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.

Looking for more help with your finances? Try Dave Ramsey’s book: The Total Money Makeover. Order here and SAVE!
 
The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness

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

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!

 

Want more help with your budget. Try Dave Ramsey’s book: The Total Money Makeover. Click here and SAVE!
 
The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness