Findependence Day: How to achieve Financial Independence — while you’re still young enough to enjoy it

Findependence Day Book from Jonathan CheverauFindependence Day is a financial primer that uses classic fiction structure to impart core financial concepts to young people just embarking on the working world and raising a family.

Findependence is a contraction of Financial Independence, so Findependence Day is the moment far off in the future when your income from all sources exceeds the income you could get from a single employer. Henceforth, you work because you want to work, not because you have to.

The financial concepts roll out in the order of a normal human “life cycle,” proceeding from saving for college, graduating, landing a first job, enrolling in an employer pension plan, getting married, buying a first home, saving for retirement, raising children. Then the cycle resumes as you save money for the education of your children, and they need to learn the same concepts as they graduate and confront the working world.

The thrust of the novel is to impart enough major concepts that if all of the suggestions were implemented, you would achieve financial independence while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. Thus, in the book, a young couple named Jamie and Sheena want to reach their Findependence Day at the relatively young age of 50.

This is not a get-rich-quick book but is about getting rich slowly, whether through financial assets, pensions, real estate or — ideally — a combination of all of these.  It takes 20 or 30 years to achieve financial independence and the book follows the couple over 22 years: hence the “financial Pilgrim’s Progress” description of one reviewer.

The book begins when Jamie & Sheena are 28 and featured guests on a financial reality TV show. Humiliated by their credit card debt before a nationwide TV audience, Jamie vows his Findependence Day will be the day he turns 50. But Sheena won’t buy into the “guerrilla frugality” habit needed to save money.

Jamie prefers stocks and financial assets and wants to be an entrepreneur. Sheena on the other hand has a comfortable teaching job and expects a generous Defined Benefit pension plan when she retires. She feels uncomfortable with Jamie’s punts on the stock market, urging him to invest instead in something more tangible, like the bricks and mortar of real estate.

Their disagreements over money escalate, as Jamie stakes everything on the big score when his hobby website attracts a big social networking site. Betrayed by his business partner, his world falls apart, threatening his dream of early financial independence.

All-American edition now available, including as e-book

In April 2013, Trafford.com published the new revised all-U.S. edition under the same title, in both hardcover and soft cover, plus most major e-book formats (just $3.99 for e-books). The plot and characters are almost the same, but the setting is entirely in the United States (chiefly Chicago, Boston, Maine and Florida). The financial content is all-American and current as of early 2013, so it’s all about IRAs, Social Security, Roth plans, 529 plans etc., with no Canadian content whatsoever. The manuscript was vetted by several American financial planners, including Garrett Planning Network founder Sheryl Garrett, who also penned the new foreword. Also new is a glossary and end-of-chapter summaries of the new financial concepts Jamie and Sheena learned in the preceding action.

Click here to purchase directly from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or Trafford.

Click here to order your copy of the Canadian edition of Findependence Day

Why I bought into the Alibaba IPO, despite the “Sheeple” ticker.

Sheep lying in front of another standing against white background

What was that ticker symbol again? BAAAAAABBAA!!

Yes, I know that BABA is an unfortunate ticker symbol if you think this is the latest way Wall Street has figured out to fleece the sheeple: BAAAAHHH!

I went ahead and picked up a few dozen shares today in the low 90s: no bargain perhaps but my reasons for doing so were in Friday’s Financial Post, which you can find here.

As the day progresses, it seems we’ve seen the top for now. You can find a short clip on the topic of its pricing from Mad Money’s Jim Cramer here.

Time for the “equanimity” part of the equation that I mentioned at the end of the piece.

Catch the Wave: Cloud-based accounting

waveappsscreens

Cloud-based accounting means the end of shoebox accounting

The book The E-Myth Revisited makes some amusing points about small business owners. Almost to a man (or woman), they loathe accounting. They may enjoy marketing or creating new products or services, but keeping track of expenses, invoicing and the like? It’s the last thing they really want to do, which leads to the usual habit of procrastinating by shoving paper receipts into the proverbial shoe box, then presenting the whole shooting match to their accountant once a year.

But no accountant I know will accept such an arrangement, or if they do they’d have to charge a prohibitively high rate for the service. In practice — and I base this on running a personal corporation since 1999 — you at least have to put all the receipts and paperwork into folders representing the major expense categories, then summarize it all on a spreadsheet so the accountant can make some sense of it.

At one point, I experimented with shrink-wrapped accounting software, which typically cost a few hundred dollars. But I was never comfortable with it so stuck to the shoebox-and-spreadsheet routine. Until this summer, when courtesy of the very helpful folks at Knightsbridge, I discovered Accounting by Wave.

This software has several good things going for it. First, it’s free. Second, it’s cloud-based, so you can store all your info on “the cloud” and access it from whatever computer you have access to: there’s even an iPhone app. Third, it’s Canadian. And fourth, it’s relatively intuitive and easy to use. What more do you want?

Not surprisingly, the software has 1.5 million happy users, most of them the small businesses, consultants and freelancers the company has targeted. And wouldn’t you know it, right off the topic they promise “shoebox accounting stops now.”

Integrated with your business bank account

The software lets you input your corporate bank account information so right off the bat payments to your account and disbursements from it are automatically recorded. You’ll have to spend some time reconciliation expenses incurred via credit cards, cash disbursements and the like but an hour spent every week or two should suffice for most home-office setups like mine. And it sure beats dreading the annual spreadsheet ritual!

The software is quite proficient at keeping track of customers and invoicing, and it generates various reports on demand that show the current expenses, payments and accounts receivable. And yes, it lets you add HST. Again, there’s an element of garbage in, garbage out here, so the reports will only be meaningful if you’re staying on top of all the transactions and properly categorizing them.

How does this relate to Findependence Day?

Glad you asked! If you’ve followed this blog since May, you’ll know I believe in creating multiple streams of income, whether you’re gainfully employed, semi-retired or even fully retired. Part of that is Internet-based: refer to Robert Allen’s book, Multiple Streams of Internet Income, or any of the three books by Scott Fox. (His site is here, and latest book here).

But the other piece of the equation is running your own business and keeping track of all the moving pieces. As I’ve come to appreciate, a traditional “job” really comes down to serving and satisfying a single client, which in practice means “your boss.” The traditional corporate or government job largely shields the employee from accounting: all you need to worry about is submitting the annual T-4 slip with your annual tax return, claim the usual deductions and hope for a tax refund at the end of it.

The good thing about self-employment is that (hopefully) you don’t have any boss but yourself and instead of one huge mega-client, you have many smaller clients. You may lose one from time to time but the others can keep the ship afloat until another replaces it.  Seen that way, a “job” is the opposite of diversification: you have all your eggs in one basket and if your boss decides to smash that basket, you’ve got trouble.

This cloud-based software is a real boon to keeping on top of your business. Hopefully, all your earned income from multiple clients or products or services constitute a major part of your revenue stream. Of course, you should also have investment income, emergency savings and pension income (depending on your age), so that your “Findependence” isn’t riding on any one of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boosting RRSP limits: two views

Up, up and away for RRSP limits? Photo J. Chevreau

As I noted Thursday in this blog and elsewhere, I’ve always believed Canadians should have higher RRSP contribution limits and/or the equivalent space in registered pension plans.

It seems the C.D. Howe Institute agrees, based on this paper released Thursday, and which has already created a fair bit of publicity. I’ve received some email on this site (via jonathan@findependenceday.com) to the effect that “only the rich” benefit from more RRSP room and that, in any case, low-income earners are better off with TFSAs.

I’ll quote from some of the skeptics below, but first let me reiterate the point that Ottawa will eventually get any tax revenue it may lose by raising RRSP limits now. As any retiree with a substantial RRIF knows, forced annual RRIF withdrawals will be fully taxable and may even result in the clawback of OAS or other benefits. That’s why some question my statement that higher-income earners should welcome more RRSP room.

Two pluses, one minus

I know those with big RRSPs will eventually pay the piper but remember two things. One, several years or decades of deferred and compounded growth on investments is worth a lot. Second, most of us can expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement than when we were working. If you can defer tax while you’re in a 46% tax bracket and pay it many years later when you have no other income and are in a 23% tax bracket, that to me is a fair trade.

A 72-year old reader with the first name James makes the following counterpoints:

… when the other shoe drops and you are withdrawing money, here are the nasty realities:
1. You may be paying higher tax rates than when you put it in! This is true in my case and you do not have to have amassed a huge fortune for that to occur.
2. The whole nasty business of clawback, which has huge potential marginal tax rates.
3. The fact that the government controls the rate at which you reacquire your own money – regardless of your needs and limitations.

Any reform of RRSPs therefore should not only deal with maximum deposit limits but should remove any restriction on the amount and the timing of withdrawals. If I want to leave it in there until I die I should be able to and it can then by taxed in my estate (as a lump sum, which the government would love!) or passed on to one more generation – the spouse.

In the absence of hard numbers on this situation, I tried very hard to come up with my own scenarios using a sophisticated hand-held financial computer, and concluded it was better to collapse my entire RRSP before my 72nd birthday, but I may be on shaky ground without stronger financial planning tools than I had access to.

What if we didn’t tax CPP and OAS benefits?

Another reader, James from British Columbia, makes a suggestion that has occurred to me in the past. Instead of introducing an expanded CPP that will antagonize employers by in effect hiking their payroll costs, why not just make CPP and OAS income go further in old age by not taxing the income?

There could be a means test to apply some tax rate for high income earners, as there is now on OAS, but people who earn under $75,000 per year, for example, would pay no taxes on CPP and OAS benefits.

That simple, stroke-of-the-pen policy change by Ottawa would boost retirees incomes by at least 15% on those sources and not cost a single job. Nor would it require any provincial consensus.

 It would cost Ottawa tax revenue, so of  course it’s a nonstarter, but it’s not difficult to eliminate the job-killer argument if the federal government really has the will to help low-income retirees.

 

 

The case for boosting RRSP limits

My take on a C.D. Howe brief issued Thursday on the case for raising RRSP contribution limits can be found in my Financial Post column today here. Also note the many comments that follow the piece, some reflective of the emails I will highlight in Friday’s blog. You can find the full e-brief here.

And in case it’s not clear in the column, I absolutely think this is a good idea: always have. It’s true those with lower incomes may not need RRSPs. TFSAs may be a better solution for them, especially if they want to avoid clawbacks of OAS or GIS in old age. But the vast majority in the middle class who lack employer pension plans (especially the lucrative DB plans) could benefit from higher limits. If, as is likely, they will retire in a lower tax bracket than they were in their high-earning years, then an RRSP is almost a necessity. And as I point out in the piece, since only a minority of Canadians are in a position to max out their RRSPs, it shouldn’t cost Ottawa all that much because of more upfront tax deductions. And unlike the TFSA, which will reap no bonanza for federal coffers on withdrawals, RRIF income will eventually bring in lots of tax revenue for the government once we retire.

Seems like a win-win to me. Stay tuned for more reader feedback tomorrow.

 

Build an ETF portfolio with an adviser’s touch

My latest MoneySense blog on robo-advisers can be found here.

If you’ve been listening to the news lately, then you’ve noticed that low-cost automated investment services are making the leap from the U.S. market to Canada. While in the U.S. they’re called robo-advisers, a better word for the Canadian versions might be semi-automated “light advice” services.

Recent issues of MoneySense have talked about the arrival of NestWealth, WealthSimple (which has just received regulatory approval) and WealthBar Financial Services. WealthBar’s website says it will be arriving “soon” and is registered as a portfolio manager in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. As well, SmartMoney—owned by Money Capital Management—is also about to launch in Canada. Most of these use exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as the underlying investment vehicle. That means investors can expect to pay either a monthly subscription fee or an asset-based fee of about 0.5% a year. Even adding in the management expense ratios (MERs) of the underlying ETFs, the total cost should come in at less than half what actively managed Canadian mutual funds or wrap accounts charge.

Apart from these startups, you can also expect to see more established firms reinventing themselves with similar models. Take ShareOwner Investments Inc., of Toronto. Since 1987, it’s been the place knowledgeable Canadian investors have bought individual stocks through DRIPS (dividend reinvestment plans). Last May, ShareOnwer announced the launch of a new portfolio building service that’s based now on individual stocks but—you guessed it—ETFs.

As with its DRIP program for individual stocks, ShareOwner’s ETF portfolio service is very cost-efficient. Contributions and distributions are automatically invested in all the ETFs in one of the five model portfolios chosen by the retail investor. As with the other services, asset allocations are reviewed and rebalanced to ensure they stay with agreed target levels. For instance, if Canadian equities are supposed to be weighted at 20% of a portfolio, the service won’t let the allocation dip below 17.5% or above 22.5%, says ShareOwner president and CEO Bruce Seago. (Previous ShareOwner head John Bart, is now retired.)

Clearly, long-standing ShareOwner customers own individual socks but many are now also using ETFs as the core of index part of their portfolios, particularly for international exposure outside North America. ShareOwner has about 500 Canadian and U.S. stocks. There are no commissions to buy or sell but a fee of 0.5% of assets is charged on the portfolio value, billed monthly, and capped at $40 a month for any account over $100,000. As an example, an investor may want to add $500 a month to portfolios holding between eight and 12 ETFs. The $500 will be spread among all those ETFs automatically with each payment, in the correct proportions and with no trading costs. Similarly, any cash from dividends will also be deployed and fractional shares can be accommodated.

Because the emphasis is on core, broadly diversified ETFs, the funds are mostly from BMO, BlackRock Canada’s iShares and Vanguard Canada, Seago says, although oehters are available for those who want custom portfolios. He adds that even if clients want to invest in both individual stocks and ETFs, they would maintain separate accounts for them. For the most part, the model portfolios stick to the major asset classes or stocks, bonds and cash, but those who want to do so can get previous metals or gold exposure through ETFs—one that holds mining stocks, the other that holds bullion—directly.

While the service is aimed at do-it-yourself investors, personal human advice is provided for those who feel they need help choosing an appropriate portfolio. “Building a portfolio does require thinking about risk tolerance,” says Seago. “Once you know how much risk to take, you can pick one of our portfolios—most of which usually match up with the needs of our investors. We are adding a human element on top.”

Why is CPP betting on the “crock” that is active management?

coyne

AndrewCoyne.com

There’s a must-read on the front page of Thursday’s National Post by Andrew Coyne that you can find here. The piece highlights a new Fraser Institute study about the increasingly bloated costs of investments run by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). While Coyne is primarily a political writer and this piece is in part a political one, Coyne has always been a shrewd observer of the investing scene. Over the years, he’s occasionally weighed in on the relative merits of low-cost “passive” index-based investing and higher-cost “actively managed” investing epitomized by retail mutual funds, wrap accounts and (in the case of CPP), actively managed pension mandates.

Coyne doesn’t pull his punches. Near the end of the piece he writes:

It is simply a reflection of what is by now also widely recognized, among those without a vested interest in denying it. Active management is a crock. To consistently beat the market within a given asset class, a fund manager must be consistently smart and well-informed, he must be consistently smarter and better-informed than all the other smart and well-informed managers out there, all of whom are trying to do the same. That’s vanishingly unlikely.

CPP is playing the Loser’s Game

Clearly, Coyne is well aware of the arguments of major financial writers like John Bogle, Larry Swedroe, Mark Hebner, Dan Solin and many more. In particular, Charles Ellis’s Winning the Loser’s Game. (Click on the highlights for other representative books written by those authors. There also others by Canadians like Mark Noble, Howard Atkinson, Keith Matthews, Ted Cadsby and no doubt a few others I’ve neglected to mention.)

So, despite the overwhelming academic evidence that active management is — to use Coyne’s delightfully derogatory term — a “crock,” why then is the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) taking a flyer on Canadians’ collective retirement funds? It’s about money alright, but not so much about our retirement money than the compensation sought by CPPIB senior managers.

CPPIB salaries depend on willful ignorance

As Coyne points out, compensation for CPP senior managers has leapt from $1.56 million in 2007 to $3.3 million in 2014. Despite this, he adds, this “extraordinary executive bounty” has “hardly” been associated with a comparable increase in the fund.  This seems to demonstrate the wisdom of the old saying attributed to Upton Sinclair that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Kudos to Andrew Coyne for putting the spotlight on this issue so central to the future retirement health of average Canadians. And it’s not just about CPP. When the federal government’s Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) were announced, I commented at the time that they should be primarily invested in passively managed ETFs from firms like Vanguard Canada, which had just arrived on our shores, or the low-cost “core” portfolios of BlackRock Canada’s iShares family of ETFs.

PRPPs also headed for the Loser’s Game

But the actively managed investment industry whose collective salaries depend on not “getting” indexing have mounted a formidable campaign to get a piece of the action of PRPPs, to the point I’m not optimistic we’ll see much takeup from the thousands of smaller employers that currently offer no pension plan at all to their workers.

The labour movement can talk all it wants to about the alternative of a “Big” CPP, but if it entails the kind of active management that Coyne describes, it’s hard to advocate allowing the CPPIB to play the “loser’s game” with even more of our money.

 

 

My Motley Fool Canada blogging debut: on DRIPs

foolAs of this week, I am now blogging for Motley Fool Canada. Here’s the debut post, on how DRIPs (Dividend Reinvestment Plans) constitute the “dull road to riches.” Hey, I’ll take “dull” if it also leads to “riches!”

The upside of aging

upside_coverThe MoneySense version of this blog can be found here. For “one-stop shopping” purposes, I include the copy below as well:

To the eternally young, a phrase like “The Upside of Aging” may seem to be the ultimate oxymoron. Those of us who see more of our life path in the rearview mirror than up ahead may question such a phrase. It happens to be the title of a book I’ve just started to read, yet another recommended by Mark Venning on his longevity site at www.changerangers.com.

The book, by Milken Institute president Paul Irving, examines how long lifetimes are changing the world of health, work, innovation, policy and purpose. The Milken Institute has focused on aging for several years and takes the long view that human ingenuity should never be underestimated.

Some may reach 150

In the foreword, Milken Institute chairman Michael Milken passes along the opinion by the late Nobel laureate Robert Fogel (of the University of Chicago) that “average life spans in the developed world will easily exceed 100 within the current century.” He expects some to reach 150. Another expert cited by Milken noted that “in terms of health, a 60-year-old woman is equivalent to a 40-year-old in 1960. Today’s 80-year-old American man is similar to a 60-year-old as recently as 1975.”

Your money may have to last a long time

And as Venning notes in the fourth installment of his blog devoted to the book (here,) there’s also a huge impact for those likely to land on the MoneySense.ca website and this Financial Independence blog. Venning observes that one of the major obsessions in the aging game is financial security. Despite the huge advantage we in the west have in enjoying access to various financial planning vehicles and advisers, “a vast majority of people have not planned well or saved aside enough for their later years.” It’s clear to me that the combination of long life, financial independence and robust health must constitute a gift; but what if long life coincides with poor health and/or insufficient wealth? Might not the blessing of long life then become a curse?

One of the multiple sources in the book is American financial planner Dan Houston of the Principal Financial Group. He sees financial security not just as involving saving for retirement, but also encompassing “comprehensive financial planning for competing demands … at different stages of life.”

Longevity changes everything

Houston says longevity changes everything and it’s hard to disagree. Since I tend to look at the topic through the lens of financial independence, it’s clear to me that if nest eggs have to last longer than we and our advisers think, portfolios had better consider inflation. Inflation has always been a curse for those living on a fixed income or non-indexed pensions. The combination of minuscule interest rates and a long life seems to me an unpleasant combination. Stocks that raise their dividends regularly stand a greater chance of generating an inflation-beating source of income. Putting some of your fixed-income allocation into annuities also seems to prudent, particularly if the pricing of annuities by insurance companies doesn’t fully reflect extensions in longevity.

Most of all, however, it seems to me that taking retirement too early in life may be a losing strategy in more ways than one. Putting aside the human need to connect with other people, to have structure and routine and to keep the little grey cells stimulated, purely at a financial level, it’s a lot to expect portfolios designed to last 20 years to support 30 or 40 years of “retirement.” Rather than attempting to retire earlier than the traditional age of 65, it may be more prudent to push it back closer to 70, at least on a part-time basis. Better yet, consider taking the baseline financial independence provided by modest savings and pensions, and launching into an entire second career that can revitalize you AND provide extra income well into what we used to call our golden years. Irving refers to an “encore career,” which he himself embarked upon and which your humble blogger is attempting to chronicle in this blog.

There are, to be sure, economic and investment implications to all this. For a taste, let me quote from Milken’s foreword:

“The economic benefits far outweigh the challenges that come with an aging society. The extension of life, and the extension of healthy life, are positive developments to be celebrated, not feared. Their impact will be an economic boon, not a drag.”

 

Where do you want to semi-retire?

longbranchminto

Photo by Jonathan Chevreau

Once it’s no longer necessary to commute to and from a downtown or suburban corporate job, where in the world do you want to be? I touched on this in a recent MoneySense blog on reverse mortgages. Most full retirees know they want to be close to hospitals, universities and libraries. They don’t need to be as close to the downtown core or even be near major transit systems though that can be a nice extra if they value city culture and/or friends and family still live there.

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Every town needs a library

Throughout my personal Findependence journey this summer I’ve been posting photos of the community I live in: Long Branch, Ontario. It’s closer to downtown Toronto than its trendier neighbour to the west, Port Credit. The beach photo below, for example, I put on social media after biking along the (relatively) new boardwalk at the foot of 41st Street. As I commented at the time, at first glance you may think the photo is of some exotic beach somewhere in the south — it’s hard to believe it’s a mere 15-minute GO train ride from downtown Toronto. When I had one-hour commutes either to Don Mills or Bloor & Sherbourne, it sometimes seemed our home’s location was a bit of an inconvenience. It took a 12-minute car ride (or bus) just to get to the subway, which is why the three members of our family have three cars (though the youngest member is abroad so the car is on blocks).

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Long Branch boardwalk: 15 minutes from downtown Toronto. Photo Jonathan Chevreau

Now that I’m semi-retired (that’s what I’m calling it for the balance of the summer, anyway!), I’ve really come to appreciate the community in which we live. In addition to the beach and bike paths that go from Mississauga to downtown Toronto, there’s a post office (convenient in my line of work), a library (ditto!) and quite recently a Starbucks set up shop: always a good sign for impending gentrification. The photo below of the path by the lake is the indirect route from the Starbucks to my home, during which time I generally carry back a library book or two that was on hold, and listen to podcasts. Not a bad commute!

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The brutal commute: photo J. Chevreau

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Starbucks has landed in Long Branch

Mind you, one couple I know on our street doesn’t like all this change and are preparing to beat a retreat for small-town Ontario. Not us: for now, this place is perfect: it’s a great base for full-time employment or part-time and if and when it comes time to “fully retire,” it has all the necessary amenities, some of which I’ve shown in scattered photos in this blog. If you’re still on the “before” end of Findependence, you might want to think about the place you want to be once you do achieve it. Hopefully this blog gives you a few ideas of what’s important.

I’ve not included photos of medical facilities but clearly that should be a consideration too: there are walk-in clinics and hospitals here. Local universities or colleges are a nice extra too: my parents enjoyed their last years in London, Ontario because they were right next door to the University of Western Ontario and took full advantage of it.

The 7 eternal chestnuts of personal finance

Tasty roasted chestnuts

Here is my latest MoneySense blog, covering the 7 big “eternal” chestnuts of personal finance.

For continuity purposes, I also reproduce it below:

One of the world’s best personal finance writers – Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal – has said there are only a handful of real personal finance columns to write. The trick, he said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory), was in being able to “reissue” these columns in a way that the public (or editors) don’t notice. Of course, you could go further and say that the news business in general revolves around a few fairly standard memes: if it bleeds, it leads.

In personal finance, however, we’re not in the business of covering disasters and personal tragedies, unless of course the market does a repeat of what it did in 2008. It’s a sad fact that, as investors in Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme found to their regret, that when the market tanks we discover who was swimming naked.

The June issue of MoneySense contained 42 items billed as being the “Best Tips Ever.” That issue was a “keeper” and not just because it was the last one with which I was intimately involved. I’m not going to reprise the tips here but instead have come up with a list of seven “personal finance chestnuts” that I hope may be useful to readers and perhaps other PF journalists.

Chestnut #1: Live below your means

This is the granddaddy chestnut of personal finance. If you keep spending your fool head off, you’ll forever be on a treadmill to oblivion. The only way to become financially independent is to consistently spend less than you earn, year in and year out, decade in and decade out. The difference between what you (and your spouse) earn becomes your capital and it must be invested wisely.

Chestnut #2: Pay yourself first

This is closely related to living below your means. The surplus between a higher income and a lower level of spending needs to be directed to savings and investments. Just like your employer takes your income tax off your paycheque before you even see it, you should set up a pre-authorized chequing (PAC) arrangement with your financial institution (“automatic draft” in the U.S.), so another chunk of your paycheque is siphoned right off the top to savings and investments. Yes, you may feel a bit “broke” after the double whammy of paying tribute to the taxman as well as paying yourself first, but as the years go by and your wealth steadily mounts, you’ll be glad you roasted this particular chestnut.

Chestnut # 3: Get out of debt

Starting with non-tax-deductible consumer debt (aka credit cards), then student loans, and finally any lines of credit and ultimately your mortgage. (see Chestnut #4). No investment pays off as well as eliminating high-interest debt and it’s more tax efficient to boot.

Chestnut #4: Buy a home and pay off the mortgage as soon as possible

I’ll keep saying it: the foundation of financial independence is a paid-for home. If you rent, you’re still paying a mortgage: your landlord’s! In that case, your rent will never stop and will keep getting hiked as inflation rises. When you own your own home and the mortgage is gone, you get to live rent-free and you won’t worry about your rent going ever higher in old age. Plus you don’t have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of your principal residence. (See #7 below). But do accrue for property taxes, maintenance and (for condo owners) maintenance fees.

Chestnut #5: Be an owner, not a loaner

This means owning stocks (or equity mutual funds or ETFs), instead of interest-bearing vehicles like cash or bonds. You’ll never get rich loaning money out, which is what you do when you buy a GIC (or CD in the US) from a bank. If you want to grow your capital and keep up with inflation, you need to own stocks. Better yet, dividends are taxed less than interest and capital gains taxes can be deferred as long as you don’t crystallize profits. You will want some cash or bonds in an emergency fund and as a prudent part of your portfolio once you’re near retirement age.

Chestnut #6: If your employer offers you free money, take it.

Duh! This means you should join the company pension plan, especially if they “match” whatever you put in. And if they give you a discount on the company stock, take them up on that offer too. You wouldn’t say no to a bonus or a raise, would you? Then why wouldn’t you grab the rest of the freebies when they’re on offer?

Chestnut #7: If the government offers you free money, take that too!

This is along the same lines, except of course the government seldom really gives you money, unless you’re among society’s most disadvantaged. For we more affluent folk, there’s no escaping taxes (or death) but you CAN minimize the outflow to the taxman’s grasping hands by taking advantage of whatever few tax breaks he permits. No capital gains on a principal residence is a huge tax break. Apart from that, this means maxing out your RRSP (or your IRA in the U.S.) And don’t forget the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) (or the Roth in the US), which is the mirror image. In the former, you get a tax deduction upfront on contributions; for the latter, you get no upfront deduction but never have to pay tax on investment income generated, even when you withdraw it in retirement. Not quite free money, since you were taxed upfront on the income needed to generate the capital, but almost!

 

 

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