SIP – In India, the mutual fund industry has popularized this term for drip investing, dollar cost averaging or similar. The full form is “Systematic Investment Plan” and allows normal people to invest in Mutual Funds gradually and is proven to build wealth over a long time.
For me, there is a bigger SIP in Personal Finance – Sleep in Peace.
It may sound like RIP – but lets keep life going strong in these trying times. We will do another article on that, and in personal finance terms we will call it Retire in Peace.
SIP is a concept that is important throughout your earning and retired life, and defines a way you can manage your Personal Finance to effectively “Sleep in Peace”every night.
As we know with the current COVID-19 situation, many people are losing sleep over their financial situation.
While some can still be corrected with discipline, those following the basic principles of SIP will be unaffected by such pandemics and sail through it.
The Five components of a SIP method
1. Emergency Fund – The sleep in peace fund
The Emergency Fund is the first of SIP rules. It can be called the Sleep In Peace Fund too.
In the current situation where everything is uncertain from jobs to ability of paying mortgages and bills to medical situations, there cannot be a better cushion than possessing an emergency fund.
People who have not been able to build this fund, are now feeling the brunt of their careless handling of personal finances.
2. No Debt – borrower is slave to the lender (there is no good debt)
In US, due to low interest rates on some loans like mortgage and auto-loans, some experts justify using leverage to build your wealth. While that may sound smart in good times, in trying times like now even a so called good debt can nosedive to a bad debt.
For example, the government is now directing banks to suspend mortgage payments (for a short period, of course), giving stimulus to real estate investors and trying to bail out or let leveraged people and businesses go down.
So greed and over-smartness with debt are now taking the sleep away from people who have bought and financed huge houses, expensive cars, invested into rental properties with no-money-down. Here are 3 situations where not having an emergency fund and being over leveraged, is disastrous now.
You spend more than 30% of your income in mortgage payment. If you lose your income, even the emergency fund will quickly run out paying the mortgage.
You bought an expensive car with bank financing and very low down payment. The auto-loans will not get any relief from Government, and your car may be repossessed in case you fail to make the payments. Also the payments could have been used in more protective ways, if the car was bought with cash in the first place.
You invested in rental properties with low down payment (< 20%). What happens now when many tenants are refusing to pay rent due to financial hardship or even just taking advantage of the situation (evictions are deferred now). You still need to pay the bank their share of interest and principal.
No matter what is happening in the world, nothing can derail you in personal finance if you manage your finances based on your goals.
Every person has life goals like buying a house, opening a business, travelling the world, educating your children and RIP (Retire in Peace).
If you allocate your money to the various goals and keep adding to the corpus month after month in your earning years, then in trying times such as now – you have nothing to fear. Some of your goals are funded and some are in the process of getting built-up.
Just continue doing what you were doing.
The worst case scenario can be that one or two goals may need to be postponed. For example, if you were trying to retire early and lost your job or income, you may have to work longer for a few years more. But that does not completely cripple you or force you to liquidate your retirement funds.
Taxes and death are certain – everything else is uncertain.
There is no way to avoid taxes (except the legal ways to reduce or defer it – consult a CPA) and hence every personal finance system has to take into account – taxes. Not paying your due taxes and trying to be over smart, can really take your sleep away.
Whatever it takes, plan for your taxes throughout the year and pay the legitimate share to Sleep In Peace.
In the US, Internal Revenue Service and in India, the Income Tax Department are both quite aggressive in following up with cover-ups, non-payment and mistakes. And for working professionals like me, who has to deal with both – there is no other way than honesty, prompt action and discipline in keeping track of your tax liabilities and payment obligations.
Keep your documentation up-to-date and file away returns on time to avoid major headaches.
Conclusion – Ride the wave and learn something new
While this is the time for great financial worries and the clouds of a multi-year recession looming over us, there could not have been a better time for us to introspect and re-organize.
This is the time to take a hard look at your financial and other priorities in life. Locked down inside our homes, with more family time and me-only time – when is a better time to introspect and find your real dreams?
When the world was open and running, the rush of the morning and the fatigue of the evening left little for us to think beyond the next day.
If you want to sleep in peace when all this is over, maximize this opportunity and start something new.
I am working on starting a financial coaching business where I can help people with their finances globally. What better time to serve the world than now and next few years?
After months of dillydallying, I bought a second car. I also have a list of home improvements that I want to see get done. With the holiday season approaching, the vacation dreams are taking shape too.
However all these cost money, some little some a lot. And didn’t we say, we want to save more, invest more so that our retirement corpus grows with time? The $20000 spent on a car (decent, used or new), if invested instead can go a long way in boosting retirement savings over 15-20 years.
But life also gets in the way. We do have emergency fund for the unforeseen, worst case expenses. So are we going to just live frugally and save the rest?
After all, desires and dreams also make your life worth living. You have to find a balance on how to live a fruitful life and yet not damage your personal finances. However, it is very important to avoid consumer debt in all cases, and be ready to save and pay cash for these desires and wants.
I did exactly that. I had neat sum saved up in a savings account, and was procrastinating how to invest it. I also knew at the back of my mind that the family may need another car. Finally I gave in to the need and bought the car.
Thinking through this phase, I realized there are few expenses which are better made when the need arises. So I compiled a list of 10 such expenses, which are intangible investments in a way. These apply to my situation, yours may be different and so make your own wish-need list.
We think bad things cannot happen to us or our family. However life is uncertain. I experienced this last December, when a very close family member in India met with an accident and passed away suddenly. He left behind a wife and a school going child, and being the only bread earner in the family, the whole situation was very shocking and sad.
Life insurance, health insurance and disability insurance are things no one should ignore. The exact amount of the need should be assessed and insurance purchased as soon as possible.
I have also seen in India, people do not want to buy pure term insurance in which you do not get back anything if you survive till maturity. That’s precisely the meaning of insurance, to transfer the risk of a life/event to the company. Many unscrupulous agents push cash-value, investment plans at a higher cost and lower insurance just to lure the people who wants to get back a return.
Keep the investment for the low cost mutual funds and ETFs, and buy insurance for what it is. And there is no better alternative to a cheap and effective term plan.
Peace of mind is worth paying for.
A good car is a must for our commute, weekend trips and running errands. As I researched my way through used cars in various forums like Carmax, craiglist and dealers, one common theme came up.
You can get cheap deals (Dave Ramsey’s proverbial $1000 car) but they may cause you more headache down the line. If you are anyway buying it, you better buy it to use for a number of years. I don’t plan to trade in my car in just 2 years, just to upgrade to a bigger and newer model.
It is always better to wait a few more months, save up more through a budget and then pay cash for a decent car (2-4 years old) with low mileage. These are the cars I bought in last two years.
2017 – Toyota Corolla from a private party – 2015 model, < 20k miles for $11,000 cash.
2018- Toyota Camry from a dealer – Certified Pre-owned 2017 model, < $25k miles for $18,000. I traded in the Corolla, as I wanted to pay cash and did not want to hold two cars. So I just had to pay the difference in cash.
2019 – Honda Accord from the same dealer – 2017 model, < $20k miles for $17,600 paid in cash.
So with the Camry and Accord, my needs are met for the next few years. Me and my wife do not have to timeshare our work anymore, it was only possible earlier as I was working from home. I think it is money well spent, and with no debt (a.k.a car payments).
Debt-free mobility is another name for Freedom.
If done correctly, and afforded with cash, this is one of the events I look forward to every year. And who doesn’t?
While in India, we used to go to the beach town of Goa every year, after the Dec 25 – Jan 1 rush is over. It gave us access to the same festive ambiance (since the beach shacks are still celebrating with their longer stay clients) at a much lower cost. The airfare and the hotel prices start dropping after Jan 1.
Now from US, one of the vacations I save for throughout the year, is visiting India in the summer. It is very relaxing to be able to meet family and friends and also keep my children bonded to their roots.
Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it. A vacation bought with debt only brings back stress and payments, and hence make sure you save up for this event throughout the year. It’s an investment for your well being, and like any regular investment this should be planned and saved in small increments.
After all, stuff do not make you happy, experiences do.
This can be small to big ticket items. You can fix or enhance small things like paint a wall or room, or bigger improvements like a kitchen or bathroom remodel.
While it can be very costly to do the high end remodel, this is a project that can pay off in the long run. Some well designed improvements like in the kitchen, bathrooms, an extra room increases the home value, while others may just increase your happiness and convenience to the family.
We had this problem where we did not have an extra space in the house, for my children to practice their dance lessons. We had to move the couch or dining table every day and it was becoming quite inconvenient. The natural reaction was we need a bigger house.
But then we realized we use our garage for only storing junk, and may be the car in the night. Throughout the day, it is an unused space that can be used. Cooling (AC) the garage effectively is a problem, but the kids are not going to practice for more than 30-40 mins anyway. So I spent about $2000 to have a shiny epoxy floor and some lighting installed. In that $2000, we now have a beautiful hobby space, and my wife improved it further at very low cost (just interior decoration and a bigger fan) to shift her music studio there.
At night, we still park the Camry inside. Its all about space management with an investment of $2000.
Home is where the heart is. Do not neglect it or underestimate it’s intangible value.
After the above expensive proposals, here is sweating the small stuff. However its not small, as cable expenses can add up to hundreds of dollars for some people.
While in India, I realized that I do not need the 100+ channels that the local cable or some of the high end services were advertising and everyone buying them.
Except for certain sporting events, I just ended up surfing and jumping from one channel to another killing time and really not watching anything to the full. I guess choice spoils you and your time.
So then I discovered Netflix (it was still new in India few years back) and subscribed to it. I knew if I needed entertainment, I can just start a movie and sit through it better than listening to a news anchor shouting at the top of his voice, throwing his political opinion.
Netflix has remained with me since then and the only TV subscription I have in the US. The $9/month is a good investment and much more value for money than any other TV subscription. With free YouTube complimenting the rest, I don’t need to spend any more on passive entertainment.
You will be more entertained when you channelize your focus to one medium.
Books and Courses
From my childhood, my introvert nature has one true friend – Books. I love reading and it has increased over the years to varied topics like technology, business and personal finance.
A part of my budget is spent on kindle books and paperbacks. This is also the reason why I do not need anything beyond Netflix, as my free time is well spent reading otherwise.
When I came to US, I discovered the local library which opened up a further avenue for my reading at $0 cost. The public libraries are an excellent initiative and maintained by the city here. Sadly they are long lost in most Indian cities, only some schools still have them.
To grow myself intellectually and improve my skills, Coursera has also been a huge help. Nowadays they run many good courses with a $49/mo plan, where you can take the course at your own pace (faster the better as you pay every month) and it gives you a certification. I am presently doing this amazing course on personal finance.
Its certainly a wise investment and a satisfying experience to learn continuously out of work and school.
Education is much more affordable and accessible now than ever before. Use it and grow your skills and knowledge.
The finance gurus will scream – Live within your means, should not eat out, drop that latte and save the $3.50 everyday. But what is the problem if you have budgeted for it, to eating out with family twice a month? Or a set amount like a $100, which can amount to 2-3 dine outs for the family depending on what kind of food and restaurant you eat at.
It is a way to unwind once a week or two, and treats your taste buds to different cuisine. Socializing with friends and family also makes you happy and you get back to work on a Monday fresher and looking forward to another week.
Of course, daily and random eating out can have adverse effects on health and finances, hence like everything else, it also has to be budgeted and planned for.
Dine out not for the food, but for the experience.
I have talked about automation in personal finance and other areas of life in an earlier post.
Rentometer and Dealcheck – Real estate information in USA. They help in evaluating rental properties. However, subscribe to the paid version only if you are seriously going to invest in rental property. I used them for a year but then dropped my plans as I am not investing in this hot real estate market. The reason I mentioned them here is the service is very good and constantly improving. I even wrote to the CEO of Dealcheck and gave him a suggestion of a new feature. I was happy to see that they rolled out the feature in next few months.
You Need a Budget (Y.N.A.B) – I use this for my daily and long term budgeting. The features are worth paying the $84/year and helps me to keep a holistic view of my cash flows.
I am sure you will find your own useful apps and after the trial period, if it seems useful in the long run, do not hesitate to sign up for the paid version.
Only thing to keep in mind is that we sometimes turn on the subscription and then forget to use it till the next year, when the credit card on file is charged automatically.
One way I manage it is – I download the app on my phone, and keep it all in one folder called “Productivity” or “Personal finance”. I visit this folder daily at least for the apps that I need to use. It gives me an instant look at the others in the folder which are lying unused. Once I figure out I am not going to use it in the near future, I cancel the subscription. This is how I discovered that I was not using Rentometer and Dealcheck after a few months. Most of these subscriptions let you finish the tenure that you already paid for, so you can keep using it and ramp down your usage.
Paying to get back your time and establish a system is worth its penny.
What is the offline automation? Just like online apps and automated services, there are some things in life that are unavoidable but you don’t want to spend your valuable time on them. For example, Amazon has made it so easy to get things delivered that running errands have cut down by a lot for most people.
For me, tasks like mowing the lawn or fixing the plumbing (when it develops a problem) are simply not expertise I want to build or spend time on. Hence I outsource this to contacts and experts who know their job, and in turn I don’t mind paying them regularly for their services. I also subscribed for a Home Warranty who dispatches service professionals when I have a problem with my household appliances.
It can get costly though if you want to use this blindly. You have to develop a good idea of the cost of each service through collecting quotes or researching on the Internet.
But at the end, I think its money well spent if it saves me the headache and time to try to do everything myself. And indirectly, I get to help the local businesses run.
Expertise is available and widely distributed, make use of it judiciously.
Last but not the least, Giving is never regretted. In fact, what you give gets back to you in multiples of the original amount.
This is God’s way of paying interest to the good people.
I am not an expert on charity, and as long as you can find a legitimate and genuine organization which helps the needy, this is an activity worth spending money on and automating the giving every month.
Even if its just $20-$50, automate it so that there is no hesitation left. Sometimes we know we should, but we keep postponing it till we think we have enough surplus to give.
It is difficult to get over the inertia, so just like “Pay yourself first”, pay your rent on the Earth and help the not-so-fortunate brothers and sisters.
Giving is a way to abundance, even if it sounds counter intuitive.
In personal finance, the gurus and pundits constantly talk about saving, investing and minimalism. However life is not about accumulating wealth alone – money is a way to gain freedom and is only a means and not an end.
The real freedom is when you are happy doing the things you love, and some of them do cost money, defying all financial logic and the only return is happiness.
Even my 10 year old kid has been taught about Dave in elementary school mathematics.
Dave Ramsey is America’s trusted voice on money and business.
Well he is popular for a solid reason. In this post, I will describe why he makes perfect sense to me.
When I immigrated to US in 2017, I did not know who he is. I was trying to quench my thirst for new personal finance books, especially on the US system. Then I stumbled upon Dave’s Total Money Makeover.
As I read the book, initially his rant against debt was a bit overwhelming to digest. However thinking deeply, I realized that coming from an Asian country, I have unconsciously followed the same principle for decades.
Why this coincidence? Because the principles are universal and extremely healthy for personal finance, no matter which economy you come from.
If you do not know yet, here is a recap link to the 7 steps from his website.
Here are few points where I found an one-one match with how traditional Asian (India) household finances worked.
Have an emergency/contingency fund (Dave’s baby steps 1 and 3)
There are many names to this – emergency fund, contingency fund, rainy day fund. In many Asian households, it goes by the simple name of savings. Savings is in-built into the culture and an emergency fund is a default choice.
In a way, if you don’t have debt instruments (HELOC, Credit card) available to you, how else will you pay up for maintenance, car breakdown, education etc.?
Answer is simple, money socked off into a separate bank account – lo and behold, by end of the year, you have an emergency fund.
Use Cash – or debit card at the most (Dave’s baby step 2)
Before moving to US, my only credit card was a HDFC Bank Premium card. I was sold this card citing lots of benefits like reward points, airline miles, premier lounge access etc.
The truth is that I used it only for big purchases like appliances, electronics or vacation. And that too, because I knew I had to pay it off at the end of the month and just deferred the money being taken out of a CD (Fixed Deposit as named in India).
If I look back, except for getting a few discounts at clothing stores, I did not reap the reward points. Never had the idle time or need to figure out how to access the premier lounge. Once I tried to book a holiday trip through the miles, I found that I could get it for lesser by buying a cheaper economy ticket. Yet I paid an annual fee (or had to spend a minimum on the card to avoid the fee) for those unseen benefits.
Credit cards may work better in the US, but it is also a double edged sword. Americans are saddled with trillion dollar credit card debt. (source: Dave Ramsey)
All my household daily expenses ran on either hard cash (lots of places in India do not accept any cards) or debit card.
Simply put, I never felt the absolute necessity to hold a credit card. Some people say its good for emergency situations, but then the previous step already solved that problem.
Oh there is one more reason – online shopping. In India, Flipkart has a C.O.D (cash on delivery) option. If that doesn’t work or not offered, you can pay using NetBanking which all online vendors provide with major banks. It is equivalent to using debit card, but without the card number. You are redirected to the bank website and you can authorize the transaction from your account, using login and password.
Retirement savings (Dave’s baby step 4)
There are government retirement plans like Provident Fund (equivalent to 401k), Public Provident Fund (equivalent to Roth IRA) and now the NPS (National Pension System).
The first two are effectively tax exempt with the Provident Fund being tax E.E.E (exempt on contribution, growth and withdrawal). The only drawback is that the investment options are traditional – debt based with an interest rate guaranteed by the Government. The option of Equities has only come up as an option in NPS.
The Provident Fund or the NPS is now mandatory in most organizations for their employees. The amount you can invest from your paycheck typically hovers around 12% (with matching grant from employer), and is close to Dave Ramsey’s recommended savings of 15%.
There are of course private options from brokerages/banks to invest in mutual funds and stocks, as also R.E.I.Ts are now coming up.
There is hardly any concept of student loans. Education is still affordable, though it is becoming expensive each passing year.
And despite the huge competition (owing to large population), there are no Ivy League schools to lose your shirt on getting a degree. Even the premier institutes like Indian Institute of Technology, or Indian Institute of Management are well affordable with their excellent career prospects.
I don’t have all the education expenses data, but I have not heard of any student saddled by student loan debt or carrying it well into their adulthood and married life.
Moreover in recent years, the growing start-up culture in India has also made an expensive education pretty much irrelevant.
Pay off your house (Dave’s baby step 6)
In US, people hold their mortgages for 30 years, and do not need to pay back earlier.
And it is more helped by the low interest rate regime that is sweeping the news everyday.
However in India, average mortgages survive for 3-5 years, before they are completely paid off. Both my mortgages in India were paid off in less than 5 years.
What is the reason for this? There are several factors.
Interest rates are higher – typically 8.5-10%. This causes people to take mortgages with lower than 80% Loan-to-Value, to avoid big E.M.I (equated monthly installments).
Higher down payment earns good discount from builders. One of the main sources of home buying in India is from builders.
Floating rate mortgages – The interest rate by default is floating. Fixed rate mortgages have a much higher interest rate, typically 1-2% higher. Carrying a floating rate mortgage is risky, hence the tendency is to pay it off as soon as possible.
Last but not the least – its a debt-averse culture. You don’t feel good till you actually own your home, free and clear.
Buying a house in India is stressful owing to the sector’s corrupt practices, less regulation and random mismanagement of funds by builders. Hence keeping low to no debt is prudent not to add on to the crisis.
Building wealth and Giving (Dave’s baby step 7)
The last baby step in Dave Ramsey’s plan is the absolute bliss.
This is where a lot of well to do families will be. With the above steps explained and if followed properly – they will be living in paid for houses, driving paid for cars (some with chauffeurs), have a good retirement corpus that is growing, children graduating from college without student loan debt, and an emergency fund stashed out in some savings account.
Now they can buy more investment assets like real estate, stocks and entire businesses.
You start building serious wealth and enjoy true Financial Freedom.
As Dave says, “If you live like no one else, you will live like no one else”.
Now the last part is Giving. This may not be traditionally so popular in India, due to many factors. However lot of new initiatives are now trying to organize charity and reach to the real needy.
The huge wealth inequality throws up a lot of opportunities of giving. However if you are not careful and the non-profit organizations are not well researched, you will end up making some fraud people rich. I have ended up donating to NGOs (Non Government Organization), who started showing a suspicious pattern of corruption (sometimes irritating me with calls and messages for more). It becomes clear they want to milk you in the name of charity.
However with little diligence and online/offline research it is possible to select meaningful giving opportunities.
Thus Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps are definitely a recipe for success with personal finance. I have only drawn a comparison with what I have lived and seen in India.
Dave’s success in getting millions of Americans out of debt and living their dream life is a testimony to the sound principles that the 7 steps represent.
Live like no one else. If you are not forced by the system, be intentional about the 7 steps.
One of the lessons we learn in our early childhood is to be perfect in whatever we do. We were told if you are not perfect, you will not be able to compete in the real world.
While it may be true for some disciplines like music, medicine and mathematics (the only subject in our times in which we could score a perfect 100/100), personal finance needs an opposite attribute.
There is nothing perfect about investments, budget and savings.
Things change rapidly like the stock markets fall when a leader in some nation sneezes, or unexpected events in life happen.
While the perfectionists among us keep waiting for the sun, moon and the earth to align to begin to invest or budget. Some of the common quotes which I am guilty of uttering at many times in my financial life.
“I will invest once I get the next raise” – when and who guarantees that today?
“I will save from next fiscal year” – hello, which fiscal year and which month does it start?
“I am too scared as the markets are going down” – which means I will invest when they are up, exactly at the wrong time.
The end result is that the perfectionist gets a perfect ZERO in his/her investment and savings goal.
You have to unlearn the perfections and not apply them at all in personal finance.
What is important is to get started and be consistent.
Anyone who has not yet started or planned own finances should do this in below 3 steps.