$150
Total $205,500 206750 -$1,250
Net Worth $155,000 $151,850 $3,150

This net worth statement gives you instant measurement on all but one of your financial freedom goals: It shows you your debt elimination progress, it shows your savings and investment progress and it shows specifics on your emergency fund. It also shows your the overall progress in growing your net worth. In this example, the person increased their net worth by $3,150 in the last month. What it does not show is if you are on schedule to meet your debt elimination and savings timeframes. For example, the net worth statement shows reductions in debt: The car loan amount by $300, the credit card amount by $250 and the student loan by $150. But the question arises, is this the right amount of reduction to meet the debt elimination timeframe? For this, you would need to keep a debt reduction schedule. Maybe something like this:

Debt Reduction Schedule Goal: All consumer debt gone in 4 years
Loan Amount Owed Payoff/month # Months Goal Met?
Car Loan $12,000 $300 40 Yes
Student Loan $11,000 $150 73.3 No
Credit Card $2,500 $250 10 Yes

In this example, the debt reduction amounts DO NOT meet the goal because the student loan will not be paid off in the desired time of four years. So an adjustment would have to be made in the budget to increase the amount paid each month toward the student loan debt from $150/month to about $230/month in order to meet the desired timeframe.

Financial Freedom Final Word

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Financial freedom is much more than having money. It is having the resources to pursue who you really are and your passions in life, while being free of worry and anxiety about money in the process.  Financial freedom is not easy, but very worth it! And the best way, the only way really, to achieve the goal of financial freedom is to have set goals, a plan to achieve those goals in the form of a budget and clear measurements to ensure your are making progress towards those goals, in an acceptable timeframe. Over time those goals, plans and measurements may change or adapt, but without them and the direction they provide, we are running aimlessly and run the chance of failing to achieve true freedom. I think Benjamin Mays said it best when he said: “The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goals. The tragedy lies in not having goals to reach.” Take the time to define your goals, plan your approach to those goals and measure your progress to ensure your achievement of financial freedom!

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The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness