Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

The 3 dimensions of investment planning

In the financial world, investments make the world go round. There are numerous articles, strategies, professionals and algorithms working day and night to fight each other for that extra 1% – call it return, risk or fees.

For an average investor or someone just interested in growing his/her wealth to have a good financial life, it is a huge distraction and confusing to say the least.

With the various investment options and opinions, whatever you do seems little and a wrong decision somehow.

Instead of ranting, let me take a few examples:

  1. I had been investing in Index Funds for some time now. Then as my portfolio grew, some well known investment firms started calling me to pitch how they have beaten the market over last 25 years.
  2. The investment choices available today are myriad – bonds, stocks, mutual funds, real estate, gold, commodities and exotic art. Whatever you choose for your portfolio, you will be left wondering if you are doing it right and if you are missing out on the next wave.
  3. The temporary market crash due to Covid-19 and the subsequent surge in Gold for some time now can make you wonder if you should have rushed to buy a ton of Gold.
  4. Each investment then has different tax treatment and tax shelter on how you hold them. Before you reap the benefits, the taxman comes calling for his share.

As an average DIY investor, I see there are 4 dimensions to the problem.

  1. Goals and time horizon
  2. Choice of investment
  3. What you keep (after Tax and Fees)
  4. Making it a habit and automate it

If you view the above aspects as a 4 dimension space, then really it is all about allocating correctly across all the axes.

If you look closely, the dimension 1 and 4 can be squeezed to one called time. The 4th dimension is just an execution process.

So let us define the 3-D space now in a simpler manner.

  1. Time according to life’s goals
  2. Return on Investment and the choices
  3. Cost of investment – taxes and fees

The First D – Time and Goals

Time is one of most important dimension of the investment space.

They say – It is not market timing but time in the market. 

Any investment that you consider has to be first mapped to this dimension.

Let’s say if you cannot predict the exact no. of years, you can still divide the axis into 3 sections. Let us look at some typical life goals that we can map to these 3 sections.

Short Term Requirements (1- 3 years)

  • Emergency Fund
  • Short term goals – buying a house, car etc.
  • Short term obligations – paying taxes, insurance, credit card

Medium Term Requirements (3-10 years)

  • Education Fund for children
  • Debt payoff plan – car loan, personal loan
  • Building savings for buying more assets

Long Term (10-20 years and beyond)

  • Retirement Fund
  • Mortgage payoff and debt-free plan
  • Wealth building and giving

Simple? So far so good.

The Second D – Return and Type

This is where most of the confusion is. As the choices are unlimited, most people ignore the risk-return tradeoff. In the chase for returns, they forget to look for the risk and burn their fingers in wrong kind of investments.

It is always better to set your expectations first, and then map the type of investments.

When you start with the first dimension Time and Goals, it is easier to set the correct return expectations and hence the risk-return tradeoff.

Let us now place our expectation of return on the second axis for each section of the Time axis.

Short Term

  • Emergency Fund
    • It does not matter. This is a fund not for growing your wealth but only for emergencies.
    • Return expectation – 0-2%
  • Short Term goals
    • Depending on what the goal is, the primary objective is still capital safety.
    • Return expectation – 0-2%
  • Short Term Obligations
    • This is for tax payment, annual insurance payments, credit card payment etc.
    • Again we are just saving money rather than investing.
    • Return expectation – 0-2%

Types of investment:

  • Normal Savings account
  • High Yield Online Savings account
  • Money market account

You do not need more than 2-3 savings account mapped to the short term goals. The funds should be completely liquid and accessible in a day or two.

Medium Term

Here we are talking about 3-10 years time horizon.

Since the goals in this bucket may be slightly ambitious and we want to fight the monster called inflation, the return expectation should be slightly higher than inflation but with considerable less risk.

This is also easy to determine:

Types of investment:

This is where we start searching for good mutual funds. For this time horizon and return expectations, the following may fit one’s portfolio

  • Balanced Index Funds which have majority in bonds (60% or more)
  • A good bond fund with duration of 5-7 years.
  • Balanced Equity Funds (aggressive option with 60-70% equity)

Again, here 2-3 funds with returns just beating inflation should be good enough. As you will need the money in less than 10 years, it is better to focus on less risk. 

Long Term

This may be (depending on your age) 10 to 20 years or more.

For such a long term, it is not only inflation that we want to surpass but also several other factors that come into play.

  • Building passive income sources
  • Diversification to contain risk

All of the above can set our return expectations differently.

For example, the retirement draw number can set the expectation in the following manner.

  1. For someone who does not yet have a good corpus, you need to know how much more to save to reach your retirement draw number. Experiment with realistic numbers for return and how much you can save.
  2. If you have already accumulated a significant corpus, then your return expectations may be lower. Instead of going for highest return-risk, you can calculate what return will it take (assuming further regular investments till you work) to reach your passive income goals, or retirement draw number.

There are 3 avenues by which you can reach your goals.

  • Appreciation via Stock/Fund investments – The S&P 500 has returned 9% annually
  • Dividends from stocks and funds – 3-4%
  • Real estate investments can return 7-10% as passive income from rents, REITs etc.

Types of investment:

Here we need aggressive investments (as per return expectations set above) if you have more than 10-15 years of horizon.

  • Low cost S&P 500 like Index Funds and ETFs
  • A High Yield Dividend ETF or Dividend stocks of stable companies
  • REITs or direct rentals

The time horizon itself reduces risk for these aggressive investments.

However you can diversify further in each of the 3 types by going global.

  • Low cost International and Emerging Markets Index Fund and ETF
  • Global REITs

The Third D – Taxes and Fees

Now that we have placed the whole investment picture in two dimension (Time and Return) , we have to make sure that the 3rd dimension does not go too high.

Ideally we would like this dimension to be ZERO for all and remain flat in the 2-D plane. But in real world, the free lunch is a myth and the flat surface will be pulled upwards (or downwards from our perspective) in 3-d by taxes and fees.

Dimensions

If we look at it from the 2-D plane again (Time and Return), there will be different rates of taxes and fees, and our goal should be to minimize them.

This is where the allocation of investments into different types of accounts apply.

  • Short Term
    • There is not much return expectation anyway, so the taxes will be negligible.
    • The fees are important here and should be close to 0.0 in savings account, money market funds etc.
    • The type of investments in this segment will not qualify for long term capital gains, except for short term obligations that are just beyond one year. However rarely do safe investments get special tax treatment in such a short duration.
  • Medium Term
    • In this category, both fees and taxes become important.
    • Due to the 5-7 years horizon, most equity gains will be long term capital gains (20% or less) and get preferential tax treatment.
    • Further to shield from taxes, one can use Roth IRA, 529 plans according to the goals.
  • Long Term
    • As in the medium term, both taxes and fees are important.
    • Being long term, fees paid every year can eat away 20-25% of the corpus in the long term.
    • There are several options in US like 401k, Roth 401k, IRAs, HSA to defer or minimize taxes for the long term. In India, the NPS, PPF, EPF are all good options.
    • In real estate, the depreciation and 1031 exchange are important tax optimization tools.

For taxation matters, it is mandatory to consult an expert professional in the domain.

However for any of the above, we should be choosing only investments that matches our moderate return expectations with very low fees, definitely much less than 1%.

This can be achieved via simple Index Funds and ETFs.

In this graph, the taxes and fees matter (hurt) most in the short term and long term (due to deferred treatment and not exemption).

Dimensions

The Fourth D – Automate and Track

Automate everything and let it run like a bullet train.

If you need help on how to set up your finances, here is a link.

How to manage your cash flow

train

 

Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

A simple method of asset allocation

As I started to write this post, I decided not to rant about the Corona Virus and its effects anymore. The last two posts were dedicated to the topic and frankly it is becoming a little bit weary to add to all the deluge of information and opinions on it.

Let’s look at the current situation as nothing unexpected, at least financially. Being a financial blog, let us generalize this to another black swan event, and not worry about the statistics of no. of confirmed cases vs. deaths etc.

What is a Black Swan event?

A quick Google search yields the following:

An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict. This term was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

Lets leave it to that and consider we are in the midst of one such situation.

The keyword in the above definition is “would be extremely difficult to predict”. 

No matter what financial experts say about the markets, about investments, using sophisticated algorithms to trade stocks, the fact remains that such events are not predictable by even the multi-PhDs of Finance.

In the beginning of 2020, most of us did not know that a black swan event is so much closer, although experts have been predicting recessionary clouds for last 2 years or more.

The effect of such an event is the havoc it can do to your savings and investments. Yes savings too, as we don’t know which banks or financial institutions will go under the water, and whether government stimulus can rescue them.

It may be a rare event so far, or some rescued in 2008 but we cannot guarantee with every black swan event. Just in Feb 2020 (when it was still normal business), a very large private bank in India went bust taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of deposits of very normal people. Ironically the bank was named “Yes” bank.

Similarly by end of March 2020, the stock and mutual fund portfolios are down 20%-50% depending on how much risky the portfolio was to begin with.

The only respite from all of this is to maintain a good asset allocation as each investment avenue has its own risks. Some of the typical risks are:

  1. Cash – Banks going down and Government struggling to insure the deposits.
  2. Stocks – Markets tumbling for an extended period of time due to economic fears.
  3. Bonds – Risk of default as even good companies’ bonds can turn into junk debt very quickly. Lot of mutual funds in India were invested into Yes Bank bonds. Long term bonds can also run into interest rate risk.
  4. Real Estate – Somewhat resilient but affected by vacancy, interest rates, unemployment.

If your finances are severely affected by this storm, how do you achieve a good asset allocation once the clouds are gone and the sun is shining again on the stock market?

KISS – Keep it simple, stupid

Its not overly complicated although some financial experts make it so. Let’s say I want to hold 25% each of the 4 asset classes and distribute my assets accordingly.

Here is a step by step method on how to achieve this. It is better done in an Excel sheet as the calculations can be automated and even graphs can be plotted, although equal allocation is easy to visualize anyway.

  • List down all your assets into one column which comprises your Net worth including your home and any other property you own.
  • Now in a second column, list the value corresponding to the asset. Be conservative, do not add any speculative value.
    • For your home, just take the equity value that you have.
    • For stocks or mutual funds, take the present value.
    • For any bond investment, take the invested value or the expected maturity value (if the term is not too long).
  • Now add 4 columns for the asset classes.
  • The chart should start to look like this. Here is a simple example of a $100,000 Net worth.

Asset Allocation Table 1

  • Now based on the asset class for each, fill the right side columns in the right proportions. For example the mutual funds  may consist of equity funds, bond funds and REIT funds in equal proportions. For each mutual fund, a look at the fund report will reveal the proportions of these asset classes that it invests in.
  • Fundrise is just an example of a private REIT that is considered real estate asset class but in paper form. It is only for illustration and I am not an affiliate of the investment fund.
  • Once you allocate the numbers to the 4 asset classes and add up each column, it will become visible how your asset allocation is skewed.Asset Allocation Table 2

 

  • A visual inspection of the numbers reveals that this portfolio is heavily skewed towards Real Estate due to the largest investment in the Home. This is true for most people, as their largest investment is their home.
  • A more vivid depiction of this can be drawn using the Excel chart.

Asset Allocation Table 3

  • How to balance it? There is no ideal asset allocation as it depends entirely on the person’s situation, age, risk appetite, goals and many other factors. It is only after this simple analysis that one should approach a financial coach or investment adviser.
  • For example, if the person (who’s portfolio we have just analyzed) is not happy with the Real Estate skew, he can allocate future investments more towards Equity or Bonds (or even Cash), than buying more real estate or paying down his mortgage aggressively.
  • Being overweight in Home Equity can mean house poor and the person will find it difficult to raise funds or access cash in times of emergency or other life goals.

Conclusion

The beauty of this asset allocation method is that in a simple exercise which takes less than 10 mins and one sheet of Excel, you can look at your entire financial picture.

  1. It gives you a quick overview of your Net worth.
  2. It gives you the current asset allocation you have.
  3. It tells you where your financial situation is vulnerable to market, liquidity or economic risks.
  4. It tells you what action you need to take (whether to sell some or boost up another) regarding the various asset classes.
  5. It directs how your future investments should be structured.

The value of this exercise is immense and a good asset allocation can let you sleep in peace when the entire world is savaged by another Black Swan event.

photo of building during daytime
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Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Locked down – 5 hurdles to overcome

In the last few weeks the world has changed quite a lot. With no sight to an end to the corona-virus spread, cities after cities are going into lock down and people are forced to stay at home.

This will impact the economy in a very bad way and many businesses like entertainment, travel and food will be severely affected or shut down. In these unprecedented times, the current situation of the stock market and its decline is understandable.

Since this blog is concerned with personal finances, let us look at the impact this black swan event can have and how to get over this crisis.

We will examine 5 adverse scenarios and how my previous posts (in good times)  suggested recession proof way of managing personal finance.

Social distancing

This has been enforced in many cities and people are not allowed to be meet each other face to face.

    • This will impact people and their livelihood when it depends on teams and network. For example, direct real estate investing like house flipping, buying houses, wholesale deals and likes.
    • Financial, insurance advisors and their clients who depended on face to face interactive sessions. While this can still be done over video conferencing and online communication, the personal coaching sessions may be less personal after all now.
    • Investments which depended on a broker or branch are impacted since  offices are shut down or low on staff.

The key to solving these issues is to setup systems that enables you to transact virtually from anywhere in the world, including your home. If you have automated your financial systems using FinTech, those systems are not affected by the current situation.

FinTech – can you be immune to it?

Losing jobs or income

    • As various industries are expected to be hit hard by this event, many people may lose their jobs or get a reduced income for an unknown period in the future.
    • This will cause difficulty in managing household cash flows, paying bills, mortgage and tiding over emergency situations.
    • Emergency medical conditions, for example, someone in the household may contract the virus and need to be hospitalized. Even with insurance, it may cause a hefty out of pocket expenditure.

The key to solving such emergency situations is to have enough cash cushion in terms of Emergency Fund and to cover Short Term Obligations.

One essential comfort zone

Investments are tumbling and losing their value

    • Your stomach will have a strange feeling when you look at your stock, ETF or mutual fund portfolios under 401k and Taxable accounts.
    • Almost all portfolios are beaten down 25-30% and may go further down to 50% or more.
    • With the risk of financial institutions and other companies going out of business, even fixed income portfolio is not safe. There may be large scale defaults in the bond market, as companies struggle to meet their short term debt obligations.

The key to solving such challenges is to remain invested and not panic sell out of it at this time.

Afraid of investing? Not so simple either

Fear is gripping us

    • While there had been virus spread earlier, the scale of the COVID-19 is unprecedented and growing.
    • This type of lock down has never happened before, and after what happened in Italy and China, we are gripped in a fear of the fatality rate caused by the virus.
    • This has stopped us from behaving rationally and with our investments, people may be reacting with the same fear. I have read many discussions on Quora where people are predicting a long recession and advising others to pull out investments or completely stop investing more.
    • Fear is the worst enemy and negativity is biggest killer of future prospects.

The key is to remain calm and take necessary precautions (staying at home, frequently washing your hands etc.). Similarly for finances, do not take up unnecessary debt at this point but just remain invested and keep your monthly investments ongoing.

The biggest enemy of your investments

Not building new assets

    • While there may be a recession ahead, this may be the starting of a good time to buy assets.
    • Our net worth is beaten down due to the stock market crash, and this is not the time to rue over the loss.

Instead we should focus on increasing the underlying asset values and look to the future for those assets to throw in cash flow and appreciate.

The Net worth vs. Cash flow debate

Conclusion

At the end, we all have to realize that the world will tide over this crisis.

For our finances, we just have to carry on doing what matters and take a long term view.

If you adopt the SAFE plan as in below post, nothing should really change.

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

With the forced shutdown, learn a new skill indoors and do not worry about your investments.

acoustic adult close up fun
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Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings, Spending

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Safety in financial world is an oft-repeated word, and is mentioned in contrast to risk and growth.

We talk a lot about risk-return trade-off, safety of invested principal in long term and short term investments.

There is another way of looking at Financial Safety. The SAFE plan described below is a way of setting up financial life that is SAFE by design, not in the traditional sense of Safety vs. Risk but automatic habits that ensure you don’t stray from common sense.

Common Sense and Simplicity in Financial Plan is hard to achieve. True it is counter intuitive, but most people land into financial trouble due to complicated behavior – be it spending recklessly, chasing high unrealistic returns or simply throwing caution to the wind.

The SAFE Plan

Let me first present the 7 steps to SAFE plan.

  1. Invest in pre-tax accounts like 401k and HSA.
  2. Set up a direct deposit of the remaining taxable income to a checking account.
  3. Set up credit card payment to be auto paid from the checking account on the 30th of every month.
  4. Set up an auto-invest plan where 10-20% of the taxable income is diverted to a brokerage account or another IRA account (like Roth IRA). 
  5. Spend your monthly expenses on the credit card. Keep an eye on the credit card balance with the money left over in the checking account.
  6. Save the left over surplus, if any. 
  7. Continue and repeat next month … 

Simplicity

The above steps are nothing new. They have been suggested by numerous financial coaches and gurus. However the importance of the SAFE plan is how the steps are stitched together and flows through a seamless automation.

Since we have established the Simplicity of the SAFE plan, lets look at the Automation part and how to set this up. 

Automation

  1. You just need to figure out the % you want to put in 401k or HSA, and inform your payroll department. This can be decided based on the following factors.
    • Your cash flow needs after this deduction.
    • How much to invest to capture any employer provided matching contribution.
    • Max limits of the 401k or HSA.
  2. Direct deposit of the taxable amount to checking account.
    • This is handled by your payroll department automatically.
  3. Setup credit card auto-pay from your bank account for the 30th of every month.
    • This one if not done, can prove to be dangerous as missed payments are very costly.
    • The trigger will also help you pay-off something even if you have amassed a debt.
    • You can configure to pay off the entire balance, minimum payment or a fixed amount.
  4. Setup auto invest for 10-20% of the taxable income. The exact % can vary as it will depend on your household expenses.
    • Even if your budget does not allow this today, find at least a small amount ($50-$100) to divert automatically to an investment account.
    • This will build the habit and set you up for regular investment.
    • The amount can be increased over time as the budget frees up extra cash.
  5. Live within your means. This is again a cliche, but very difficult to be consistent month after month. You can manage it with some automation and discipline though.
    • setup a notification when your credit card balance crosses 90% of your projected expense for the month (or simply the money left in the checking account).
    • Put a Level 5 tornado/hurricane warning when it is crossing over the money left over in your checking account.
    • Typically the projected expenses can be simply set to the money left over in your checking account. You cannot spend more than that without incurring consumer debt or dipping into other savings/investments.
  6. Save the surplus – If you have surplus at the end of the month (that is, Credit card balance < Money in checking account) you can save it for future goals, short term and mid term.
    • I wish banks provided this facility, but it can be set up to transfer a fixed amount once you have an idea of your monthly expenses.
    • Some apps like Acorns or Digit automate this although in more complicated way. 
    • Do not leave the money in the checking account otherwise next month it will create an illusion that you can spend more.
  7. Let the automation run month after month. 

Flexibility

Once setup correctly, the basic version of the SAFE plan is low maintenance and enables an almost debt free living. 

Of course, we have not taken into account mortgage payments, prior debt pay down, saving for education – but these can also be fit into the plan. In the step where you are investing 10-20%, you will break that into smaller chunks of various debt pay down and remaining amount can be invested for various goals.

Thus the plan is also extremely flexible to adapt to individual situations. 

Efficiency

The last part of the SAFE plan is that it is efficient in managing money. 

The following good principles are built-in into the plan. 

  • Pay Yourself First – Pre and Post Tax investments are deducted in the beginning.
  • Low maintenance – no coupon cutting, daily budgeting etc. 
  • Keeps you debt free – just keep tab that your credit card balance is below money left over in checking account. 
  • Encourages more savings at the end of the month – creates a healthy race to increase it, by reducing your spending. 

The efficiency is evident if you do this for even one year. You will see the difference in your credit score, savings balance, net worth and above all, peace of mind. 

Conclusion

This plan has been working for me for a long time. The simplicity and automation helped me manage it seamlessly without getting distracted from my main job – which is not finance. 

And the in-built savings and investment discipline in the plan has helped me invest and accumulate cash for emergencies, short term purchases or just a cash cushion. 

Here is my version of the 7 steps of the SAFE plan (the % are approximate and rounded)

  1. Invest some in the Roth-401k and H.S.A. 
  2. Direct deposit first paycheck. (50% of monthly)
  3. Use the credit card from same account. Set up auto-pay on 30th of every month. 
  4. Investments/Pay downs
    • 10% to mortgage account
    • 10% to savings for property taxes, insurance and maintenance
    • 20% invest in mutual funds via brokerage account
    • 10% to a 529 Plan 
  5. Next paycheck direct deposit on 15th of month. (50% balance monthly paycheck)
    • Living expenses capped to 40-45% of monthly total. 
    • Pay off credit card balance within this limit – I make sure it is $0 as it enters following month. 
    • Sometimes it is hard to stick to the limit, then I have the cash cushion (from previous months’ savings, step 6) to dip into. 
  6. 5-10% savings for vacation/travel, fun, cash – diverted to a high-yield online savings account. 
  7. Keep track every Saturday morning using Y.N.A.B. 

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Posted in Personal finance

Welcoming Twenty – 20

Twenty20 cricket or Twenty-20 (often abbreviated to T20), is a shortened format of cricket. This is much shorter than previous forms of the game, and is closer to the timespan of other popular team sports. It was introduced to create a fast-paced game that would be attractive to spectators at the ground and viewers on television. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty20

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity)[1][2] states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

This year 2019 I started the-log-house.com and made a few important steps towards more clarity in my personal finances. It took less than 20% of my time weekly, and yet gave me 80% of the clarity I was looking for.

As I documented my thoughts, ideas and opinions on the blog posts, the likes and followers encouraged me to chug along. Thanks to all my followers and all those who liked or read my posts over the past year.

Next year 2020, I plan to make this blog less subjective and more actionable. Yes just like the Twenty-20 form of cricket described above.

One of the most liked posts in 2019 is all about action.

Five components of a personal finance system

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So what are the action items for 2020?

  • Got a year end hike and bonus. Invested 50% of the bonus, and will try to keep expenses the same as 2019.
    • This will increase the cash flow a little better, so that I can invest more.
  • Tweak the asset allocation among various classes – Equity, Bonds, Real Estate and Cash.
    • This may require some selloffs and aids in tax adjustments.
  • Get a better handle on tax planning this year.
  • Prioritize goals, analyze 2019 expenses and make a budget for 2020.
    • Simplify and automate investments. This is already the case for me, but the monthly amounts may need tweaking based on 2020 plan.
    • Save at least 20% of my gross income towards retirement.
  • Cash allocation
    • Maintain or improve the emergency fund.
    • Auto and home insurance paid off for 2020. Now start saving monthly for next renewals in Dec 2020.
    • Paid off property taxes. I don’t escrow but keep saving monthly portion in a savings account with interest.

How to wrap up 2019?

  • If you have been using YNAB, create the reports from it and analyze the total amount of expenses, investments, savings and taxes paid.
  • Start gathering the tax documents. For me, I have to prepare for Foreign asset reporting and it needs quite a complex paperwork, not to mention figuring out the estimated tax liability.
  • Update the net worth and wealth progress metrics. See this post if you are interested.
  • I redeem the credit card rewards at the end of the year.
    • Last year I got cash back.
    • This year I am getting myself a Bose speaker system, a DVD player (for my old DVD collection) and gifts for the kids. My credit-union-no-frills credit card gave me 1x point for each dollar spent. Not bad to reward my discipline.
  • Wipe out credit card debt. I pay off at the end of every month, and definitely want to enter 2020 with ZERO consumer debt.
  • Go on a vacation, hope you too have been saving up monthly for this goal.

HAVE A GREAT 2020 YEAR AHEAD.

  • Wish 20% of your efforts produce 80% of happiness and wealth.
  • Take action like the Twenty-20 form of cricket.
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