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!

 

 

Gold & Findependence

silver-and-gold-bullionSince the price of gold crashed a few weeks ago, I’ve twice blogged on the topic over at MoneySense.ca, as you can read here. I’ve also done a bit of radio and TV commentary on the topic. As noted at MoneySense, personally I’m somewhere between the 5% “gold as insurance” camp and the “gold bug” camp that allocates upwards of 15 to 25% of a total portfolio to the yellow metal as a permanent strategic allocation in a well balanced portfolio.

My second MoneySense blog looks at Nick Barisheff’s just-released book, $10,000 Gold, a prediction which if it came true would mean a seven-bagger from the most recent post-correction price of $1460 or so. Of course, gold has started to recover from the shocking drop that grabbed the media’s attention earlier this month.

So how does gold fit in with the concept of financial independence? Historically, it has held its own in providing a degree of capital preservation. Anyone who experienced the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany or more recently Zimbabwe can attest to the value of “real money” when contrasted with mere pieces of paper that once promised to pay the underlying metal “to the bearer on demand,” but today are no more real than digits in a computer somewhere.

Bricks & Mortar are another tangible investment I like

So the question isn’t so much whether gold could possibly rise seven fold or ten fold from here, although that’s roughly what it DID accomplish over the past decade. The question is whether paper money backed only by governments with unlimited access to printing presses can continue to be perceived as having value. Just as real estate investors see value in bricks and mortar and the assured streams of income known as “rent,” so too do some investors feel comfortable having at least some of their wealth in tangible precious metals or comparable financial derivatives they hope will retain value if mere paper money falls in value (i.e. ETFs like GLD or SLV). As readers of Findependence Day know, a major subplot of the book is the conflict between Sheena’s desire for tangible bricks and mortar and Jamie’s preference for paper/electronic assets like stocks and bonds.

I’m a Capital Preservation Asset Allocation Bug

Does all this make me a gold bug? No, it makes me a capital preservation asset allocation bug: SOME gold, some cash, some bonds, some stocks and some real estate. And of course, that’s just the investment part of the equation. To this we should add employer pensions and Government pensions like Social Security or the Canada Pension Plan. If someone came to me saying they believed ONLY in their employer pension plan or ONLY in their Social Security or CPP pensions, I’d be just as worried on their behalf as I would be if they told me they had only paper money or — for that matter — only gold coins.

Together, this is my recipe for financial independence.

Podcast about Findependence Day with SPP’s Sheryl Smolkin

Thanks to Sheryl Smolkin of Moneyville and the Saskatchewan Pension Plan for the following 10-minute audio podcast about Findependence Day. Among the  many insightful questions Sheryl asked was whether the “Didi Quinlan” character was modelled after Gail Vaz-Oxlade, Suze Orman or other financial reality TV shows. She also probes about the origins of the Vinyl Museum and other aspects of the novel drawn from real life.

You can access the podcast by clicking here. Note that to get to the actual audio you need to click the blue segment entitled Jonathan Chevreau Podcast. Those who prefer to simply read an abbreviated (but not verbatim) transcript can just keep reading the text that follow’s Sheryl’s link.