Posts tagged Back to Basics
Back to Basics: Making a Budget
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Ivan here.

In the previous post to this “Back to Basics” series, I talked about how millennials making $2,500 a month should allocate their paycheck.

To summarize, they should mentally divide their paycheck into three equal parts (~33% each):

  1. Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  2. “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  3. “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Another way of thinking about this is:

  1. My overhead (i.e. fixed costs)
  2. My short term needs (i.e. money I need within 12-18 months)
  3. My long term wants (i.e. money I need beyond 18 months)

This is how things should look in the perfect world. Unfortunately, saying that the world is not perfect might be the understatement of the century. Most people aren’t even remotely rational or sane.

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PSAVERT

In 2018, the U.S. personal savings rate is 2.8% - a historic low. This is partly a symptom of our two-tiered economy where the rewards disproportionately benefit the top 40%, while technology and trade outflows decimate the bottom 60%.

The other part is people feeling too pleased and comfortable with themselves.

It’s been almost a decade since the last recession. We are now in the longest bull market in post WW2 history, where the value of most assets have been rising (eg. stocks, real estate, bonds), while consumer prices have been falling (eg. Amazon, airline tickets). “Dumb money” has entered the market in droves, peaking in December 2017 when cryptocurrencies hit their record highs. “FAANG” stocks are now being priced for perfection. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

This is my opinion, but there’s no better or more urgent time to start thinking about making a budget than times like these. In a market economy, rewards often go to the few at the expense of the many, because the many are typically unwilling (or unable) to take short term pain for long term gain.

Or to quote Warren Buffett: “Be greedy when others are fearful and be fearful when others are greedy.”


Making A Budget: What is a Budget?


A budget is the marriage between our aspirations and reality. It’s also an expression of our priorities. People in project management probably know this diagram:

pick two - fast, good, or cheap. You can't have it all.

Since resources are limited: fast and cheap won’t be good, cheap and good won’t be fast, good and fast won’t be cheap.

The same concept applies to your budget and paycheck.

Out of your financial needs, you should prioritize two:

  1. Overhead (Rent & Bills)
  2. Short term needs (Present Self)
  3. Long term wants (Future Self).

With the average millennial’s $2,500 a month after-tax paycheck:

  • High overhead and short term needs means punting on your debt and retirement and letting interest accumulate into your midlife
  • High short term needs and long term wants means living in an undersized apartment in an undesirable neighborhood (or even city)
  • High overhead and long term wants means living on cheap groceries and never eating out, traveling or shopping.

Now pick one.


The Fairness Argument: Millennials, Baby Boomers and Their Finances


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Jennie and I have seen the panic in peoples’ eyes at the mere mention of a budget. The conversation usually starts off with a question:

How can you afford to quit your 9 to 5 and travel around the world for over a year?

Our answer: a combination of privilege and having a budget that prioritizes a few things for a long period of time. Specifically, we keep our overhead way below what most are comfortable with, so that we can save for our long term wants without sacrificing the small pleasures that keep us going day to day.

For example, before we “graduated” to our $1,395 a month studio apartment in West Los Angeles, Jennie spent years renting a closet-sized room on the outskirts of Boston for $450 a month, while Ivan paid $650 a month (Canadian dollars) for a basement unit on the outskirts of Toronto. We made these short-term sacrifices by choice.

At this point, we usually get one of two responses:

  1. Denial: “I could never do that. That’s just not who I am.”
  2. Blame: “You’re privileged and definitely not the norm. Our system is rigged to benefit the top 1%. The most important thing is to fix the system instead of putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves.”

Jennie and I have had variations of these conversations with fellow millennials over the past two years. We empathize with these feelings because they’re based on kernels of truth.

But there’s a difference between what feels popular, good or just (i.e. the right thing to say) with what’s rational and productive (i.e. changing with the facts).

Looking through the windshield, millennials have it tough. Looking at the rearview mirror, baby boomers have had it easy. But it’s also true that everything looks easy with hindsight. The road ahead always looks dark and uncertain- for every generation, in every time period.  

Expecting to achieve the same results as our parents by doing the exact same things they did defies basic laws of markets and evolution.


The Biggest Misconception about Making a Budget


The biggest misconception people have about budgeting is that having one means denying yourself everything.

This may be true for people making under $37,000 a year, which according to MIT’s living wage index, is the minimum salary a single adult needs to live in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the country.

But not all of us live in San Francisco. And if you’re above the $37,000 threshold, having a budget is not only a realistic option, but a necessary one.

To say that a budget means denying yourself everything, we first have to agree on what “everything” means. Does “everything” include vacations to foreign countries? Drinking and dining out a few times a week? High-end gym memberships and yoga classes? Personalized chauffeurs that drive us to and from bars (Lyft/Uber)? Does “everything” include a cleaning lady (this is real. we’ve seen this) that comes twice a week to tidy up our one bedroom apartment?

Where does “everything” begin and where does it end?

 
aspirations vs reality budget
 

And that’s what a budget is for: to draw a line between our aspirations and reality.

By and large, millennials want a luxurious life, for a less than luxurious price, before we can realistically afford it. Because “everything” was what we’d imagined we’d be getting when we became adults.  

Ironically, sacrificing short term gratification for long term goals through a budget, is the most “adult” thing I can think of.


3 Tradeoffs We Made With Our Budget


Let’s bring it back to our hypothetical millennial. $40,000 salary, $40,000 in student loans, $2,500 a month paycheck, divided into three funds in the “ideal world”:

  • Rent and Bills Fund ($833)
  • “Present Me” Fund ($833)
  • “Future Me” Fund ($833)

Here are three ways Jennie and I approached this problem in the real world:

1. Underspend on overhead: keep rent & bills to
less than 30% of our after tax paycheck.

This means at a $2,500 monthly paycheck, around $650 was allocated to rent and bills. And we’re not talking hypotheticals here:

  • In 2014, Jennie made $42,000 a year. As recently as 2014, Jennie’s salary was $42,000 in a high cost of living city (Boston). She paid $450 per month for rent & bills to stay in a closet-sized room in a house shared with two other roommates.
  • In 2012, I made $58,000 CAD. My starting salary in 2012 was $58,000 (CAD), paying $650 per month in rent on the outskirts of Toronto, while my peers rented one bedroom apartments in the downtown financial district. We were consultants, usually traveling four days a week, and were rarely home.

If we had had $40,000 in student loans, we would’ve paid it off aggressively within three years. Instead, the extra savings went directly into our fuck-off fund and retirement. No debt and a fuck off fund allowed us to swing for the fences in terms of raises and higher paying jobs. Higher earnings in turn, funded our fuck-off fund, retirement and other long term goals. A virtuous cycle begins and gains momentum (this happens much quicker than you think). Meanwhile, our overhead stayed fixed on one year leases.

2. Underspend on depreciating items in favor of value add experiences

Jennie gave away her car to family and started taking the bus. The total cost of all the furniture in our home is under $1,000. We don’t have the latest technology in our home or in our pocket. We make little to no new clothing purchases outside of travel gear, clothes which will eventually have to fit into 40L backpacks.

In return, we traveled across America by Amtrak rail, held our wedding in Taiwan, honeymooned in Okinawa, attended the jazz festival in New Orleans, made business contacts in San Francisco, camped in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, spent quality time with family and friends in Taipei, Albuquerque, Denver, Boston, and San Diego.

For us, the small adjustments meant bigger returns on experiences that we love so much.

3. Planning months (or years) ahead for large purchases
so we don’t have to deny ourselves small ones

Our dirty secret: we divide the cost of large purchases across multiple months to absorb the impact.

We never mentioned this explicitly in our money diary, but we bought a $1,000 camera last year in July 2017 to bring on our RTW trip. Using an accounting gimmick, I divided that expense into two $500 items, and logged them in our budget under “Education & Investments” in July 2017 and August 2017. This “smoothed” out our spending, but more importantly, we did it because Jennie and I had already planned out this purchase eight months in advance - so we “freed up” $500 in the budgets of July and August to absorb it.

In return for long term planning for large purchases, we never have to deny ourselves smaller ones. Whenever we have a craving: for tacos, chocolate, a fizzy drink, coffee, donuts, macarons, bubble tea, the occasional take-out etc, we never have to “check our budget” to see if we can afford it. Even if we go slightly over-budget in some months, who cares? Buy it, log it, and move on. Micromanaging small transactions wastes precious time and headspace - and it really isn’t our style.


Finding Your Budget Sweet Spot


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There are many variations to a budget that can be tailored to the things and experiences that matter to you. Jennie and I aren’t saying that our way is the “right” way.

But the common thread of all budgets is that something's got to give. And if you sweat the big, uncomfortable things (you know, the material things we tie unnecessarily to our self esteem and identity), the small things take care of themselves. 

In our case, we said to ourselves:  "fuck paying overhead and let’s live for the now and for the future. If we have to live in squalid surroundings or tight studio apartments, then so be it. At least we'll have each other." 

That was more than we could’ve hoped for after six years of long distance.

After reading this, some might be disappointed that I haven’t provided any answers on “what to do.” Fortunately, that’s not the point of this series. Nobody can tell you what to do, or convince you to do something you’re not ready for. Money is less a math problem, but an emotional & psychological one.

The only thing we can control is an awareness and understanding of each trade-off we make. We need to construct a budget that takes into account those trade-offs: between overhead, our present self and our future self. Finally, we need to ask ourselves whether we can learn to live with the end result.

Because perfection is the enemy of the good.



Back to Basics: How to Think About Your Paycheck

Ivan here.

I’m going to start this “Back to Basics” series by making a few assumptions about the paychecks of the average millennial. By definition, this won’t cover everyone’s situation. Some readers might be better off, others worse off.

Even so, I hope this three-part “paycheck” mini-series will still be useful as a framework for thinking about the money that hits your bank account every month.


‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.
’Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

3 Principles of Financial Literacy


If I could boil down financial literacy into three basic concepts they would be as follow:

  1. The number you see on your paycheck is not the number you can afford to spend.
  2. Debt is dangerous and should be avoided or paid off as soon as possible.
  3. Small, steady changes add up to life-changing progress over time.

That pretty much covers it. The rest are just details. Something you learn along the way through experience or a Google search. In personal finance, boring is good. Managing money should be like going to the gym or any other chore you can think of.

Get it done, get it over with, and get out.


Who is the average millennial struggling with money?


In this mini-series on the average millennial’s paycheck, I’ll be working from the following assumptions:

Who is the Average Millennial?

the average millennial debt savings
  • Age: 25-35
  • Pre-tax income: $40,000
  • After-tax income: $32,000 (California tax rates)
  • Debt: 1x salary, or $40,000 in student loans at a 4% interest rate
  • U.S. healthcare premiums: $2,000 a year
  • Monthly paycheck (after taxes and deductions): $2,500 per month

I chose the ages 25-35 because let’s be honest, most millennials are underemployed in their early twenties and barely have the time (or means) to think about personal finance. The average salary for millennials in the U.S. is actually around $35,500 a year, but I bumped this up to $40,000 when I remove the under 25 group. The paycheck figure doesn’t consider any other pre-tax deductions outside of healthcare - like a 401k match offered by an employer.

The goal of this mini-series to demonstrate, step by step, how a millennial with a debt balance equal to one times her current salary could get to a position where she has one times her future salary saved for retirement.


Millennials - How to Think About Your Paycheck (Part 1 of 3)


The best way to think about your paycheck is to break it down into three steps:

  1. Start with a blank slate: “In the perfect world, how much of X can I afford with my current paycheck?”

  2. Assess the reality: “In reality, where is my paycheck going?”

  3. Make a plan: “what changes should I prioritize and make first?”

In Part 1, I’ll cover the first step, and answer the following question:
 

“In the perfect world,
how much of X can I afford with my paycheck?”

 

The way Jennie and I think about this is simple.

The average millennial should take their $2,500 per month paycheck and divide it into three equal funds of $833:

  • $833 - a rent & bills fund,

  • $833 - a “present me” fund

  • $833 - a “future me” fund

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1. Rent & Bills Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for rent plus whatever bills you need to bring your place up to basic, livable standards. And by basic I mean: electricity, water, and gas. I’m not factoring in other modern essentials like internet, phone bill, or gym memberships. That comes later.

  • How much you spend on rent & bills is the biggest determining factor for how painful the next steps will be. The more you deviate from $833, the fewer options you leave yourself down the road. In some cases, it makes sense to pay a little more for rent as long as the savings in transportation cancels it out.
     
  • Now I know what some might be thinking: what if $833 doesn’t come close to the average price of a studio apartment in my city? The answer is simple, but unpleasant: if you can’t rent a studio apartment on a $833 budget, you can’t afford to live alone on your current paycheck. Consider getting roommates or renting a private room in a house.
     
  • It also isn’t a great idea to rent a place based on the prospect of a future raise. You never want to put yourself in a situation where you need something to happen in order to keep your head above water. Even if a raise is likely (or even imminent), pre-spending your future earnings eliminates any upside and flexibility it may have given you.

To summarize: in the perfect world, your rental situation should always stay a step behind the growth in your earnings.
 

2. “Present Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your current self. For all the expenses you’re likely to incur within the next 12-18 months. Things you need to stay alive - while being reasonably happy and sane. This includes the essentials like internet, phone bill, transportation and groceries, and the discretionary like eating out, shopping or travel.

  • All essential expenses should be negotiated and paid for, as much possible, in bulk or upfront (i.e. stocking up on toiletries on sale, calling your mobile provider for special promotions, planning your grocery list in weeks)
     
  • All discretionary expenses should be ranked and prioritized in order of importance to you. If you have more than three things on your list, strike out the extra items because they’re not that important to you.  
     

3. “Future Me” Fund ($833 per month)

This fund is for your future self. For all the expenses you expect to incur in 2+ years. I’ve put some thought into the below rankings and concluded that, all else being equal, this was the most efficient way to handle the competing priorities of cash, debt repayment, and retirement:

  1. High interest loans: credit cards and other high interest debt always comes first.

  2. Emergency fund: at least 2-3 months of living expenses set aside in a high interest savings account. Assuming you’re allocating the full $833, this can be built up within 4-6 months.

  3. Student loan debt: I’ve written a post before on why you should prioritize paying off all your student loans before you even worry about retirement. Assuming your paycheck remains static, you can pay your student loan balance off in 4.5 years. If you build in a 5-7% raise each year, the payoff time is closer to 3 years.

  4. Retirement: Up to $5,500 annual contribution limit for a Roth or Traditional IRA

  5. Fuck off fund: at least 4-6 months of living expenses set aside. This is on top of your emergency fund, so another 4-6 months of savings should get you there.

  6. 1st savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)

  7. Retirement: Up to $18,000 annual contribution limit for your 401k

  8. 2nd savings priority (pick one: downpayment, education, wedding, travel etc)


...But Reality Gets In the Way

Unfortunately, life doesn’t happen on a spreadsheet. But what the above does show us is what a “stress-free” financial life would look like, and is a “rule of thumb” that Jennie and I actively follow when making our own financial decisions.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about how to assess your current financial reality, to find a budget “sweet spot” that works for you.



Back to Basics: Understanding the Money Game

Introducing the

Back to Basics Money Series


 
When you go mountain climbing, the first thing you’re told is not to look at the peak. Keep your eyes on the ground as you climb. You just keep climbing patiently, one step at a time. If you keep looking at the top, you’ll get frustrated.
— Akira Kurosawa
 

Ivan here.

Jennie and I have been wanting to do a ‘back to basics’ money series for a while. The timing just never seemed right. When you’re knee-deep in the process of self-improvement (financial or otherwise), it’s hard to come away with any useful insights beyond a list of tips and tricks. I think more important than telling people “what to do,” showing them the “why” and the “how” is what really empowers them to look at their own situation in a different light.

When it comes to money, there are very few formulas or “recipes” to follow that work for everyone’s situation.  

Our only goal for this series is to encourage people to go out of the norm of what’s “expected” and start thinking for themselves.


How We Got Here:

Money Means Freedom


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The reason Jennie and I are launching this series today is because two things have happened:

  1. Last month, Jennie and I met our $40,000 RTW trip savings goal after a two year process of budgeting and saving.

  2. In the second quarter of 2018, we met our freelance goal of making at least $2,500 per month in consistent, remote income.

What this means is that our $40,000 RTW travel fund turned out to be unnecessary. Our travel will likely be more than covered by our income on the road.

Like we’ve said before: it was never about the $40k, just as it was never about travel. It was about the process of learning how to keep our heads down and climb the mountain - one step at a time. It was about understanding what our priorities were and what we were willing to sacrifice.

Even if the $40,000 were to vanish tomorrow, the money habits Jennie and I have acquired are ones we’ll have for the rest of our lives. Something that no one can ever take away.

Because once you understand the game, you’ll never run out of moves to play.


Why Money is Like the Game Jumanji


Money is like the game Jumanji:

  1. It’s inescapable: no matter how long you try to put it off, the game will find you whether you want to play or not. In the meantime, the sense of dread and anxiety grows stronger with each passing day.

  2. It preys on our hopes and fears: Too much hope is greed. Too much fear is panic. As human beings, we all go through cycles of overconfidence and insecurity. Money is saved and spent, prices rise and fall, and the game serves as the barometer for both the social mood and human nature.

  3. Jungle rules apply: Capitalism, even in its most regulated form, is a system of opportunity and exploitation. In this ecosystem, you’re either the pursuing or the pursued, the hunter or the hunted. In an economic system predicated on “growth,” standing still is moving backwards.  

When faced with this game, all of us need to make a decision on whether we want to be proactive or reactive. And it’s not easy. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re being whipped about by forces beyond your control. You might even start to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Being poor and living paycheck to paycheck is just who you are, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

This feeling is only half true. We don’t often get to pick the hands we’re dealt. Some things happen to us that we just can’t change, and at some point, we’re all going to have to weather some turbulence. And yet, there are always things that you can control.

So you need to make the decision: do you want to be proactive or reactive with your life?

The process of remembering who you are, and what you want, and how you respond to the ups and downs of your life will, over the long run, make all the difference in the world.


/Ivan inhales, begins rant

Life: It’s Not a Race & Nobody Knows Anything


First of all, fuck this noise.

 
 

What irritates me about articles like this is that not only is it counterproductive, it was also conceived and published to deliberately provoke a response. Specifically, anxiety and controversy. Why should we give a fuck about what “should” happen by when?

If we want to play the “should” game, I can do it too. For example, I think print media companies “should” be profitable by 2018. But if I were a betting man, I’d take the under on the profitability of MarketWatch and the chances it survives the next decade.**

[** Author’s note: I don’t need to guess. According to public filings, Marketwatch’s parent company News Corp, reported a $1.1B loss last quarter. You want to know how to make this company bleed? Stop giving them engagement and clicks].

This segues into my pet topic, which I’ll break down into three statements:

  1. Nobody knows anything.

  2. Everyone is just making it up as they go along.

  3. Everything is negotiable with the right kind of leverage.

“Nobody knows anything” is always my going assumption until someone proves otherwise.

You’ll be shocked how true this is. Some people are just better at pretending than others. Some like to hide behind a veneer of credibility, authority or “success,” but the truth is, they’re often plagued by the same sort of doubts and insecurities as you. Because they’re human. And no human being is deserving of our blind worship. When you actually peer under the hood of how the world works, you’ll be amazed that anything gets done at all.

The more you come to understand this, the less time you’ll waste wondering what’s wrong with you.

/ends rant


Topics We’ll Cover

in this Back To Basics Money Series


Over the next few months before Jennie and I leave for our RTW trip in September, we’ll cover five broad categories in this “back to basics” money series, including but not limited to the example topics we’ve listed below. We’ll try to publish these in chronological order, from the beginning of the process to the end:

1. Fundamentals of Budgeting

  • Hitting the reset button on your finances (“where is all my money going?”)

  • Finding your budget sweet spot (“how much money do I need?”)

  • Handling the emotions of budgeting (“how do I avoid my spending impulses?”)

2. How to Spend Less:

  • How much (insert item) can I realistically afford?

  • How to simplify and plan for the long term?

  • How to factor in fun and luxury purchases?

3. How To Earn More

3. Money Talk & Relationships:

  • How to manage financial anxiety

  • Marriage and finances

  • How to talk to your family about money

4. Investing in Yourself (Retirement, Education etc):  

  • Investing 101: from account creation to long term indexing

Stay tuned! See you next week.