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What Went Right

Sanjib Saha  |  February 23, 2021

I SPEND WAY TOO much time analyzing what went wrong and how to do better. Instead, I should probably focus more on what went right and how to do it again.

This tip came from a close friend, when I told him about my money mistakes. My friend’s logic? Despite my missteps, I must have done a few things right to offset the damage.

He had a good point. There are three things I did that paved my path to financial freedom. The rest simply fell into place. These are not silver bullets and I’m not swearing to their universal usefulness. But they were powerful enough to save my day.

1. Protect my human capital. After earning my undergraduate degree, I started as a software engineer at a midsized company. I soon learned that a career in software development wasn’t about a fixed set of knowledge and expertise. Thanks to rapid technological change, skills can quickly become obsolete, as my first supervisor told me repeatedly. I’m forever grateful to him.

For better or worse, I never had big career ambitions. Folks like me run the risk of getting too comfortable in their job. But thanks to my first supervisor’s insistence on the need for continuous learning, I was able to safeguard my employability and ensure rising income throughout my career.

2. Watch my cashflow. My mother was the family accountant. Each month, my father would give her a fixed amount to cover all household expenses. She handled all spending and noted each purchase in a journal. She’d periodically balance the books and, when things didn’t add up, she’d spend hours spotting the discrepancies.

I adopted the same technique. On payday, I’d go to the bank and withdraw a fixed amount of cash. Like my mother, I used a cashbox to keep the money and a notebook to track my expenses. Result: My bank account grew each month with the leftover money and, with every pay hike, my savings rate rose.

This low-tech method, alas, stopped working as checks and plastic took over. I needed to adapt. I opened a separate checking account with overdraft protection to manage my cashflow. Each month, I moved a fixed amount from my “salary account” to this new checking account. All my expenses—cash withdrawals, checks, utilities, credit card payments—came from this account.

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Was it boring to monitor my cashflow regularly? It certainly wasn’t as fun as watching Seinfeld, but it wasn’t too dreadful, either. Was it time consuming? Surprisingly, it took little time. Was it useful? You bet.

With an accurate sense of my spending and saving, I could easily predict the impact of any big financial decision. On top of that, the mentality instilled by a monthly allowance protected me from insidious lifestyle inflation. Yes, my spending went up over time, but every increase was a deliberate decision. Most important, I could apply the 80/20 rule to my money. A fixed spending allowance forced me to funnel funds from unimportant expenses to those I cared about. This was the key to a frugal, yet fulfilling life.

3. Treat debt like a disease. Growing up in a middle-class family in India, I developed a lifelong abhorrence of debt. At an early age, I felt horror when I heard stories of people losing everything to private lenders. I saw borrowing as a sign of desperate helplessness. I vowed to never sell my future for today’s enjoyment.

My inflexible attitude had some merits. I dodged the trap of overspending with credit cards and avoided becoming a “revolver.” I never paid a penny on car loans, instead only buying vehicles that I could afford to purchase with cash. I took out a mortgage for a modest townhome in the suburbs, but only because I expected to pay it off in three years and becoming a homeowner saved me hundreds of dollars in rent.

My insecurity about debt eased after my second marriage. My new family needed a bigger place in a neighborhood where my stepdaughter could attend a good public school. I faced the reality of home prices inflated by the housing bubble of the mid-2000s. I could no longer afford the luxury of a debt-free life. In my late 30s, I reluctantly signed up for a 30-year mortgage.

It was painful to watch thousands of dollars go toward mortgage payments each month. I kept chipping away at the principal with extra payments. I refinanced a few times to lower the interest rate. I felt better when the annual imputed rent—the money I would pay if I were renting the house instead of owning it—exceeded my annual housing cost minus the principal payments. When I paid off the mortgage before its tenth anniversary, I felt a heavy burden lift from my shoulders.

Ridding myself of the mortgage may have been more of a psychological relief than a smart financial move. Still, my cash outflow shrank sharply after the mortgage was gone. I realized that, from now on, I could survive on a much smaller paycheck. That seeded the idea of dialing down my working hours—and started me down the path to early retirement.

Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.

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David Powell
David Powell
3 months ago

Sanjib is a man of many talents, with a great sense of humor.

IAD
IAD
3 months ago

Great post! Thanks!

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
3 months ago
Reply to  IAD

Thank you, IAD. Glad that you liked it.

parkslope
parkslope
3 months ago

Thanks for sharing. The most common thread among the contributors to this site is clearly a frugal mindset. Many of us became financially literate years later than we would have liked, but having debt under control made it much easier for us to successfully play catch up.

Scrooge_McDuck88
Scrooge_McDuck88
3 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

So true! It’s almost impossible to grow wealth while overspending.

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
3 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

So true. Thanks, parkslope.

OUTinMinnesota
OUTinMinnesota
3 months ago

The inclusion of 2. Watch my cashflow made me smile.

As a concept, the action of tracking & reconciling spending is easy.
But the self-discipline needed to actually & systemically do it… that’s another story.

That’s why I’m happy to see this column emphasize it as one of the 3 factors for getting things right. Even better, it’s awesome that the column considers the question: Was it time consuming?. It’s a pleasure echoing the columnist’s response… surprisingly no. Just an hour each Sunday morning to:
– – Count cash on-hand and check whether it reconciles with the prior week’s cash expenditures.
– – Pay bills.
– – Verify whether the remaining balance in checking is adequate to cover bills coming due in the next couple of weeks, and if not, move money from savings.

There are three reasons why someone would want to track & reconcile spending:
1) As the columnist points out – during working years, it allows you to predict the impact of spending and to focus on priorities (retirement savings, for example)
2) When you keep track your bills and when you verify whether you’re going to have enough funds to pay them, you protect your credit rating.
3) In retirement, when living on a fixed income, you’re going to be forced to do it. So, why wait?

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
3 months ago
Reply to  OUTinMinnesota

Thanks OUTinMinnesota. Once this becomes a habit, it’s hard not to do it.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
3 months ago

Well said.

I admit I did a relatively poor job vis-a-vis protecting my human capital. If I were planning to work another 10 years, I might be worried. If anything, I am proof that a few mistakes in planning your financial future will not doom you.

I smiled hugely at the mention of cash flow. Even people with financial backgrounds often struggle with this conceptually, and find themselves in unexpected trouble. I never cared much about budgets, but cash flow… that’s critical (yes, you need a basic budget to calculate cash flow, but I have never actively used a budget.)

Debt is a strange creature. I think there is a distinction between the relatively wise use of debt that allows you to grow your personal capital, and the unwise use of consumer debt to purchase depreciating assets. Even when used wisely, however, it’s important to recognize how dangerous debt can be. Congratulations on paying off the house!

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
3 months ago

Thank you, Roboticus. I was probably too aggressive with my Debt pay-off, but I’m glad I did it sooner than later.

UofODuck
UofODuck
3 months ago

I spent 40+ years in the investment business giving people advice and my #1 message to clients was the need to clearly understand where their money was being spent and not just where it was coming from. However, it was surprisingly difficult to get clients to list their expenses. While they knew what they spent on their mortgage or car loan, they could not (or would not?) estimate a lot of the softer expenses (food, entertainment, walking around money, etc.) that often represented a significant portion of their total spending. And, where clients did know what they were spending, it was often viewed as my job to earn more on their investments, rather than their job to reduce excess spending.

I also agree with your attitude towards debt, but I am also the child of two depression era parents who grew up in all cash world and never had significant debt, other than their mortgage. As a result, my wife and I worked hard to eliminate all of our debt as soon as possible. For today’s young people, however, the debt levels they are willing to or must accept (student loans, mortgage, etc.) are much higher than what we faced, which likely mean they will require more years to eliminate their debt.

The importance of human capital is even more profound. Where my father worked for just one employer and I worked for a few, but all in the same industry, my son has already worked for more employers, across several different industries. The importance of investing in ourselves to enhance and adapt our skills to changing needs has never been more important.

Thank you for your thoughtful article. I hope many more people read it and take it to heart.

Sanjib Saha
Sanjib Saha
3 months ago
Reply to  UofODuck

Thank you so much! I also find that many people do not even know their average annual expense, or think that it’s too hard to keep track. Spending a few hours every now and then can detect and stop so many money leaks.

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