IT’S A TOPIC WHERE I always seem to be in the minority. The controversy: Should you save first and then spend what remains—or, instead, prepare a budget which then determines how much you can “afford” to save?
Budgets are scary and stressful. Go ahead, make a budget if you like. But if you conclude that you can’t afford to save, there’s no progress in that.
A Northwestern Mutual survey found that 49% of U.S.
THERE’S A LITERARY rite of passage that requires every financial blogger to write at least one article about free money. Far be it for me to break with this tradition.
Titling an article “free money” will catch most readers’ attention. After all, we all want something for nothing. You know what they say: “Money found is twice as sweet as money earned.” It’s also a topic that’s a bottomless well of ideas limited only by the creativity of the writer.
SAVE 30% OF INCOME? No way.
That’s been my reaction whenever I’ve read about people saving 30% or more. I look back and think about making monthly mortgage payments, raising four children, paying for college and trying to save something to supplement my pension. For my wife and me, a 30% savings rate simply wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, people do it.
To find out more, I asked folks on a Facebook retirement planning group, “How do you save 30%?” The responses boiled down to nine key factors.
EARLY IN MY CAREER, one of my mentors at work used to talk about “excess paychecks.” He was a single, senior engineer who lived frugally. Back then, the concept seemed ridiculous to me. But I’ve come to realize he was right: Most of us don’t need every dollar we’re paid for living expenses, so we should think carefully about where to stash the excess.
That notion came to mind recently when taking to a friend.
WE MOVED FROM INDIA to the U.S. in 2014 when my husband got a job with a Silicon Valley tech company—and we found ourselves living in one of the world’s most expensive places.
On top of that, when our daughter was born, I left the workforce for a few years to look after her, which meant we had a period when we lived on just one paycheck. Still, within five years of arriving in the U.S.,
THRIFTY. FRUGAL. CHEAP. Pick the adjective you favor, and you could apply it to me.
I’ve spent almost my entire adult life being financially careful. I haven’t carried a credit card balance or overdrawn my checking account since my early 20s. I was an early convert to low-cost index funds. When I worked at The Wall Street Journal and at Citigroup, I brought my breakfast and a thermos of coffee to the office every day,
I NEVER REALLY liked the vehicles that I owned. They were an unimpressive lot, including a Volkswagen Beetle, Mercury Capri, Toyota SR5 pickup, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion. I would like to say they got me where I needed to go, but that wasn’t always the case. All the cars, except for the Camry, were unreliable, which would sometimes make my life stressful and difficult. Of course, keeping those cars for many years didn’t help.
ONCE UPON A TIME, I thought it was a little unseemly to pay a lot of attention to costs. My father grew up in a farm family with little money. He was the first to attend college and, indeed, went on to law school from there. He did well in his profession and, when I was growing up, we lived a comfortable—though far from luxurious—life.
Maybe because he’d spent his youth worried about money,
IF YOU HAVE A SURPLUS in your household budget, what’s the best use for it? Does it make more sense to pay down debt or to invest those extra funds? With interest rates at such low levels, this is a question I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency.
Suppose your mortgage rate is 3.5%. If you pay down that debt, it’s like earning 3.5%. By contrast, if you invested in the stock market, your annual return would be uncertain.
EARLY RETIREMENT isn’t a common goal among my friends. When I talk about my semi-retirement, many assume I either made a quick buck in the stock market or benefitted from some sort of financial windfall. I counter this misconception by narrating the magic formula: Financial freedom is frugality, multiplied by simplicity, compounded by patience.
My response often seems mysterious until I explain the two basic math concepts behind it. We learn them in school,
MY WIFE AND I recently read The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, to our youngest daughter. If you recall, the grasshopper mocks the ant for spending all his free time amassing food. But when winter comes, the starving grasshopper begs for assistance—and the ant refuses.
Lately, I’ve been struck by the irony of this parable. As we celebrate the role of physicians in keeping us all safe from a virus,
SAVING FOR THE FUTURE entails a pinch in the present. Every so often, it makes sense to reconsider how much we save—and whether it’s time to take a break from saving. As a recent early retiree, I was pondering this, even before the latest stock market disruption.
Unfortunately, none of us has a reliable crystal ball that tells us when to buy low or sell high. We also don’t have complete knowledge of our future self.
I RECENTLY READ about a trendy way to lose weight: intermittent fasting. Supposedly there are also health benefits. That got me thinking.
I’ve been roundly criticized for bashing the financial independence/retire early movement, otherwise known as FIRE, and for arguing that average Americans spend unnecessarily on all kinds of stuff, thus hampering their long-term financial security. My point of view hasn’t changed. But I’ve found room for compromise: Think of it as periodic financial fasting.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE to succeed financially? Pundits love to parse stock market returns, dig into the minutiae of Roth conversions and debate retirement withdrawal strategies. Yet, when asked what’s the most important financial virtue, almost all give the same answer: great savings habits.
That mundane reason certainly explains my financial success. Yes, I’ve benefited from owning index funds, holding a stock-heavy portfolio and buying enthusiastically during market declines. But all of that has been gravy.
HERE’S A SOBERING thought: Much—and perhaps most—of the money you’ll accumulate for retirement will reflect the raw dollars you sock away and not the investment returns you earn.
Consider a simple example. Let’s say retirement is 40 years away and your goal is to quit with $1 million. Let’s also assume you can earn an after-inflation “real” annual return of 4%, which is my best guess for the long-run return on a globally diversified,