Half way through a three-week vacation in Turkey, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of integrating a little work with the travel. As my daughter has noted after a long summer of independent travel, everyone has SmartPhones these days and it’s not hard to find places with wireless: all hotels and most good restaurants have them, and many other places as well.
Roaming charges from North American telecom suppliers are prohibitive so we do what the student travelers do and leave the devices permanently in Airplane mode. That means enforced SmartPhone vacations from email and social media during times between wireless access but hey, it’s a vacation too, right? And anyway, who wants to be connected all the time?
In blogs earlier this summer (a summer that for me has extended through a lovely September in Toronto and now an even sunnier continued summer in Turkey), I described Tim Ferris’s idea of mini-retirements, described more fully in his best-selling book, The Four-Hour Workweek.
For me, the longest vacation I’ve had until now was two weeks long: my honeymoon in 1989, and two subsequent fortnights (as the British call them) in Europe and Scandinavia. So three weeks is a record but I can see how those of us from colder climates might eventually want to arrange their “Findependence” to include stints of eight or ten weeks in a row nicely timed to avoid January, February and the first half of March. (the depths of winter in Canada and the northern United States).
I’ve referred before to the American folksinger Phil Ochs and his (I believe) last album, entitled Rehearsals for Retirement. I won’t rehash my usual distinction here between traditional Retirement and Financial Independence but suffice it to say that a longer-than-the-normal two-week vacation can be considered either a Mini-Retirement or a Rehearsal for Retirement (or both?).
You can “work” during Mini-Retirements
Since my notion of Findependence sees a continued role for work and creativity well into one’s 60s and 70s, a Mini-Retirement or Retirement Rehearsal simply means travel along the lines this Turkey trip has gone but more so.
As you can see by reading these words, I felt moved to write this blog while still abroad, if only because I need to have some words to surround the photos that accompany it. I’ve been posting such photos to my Twitter and Facebook feeds all along but not without the context a longer blog can provide.
As was the case when I was blogging from home this summer, I’m composing the first draft of this on my laptop outside. As I sit on the second-floor balcony of the Su Hotel in Bodrum, Turkey, the sun is hitting my feet but the rest of me is in shade. Below and in front of me I can see a long lap pool that at night is lit up in my favorite shades of blue and green. Even at mid-day you can still hear the odd rooster crowing, though nothing like they do around dawn. Later, during a final edit and with lunch beckoning with the family, I’m sipping a glass of local red wine.
The longer the Mini-Retirement, the more work may play a role
Thus far, this vacation has resembled the one-week and two-week versions: nice accommodation, meals out, guided tours etc. Not what I’d term guerrilla frugality! In the future, if and when we attempt a ten-week stay somewhere like France or Italy to get away from winter, I can see ratcheting down expenses considerably from these levels. Probably, we would rent a house or villa for several weeks, shop for groceries and wine locally, and prepare our own food in our temporary home, just as we would do at home in Long Branch, Ontario. We would have full Internet access and all the gadgets that accompanied us on this shorter vacation: Kindles, iPhones, Blackberries, iPads and laptop computers.
Even during this Turkey trip – wireless permitting – I’ve surprised myself by staying on top of the news as much as I have and similarly monitoring and posting to various social media. The quantity is no doubt much reduced, perhaps to the relief of all concerned. But this trip has confirmed in my own mind that it is indeed possible to combine business and travel to some extent, even if the pleasure/work ratio is slanted heavily to the Pleasure side. For the curious, we do have a family member who is keeping the home fires burning: that means the cat is getting fed and orders for the Findependence Day book are being fulfilled with no delay. The cloud accounting software I described some weeks ago can be accessed remotely, as can our bank accounts and discount brokerage accounts.
While I’ve only made a stab here of testing the idea, I suspect that the longer the mini-retirement (or extended vacation) and the more you settle in one particular spot, the more “work” would play a role — defining “work” as something that creates invoices or at least moves forward long-term creative projects that might one day bring in revenue.
In short, the rhythms of life continue. In many respects, it’s the best of all worlds and I look forward to trying an extended “Mini Retirement” as early as January of 2016 (plus of course shorter vacations in the meantime).
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.
Now that a few months have passed since my “Findependence Day” arrived in May, I’ve gotten more clarity about some misconceptions some may have about this concept. I may even have harboured some of these myself at one point in my full-time career. Here are five myths I’ve become aware of: this is not necessarily a definitive list and may be revisited in the future.
Myth 1 After you’re findependent, you’ll play golf all day, or bridge, or read, or travel.
I doubt this will happen for many unless you really burned out in your career. Depending on the degree of your findependence (see my recent MoneySense blog on this) and how much work you wish to do, you’ll soon settle into a routine. Most of your tasks may be self imposed, but impose them you will! Between 2004 and 2011 or so, while still working full time at the Financial Post, I devoted many nights and weekends playing to online bridge. Oddly, now that I have more time, I no longer play online bridge, although I do make a point of religiously reading Paul Thurston’s bridge column every day on the “Diversions” page of the National Post. Even with no time lost in a downtown office and getting to and from it, I still don’t have time for online bridge. I may resume once I’m “fully retired” later in my 60s but I can’t seem to find the time for it in semi-retirement!
Myth 2: There’s no distinction between weeks and weekends.
For me, at least, the week and weekend routine still operates at most levels. If you’re familiar with my concept of the 4-hour day (normally practiced from Monday to Friday), then on weekends I do not feel obligated to put in either a four-hour or even just one two-hour stint on money-making or creative activities. Of course, you could redirect at least two hours per weekend from money making to creative fun long term projects you’ve always wanted to accomplish. Because at the end of the weekend, once the workweek resumes for everyone else, longer term projects tend to get crowded out by more imminent matters and deadlines. That said, it’s also true that – at least if you work from home – you tend to attend to some errands like shopping in the workweek lunch hour, if only as a break and a way to get out of the house. So instead of a large weekend grocery shop, I tend to run two or three times a week on specific shopping missions, but add in a few items I know we’ll need soon. The grocery bills tend to be lower on any given shop but of course you’ll have plenty more of them.
Myth 3: Findependence is an all-or-nothing proposition involving a certain “Big Number.”
Ah, big numbers. Lee Eisenberg wrote a bestseller on that called The Number. If your initial Number was $X million or $Y100 thousand, you may find you continue to push even once it’s achieved. It may become 2X or 3Y. The moment you can declare findependence may be a moving target, depending on financial markets, employers, health and many other considerations. You need to be flexible.
Myth 4: The government won’t be there for me (or employer pensions).
I think whether in Canada or the US that the boomer generation can count on the promised social programs and probably the same will hold for succeeding generations. Benefits may not be as generous, may not be inflation hedged, may become means-tested and so on. And yes, these days, it’s hard to count on any one employer pension plan, be it Defined Benefit or newer hybrids that expose workers to some market risk. The whole point of findependence is to establish multiple income streams, which may include part-time earned income or consulting work. That’s a major point Wes Moss makes in his excellent book: You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think.
Government pensions is one basket and an employer pension is a second one but you know what they say about putting all your eggs into any one of them. If I were counting 100% on Social Security or OAS/CPP in Canada then I’d be apprehensive about this. And Moss finds the unhappiest retirees are those who can count on only a single source of income.
But as a single potential flow of income that might account for 20 to 60% of the total, the more you have alternatives, the better. RRSPs/IRAs and other savings are one other vehicle, as are taxable accounts and TFSAs/Roth IRAs. But there are also book or music royalties, real estate investment properties, part-time work and finally the subject we wrote about here last week: Internet marketing and entrepreneurship. The Internet has so much potential for creating multiple streams of findependence income that I almost envy the young people now who would far rather become laptop millionaires than salaried employees.
Myth 5: The act of declaring Findependence is irrevocable.
If you’ve left a job or sold a business, you may think the act of declaring your Findependence is irrevocable. It’s not. The truth is you can rejoin the workforce if you wish, though most of the “findependent” people I know who got there before me show not the slightest inclination for returning to another stint on the 9-to-5 treadmill. Lately, I’ve been listening to a Valdy song, Coming Home, which contains the lyric, “I’m going back to places that I couldn’t wait to leave.” When the odd notion comes into my head that it might be fun being full time again in magazines or newspapers, that lyric can’t help but run through my mental iPod.
So those are 5 myths. I’ll revisit this list periodically and probably add to them. Reader input always welcome. Email me at jonathan@findependenceday
The book pictured I picked up at the recent Write Canada 2014 writer’s conference in Guelph, Ont., the third time in five years I attended that event.
Joyce Li is a project manager and motivational speaker, originally from Hong Kong, now living with her family in Brampton, Ont. Reimagine Your Retirement is published by Word Alive Press, and is what you might expect from a publisher focused on spiritual writing. Li’s perspective on Retirement is not at all the traditional “full stop retirement” we think of when we see the ads from the banks and fund companies.
Instead, she views Retirement as a sort of spiritual/vocational halfway house between one’s working years and eternity. This is not dissimilar to my own view of Findependence or Semi Retirement. In fact, she credits Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life for inspiring her almost a decade ago: she gave six family members copies of Warren’s book, with personalized inscriptions.
Are you haunted by “nagging dreams”?
Li spends time a good chunk of time talking about ”nagging dreams “ that have yet to come true. And who among us does not harbour dreams we’ve not yet been able to manifest in this harsh workaday world and its seeming financial constraints? Li doesn’t make light of the financial side of retirement but seeks a way to reconcile it. And she’s not shy about confessing her own youthful dreams of becoming either a movie star or a pop star.
Spiced liberally with biblical quotes, Li is all about planning: plan the work, work the plan.
In the opening chapters, she reminds us the concept of retirement was non existent in biblical times and throughout most of history. And whether retirement is voluntary, involuntary, or delayed, Li doesn’t shy away from the financial side of it. One reality is that “Retirement requires financial support for an unknown time.”
And did you know the bible has at least 250 verses that discuss money? Interestingly, she says the Bible has “no direct reference to retirement or retirement planning,” except for one passage in Numbers 8:23-26. (“at the age of 50, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer.”)
While she acknowledges that some plan never to retire, some will partially do so, and some will fully retire to disengage from the workworld altogether, Li’s personal orientation seems strongly oriented to reinvention or reimagination, as the book’s title suggests. This may entail going back to school, or embarking on a brand new vocation.
The book will find few readers among atheists and agnostics, but will be thought provoking for those who see a spiritual dimension to life, no matter what particular religious affiliation.
A book for writing in
I wouldn’t suggest obtaining a library or ebook version of this book, as Li provides plenty of blanks she encourages one to fill in, with multiple exercises to put self discovery and concrete planning into practice. She’s all about discovering one’s skills, life gifts, spiritual gifts and passions, then encapsuating what you’re discovered into a personal mission statement that will chart your 20 to 30 years of a reimagined retirement. She’s a strong believer in the power of visualization, which of course is exactly what I suggest in my own book: drawing a line in the sand and declaring it your Findependence Day, even if it turns out ultimately to be a moving target.
As my parallel Financial Independence blog at MoneySense.ca shows here, there are degrees of financial independence. For one-stop-shopping purposes for users of this site, I’ve included the blog below:
Degrees of Financial Independence
In researching the web for content clarifying the differences between Retirement and Financial Independence, I came across this May 8, 2014 post by J.D. Roth, of the Get Rich Slowly site.
In his “coming to terms” post, Roth finds the traditional word Retirement carries too much baggage, so he prefers the term I also like: Financial Independence. That’s a fairly common stance among the semi-retired and early retirees who write about this topic: the only difference is few have (as yet) adopted my contraction of Financial Independence: Findependence. The reason I invented that term is that I felt if we are to have a catchy popular alternative to the word Retirement, it should be shorter than the two-word seven-syllable mouthful called Financial Independence. Retirement is one word and three syllables; Findependence is also one word and has only four syllables.
A continuum of financial freedom
But whatever the term you prefer, it’s important to realize there are degrees of Findependence/Retirement, or a continuum. This is a point Roth makes in the article flagged above. He talks about four types of retirement: the traditional full-stop version that begins (usually) at age 65, Early Retirement (launched usually in one’s mid 50s or early 60s, although there is a genre of Extreme Early Retirement that supposedly begins in one’s 20s or 30s). And finally there’s the concept of multiple Mini-Retirements championed by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek, and which I blogged on earlier this summer.
If you reframe the Retirement discussion as being about Findependence, it’s also possible to describe a similar continuum, just as it’s possible to describe different degrees of financial freedom. Roth notes we all begin life completely dependent on our parents, including financially. At some point, children leave the nest but will depend on an employer and/or financial institutions. Once free of consumer debt, a greater degree of financial freedom is achieved, and this freedom expands once you own a home free and clear: which is why I say the foundation of Financial Independence is a paid-for home. At that point, you are no longer paying a mortgage or paying rent to a landlord, although of course you will still have to pay municipal property taxes and if you’re a condo owner you may be on the hook for ongoing maintenance fees. Beyond that, you’ll still need external sources of income for heating, hydro, roof repairs and all the other expenses that home owners incur. And finally, true Findependence arrives (I call this Findependence Day), when enough money is coming in from multiple passive sources of income (Pensions, investments, etc.) that you no longer need to rely soley on income derived from the single source called an “employer.”
Cadillac vs Chevy retirements
But even then, there’s low-level Findependence and high-level Findependence. You may have saved enough not to have to go to work five days a week but may not be so flush that you can eat in fancy restaurants and travel the world 365 days a year. Most people on the Findependence continuum will be somewhere between the latter luxury Findependence and a barebones one that requires eating in most days and restricting exotic travel to a few weeks a year. If the latter, it’s perfectly logical to continue to work on projects or part-time to fund a few more luxuries and the occasional mega-trip.
The illustration is from the cover of Stephen Pollan’s 2003 book, Second Acts, which I got from the local library. (Frugality guerrillas may like my tip here: download a free sample from Kindle, read the intro, then place a hold on the web site of your local library. This way you get a bit of instant gratification, but you also save money.)
Sidebars of famous Second Acts
One of the nice features of this book is dozens of sidebars where the authors (Mark Levine is also credited) highlights such famous second acts as Ray Kroc, Jimmy Carter, Paul Gauguin, Ronald Reagan, J.K. Rowling and many more.
Pollan himself has had a major second act as a life coach, following a stressful corporate career which ended with the good news that he had tuberculosis. Yes, good news, because the alternative diagnosis was lung cancer.
A focus of the book is written exercises designed to help readers uncover the life of their dreams, putting that dream into words, developing a “second act mindset” and identifying the blockages (or “closed doors”) that prevented actualizing dreams during the long “first act” so many have settled for.
Chief among the doors that have to be pushed open are age and money. Many convince themselves they are “too old” to embark on a second act, or that they require staggering sums of money to pull it off. Another concern is often “duration.” If the prelude to a second act is going back to school or otherwise paying your dues in a profession like acting, then the number of years it will take to make the transition can weigh on those who are already approaching their golden years.
In some cases, we are own worst enemies: for some, fear of success prevents people from pursuing their dreams, for others it’s the opposite: fear of failure. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we can’t proceed without the consent of close family members. Pollan and Levine also devote a chapter to physical health and appearance, urging readers to do whatever it takes to realize their dreams: if that means losing 50 pounds, then get out there and diet and exercise; if it takes cosmetic surgery to enter a field that puts a premium on youth and beauty, then do it.
Here’s a new concept I’d not considered until I started reading the book pictured in the adjacent photo. Last time, we talked about semi-retirement and sabbaticcals but you might want to add the term “mini-retirement” to all these concepts that (in my view) touch on financial independence.
In his book, The 4-hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss floats the idea of periodic mini-retirements spread over a lifetime. So instead of the traditional route so many of us take – which he dubs “slave/save/retire” — Ferriss likes to work in two-month stints, then “retire” for blocks of a month or so (sometimes longer).
Death of Vacations?
Now you might argue that the traditional two-week annual vacation squeezed between 48 to 50 weeks of working is a mini retirement, or more accurately, a “Micro retirement.” But of course the very fact of you having a return ticket means a micro retirement is no retirement at all.
Even as he declares the birth of Mini-Retirements, Ferriss announces the “death of vacations.” He discovered mini-vacations after being “miserable and overworked” early in 2004. He originally planned to relax for a month in Central America but, seeing as he had only purchased a one-way ticket, extended his stay for three months and ultimately 15 months. Thus came the insight that semi-retiring baby boomers may well want to embrace: “Why not take the usual 20-30-year retirement, and redistribute it throughout life instead of saving it all for the end?”
An end, I might add, that might not be as hale and hearty as mini-retirements taken earlier. As I say in my book, the goal is to enjoy Findependence “while you’re still young enough to enjoy it.”
Alternating waves of activity and leisure
The flipside of the mini-retirement strategy is that it also means those practicing it – many of them the oncoming wave of retiring baby boomers – will actually continue to work: as I said last time, probably well into one’s 70s, health permitting.
The difference is that this will be accomplished in alternating waves of activity and leisure. This actually also corresponds to my confession a week ago that I had a few early false alarms on my own Findependence Day. Now that I’m refining the concept, I realize that you can have multiple Findependence Days, each associated with separate and finite “Mini-Retirements.” Now that the World Cup has begun, I’m hoping to have one this summer.
Embracing the Mobile Lifestyle
A big ingredient in Ferriss’s approach is the mobile lifestyle, which is implied by the book’s subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.” It’s harder for salaried 9-to-5ers to embrace this lifestyle, since it’s more suited to self-employment and a web-based mobile device culture. But even for what Ferriss terms “cubicle dwellers” there are ways to pull it off if you can negotiate it with your boss.
Next time, we’ll look at the idea of the four-hour work DAY for employees: a precursor to the four-hour work WEEK.
Well, here I am two weeks after becoming the Editor-at-Large for MoneySense magazine. You’ll see this title used often in the media world: typically, as in the case of Financial Post Editor-at-Large Diane Francis, this is sort of a half-way house between full-time employment and a freelance career. In Diane’s case, she still pens a weekly column running in the weekend paper.
In my case, the plan currently is that I will continue to write the Financial Independence column in the print version of the magazine, plus the Financial Independence blog at MoneySense.ca, which may (or may not) be a mirror blog of the blogs you see here at FindependenceDay.com. Frequency yet to be determined. As the Globe & Mail reported on May 22, I have left the editor-in-chief job at MoneySense “but will stay with the magazine as an editor-at-large, focusing more on writing and speaking.”
One young family member I briefed on the difference between the titles was under the impression “At Large” meant some kind of criminal. Not at all! Mostly, however, “at large” means working from home and skipping the two-hour commute I used to have. The photos (above and below) show external and internal views of my new home office: this is much closer to the “Findependent” lifestyle I’d envisaged when I wrote the original edition of Findependence Day in 2008, and to which this website is dedicated.
For those curious about my work methods, I often write the first draft of something outside, then edit and do web formatting inside. For those who heard Preet Banerjee’s podcast with me about the second edition of the book, this is the view of the waterfall he was referring to: I know more than a few who heard that podcast were curious about it. You can find that podcast here or under the Reviews tab elsewhere on this site.
From wealth accumulation to decumulation
I may have telegraphed this subtle change in title in the June issue of the magazine, where in the Financial Independence column I speculate on my eventual plan to start drawing down income from various sources. During his excellent talk celebrating MoneySense’s 15th anniversary in mid May, David Chilton suggested that for baby boomers on the cusp of retirement, the next big theme for older writers like myself will be about drawing down income. This theme is well articulated in Daryl Diamond’s book, Your Retirement Income Blueprint. I’ve provided an endorsement for the new edition of that book going to press, which I was happy to do because I intend to follow much of the blueprint myself as time goes by.
Of course, as I also wrote in the retirement section of the “Best Tips Ever” package, I also believe that the longer you delay collecting pensions (like CPP), the better. I’ve also come to the realization that while I may want to have more flexibility on how I spend my time, and spend less time in transit and meetings, it’s likely I’ll continue to write, edit, speak and consult for the lion’s share of my 60s, and the more revenue coming from those sources, the less traditional retirement income sources need to be tapped.
In any case, I have a 5-year plan that includes the writing of several more books and a few twists and turns in my career that I’ll reveal in this space at the appropriate time. In the meantime, I look forward to being “at large” on various MoneySense assignments and eventually for other media outlets and possibly corporate clients.
Findependence — while you’re still young enough to enjoy it
I’d like to think this will be the best of all worlds, which is what the concept of Findependence is really all about. Remember that the subtitle of the US edition is “How to achieve financial independence …while you’re still young enough to enjoy it.” At 61, I’m no spring chicken but I believe most members of our generation will live to 90 or more, and probably work — at least part-time in “semi-retirement” — until well past 70. See for example the book, The New Retirementality. (Nice title, wish I’d thought of it first!)
When I updated my resume, I was shocked to realize I’ve now been a professional journalist and author for 35 years. Since I’ve always practiced the principles espoused in my columns and the book, I’d hope that young people can be assured that this stuff really works if you stick to the program!
You can also expect me to be updating this blog a little more often than has been the case the last two years. See you in June!
Today’s blog headline (minus the suffix I added) is also the subtitle of a free new investing booklet titled If You Can by William J. Bernstein. This is a terrific and short (16 pages) document that I wholeheartedly recommend be read and absorbed by today’s millennial generation. For that matter, it should be read by just about any investor at any age.
But a warning: if you’re in the financial services industry, you’re not going to like the content. The author is a neurosurgeon who learned the hard way how to invest his own money, and has written a few books along the way. If you’re not in the financial services industry, you may be merely amused by his depiction of most full-service stock brokerages and mutual fund salespeople as the equivalent of “hardened criminals” or “self-deluded monsters.”
At the outset, Bernstein promises to lay out an investment strategy that any 7 year-old could understand and will take just 15 minutes of work per year. Yet he promises it will beat 90% of finance professionals in the long run, but still make you a millionaire over time. The formula will be no surprise to MoneySense readers familiar with the Couch Potato approach to investing in index funds or ETFs. Simply, Bernstein advocates saving 15% of one’s salary starting no later than age 25 into tax-sheltered savings plans (IRA or 401(k) in the U.S., RRSPs or Registered Pension Plans in Canada), and divvying up the money into just three mutual funds: a U.S. total stock market index fund, an international stock market index fund and a U.S. total bond market index fund.
Bernstein a big fan of Vanguard and John Bogle
In Bernstein’s view, the index funds should be supplied by the only financial services company he seems to trust: the Vanguard Group (which sells both index mutual funds and ETFs).
Bernstein is addressing young Americans just embarking on their working careers but the basic idea would apply to Canadian millennials too. Judging by recent Portfolio Makeovers we’ve run showing ETF-based Couch Potato portfolios, the equivalent mix would be 20% each of Canadian, U.S. and international equity index funds or ETFs, and 40% of a bond ETF. And as I’ve written before, don’t even wait till age 25: if you can get your parents to match your savings starting at age 18, the TFSA is the place to put in place these bedrock principals of investing.
And the 15 minutes of work? That would be an annual rebalancing exercise to get the proportions of the three or four funds back to their starting levels.
Millennials can’t count on employer pension plans
Despite this, Bernstein warns younger people that they’ll have a hard go of it because the traditional defined benefit employer pensions of previous generations probably won’t be around much longer. This is pretty much what I wrote in the Editor’s Note for the April issue of MoneySense: that we’re all forced to be our own pension managers these days.
Bernstein says the operative word in his booklet’s title is “If,” because following his simple recipe for wealth (I’d call it financial independence of course) involves a very big “if.” He lays out five hurdles. Number one is excessive spending, second is understanding the basic principles of finance and investing, third is learning and applying market history, fourth is overcoming yourself: the biggest enemy being your face in the mirror; and hurdle five is the conflicted financial industry that is supposedly there to help you with your financial goals. He goes so far as to declare, “The financial services industry wants to make you poor and stupid.” Fighting words, indeed! I might not go that far but it’s certainly a way of looking at the world.
Bernstein’s homework assignments
Bernstein assigns some “homework” to his young readers. They have to read his document twice and read a few books, starting with Thomas Stanley and William Danko’s The Millionaire Next Door and John Bogle’s Common Sense on Mutual Funds. He’s too shrewd to plug his own books but I’ll name one on his behalf that I’ve reviewed positively in the past: The Four Pillars of Investing.
The fact that Bernstein has gone out of his way to give away the booklet should tell you a lot. You can find the link for a PDF here. If you act quickly (today, May 5) you may also be able to get the Kindle version free rather than the 99 cents Amazon.com normally would charge.
To parents of millennials, I’d urge you to download and print this document and hand it over to your kids, perhaps after highlighting the passages you feel to be most relevant. You could give them the link but you know how distracted they tend to be with all the social media noise that abounds these days. Sure, they may say they want to get rich some day but to paraphrase the old saying, “We all want to go to heaven, but no one wants to die first to get there.” For millennials, saving 15% of salary is the financial equivalent of dying, which is why Bernstein titles his document “IF you can.”
Part 2 of the question-and-answer session with Money on Trees has been posted, here.
Part 1 went up last week, here.
In both cases, the focus is heavily on young people getting started in the working world and how they can establish early the habits that will lead to ultimate “findependence.”