Posted in Investing, Liabilities and Debt, Personal finance, Savings

The Five ways to SIP

SIPIn 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.

One essential comfort zone

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.

The universal truth about Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps

3. Do the real SIP – invest in a disciplined way

Now we come to investments and the real SIP (Systematic Investment Plan).

This process addresses two damaging financial behaviors – fear and greed.

I will not rant about the philosophy behind SIP or DRIP investing, it is pretty well known and over-emphasized in investment circles.

The advice from the legendary investor Warren Buffet applies now more than ever.

Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. 

However in the Sleep In Peace method – be neither, irrespective of what others are doing. 

Keep investing with a plan. I have rearranged my India portfolio recently (just before the market crash) and apparently could have done better.

  • In a zeal to restructure my asset allocation, I invested a large part held in cash into the equity markets in Jan 2020. Little did I know, the markets would come crashing down in another month or two.
  • However I was not overzealous on Equity. I kept a larger part in simple fixed deposit (bank CD), so as not to go overweight in one asset class, Equity. 
  • The current market situation does not affect my peace, since the money I invested into equity markets is planned to be held for a long time (possibly till I retire). 
  • I could have done better if I remained patient and deployed it in smaller chunks over several months  – the real SIP. 

So that’s from a recent personal experience –

If you want to Sleep In Peace, invest with SIP – the systematic investment plan. 

Know yourself and your investments

4. Define and invest in your goals

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.

A simple method of asset allocation

5. Pay your taxes and file your return on time

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.

Five components of a personal finance system

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? 

Who moved my cheese? How to deal with changes in financial plans

sticky notes on board
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Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Liabilities and Debt, Personal finance, Savings, Spending

How to manage your cash flow

A company which is listed in the stock market has to publish 3 essential financial statements.

  • The balance sheet
  • The profit and loss statement
  • The cash flow statement

Briefly, the balance sheet shows the health of the company at the reported time, profit and loss statement shows how much profit the company is making after all expenses and taxes, and the cash flow shows how the company is generating the cash from its operations as well as investments.

Free Cash Flow (FCF) is an important metric that is used by investors to evaluate the real worth of a company. 

In personal finance, while balance sheet (Your net worth) and profit and loss (how much you are making and spending) are important, managing the cash flow is key to achieve your financial goals.

In this blog, we will talk about how to manage your cash flow – no matter whether you earn a lot or earn an average paycheck.

Most people do not manage their cash flow, forget about doing a budget or any other conscious form of tracking.

At the end of the month or year, we wonder where all the money earned went.

Conventional ways of managing cash flow

There are several techniques Personal Finance experts have championed time and again.

  1. Do a budget, track every dollar. 
  2. Create an envelop for groceries, utilities, fun etc.
  3. Use separate accounts. 
  4. New automated solutions like Stash, Digit etc. 

All of these are good methods, but the problem is sticking to the discipline of maintaining it day after day, month after month.

Isn’t that boring and worrying at the same time? Few issues with these approaches are:

  • Writing down expenses every day
  • Stuffing that envelop and counting the money every time before spending
  • Keeping track of multiple accounts
  • Not knowing how much the AI driven savings app is going to deduct next month

So is there a simpler and better way?

Just like most posts in this blog, I seek simplicity and automation.

The simpler way of managing your cash flow

There are 4 goals to managing the cash flow every month.

  • Invest for the future
  • Save for the short term
  • Pay your bills 
  • Spend the rest

In fact, any wind-fall is also a one time cash flow, and can be fit into the same framework.  Lets say you got a bonus of $1000, for example, the Govt is sending a check to all Americans. And if you want to keep it simple, allocate 25% to all the 4 goals.

  • Invest $250 in your long term (retirement, child education) plans. The market is down and you can invest $250 in a mutual fund or an ETF. 
  • Save $250 for any short term goals that you have. It could be added to your monthly savings goals, towards anything like vacation, buying that new phone, or simply emergency fund. 
  • If you have consumer debt, why not allocate some to pay it off? Use $250 to pay off the highest interest or smallest balance credit card. 
  • Now you have $250 to splurge on. Buy that favorite book, order the special meal or decorate your home. 

But how do we automate and manage the cash flow every month?

  • Invest – Direct deposit investments. In fact most employers have systems to auto-deposit 401-k investments or direct deposit to your chosen brokerage firm. 
  • Save – Auto transfer to a savings account from your checking account. 
  • Pay Bills – Setup auto-pay with your credit card or debit card. Set the bill payments mostly towards beginning of the month. 
  • Spend – Use your debit card to spend – it will tell you when the money runs out. 

Once setup, the only stress you have is the last bullet, where you have to make your spending within the limits, or rather the residue after all obligations are set aside or paid off.

How it can snowball into Financial Freedom

As you get consistent with stashing money away for investing and savings, those may generate additional cash flow or assets which will come back to bolster the spending budget.

Thus cash flow is a virtuous cycle once set up the correct way. Lets take some initials and approach this from a math perspective.

  • J – Job Income
  • R – Retirement
  • I – Investment
  • S – Savings
  • B – Bills
  • E – Expense
  • P – Portfolio Income

J + P = R + I + S + B + E

I can produce P in terms of interest, dividend or rental income.

silver and gold coins

In the wealth accumulation years, the goal should be to increase J, so that I can be increased, which when invested can increase P. P is added to J and a part reinvested, saved or used.

As you reinvest P, it will generate more P till at a point, J becomes less and less important. 

This cash flow situation is called Financial Freedom.

Conclusion

We just presented a simple and fully automated cash flow management system for personal finances. It does not take much discipline and will power to stick to it, once correctly setup.

This is also explained in more detail in the post The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient .

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woman standing on cliff
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Posted in Personal finance

The Power of Financial Scribble

A picture is worth a thousand lines of a spreadsheet.

Managing your personal finances can be scary at times when you visit a financial coach or financial planner.

Any good financial planner worth your money will present data in a nice spreadsheet or make you fill a template form which has 30-40 questions about your current situation and your goals.

After filling out the form or trying to decipher the complicated spreadsheet and charts, you wonder if you have made any progress in your financial planning. The concept of simplicity gets ignored in the data and jargon.

Personal financial planning has to start with your goals, what you have today and where you want to reach. It is not about numbers on a spreadsheet, but more about what is your current life situation and where you want to go in next 3, 5, 7 or 10 years.

How do your write your goals in a spreadsheet or a predefined questionnaire? The answer is you simply can’t. These tools are built for data collection and analysis and not for top down planning.

The solution lies in a much traditional tool, pen and paper – even better pencil, eraser and paper. I find it extremely refreshing to write or draw my goals, current situation and how I want to go where I want to go.

It is what I call the Financial Planning Scribble.

Financial scribble

It is a lot of fun and creativity as you design your own symbols to represent personal finance as possessions,liabilities, plans and road map.

Lets say you are assessing your Net worth (your assets – your liabilities). Your assets may contain real estate, cash, stocks, bonds, gold. Now think of a symbol for each along with a space to write the present value of the asset.

For example, for each real estate you can draw a house (remember the 3-D cube with triangle for the roof) and write the value in between the figure. Similarly use an envelope symbol for your cash (even though it is not hard cash but balance in your checking account). Your vacation fund can be a picture of your favorite spot (beach or mountain) and so on…

Go creative with your assets… you have built them with sweat, sacrifice and planning. They deserve to be given a life and make you happy about them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The second part of Net worth are the liabilities, or in other words, what you owe. You should not feel good about these unless you have a plan for strategic leverage, like building your rental real estate portfolio with debt or student loan to finance a good education.

Your liabilities can be depicted as something that may scare you and force you to act to reduce them. Again go creative here as per the kind of debt. High interest credit card debt is a demon with blood in its mouth, as that is what it is doing to your life and finances.

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

The idea is to depict your personal situation today as accurately and vividly as possible. This is not always apparent in a numerical spreadsheet. The demons should scare you and the vacation fund or investments should make savings feel worthwhile.

The difference between the two (assets and liabilities) is your Net worth. See if the residual picture (your bright side covering the dark) is positive or not. You can find a symbol for the net worth, positive or negative.

Photo by Bekka Mongeau on Pexels.com

Once you get to the habit of scribbling and sketching, you will find it so useful and refreshing that you can extend it to beyond Net worth.

Your investments and asset allocation can also be depicted through sketches and you can even draw your plan and ongoing monthly investments.

Conclusion

The idea of financial scribble is not to get too complicated and lose interest in tracking finances. Finance can be fun once you depict it in your own way, not in a financial planner’s jargon and spreadsheets.

Financial scribble helped me internalize my personal situation and plans, in a clear and concise way that anytime I can draw it on a piece of paper and use it to make bigger decisions. A very rough scribble (you can be definitely be more artistic) from one of my recent planning sessions is shown below.

Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Who moved my cheese? How to deal with changes in financial plans

The title is taken from a famous book as below. Even though it is meant to be a management philosophy, it applies to the subject of personal finance as well. 

Financial Planning does not work? 

There is a proverb in the military – Plans are good till the first bullet is fired.

Some of us who are obsessed about managing or advising on personal finance can go really overboard with planning. Have you heard about those retirement numbers, college planning or even financial freedom number?

While long term planning is good, problem with personal finance is that it is a not a standalone aspect of your life. It impacts and gets impacted by life events – birth/death/marriage/divorce in the family, choice of career or college, changing goals and circumstances and finally your own priorities may change.

How my circumstances kept throwing my plan astray

Lets take an example in my case, as I transitioned from India to US.

Till 2005, I did not know a zilch about managing finances. In fact I was pretty bad at it, just enjoying my life and like many, used to blow up my entire paycheck in frivolous expenses, needless shopping and eating out. So in a nutshell there was no plan.

Then in 2005, I decided I can at least start investing some money out of my paycheck. Good plan but was it anything long term? No it was too flaky as I jumped from one hot fund (mutual fund) to another. This was the time when the Mutual Fund and Private Insurance industry was taking off in India in a big way. I also lost money investing in an insurance plan (actually a bad plan) that was masquerading as investment.

Beware of ripoffs

Eventually as I got better with finances, I actually created a long term plan complete with everything – retirement fund, children’s education fund, vacation fund and corresponding projections several years into the future. I built separate portfolios for each, and tracked them to utmost precision even calculating year after year growth.

However God had other plans for the family. In a series of unfavorable health and personal issues, we decided to move out of India at least for a few years and relocated to US.

This obviously altered my earlier plans completely, since my place of work and source of income changed. The retirement numbers started to look different, the college education fund seemed minuscule when compared to US college costs and all the plans are to be redone again.

Well what do I plan for now? I don’t even know whether I am going to move back to India again in few years or not.

In a global economy mobility is a part of life and no one stays in the same place or country throughout their working life. Moreover as you move, international taxation is another beast which can alter your long term investments (like tax sheltered) into immediately taxable entities. 

Plan to adapt, not adapt to a rigid plan

So finally you have to take into account an ever changing plan, moving from Plan A to Plan B and keep adjusting according to your circumstances.

When I read about estimating expenses at retirement, I wonder how can someone calculate that? Following factors and more can make it completely non-deterministic.

  1. Where will I retire? Different cities and countries have vastly different living and medical costs.
  2. Will it be only me and my wife? What if the children stay with us?
  3. What do I want to do in retirement? Will I work or travel more?
  4. What health condition will I be in?
  5. What other obligations (including social and family) will I have then?

So projecting your expenses at retirement based on today’s lifestyle is like predicting the weather 20 years from now, based on 20 years of past data.

Same goes for College funding. Even if you are saving in 529 or other accounts, do you have a goal or a number in mind? How do you arrive at a number for college costs, when the costs are going up every year? Isn’t that also as variable as retirement? The following factors come to my mind immediately.

  1. Do you know what career will your 5 year old choose when he/she turns 16-18?
  2. Do you know which college will she go to? Ivy Leagues, State or Community colleges? Are the costs not vastly different?
  3. Are you even going to stay in the same state or country when the time comes for college?

In today’s volatile world, planning too far away (more than 3-5 years) is futile.

Planning based on solid principles, not circumstances

The best way to plan your finances is to look at your current goals, aspirations and develop good money habits.

Below steps will help you be in control and act nimbly to adapt to changing situations.

  1. Live below your means – no matter which country or which circumstance you are in, you can always strive for this and become better. Living below your means is common sense, yet so uncommon. 
  2. Budget – Goal based budgeting – This is very important as it ensures you have control over the cash inflows and outflows. Again something which does not change with your place of work or future plans.
  3. Invest with simplicityFind investments that are easy to understand. Index funds, mutual funds, Real estate, CDs and savings accounts.
  4. Keep some portion of portfolio liquid – Sometimes this can be called an Emergency Fund or Contingency Fund. No matter what you call it, it is useful. When I moved from India, I kept a portion of my India portfolio into Fixed Deposits (similar to CDs here in US) and then built up an emergency fund in US too. This gives me option in both places if I decide to just leave work for some time or get laid off. 
  5. Remain consumer debt free – This is also related to freedom. Except for one mortgage in US, I am completely debt-free otherwise or rather bad-debt-free. Being debt free coupled with a portion of portfolio in cash, gives you plentiful of options to enjoy life at your own terms. 
  6. Keep investing for long term – Unless your investments are in countries with troublesome political climate, long term investments (a part of the portfolio) can be left to grow with time. Long term investments work on the principle – its not market timing, but time in the market that will reward your investments. 

To plan and execute above steps in the most efficient way, read the following posts.

Five components of a personal finance system

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Finally do plan but let life change it

Money decisions should not dictate all your life’s decisions. Money is only a tool to live a good life.

Let your financial plan adapt to your own goals and aspirations, rather than rigidly follow personal finance gurus and templates. 

If someone screams in YouTube to pay off mortgage, it does not mean you have to follow as your plans may be completely different. Similarly you may not fall for all those high reward promising credit cards if you are not going to use those benefits.

A chess player does not know what the board will look like after the next few moves. 

person playing chess
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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. 

cropped-pexels-photo-908288.jpeg

Posted in Investing, Liabilities and Debt, Personal finance

The Net worth vs. Cash flow debate

What is your net worth? Let me see, probably close to a million. So what? Are you financially independent? No. Why? ’cause I don’t have enough cash flow to replace my W2 income. Ok then, net worth is a worthless metric. But it projects my comfort into the future.

And so it goes on and on…

Does it sound familiar? There are two schools of thought. One says be conservative, save, invest for growth, have little to no debt and build your net worth slowly. The other school scoffs at this conservative approach, and instead propounds building wealth and cash flow through acquiring assets, leverage and working out deals.

None of them are wrong. However what is right for you (and me) is important. For that, it is extremely important to understand the benefits and risks attached with each approach.

In more practical sense, you will do both in the right proportions that you are comfortable with.

The Net worth approach: 

Here your main cash flow is your W2 income. Your ability to live below your means gives you the leverage to save and invest the rest.

Budget – Grow the tree upside-down

As you invest your money into stock mutual funds, CD, money market, bonds and a house of your own to live in, you are increasing your net worth slowly.  This is how most people start and someone starting off should. The difference between income and expenses, is the main contributor to your net worth. Additional is the appreciation and growth that your investments achieve. You also pay down mortgage of your house which builds equity, adding to your net worth.

In my opinion, this is a perfect approach to build wealth as long as you enjoy what you do in your W2 job and have a good work-life balance.

This is also the simplest since there is no extra debt burden (except probably your house, which you can pay down if you want). Your investments are also passive and takes hardly any time from your schedule, except occasional re-balancing and tracking.

Investing in the High Five portfolio

With a spreadsheet like Excel, you can easily calculate your projected net worth in “t” years in the future, assuming a “r” rate of interest (or growth).

cp_formula

However this approach takes a lot of time and patience, disciplined living on a budget and regular investments. You will not have something to brag about in a few years, but you will sleep in peace as you have liquidity, less or no debt and enjoy your work.

The risk of this approach is if you retire early and do not have enough corpus to live off for the rest of your retired life.

The Cash Flow approach:

The cash flow approach on the other hand, only focuses on generating cash flow. It means you have enough assets or mechanism (businesses, activities) which generate cash month after month, in a predicable fashion.

This can be achieved with several avenues for example:

  1. Rental property investing
  2. Commercial property
  3. Dividend paying stocks
  4. Passive income from books, royalty of other IP, YouTube videos etc.

There are many resources on Internet to give a list of passive income ideas.

However in the cash flow investing approach, I wish to draw attention to the big ones like Rental Property Investing and Dividend Stocks.

These are two ways which makes a very predictable cash flow stream if done right.

However to get this predictable cash flow, one has to do the investment right. For example, real estate has many hidden costs and running expenses, which if not taken into account will quickly convert an on-paper cash flow asset into a black hole for your money.

Similarly dividend stock investing, if not researched correctly can cause the principal investment value to go down. Same for income producing corporate bonds, where the ability of the company to make the regular payouts needs to be researched.

Last but not the least, income producing real estate is typically obtained through leverage, which means steadily increasing debt.

For example, if you want to generate $5000/mo in cash flow from real estate, you need to buy as many houses that will in total produce that much positive cash flow. Lets say each house produces $200/mo in positive cash flow after mortgage, taxes, insurance and expenses. Now you will need to manage at least 25 such properties to generate the requisite cash flow. Self managing 25+ properties is more than a full time job, and if you hire a property manager you will have to part with the cash flow (fees), and hence no. of houses under management will need to increase. This is all not to mention that now you have 25+ mortgages in your name. The risk – 10 out of 25 properties suddenly loses the tenants and remains vacant for 3 months. Now you have to be able to make 10 mortgage payments every month from other sources of income for an extended period of time. 

I am not saying Real Estate Investing is bad, lots of millionaires and billionaires have achieved their wealth creation through this. However you need to know yourself and act accordingly after you understand all the risks involved.

A combined approach:

 Is it possible to have best of both worlds? Sure there is, if you are not in a hurry to get out of your job and have the patience to slowly build both your net worth and cash flow. 

A few simple ideas which comes to my mind are below. I have done some myself and plan to do the rest.

  1. Increase your income and live below your means. This is very obvious, yet the most difficult to do consistently.
  2. Invest consistently 15-20% of your income into stocks, bonds and cash. See post: Emotional Investing
  3. Live in and then rent – Convert your existing house to a rental once you move out to another one. Or just rent out a portion of your house. This has the advantage that the mortgage you have is an owner occupied one (less interest rates typically), also it is paid up consistently as you spend more years and gets factored in your regular budget. See post: Don’t twist your ARM, fix it !!!
  4. Pay off your old houses completely but do not sell. Convert your equity play into a rental now. The paid off house will generate much better cash flow with substantially less risk, as there is no mortgage payments to worry about. See post: The Paid Piper of Hamelin
  5. Find sources of passive income which you can buy with your accumulated savings, like investing in a profitable business, crowd funded real estate etc. These have much less risk if you do your homework, at least there is no risk of foreclosure etc.
  6. Write a book or start an online course about your area of expertise.

In short, increase your net worth and cash flowing assets in a sensible fashion, with less to no debt and consistent action. 

Here are some of my previous posts which may inspire the above principles.

Know yourself and your investments

Shun that perfection

How a cassette player caused debt aversion

Enjoy the journey and the destination will follow. 

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Posted in Investing, Personal finance

Know yourself and your investments

I am back after a long hiatus, as I enjoyed a fabulous vacation in India. These are times when I can introspect and know myself better and deeper. Nothing to do with the spirituality of India, but just an opportunity to separate my mind from the daily rat race, and consider what is really important.

Like everything else, personal finance is also very personal. You got to know yourself thoroughly to understand how to restructure your finances, savings and investments to fit and serve your own unique needs. It cannot be driven by advertised claims from pundits, or hyped up investment professionals.

There are several occasions when I made the mistake of trying out something which did not fit my personality or immediate goals. It was just giving in to the popular notion of what I should be doing, without thinking twice about it.

Once I was nominated or elected for a post in the HoA (Homeowners Association). While the work or responsibility was not very complex, but the surrounding politics and conflicts required a lot of different people handling skills. I utterly failed in this endeavor and quickly realized that it is not for me. I have better things to do and spend my time on.

Similarly as I read more on Real Estate Investing and the numerous strategies, I wonder is it possible for everyone to jump in and spend so much time or build such skills to be successful? Or is it better to stick to your own vocation and invest passively, thereby spend your valuable time doing what you can do best. This will also increase your income and put you through a better path to success. This is of course provided you like your job and not desperate to get out of the 9-5 routine.

Some of the investment avenues that people jump into without much education or risk analysis.

  1. Direct stock investment
  2. Real Estate investment 
  3. Life Insurance coupled as investment
  4. Crypto-currency 
  5. Exotic Art and collectibles

If you are like me, who likes to keep things simple outside his area of expertise – here is a no-nonsense investment plan.

  1. Try as hard as you can to stay out of debt. Create a budget to track your income and expenses and live within your means. See the post: Budget – Grow the tree upside-down
  2. Maintain an emergency fund and create a cash cushion. See the post: One essential comfort zone
  3. Invest in simple Index Funds and create a goal based portfolio. See the post: Investing in the High Five portfolio
  4. Keep emotions under check and have a realistic plan. See the post: Emotional Investing
  5. Last but not the least, Get Started. See the post: Shun that perfection
  6. Use the following tools to get started. See the post: The Starter Kit

Finally invest in what you understand fully and comfortable in dealing with.

Rest everything can be ignored and continue a stress-free financial journey.

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Posted in Personal finance

Take off to the aerial view

Today I am flying to India. I am very excited and looking forward to visiting what is my second home now.

As the long flight from US started very early this morning, a few thoughts on personal finance hovered around my mind.

Before the flight takes off, there are a number of events that take place more like items in a checklist. As the plane’s technicians go through their routine yet stricter checks, as a passenger we too go through some disciplined steps like reaching the airport on time, checking in, clearing though security and finally boarding in a queue. All of these steps are important and must be done in sequence.

Then as I put on the seat belt and the plane takes off, the mind switches off from the low level sequence to a higher level composure. The plane rises above the clouds and I can see the world top down.

Personal finance is also the same. As you go through the low level details of controlling your expenditures, paying your credit card on time, automating a few bills on the way, you slowly but steadily reach the state of composure as if your financial life has taken off the grounds.

You no longer worry about petty coupons and discounts, or avoiding the crave for that latte, or even recording each transaction in your budget app.

Instead, now your systems are automated and you have a pretty good idea of how much is spent every month and how much you can invest.

Now your focus shifts to the clouds and you need to only take a top down view of the financial landscape. You start learning more about various investments, real estate, taxes and start strategizing on how to grow all areas of your personal and financial life.

You can now see personal finance is not just about money but when managed well, can allow you to cruise in other areas of your life as an aircraft in a turbulence free sky.

For example, this holiday is completely planned and paid for and I do not need to stress about credit card balance to afford the cost of the trip.

Complete the ground steps in a defined sequence as the suggested posts below, and then focus on the bigger clouds.

Budget – Grow the tree upside-down

One essential comfort zone

Investing in the High Five portfolio

The clouds that you can focus on once done with above are:

  • Taxes and how to find tax efficient investments
  • Insurance
  • Estate planning and wills
  • Passive income generation
  • Career goals
  • Your potential for earning more
  • Having fun

From time to time you do need to come down and go through the low level steps again, as I am in transit now in JFK airport.

I will be flying to my destination in a couple of hours again.

At the end the sequence matters. You can imagine how chaotic it would be to rush through security without checking in your bags first.

The cruise comes later when you are a disciplined traveler and follow the steps.

Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings

The Starter Kit

If you are just starting off with organizing your personal finance, or restarting from scratch, here is a step by step way to get started.

Most of the times, we get started haphazardly, the first account in the local bank or the ad-hoc insurance policy or even the next stock tip forces us to open a  brokerage account.

However there is a need to get started in a more planned way.

When I moved to the US couple of years back, the below is how I setup my money system. I had a similar one running in India for a long time and it has given me very good results.

Here is the starter kit that you need to get organized and get started. 

Since it is built in a systematic manner, it will help you automatically organize and keep your finances in order.

A checking account

This is the first step as you need a place to deposit your income, be it direct deposit from your employer or you get checks at the end of the month.

Get a simple checking account at a Credit Union which provides you with a basic ATM and Debit card. Try to find a credit union or bank which has very low fees. Obviously they will have some like overdraft fees that we will anyway avoid, but others like ATM access are something unavoidable, so shop around a little.

This is where all your income will come in and get deposited. 

A credit card

We are going to be responsible spenders, right? If not, do not get this and use your debit card from your checking account.

The key to being a responsible spender is to make a budget, stick to it and pay off the credit card bill in full every month. Lets just assume you agree to all of this. 

There are many credit cards in the market with various features like cash back, travel rewards etc.

As a starter kit, you will just get one from the same bank or credit union where you hold your checking account. The reason is ease of payments and setting up automatic transfers from your checking account to pay it off at end of month. 

The bonus will be of course if  the card also has generous cash back benefits or other similar perks. But get a free one and not one with annual fee loaded just for extra perks.

The credit card will be your main expense vehicle. It gives you automatic fraud protection, insurance and easier account tracking. 

Budgeting

If you do not do any further, you have setup the very basic system. You earn money which get deposited into the checking account, you spend with your credit card (on a budget!!) and your checking account pays it off every month.

But this sounds like living paycheck to paycheck or Living on the Edge, right?

We are going to do better – save and invest. 

First what we need is a planner. As the above system of checking account and credit card gets working in a flow, you will start getting an idea of how much you are spending every month.

For the next 2-3 months, track your spending to categorize your money into only 4 parts.

  • Food and Dining
  • Utilities and Transportation
  • Clothing and miscellaneous
  • Surplus

You will automatically get motivated to squeeze the first 3 categories and increase your surplus every month. 

Check out this post on how to budget: Budget – Grow the tree upside-down

The above technique will help you generate surplus for both savings and investment, make it your goal to only increase it and not fall back to paycheck to paycheck cycle.

Savings Account

There are unexpected events or expenses that will always come up. You need to be prepared for it and the only way is to build up a cash cushion.

One essential comfort zone

This is similar to Dave Ramsey’s first 3 baby steps, where you start with saving $1000, then get out of debt (hopefully you have none if you started with this) and finally build a cushion of 3-6 months of expenses.

I use an online savings account like CapitalOne 360, Ally Bank or Synchrony. There are many others, and online banks provide little more interest on your deposits than brick-and-mortar banks, or the one where you have your checking account.

Setup an automatic transfer of your Surplus from your checking account to this Savings account. Set this up for beginning of the month, so that your budget works with just the right amount needed (to pay off the credit card at end of month). 

Investment Account

Get to this step only when you have a running budget, able to generate surplus consistently and stacked up 3-6 months of expenses in your savings account.

From here on, you become a pro in personal finance as you are about to invest and grow your net worth. 

There are two main investment accounts, a retirement account and brokerage account.

Contact your employer for a 401k (Pretax or Roth) account and contribute to it, if there is a match. If this exhausts your projected surplus, no worries you have got started.

If there is still surplus, good news. Open a brokerage account in one of Schwab, Vanguard or Fidelity. Preferably open a Roth IRA account if your income is within eligible limits.

Roth IRA rules

Then invest in one or two broad index funds with very low expense ratio (< 0.05).

Here is a classic 3-fund portfolio from Vanguard index funds.

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX)
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund (VTIAX)
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market Fund (VBTLX)

Similar portfolio can be constructed from Schwab Funds too.

https://www.wallstreetphysician.com/three-fund-portfolio-using-schwab-index-funds-etfs

Managing and growing the investments

You have done a great job in the above steps and at par with average disciplined investors.

In investment world, “average” is what wins. If you get average returns of 8-9% over a very long time (decades), there is nothing more you need to do. 

To know how to structure and maintain your investment accounts, read this blog post

Investing in the High Five portfolio

Conclusion

The above is a simple 5-step process to take you from a personal finance newbie to a disciplined investor and saver. Taking action in a systematic way is the key to financial bliss.

If you need motivation to get started, read this:

Shun that perfection

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