One of the biggest tricks of personal finance is automating everything so you don’t need to think about it! You set the goals, implement the strategy, and then sit back and let the automation take care of everything. Here is a run down of how we execute our personal finance “system”.
Let’s start with the easy stuff like your paycheck. Most companies will offer (or even require) direct deposit so you are not having to deal with paper checks. Set your deductions like your 401k, HSA, FSA, according to where you are in the investment walk. By doing this you are “paying yourself first” which is a great concept to achieve financial independence. Some people will get fancy and separate their paycheck between different accounts but I like the simple approach of having it all deposited in a single account.
Banking: Checking and Online Savings
I opened my first online bank account in 2000 and have been doing my banking online for the last twenty years. In 2016, we moved to Ally Bank for our primary checking and savings accounts and love working with them. Customer service is great, they reimburse ATM fees, have competitive savings account rates, and a great app for mobile check deposits. Another feature I highly value is that our checking account is automatically linked to our savings account. If we ever overdraw our checking account, Ally will grab the required funds from our savings account so we never have to pay overdraft fees.
In addition to Ally, we also have a no fee checking account with Chase so we have access to a local ATM to make cash deposits. The Chase and Ally accounts are linked so transfers between them are easy. We don’t use this account much but have found it helpful when we needed it.
We use credit cards to help with automation and we get the benefit of earning rewards each month. All the credit cards we use are setup for automatic payment of balance in full from our Ally Checking account each month. We currently have three active cards:
Costco Visa: This is our primary card for 99% of our spending
Amex Blue Delta Skymiles: Delta offered me 75,000 bonus miles last year to signup for this card so I got it. We now only put Delta purchases on this card.
Amex BlueCash Everyday: Backup card with no annual fee we charge one small bill a month on this card to keep it active
I switched to using the Costco Visa Card a few years ago as I decided the cash was more valuable given that I earn so many Delta flight miles traveling for work each year. However, I am rethinking that strategy and might do some travel hacking and take some flexible points instead of the cash. More to come on this!
2019 spending by category on the Costco card:
4% On Eligible Gas Worldwide
3% On Restaurant Purchases Worldwide
3% On Eligible Travel Purchases Worldwide
2% On Costco & Costco.com Purchases
1% On All Other Purchases
2019 Cash Rebate Earnings
In 2019, we averaged a 1.3% cash rebate on the Costco card. That is ok, it is just not great. In looking at the numbers, I should probably only be putting the Costco purchases on the Costco Visa as I should be able to do much better than 1% via another card.
If a bill allows payment via a credit card we use it! Here are the kinds of items that all get paid automatically each month or billing period with the credit card: Electricity, Mobile Phone, Internet, Online Services, Home Security, Garbage, and Natural Gas.
Online Bill Pay
There are a few companies that don’t allow credit cards, so this is where online bill pay comes in handy. Some bills can get setup as direct ACH bank transfers but there are others that will require a physical paper check to be mailed. What is this 1980? Ally handles both of these scenarios well and we use online bill pay for things like our HOA dues, homeowners insurance, and life insurance payments. All of these are setup to be automatically sent
Don’t Get Your Water Turned Off!
All of our bills are setup to be paid automatically via one of the above methods except one: the water bill. The problem with our water bill is that it is a variable amount each month and the water company does not have a mechanism to do an automatic draft from a credit card or a bank account. This is super annoying as I now have one bill that I need to remember to pay each month! And guess what, a few years ago I forgot about it. I was sitting at work around 4pm and I got a call from Crystal that our water had been turned off! DOH! This did not go well for me as it took the water company 2 days to get the water turned back on!
After this happened, I came up with a trick to make sure the water never got shut off again. The first thing I did was I overpaid the next water bill by $100 so we had a positive balance. The next thing I did was I setup an automatic check to be mailed each month for a fixed amount of our average monthly usage. Problem solved! The water bill now gets paid automatically each month!
Now that we have the income and bills accounted for, the final part of the automation system are the investments. We have four investments that are automatically pulled out of our checking account each month:
Vanguard VTSAX investment on the 1st and the 15th
TIAA-CREF Equity Index Fund on the 1st of the month into both Brielle and Brendan’s GA 529 college savings accounts.
The above system works well for us. We keep a small buffer in the checking account to account for any variances in the month and if we have a big purchase or unexpected expense we will instantly transfer money from the online savings account to the checking account. With this system, combined with the visibility that Mint provides on the transactions, there is very little maintenance to do each month. Just sit back and let the system work for you!
Chapter 1: The Total Money Makeover Challenge
Chapter 2: Denial: I’m Not That Out of Shape
Chapter 3: Debt Myths: Debt Is (Not) a Tool
Chapter 4: Money Myths: The (Non)Secrets of the Rich
Chapter 5: Two More Hurdles: Ignorance and Keeping Up with the Joneses
Chapter 6: Save $1,000 Fast: Walk Before You Run
Chapter 7: The Debt Snowball: Lose Weight Fast Really
Chapter 8: Finish the Emergency Fund: Kick Murphy Out
Chapter 9: Maximize Retirement Investing: Be Financially Healthy for life
Chapter 10: College Funding: Make Sure the Kids Are Fit Too
Chapter 11: Pay Off the Home Mortgage: Be Ultra-Fit
Chapter 12: Build Wealth Like Crazy: Become the Mr. Universe of Money
Chapter 13: Live Like No One Else
An influential voice in my personal finance journey
Dave Ramsey played a key role in my personal finance journey so I decided I had to publish a review of his best selling The Total Money Makeover which I first read back in 2006! While some of Dave Ramsey’s methods and advice are debated, there is no denying that he is the most popular figure in America when it comes to personal finance and money. He has just published his 3rd edition of this book which has sold more than 5 million copies! The Amazon stats on the 2nd edition are impressive:
Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars 4,071 customer reviews
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
#2 in Education Funding (Books)
#1 in Christian Stewardship (Books)
#1 in Education Workbooks (Books)
Here is his complete Biography:
Dave Ramsey is America’s trusted voice on money and business. He’s authored five New York Times best-selling books: Financial Peace, More Than Enough, The Total Money Makeover, EntreLeadership and Smart Money Smart Kids. And check out his new products: Financial Peace Junior and Junior’s Adventures Storytime Book Set! “The Dave Ramsey Show” is heard by more than 8.5 million listeners each week on more than 550 radio stations, “The Dave Ramsey Show” channel on iHeartRadio, and a 24-hour online streaming video channel. Ramsey Solutions offers a suite of products and services to help people get control of their finances and other aspects of their lives. Follow Ramsey on Twitter at @DaveRamsey and on the web at daveramsey.com.
How I stumbled on Dave Ramsey
Here is a little background on how I discovered Dave Ramsey and the principles that he teaches. In 2008, I moved to Atlanta to work for The Home Depot. I was just starting to learn some of the radio stations on my way home from work and I stumbled on the Dave Ramsey show and became a regular listener.
I view Dave Ramsey as a great start on your path to financial independence. Sort of like Personal Finance 101 class. If you are living beyond your means racking up all kinds of debt and have really no clue on how to manage your finances Dave is great for this type of person which I might add is most of the country. I think this is why Dave resonates with such a broad audience. If you are looking for advanced classes on personal finance Dave is not going to be the right resource for you.
So let’s look at the actual book now. The first 5 chapters lay the foundation for how so many peoples finances are a disaster: over spending, maxing credit cards, and ridiculous car payments. Dave nails the keeping up with the Jones mentality and how if you want to be broke your entire life keep doing what everybody else is doing. After Chapter 5 Dave lays out his 7 baby steps which provide an alternative lifestyle to looking wealthy but being broke. Let’s look at each of the baby steps:
BABY STEP 1: Save $1,000 for your starter emergency fund.
I like this first step. You need to have a small cushion in your life so that when your water heater blows a leak your life is not thrown upside down!
BABY STEP 2: Pay off all debt (except the house) using the debt snowball.
This is one of Dave’s most controversial topics. Most finance gurus will tell you to pay off debt with the highest interest. And mathematically that is absolutely the right approach. The problem is personal finance is not all about math, human behavior is at play. I like what Dave advocates here as the momentum you can gain from paying off the small debts is powerful.
BABY STEP 3: Save 3–6 months of expenses in a fully funded emergency fund.
100% agree with this step. It is the first step in my own investment walk as well.
BABY STEP 4: Invest 15% of your household income in retirement.
I disagree with this. 15% is too low! You need to be maxing out your retirement accounts as early as possible to get the incredible long term benefits of compounding! Read my investment walk
BABY STEP 5: Save for your children’s college fund.
I like this advice. My parents paid for my education and we want to do the same for our children. We make deposits in both of our kids 529 plans every month as part of having our finances on Autopilot.
BABY STEP 6: Pay off your home early.
This is another of Dave Ramsey’s very controversial recommendations. This topic could take up an entire post but here is the short version! The finance gurus say you should never pay off your mortgage since you can get better returns in the market. Again, the math might say so but the freedom that being debt free is incredibly powerful.
BABY STEP 7: Build wealth and give.
I have a lot of disagreement with Dave Ramsey on this step. While the premise is good, I don’t like the way in which he advocates for building wealth. He recommends mutual funds via his advisor network which will just result in excessive sales commisions and fees. As a strong beliver in index funds and being a 100% VTSAX investor this is just bad advice!
His message that “if you live like no one else you can live like no one else” at this stage absolutely resonates but there is a lot more to this step than Dave details out. Again, a good start, but there are much better guides out there for the more advanced saver and investor like JL Collins outstanding The Simple Path to Wealth.
I have given this book to family members and as wedding presents as I think the overall message is pretty solid advice. Especially against the backdrop of the typical American train wreck of negative savings rates and maxed out credit card debt. Just skip his investing recommendations!
Over the past couple weeks I have started listening to a few financial independence podcasts. One that I really like so far is choosefi.com. Jonathan Mendonsa and Brad Barrett are the hosts and they do a great job talking about FI in a very engaging and personal way. They also have guests on the show like Brandon from the madfientist.com and Liz from frugalwoods.com which were really good episodes!
So that brings me to today. I am on my commute into work this morning and I started playing Episode 13: THE UNFAIR (FI) ADVANTAGE OF TEACHERS | 457B. This episode caught my eye as my wife Crystal had been a public school teacher for 17 years before staying home with the kids. Jonathan and Brad tee up the show and introduce Ed the “Millionaire Educator” who begins talking about the different retirement strategies he has employed as a teacher in Georgia using accounts like the 403(b) and 457(b)
I just dropped two dozen eggs
You know that sinking feeling you have when you instantly recognize a giant screw up? Maybe something like dropping a carton of eggs all over the kitchen floor? You just stand there with your jaw open and you say to yourself WTF just happened? You are looking for the time machine button to rapidly transport you back in time so a different decision can be made! That is pretty much what happened on my commute in today. I literally sat in my car in total bewilderment after listening to the first 15 minutes of this podcast.
So what happened? I simply did not know that as a public school teacher, Crystal had access to a 403(b) and a 457(b) during her entire 17 year teaching career! I had heard of these accounts before but I never spent any time learning about how they actually worked. I always thought of them just for federal workers so had dismissed them. Had I known about these two programs, we would have been maxing these accounts out for at least a decade if not more. The tax deferred benefit of these accounts would have been a minimal 6 figure benefit and more likely a 7 figure benefit over a multi decade retirement. Gulp!
Always be learning and don’t get too comfortable
I learned an important lesson today. It does not matter how much you think you know about a particular topic there are always more things to learn. Don’t ever get too comfortable thinking you have things completely figured out. I never guessed I would have made a mistake like this, but it turned out I had a big blind spot related to how these these accounts function and who can take advantage of them. This mistake will sting for a while, but you can’t go back in time to fix it so you just have to move forward and learn from it.
Jonathan and Brad have a set of 5 questions they ask every guest at the end of the interview. One of them is “What is the biggest financial mistake you have made?” After today, I know exactly what my answer would be!
For the past 10 years I have got into the habit of doing a financial review at the beginning of January. The goal of this review each year is to look back on the prior year to see what we accomplished, where our money went, and map out a game plan for next year. I believe that conducting an annual financial review like this is critical to staying on track and achieving your financial goals. Here is a summary of what I do and the steps to replicate it.
Step 1: Using Mint to categorize your transactions
In order to execute this financial review, you need to be tracking your financial transactions throughout the year. I have been using Mint for more than 10 years and it is a great tool! I have every financial transaction we have made going all the way back to 2008. If you are not using Mint I highly recommend you start today at mint.com
Once you have Mint setup, it is easy to assign transactions to predefined categories or create your own custom categories. I use the default categories for 95% of my transactions. Mint is also good at predicting where a transaction should go. If Mint gets it wrong, you can easily create rules to automatically assign transactions to categories based on the merchant and description. I find this works really well and I usually don’t need to touch many transactions manually. Assigning transactions to categories is also really helpful with budgeting but that is a topic for another day!
Step 2: Downloading your data from Mint
Once you have all the transactions assigned to categories you can easily download this data to complete your annual financial review. Mint provides some basic yearly summary reports but I have found them very limiting. What I really want to see is a multi-year view of all my categories along with income and savings over time. By downloading the data into an Excel file, I can create exactly the view I want. To download your transactions, log into Mint and go to the transactions page. On that page, scroll down to the bottom and you should see a small link “Export all transactions”:
Wow, I currently have 11,165 transactions in Mint! When you click on the above link your browser will download a CSV data file with all the transactions since you started using Mint. The CSV file will contain all the important fields: Date Description Original Description Amount Transaction Type Category Account Name Labels Notes
Step 3: Importing Mint data into the Excel document
Note: The template file is populated with some sample data just to help show how it works. I have also shaded all the input fields in blue to separate them from the formula fields.
The excel template file contains 11 tabs:
Summary KPI’s: The rolllup of all the KPI’s
BalanceSheet: Record all your year end account balances
Income: Record paycheck data and income
Expenses: Detailed categorization of all expenses
Taxes: Record all 1040 and income tax return data
Investments: Categorization of all Investments
HSA-Medical-Dental: Record all HSA transactions
SSA-Earnings: Lifetime recording of social security income
MintDataPivot: Pivot Chart view of all Mint transactions
MintDataTransactions: All the Mint transactions
MintCategoryHierarchy: Default and custom Mint categories
We will start with the MintDataTransactions tab that currently contains the sample data. Open the Mint CSV file that was downloaded, select all the data, copy and then paste the data into MintDataTransactions cell F1. Next you will want to copy the formula in Column A-E to the bottom of your data set. These columns add some additional attributes to the data that I find helpful. The check duplicates is included as Mint will sometimes have bank communication issues that results in duplicate transactions. This attribute identifies transactions with the same date, description, and amount as possible duplicates. If you do find any duplicates you can go into Mint, mark them as duplicates, and re-download. TIP: If I find any errors or issues with the Mint data I always go back and make the edits in Mint. This keeps the source data clean and then I re-download to the excel file. Don’t edit the Mint transaction data in Excel!
Step 4: Reviewing the expense data
Once the Mint data is entered go to the MintDataPivot tab and refresh the data. You should now see all of the sample data replaced with your own data broken out by category and year. I like using the pivot data view for a quick overview and to help find any potential data errors. The pivot view is simple but is a little restrictive in terms of formatting so I like to use Excel SUMIFS formulas instead to get the data in exactly the view I want. To do this we will now move to the Expense tab.
The expense tab is driven my a formula template that looks like this from cell B3:
In simple terms: sum the amounts from MintDataTransactions in Column I, with a match against the year in Expenses B2 and the category from Expenses A3. Add those values up for debits, do the same for credits, and take the difference between them. In addition, the formula uses relative references so it can easily be copied between cells as you adjust the format for how you want your categories listed.
Entering and Organizing Expense Categories
The template file is organized by the Mint default categories and I have also added a few custom categories that I use. You can completely customize this tab with additional categories/rows that you may have added to Mint. You can see what I am tracking by looking at the MintCategoryHierarchy tab. This tab allows for the sections and categories to be listed separately which I prefer. The key to the expenses tab, is making sure that you have all the categories that you use on Mint included for a complete picture. I also like using the default top level categories that Mint does and then putting sub categories under each main category like this
Once you have all the categories included and organized make sure the formula from B3 above is copied to all the rows that have categories and columns that have years. You can use Column A from MintDataPivot to see if you have not included any categories. TIP: I exclude Income, Investments, and Transfer transactions from Mint in the expenses view as I like to have those on separate tabs.
Medical and Dental EXPENSES
I use an HSA so all my medical and dental expenses are run through a debit card linked to my HSA. Unfortunately these transactions can’t be linked to Mint so I manually download them to the HSA-Medical-Dental tab and then use this formula in cell B101 to bring the data in:
Once I have all the data categorized on the expenses tab, I then go line by line and review our spending for the year. I look at the variance to last year, and what the trend looks like year over year. I will typically find a number of categorization issues during this step. For example, this year I saw that our electricity usage was much higher than last year and our gas bill was much lower. After looking at the mint data, I realized that half way through the year our gas provider changed their billing name. Mint got confused with this and started allocating the gas bill to electricity. These types of issues are all easily fixed in the transactions tab in Mint. After going through all the data and fixing any issues, I re-download the data and import to refresh the data.
The power of the expenses tab is the data! Being able to see exactly where your money is going and how it changes over time is the only way you can truly begin to optimize your spending and makign sure you are spending less than you make.
Step 5: Record account balances
After expenses, we now move to the BalanceSheet tab. On 12/31 each year I will screenshot my Mint summary screen and manually record all the account balances in the excel file. On this tab, you will enter all your assets, liabilities, and then be able to calculate your net worth. The sample file includes some common accounts but you will need to customize this for your particular situation. After entering all the data, double check your calculations against the net worth calculation in Mint to make sure everything is included.
Tracking your net worth over time is critical. It is the key to financial independence, and is the most important KPI to be tracking.
Step 6: Record your income information
Next, we will move to the Income tab but before we do there is a critical step: download and save a copy of the last paycheck of the year! The end of year paycheck is super helpful as it includes all your full year earnings information. I only started doing this 5 years ago and really wish I had started doing it when I first started working. You can piece together parts of your full year income from tax returns, but having the actual paycheck is a lot easier as it provides a better picture with all the deductions. The Income tab includes space for two paychecks but you can modify as needed. Line 62 on the Income tab adds up both paychecks to Total Net Pay.
Comparing Mint Income to your Paycheck
Once you have entered all your paycheck information, we now need to include other income sources like interest and dividends for a complete picture. Mint lets you categorize your income so we will leverage the Mint data again to help us with this. In cell B66 we use the same formula template that we used from the expenses tab:
Here are the categories that I use for additional income but these can all be customized for how you would like to view the data:
On line 63 I include a “Variance to Mint” line as a data check against the Paycheck/Bonus/Dividend categories in Mint as those are all recorded to Income.
Step 7: Record social security
The Social Security Administration has a great website for tracking all of your earnings and contributions. Each year I log into ssa.gov to make sure the information is accurate and I also download our annnual social security statements. Once I have downloaded the statement, I will record our lifetime earnings information on the SSA-Earnings tab. We will use this data later when talking about the KPI’s
Step 8: Review investment information
Next, we move to the investments tab. This is where we record what investments were made each year. The 401k amounts are pulled from the paycheck information on the Income tab. Next, we will manually enter the 401k match (if any) on lines 6 and 7. Finally, we have 4 lines for primary investment accounts.:
I categorize these types of transaction in Mint using custom categories under “Finnacial”. Since these are recorded in mint, we can leverage the same data formula we have used above. In cell B8 for Roth IRA:
Understanding how taxes influence your total financial picture is very important. You will not be able to fill this part out until after you get all your W2’s and file your taxes. I like to record all the W2 tax information in this file along with high level tax information like: Adjusted Gross Income, Federal/State Taxable Income, Total Federal/State Tax, and Effective Federal/State Tax Rate.
Step 10: Analyse and review KPI’s
If you have made it this far, congratulations! I know this can be a little intimidating to get setup the first time, but once you understand how everything works it usually only takes me a couple hours each year to update it. For each new year, I update by adding an extra column to all the tabs and then copy the formulas over.
KPI’s and savings Rate
The final tab to review is the Summary KPI’s tab. This is where this whole document comes together. If you have got everything input and categorized correctly your entire financial picture should come into focus on this tab with very minimal effort. Let’s now walk through how this tab is setup. I start with pulling in the 4 income amounts I track:
Gross Income: Total Earnings, Interest, and Dividends
Federal Taxable Income: What you report on your 1040 (you won’t be able to get this until you file your taxes)
Social Security/Medicare Income. Earnings as reported by SSA
Net Income (Mint Income): Items recorded as Income in Mint
Then we pull in the total expenses from the expenses tab. Now we are able to start calculating savings and savings rate. You would think this would be pretty easy but there are a few things to consider that make it more complicated than: (income – expenses) / income.
The easiest way to look at savings and savings rate is what I call Net Savings. On line 12, we take our Net Income (Mint Income) subtract our expenses to get Net Savings, and then divide by Net Income to get a Net Savings Rate on line 26. The is the most simple way to look at savings rate and the argument for this method is you can’t save what you don’t receive in your net paycheck. While this is true, I don’t think it tells the complete story as you could be “saving” via payroll deductions.
Adjusted Net Savings
To account for additional savings that are not counted in Net Savings, I create a series of savings adjustments that I add to savings to create adjusted net savings and the corresponding adjusted net savings rate. The adjustments I have included in the template are as follows:
401k, HSA, and FSA are all pretax payroll deductions so they are added back as a form of savings. I also include the 401k match as I think you should get credit for this as well! The final adjustment is Mortgage Equity. This can be a little controversial and there are arguments on both sides for if it should be included or not. I generally tend to agree that paying down your mortgage via the equity portion of your monthly payment is a method of forced savings so I include it here.
There is one flaw to the above adjusted savings rate that I want to point out. If you add back things like your pretax payroll deductions it can inflate your savings numbers as you are mixing pre and post tax dollars. This can become even more of a problem if you are taking advantage of deferred compensation plans as you can end up with a savings rate over 100% which does not make sense. To avoid this, you can also look at your savings as a percentage of your gross income. If you use the gross number, your overall savings rate is not going to be as high but I could argue that it is more accurate.
There is no perfect way to measure this so I have included both methods and encourage you to run the numbers and see what works for you. The key here is making sure the data is accurate and your are consistent in your methodology when looking at it year to year.
lifetime Gross savings rate
Life time savings rate is one of my favorite KPI’s to watch! In a single number, you can see exactly how much progress you are making towards your financial goals. The first step is we bring in your cumulative lifetime gross earnings on line 29, from the SSA Earnings tab. We then bring in your Net Worth from the balance sheet on line 30, and then we divide your net worth by your lifetime gross earnings to calculate your lifetime gross savings rate. See how powerful this number is? Of all the income you have earned in your life, how much have you been able to retain through savings and investments?
When I think about the lifetime gross savings rate, I break it down into 5 categories:
<0%: You are living beyond your means and not saving anything
0-30%: You are starting to plan and save for your future. You might be early in your career at this point.
30-70%: You are making solid progress now and well on your way to financial independence!
70-100%: You are in rare company at this level and are likely already financially independent or will be soon.
>100%: You are a financial rockstar. Your savings and investment growth have now eclipsed your entire lifetime earnings. Congratulations!
The final items that I include on the Summary KPI tab are the tax rates and overall net worth growth over time.
Step 11: Review everything with your spouse or significant other
Once this is all done, the last step is I will sit down with my wife Crystal and we will talk about all the data. We will discuss how we did, and the game plan for next year. This step is crucial to make sure we both remain on the same page. I am our household CFO, but she is the CEO! It is important that even though I handle all the finances, she knows exactly what is going on.
Do you do an annual financial review? What is your end of the year routine? If you do try out the template please leave a comment with any suggestions or improvements.
Chapter 1 A Parable
Chapter 2 Rational Exuberance
Chapter 3 Cast Your Lot with Business
Chapter 4 How Most Investors Turn a Winner’s Game into a Loser’s Game
Chapter 5 The Grand Illusion
Chapter 6 Taxes Are Costs, Too
Chapter 7 When the Good Times No Longer Roll
Chapter 8 Selecting Long-Term Winners
Chapter 9 Yesterday’s Winners, Tomorrow’s Losers
Chapter 10 Seeking Advice to Select Funds?
Chapter 11 Focus on the Lowest-Cost Funds
Chapter 12 Profit from the Majesty of Simplicity
Chapter 13 Bond Funds and Money Market Funds
Chapter 14 Index Funds That Promise to Beat the Market
Chapter 15 The Exchange Traded Fund
Chapter 16 What Would Benjamin Graham Have Thought about Indexing?
Chapter 17 “The Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic”
Chapter 18 What Should I Do Now?
I have been a huge fan of Jack Bogle and Vanguard since I discovered them over 8 years ago. My sister had worked in the mutual fund industry so I had been blindly invested in mutual funds prior to investing in Vanguard. In 2012, I started reading more about the benefits of index investing and made my first Vanguard purchase of VFAIX on July 3rd, 2012. Over the next year, I would transfer all of my retirement accounts to Vanguad as well as opening a taxable brokerage account. After that first purchase of VFAIX, I switched to VTSAX and have been 100% investing in VTSAX since June of 2013.
While I had been a fan of Vanguard, and read lots of articles online about Jack Bogle, I had never read any of his books. After reading The Simple Path to Wealth last week, I decided I needed to read The Little Book of Common Sense Investing that is so widely praised and referenced in the financial independence community.
The premise of this book is very simple and Bogle does a great job summarizing the six key concepts in Chapter 17 that is applicably titled “The Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic” I will parapharse his six key messages as follows:
Over the long term, stock market returns are created by real investments returns earned by real businesses: dividends and earnings growth
Over the short term, speculative investments drive changes in equity prices based on how much investors are willing to pay for each dollar of earnings growth. These speculative investments are eventually a wash over the long term
Businesses come and go. The best protection for individual investors against individual stocks is to own the entire market
As a group, all investors earn the gross market returns before taking costs into account.
While investors earn the entire market return they do not capture the entire market as fees, commissions, sales loads, and transaction costs eat away at returns. Gross market returns – costs = net returns for investors
Mutual fund investors have real returns that are lower than the advertised net returns of the fund due to emotional market timing. Gross market returns – costs – timing and selection penalties = net retunrs for mutal funds.
There is a lot more to this book but these are the simple messages that are the foundation to his thinking and methodology. Some have criticized this book as being too simplistic in nature, but I enjoyed reading it. I have understood most of the benefits of indexing but Bogle goes into a lot of detail backing up his strategy. He uses a lot of math and numbers to explain the benefits along with this quote:
Remember O Stranger, arithmetic is the first of the sciences, and the mother of safety
The numbers and the math don’t lie and this book is very well researched with a ton of data behind it. He also does a nice job sprinkling in “Don’t take my word for it” segments from some of the biggest names on Wall Street and why they too believe that indexing is the way to go. The most famous investor of all time Warren Buffet has his four “E’s” quoted
The greatest Enemies of the Equity investor are Expenses and Emotions
I love this! It could not be any simpler or any truer. There is a reason it is called personal finance. In Buffet’s 2013 annual shareholder letter he goes into more detail:
My money…is where my mouth is: What I advise here is essentially identical to certain instructions I’ve laid out in my will. One bequest provides that cash will be delivered to a trustee for my wife’s benefit. (I have to use cash for individual bequests, because all of my Berkshire shares will be fully distributed to certain philanthropic organizations over the ten years following the closing of my estate.) My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors—whether pension funds, institutions or individuals—who employ high-fee managers.
Bogle takes on the mutal fund industry in chapters 7, 8, and 9 and points out how bad a deal investors are getting from these funds and how over the long term they simply can not compete with index investing. After being a mutual fund investor for almost a decade I read these chapters and cringe! He also does a good job addressing the impact of capital flows and how “yesterday’s winners are tomorrow’s losers”. Investors pour money in during the bull market runs and pull money our during the bear markets. This is the exact opposite of what should be done and thus weighs on performance of mutual fund investors. His explanation on the difference between real returns of the mutual fund industry and advertised net returns is really well done:
To remind you, the nominal return of fund investors came to just 7.3% per year during 1980 to 2005, despite a wonderful stock market in which a simple S&P 500 index fund earned a return of 12.3%
If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it. If you are new to indexing, it is a must read and may be the most important book you read on investing. If you are already on the index train like I am, it will further reinforce this strategy and give you the confidence to stay the course. I only wish someone had handed me this book earlier in my investing career!
During the financial crisis of 2008, I started to figure out just how important the psychology of personal finance was compared to the math. The numbers and math are simple. If you save 10-15% of your income, and invest it for 40 years in a boring index fund you will end up with a pile of money at 65 to comfortably retire. So why is this so hard? Why do people not have more money saved for retirement? The simple answer is we are our own worst enemy:
We don’t prioritize saving enough and get caught up in the consumerism of keeping up with the Joneses
We try and time the market
We buy high and sell low in a panic
We don’t know how to evaluate risk
We listen to all the media that have advocated and pushed this for decades. I am looking at you CNBC.
While my awareness to the mental aspects of personal finance started in 2008, it still took me a few more years to realize that dollar cost averaging was the single best way to fight and win against the psychology of money.
Like many things I write about, this concept is not complex or difficult to understand. Dollar cost averaging is an investment strategy where you buy shares over a period of time and the number of shares acquired fluctuates depending on the price at the time of purchase. In practical terms, a $500 investment each month in your Roth IRA is an example of dolalr cost averaging. The same concept applies to your paycheck deductions for things like your 401k or HSA. You are making investments over a period of time and are continually investing regardless of the direction of the market.
This last statement is why dollar cost averaging is so powerful for personal finance. You no longer care which direction the market is going. If the market is up, GREAT my assets are appreciating, if the market is down, GREAT I am buying in when the market is on sale! I can’t tell you how liberating this concept is and how it changed my entire mental state regarding my personal finance invstments. I no longer worry about when to buy, since it happens automatically every two weeks! When you combine dollar cost averaging, with my 100% VTSAX investment strategy, you have a powerful system to achieve financial independance.
I want to emphasize that there is a lot of well respected research that suggests that lump sum investing is actually better in the long run than dollar cost averaging. My counter argument to this is that personal finance has never actually been about the numbers, it is about human behavior! So yes, lump sum investing may lead to higher theoretical returns dollar cost averaging is still a powerful tool. If you are deciding what to do with a windfall or inheritance that is a different story, and depending on your own situation and risk tolerance levels, you may prefer to out it all in at once. For me, I will continue on the slow, steady, and boring path of dollar cost averaging VTSAX to financial independence.
I was in a used book store today and saw the original version of this book and decided to pick it up. Here is my review.
Chapter One: Meeting the Automatic Millionaire Chapter Two: The Latte Factor Chapter Three: Learn to Pay Yourself First Chapter Four: Now Make it Automatic Chapter Five: Automate for a Rainy Day Chapter Six: Automatic Debt-Free Home Ownership Chapter Seven: The Automatic Debt-Free Lifestyle Chapter Eight: Make a Difference with Automatic Tithing
Bach starts out with a story of a “tortoise couple” who did not make a lot of money but who was able to amass almost $2m in assets via consistent and automatic savings over a long time period. This is the classic get rich slowly story and is a good opening to prove that with a $50k income a comfortable retirement is still possible.
In the next chapter, Bach introduces the concept of the “latte factor”. A simple approach that shows how small changes in habits to spend less can have big impacts over long periods of time. While I have always thought that watching the small items is important, I think Bach misses a point in the opening of this concept. If you are not making good decisions on big purchases the latte is not going to make any difference! His use of the charts and the simple math are effective, but his 10% investment growth rates are a little ambitious. I also strongly disagree with his advice on not needing a budget. Every Fortune 500 company has a budget and so should you!
The next two chapters are the meat of the book and represent the two most important topics. In chapter 3, he introduces the concept of pay yourself first. I am a big believer in this, and his highlighting of the 401k to achieve paying yourself first is exactly the right approach! In chapter 4, he goes on to emphasize how important automation is which is also very effective. We have tools available today, via our paychecks, retirement plans, and bank accounts to make savings completely automatic. You still need to spend some effort in setup, but maintenance is very easy after that. You can’t spend money that you don’t see, so pay yourself first and then you can spend the rest. In the 2nd half of chapter 4 Bach starts down the path of “how to invest”. Since I am 100% VTSAX, I don’t agree with his recommendations as they are unnecessarily complex. He needs a simpler approach here.
In Chapter 5 on automatic savings and emergency funds he makes some good points but again it is just too complicated. The options he presents just are not necessary. This whole chapter could have been replaced with one sentence: setup an online savings account and have money automatically transferred each month to establish and maintain an emergency fund.
Chapter 6 on home ownership and the benefits starts out well but again he complicates things. The biweekly payment trick is good, but you don’t need to pay someone to do this for you! If you are paid every two weeks, there will be two months where you receive 3 paychecks. Simply make an extra principal payment of half your mortgage in those two months or better yet, just make a full extra payment in one of those months.
Chapter 7 on the debt free lifestyle is in the wrong order based on my Investment Walk. I understand that he wants you to pay yourself first but you can’t do that if you are saddled with debt. The spending needs to be cut, the debt needs to be attacked, and then you can start to invest. For those struggling with overspending and debt, I recommend the Dave Ramsey snowball approach.
Chapter 8 on tithing and giving is good in the sense that the same benefits one see from automatic savings and investing can also be applied to the giving side of the equation.
Overall I like the book and I think it is a good beginner personal finance book. I certainly did not agree with everything he says but he has some good foundation concepts that will serve people well. I think the key reason why this book has been so popular is it goes right after the Psychology of money and puts a system in place that enables people to be successful.
A search on Amazon for “Investing” returns 40,000 books on the topic. There is no shortage of books, opinions, or information written on investing. For the new investor, it is an intimidating topic that can seem somewhat overwhelming. I have conversations with many people who think investing is too complicated, or they are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. We have been tricked to believe that investing is a complex and difficult subject, one that is better left to the professionals on Wall Street. My goal here is to break this topic into 3 simple steps that create a road map for the average investor. These steps will not cover every scenario or personal situation, but I truly believe that for 99% of people this is the simplest path to investing, growing wealth and becoming financially independent.
Step 1: Saving to Invest
This is often an overlooked step, but you can’t invest money if you don’t have anything left at the end of the month and are saddled with debt. To create a situation where you have the money to invest, you must spend less than you make, by creating and sticking to a monthly budget. Once you are generating savings at the end of each month, you are now ready to begin what I call “The Investment Walk”.
Step 2: The Investment Walk
I believe there is a very specific path you should take when it comes to investing and deciding on where and how to invest your savings. I am not talking about investment allocations between stocks and bonds, or even what kind of financial instrument you should buy. I am talking about the programs and accounts you have available to invest in: 401k’s, Roth IRA’s, IRA’s, brokerage accounts etc. Here is the path laid out one brick at a time:
Have an emergency fund with 6 months of expenses. Life happens. An emergency fund is to help smooth out the unexpected that will inevitably happen. Having funds tucked away in an online savings account like Ally Bank, will help prevent these events from derailing your investment walk.
Be debt free except for your house. I have always had an aversion to debt. It is simply how I am wired, and it has served me well over the years. The only acceptable debt I believe you should carry is a mortgage on your primary residence. Get rid of all other debts, and you are truly ready to make your first investment.
Fund your 401k up to your employer match. Many employers will offer a 401k (or simmilar) savings plan along with a company match. Participating in a 401k, up to your employer match, equates to a guaranteed 100% return on your investment. You won’t find anything that provides better returns than this! If your employer offers a 401k match, you are literally leaving free money on the table if you don’t take advantage of this. It blows my mind, the number of people I see in my job not participating in the company matched 401k’s.
Fund your Roth IRA up to the maximum allowed. The Roth IRA is a fantastic retirement vehicle. Unlike your 401k, which is taken out pre-tax, the Roth IRA contribution is done with after tax dollars. While this might initially be seen as a negative, the huge benefit of the Roth IRA is that withdrawals are tax free and there are no minimum required distributions! If you contribute to a Roth IRA early in your career, you can build a sizable tax free nest egg. Maximum contributions for 2020 are $6,000. The only downside to the Roth IRA is that is is not available to individuals making over $139k or married couples making over $206k per year. Learn more
Fund your remaining 401k up to the maximum allowed. If you have completed steps 1-4 you are really starting to make some progress on your long term retirement goals! If you still have funds left we go back to the 401k and fund the remainder up to the maximum which is $19,500 in 2020.
If you have kids, contribute to a 529 college savings plan. College is expensive, but the 529 savings plan allows for tax free investment growth to help pay for college
Pay down your mortgage until it is paid off. There is probably no topic in the personal finance community that is debated more than paying off your mortgage. There are some that are strongly for it and there are just as many that are against it. For me, I simply don’t like debt of any kind, and recommend paying off your mortgage.
Invest in a taxable Vanguard brokerage account. If you have made it this far, you are a personal finance rock star. You have a strong income, you are spending significantly less than you make, and you have just paid off your house! What next? Now you can take your mortgage payment and start investing that each month!
Step 3: Investment Allocations
After laying out the investment path above, we now need to turn to the allocation side of investing. What are we actually going to invest in? Are we going to buy stocks, bonds, or mutual funds? This step is where I see people struggle the most and where most bad decisions are made. The good news is that I am going to make this super simple!
Since we have a long time horizon, we are 100% invested in low cost, broad market, index funds!
What if you are closer to retirement?
If you are closer to retirement, or if you just want to adjust your risk profile you can always add the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBTLX) to your portfolio. With just these two funds, VTSAX and VBTLX, you can easily control your investing approach and risk tolerance. It does not get any easier than that!
With these three simple concepts, combined with my investment walk, you can start down the path of growing wealth and achieving your financial goals.
My friend Maggie and her co-worker Michael have started a new podcast called Friends on Fire. You can listen to the first couple episodes here.
FIRE or Financial Independence Retire Early is a topic that I am passionate about but have not covered on the site yet. I intend to dedicate a number of future posts to the FIRE movement as part of my personal finance topics.
In the mean time, check out what Maggie and Michael have to say about Friends on Fire! I have enjoyed listening to the first couple episodes on my commute this week.
I don’t have too many financial regrets, but one is that I did not not take advantage of a Health Savings Account or HSA earlier in my career. For most of my 20’s and early 30’s I blindly signed up for a traditional co-insurance health plan during open enrollment. These “Gold” level plans offered low deductibles, typically $1000, but with high premiums of between $700-$800 per month. The low deductible is good for keeping variable expenses low but the premiums over a full year add up to a significant expense. When I look back at the amount of money the insurance paid out, compared to the premiums paid in I was wasting a lot of money! These co-insurance plans are good for people with ongoing medical costs, planning a significant surgery or birth of a child, or anybody who does not have an emergency fund to cover an unexpected $10,000 medical bill.
I am very fortunate that me and my family are healthy with an emergency fund so the co-insurance model of low deductibles and high premiums does not make sense for us. This is where the Health Savings Account comes into play. The first thing to understand is that Health Savings Accounts are only available if you are on a high deductible health plan. These plans flip the model where your monthly premiums are lower in exchange for much higher deductibles and maximum out of pocket costs.
How the numbers break out
Our family’s high deductible plan looks like this:
Annual premium: $5,976
Annual family deductible: $6,500
Annual family max out of pocket: $12,00
Compare the above with the low deductible plan:
Annual premium: $9,750
Annual family deductible: $1,000
Annual family max out of pocket: $5,000
As you can see, on the high deductible plan you trade about $4,000 in lower premiums for a $5,500 increase in the deductible and a $7,000 increase in the max out of pocket. By taking on some of the additional risk we are able to keep more money in our pocket. If we stay relatively healthy this trade off will work out in our favor.
Combining the high deductible plan with an HSA
Once you are on a high deductible plan, you are eligible to participate in a Health Savings Account. The HSA allows you to set aside pre-tax earnings today for qualified medical expenses in the future. The maximum family contribution in 2020 is set at $7,100. In addition, most HSA’s will allow you to invest these funds to further grow your account. Does this mechanism sound familiar? Yes, essentially it acts just like a 401k but rather than helping to save for retirement it is helping to save for medical expenses. The tax benefit, combined with the power of compounding make this a very useful tool for financial planning. As we get older, medical expenses are foretasted to become a significant portion of our monthly expenses. Saving now for these expenses, can really help offset the burden of medical costs later in life.
In a practical sense, as you build funds in your HSA you now have funds to cover your high deductible and max out of pocket for a major medical event. In closing, if you are healthy with an emergency fund, take the premium savings of a high deductible plan and invest them in a Health Savings Account to maximize the benefit of tax savings and compounding. You can read more on this topic at healthcare.gov