Alan Fraser Houston
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Market News, Money Basics

75 Personal Finance Rules of Thumb

A “rule of thumb” is a mental shortcut. It’s a heuristic. It’s not always true, but it’s usually true. It saves you time and brainpower. Rather than re-inventing the wheel for every money problem you face, personal finance rules of thumb let you apply wisdom from the past to reach quick solutions.

I’m going to do my best Buzzfeed impression today and give you a list of 75 personal finance rules of thumb. Some are efficient packets of advice while others are mathematical shortcuts to save brain space. Either way, I bet you’ll learn a thing or two—quickly—from this list.

The Basics

These basic personal finance rules of thumb apply to everybody. They’re simple and universal.

1. The Order of Operations (since this is one of the bedrocks of personal finance, I wrote a PDF explaining all the details. Since you’re a reader here, it’s free.)

2. Insurance protects wealth. It doesn’t build wealth.

3. Cash is good for current expenses and emergencies, but nothing more. Holding too much cash means you’re losing long-term value.

4. Time is money. Wealth is a measure of how much time your money can buy.

5. Set specific financial goals. Specific numbers, specific dates. Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.

6. Keep an eye on your credit score. Check-in at least once a year.

7. Converting wages to salary: $1/per hour = $2000 per year.

8. Don’t mess with City Hall. Don’t cheat on your taxes.

9. You can afford anything. You can’t afford everything.

10. Money saved is money earned. When you look at your bottom line, saving a dollar has the equivalent effect as earning a dollar. Saving and earning are equally important.

Budgeting

I love budgeting, but not everyone is as zealous as me. Still, if you’re looking to budget (or even if you’re not), I think these budgeting rules of thumb are worth following.

11. You need a budget. The key to getting your financial life under control is making a budget and sticking to it. That is the first step for every financial decision.

12. The 50-30-20 rule of budgeting. After taxes, 50% of your money should cover needs, 30% should cover wants, and 20% should repay debts or invest.

13. Use “sinking funds” to save for rainy days. You know it’ll rain eventually.

14. Don’t mix savings and checking. One saves, the other spends.

15. Children cost about $10,000 per kid, per year. Family planning = financial planning.

16. Spend less than you earn. You might say, “Duh!” But if you’re not measuring your spending (e.g. with a budget), are you sure you meet this rule?

Investing & Retirement

Basic investing, in my opinion, is a ‘must know’ for future financial success. The following rules of thumb will help you dip your toe in those waters.

17. Don’t handpick stocks. Choose index funds instead. Very simple, very effective.

18. People who invest full-time are smarter than you. You can’t beat them.

19. The Rule of 72 (it’s doctor-approved). An investment annual growth rate multiplied by its doubling time equals (roughly) 72. A 4% investment will double in 18 years (4*18 = 72). A 12% investment will double in 6 years (12*6 = 72).

20. “Don’t do something, just sit there.” -Jack Bogle, on how bad it is to worry about your investments and act on those emotions.

21. Get the employer match. If your employer has a retirement program (e.g. 401k, pension), make sure you get all the free money you can.

22. Balance pre-tax and post-tax investments. It’s hard to know what tax rates will be like when you retire, so balancing between pre-tax and post-tax investing now will also keep your tax bill balanced later.

23. Keep costs low. Investing fees and expense ratios can eat up your profits. So keep those fees as low as possible.

24. Don’t touch your retirement money. It can be tempting to dip into long-term savings for an important current need. But fight that urge. You’ll thank yourself later.

25. Rebalancing should be part of your investing plan. Portfolios that start diversified can become concentrated some one asset does well and others do poorly. Rebalancing helps you rest your diversification and low er your risk.

26. The 4% Rule for retirement. Save enough money for retirement so that your first year of expenses equals 4% (or less) of your total nest egg.

27. Save for your retirement first, your kids’ college second. Retirees don’t get scholarships.

28. $1 invested in stocks today = $10 in 30 years.

29. Inflation is about 3% per year. If you want to be conservative, use 3.5% in your money math.

30. Stocks earn 7% per year, after adjusting for inflation.

31. Own your age in bonds. Or, own 120 minus your age in bonds. The heuristic used to be that a 30-year old should have a portfolio that’s 30% bonds, 40-year old 40% bonds, etc. More recently, the “120 minus your age” rule has become more prevalent. 30-year old should own 10% bonds, 40-year old 20% bonds, etc.

32. Don’t invest in the unknown. Or as Warren Buffett suggests, “Invest in what you know.”

Home & Auto

For many of you, home and car ownership contribute to your everyday finances. The following personal finance rules of thumb will be especially helpful for you.

33. Your house’s sticker price should be less than 3x your family’s combined income. Being “house poor”—or having too expensive of a house compared to your income—is one of the most common financial pitfalls. Avoid it if you can.

34. Broken appliance? Replace it if 1) the appliance is 8+ years old or 2) the repair would cost more than half of a new appliance.

35. Used car or new car? The cost difference isn’t what it used to be. The choice is even.

36. A car’s total lifetime cost is about 3x its sticker price. Choose wisely!

37. 20-4-10 rule of buying a vehicle. Put 20% of the vehicle down in cash, with a loan of 4 years or less, with a monthly payment that is less than 10% of your monthly income.

38. Re-financing a mortgage makes sense once interest rates drop by 1% (or more) from your current rate.

39. Don’t pre-pay your mortgage (unless your other bases are fully covered). Mortgages interest is deductible, and current interest rates are low. While pre-paying your mortgage saves you that little bit of interest, there’s likely a better use for you extra cash.

40. Set aside 1% of your home’s value each year for future maintenance and repairs.

41. The average car costs about 50 cents per mile over the course of its life.

42. Paying interest on a depreciating asset (e.g. a car) is losing twice.

43. Your main home isn’t an investment. You shouldn’t plan on both living in your house forever and selling it for profit. The logic doesn’t work.

44. Pay cash for cars, if you can. Paying interest on a car is a losing move.

45. If you’re buying a fixer-upper, consider the 70% rule to sort out worthy properties.

46. If you’re buying a rental property, the 1% rule easily evaluates if you’ll get a positive cash flow.

Spending & Debt

Do you spend money? (“What kind of question is that?”) Then these personal finance rules of thumb will apply to you.

47. Pay off your credit card every month.

48. In debt? Use psychology to help yourself. Consider the debt snowball or debt avalanche.

49. When making a purchase, consider cost-per-use.

50. Make your spending tangible with a ‘cash diet.’

51. Never pay full price. Shop around and do your research to get the best deals. You can earn cash back when you shop online, score a discount with a coupon code, or a voucher for free shipping.

52. Buying experiences makes you happier than buying things.

53. Shop by yourself. Peer pressure increases spending.

54. Shop with a list, and stick to it. Stores are designed to pull you into purchases you weren’t expecting.

55. Spend on the person you are, not the person you want to be. I love cooking, but I can’t justify $1000 of professional-grade kitchenware.

56. The bigger the purchase, the more time it deserves. Organic vs. normal peanut butter? Don’t spend 10 minutes thinking about it. $100K on a timeshare? Don’t pull the trigger when you’re three margaritas deep.

57. Use less than 30% of your available credit. Credit usage plays a major role in your credit score. Consistently maxing out your credit hurts your credit score. Aim to keep your usage low (paying off every month, preferably).

58. Unexpected windfall? Use 5% or less to treat yourself, but use the rest wisely (e.g. invest for later).

59. Aim to keep your student loans less than one year’s salary in your field.

The Mental Side of Personal Finance

At the end of the day, you are what you do. Psychology and behavior play an essential role in personal finance. That’s why these behavioral rules of thumb are vital.

60. Consider peace of mind. Paying off your mortgage isn’t always the optimum use of extra money. But the peace of mind that comes with eliminating debt—it’s huge.

61. Small habits build up to big impacts. It feels like a baby step now, but give yourself time.

62. Give your brain some time. Humans might rule the animal kingdom, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t impulsive. Give your brain some time to think before making big financial decisions.

63. The 30 Day Rule. Wait 30 days before you make a purchase of a “want” above a certain dollar amount. If you still want it after waiting and you can afford it, then buy it.  

64. Pay yourself first. Put money away (into savings or investment accounts) before you ever have a chance to spend it.

65. As a family, don’t fall into the two-income trap. If you can, try to support your lifestyle off of only one income. Should one spouse lose their job, the family finances will still be stable.

66. Every dollar counts. Money is fungible. There are plenty of ways to supplement your income stream.

67. Savor what you have before buying new stuff. Consider the fulfillment curve.

68. Negotiating your salary can be one of the most important financial moves you make. Increasing your income might be more important than anything else on this list.

69. Direct deposit is the nudge you need. If you don’t see your paycheck, you’re less likely to spend it.

70. Don’t let comparison steal your joy. Instead, use comparisons to set goals. (net worth).

71. Learning is earning. Education is 5x more impactful to work-life earnings than other demographics.

72. If you wouldn’t pay in cash, then don’t pay in credit. Swiping a credit card feels so easy compared to handing over a stack of cash. Don’t let your brain fool itself.

73. Envision a leaky bucket. Water leaking from the bottom is just as consequential as water entering the top. We often ignore financial leaks (e.g. fees), since they’re not as glamorous—but we shouldn’t.

74. Forget the Joneses. Use comparisons to motivate healthier habits, not useless spending.

75. Talk about money! I know it’s sometimes frowned upon (like politics or religion), but you can learn a ton from talking to your peers about money. Unsure where to start? You can talk to me!

The Last Personal Finance Rule of Thumb

Last but not least, an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

Boom! Got ’em again! Ben Franklin streaks in for another meta appearance. Thanks Ben!

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

Source: bestinterest.blog

Budgeting, Debt, Market News

Struggling with money anxiety and finding balance

On Saturday evening, I had a chance to chat with my friends Wally and Jodie. You might remember them from a reader case study from last August. They’re the couple that wants to get their finances in order but they’re worried because they’re starting with less than zero.

When we chatted in August, Wally and Jodie had over $35,000 in debt. They had variable incomes, but somehow seemed to spend exactly what they earned — about $3000 per month after taxes. Worst of all, they were behind on some payments.

Now, eight months later, their situation has improved.

Over smoked German sausage and beer, Wally and Jodie told me about their progress. (My dog, Tahlequah, was eager to take part in the conversation. Or maybe it was the sausage she wanted?)

Jodie, Tally, and Wally

Taking Baby Steps

“Based on your advice, we’ve worked hard to increase our incomes,” Jodie told me. “We’ve both been picking up extra shifts whenever possible. And I started a second job that pays pretty well.”

“So, you’ve been able to get a gap between your income and your spending?” I asked.

“You bet,” said Wally. “By working more, we don’t have time to spend much money. In August, we didn’t have any gap between our earning and spending. Our gap was zero. Now our gap is almost $2000! And we’ve been using the debt snowball method to get out of debt. We’ve already paid off a bunch of smaller stuff and now have $438 extra per month for debt payoffs. Plus, we have an emergency fund.”

“This all sounds amazing,” I said. “Great work!”

“It is amazing,” Wally said. “This is the best shape I’ve ever been in financially. But we’re struggling to figure out what to do next.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” said Jodie. “We’re getting married in September. We don’t know how much to budget for that. Meanwhile, we still have a lot of debt. We owe about $10,000 on Wally’s car. We had to replace my Mini Cooper last winter, and that brought us another $10,000 of debt. Plus, I still owe on my school loans.”

I did some mental math. While the couple’s cash flow has improved, I was a little nervous that they hadn’t actually decreased their debt since the last time we talked about money. That said, I know Jodie’s old car had been a thorn in their side. And they have paid down nearly $10,000 in miscellaneous debts.

“The real issue is that we can’t seem to find balance,” Wally said. “We’re burned out. We’ve been working so much that we never have time for ourselves. Or each other. It’s affecting our moods and our attitudes.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s tough.”

Wally nodded. “Now I have a friend who wants us to fly out to his wedding,” he said. “We’ve done the math, and we can’t afford it. He’s offered to pay for the trip, but we don’t know how we feel about that. We want to go, but even if we do accept his help, it’ll cost us a few hundred bucks — plus whatever income we lose while we’re gone.”

“What should we do?” Jodie asked. “We thought saving more would reduce the stress, but we’re just as anxious as ever. Well, maybe not anxious in the same way, I guess, but still. We’re worried about money — even with a $2000 gap each month.”

“Trust me,” I said. “The money worry never goes away. Everybody has money anxiety, no matter how much they earn, no matter how much they have saved.”

Worrying About Money

“Do you worry about money?” Wally asked.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “I’m basically financially independent, but I still have money anxiety. In fact, I’m so worried about it that this year I’m tracking every penny I earn and spend. And, just like you, there always seems to be something that comes up for me to spend on. There’s my heart-attack scare, which now looks like it’ll cost me $7500. I just paid a huge tax bill. And there’s all of this travel I’ve committed to this year. It’s always something.”

“Should we fly to my friend’s wedding?” Wally asked. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. I can tell it’s important to him for us to be there.”

“That’s a tough call,” I said. “And it’s an example of how personal finance isn’t just about the numbers. There are relationships and emotions to consider too.”

“From a financial perspective, I don’t think you should go. But it’d be hypocritical of me to tell you that. My cousin Duane is still fighting cancer, but he wants to make another trip to Europe next month. At first, I was reluctant to join him. Like I said, I’m trying to cut expenses this year because I feel like I’m spending too much. But you know what? I’m going. So, you see, my advice and my actions are at odds here.”

I didn’t know how to tell Wally and Jodie, but my biggest concern with their situation is that it seems like they’re getting ready to stop the race when they’ve barely begun. They’re not out of debt yet. They’ve made some excellent progress, but there’s still a long way to go.

They’ve spent eight months on this project. From the looks of it, they have another eighteen months to go — but that’s if they use the gap they’ve created to accelerate their debt payments. If they don’t choose this route, it’s going to take them even longer.

At the same time, I get where they’re coming from about feeling cramped. Sure, there’s a finite amount of time until they get the debt paid off, then they can loosen up. But when you’re in the thick of it, eighteen months can feel like eighteen years.

Finding Balance

The key, of course, is to find balance. And I think that’s what Wally and Jodie are trying to do.

They’re not trying to quit the race early. They don’t want to get behind on payments like they used to be. They don’t want to spend their emergency fund or to stop their debt snowball. What they want is to find a balance between today and tomorrow.

I didn’t mention it to them at the time, but I think they should look at the balanced money formula from Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi’s excellent All Your Worth.

The Balanced Money Formula

Warren and Tyagi argue that in order to achieve financial balance, your after-tax spending should be allocated like this:

  • At least 20% should go to Saving (which includes debt reduction).
  • No more than 50% should be allocated to Needs (which includes housing, utilities, healthcare, basic food, and basic clothing).
  • The rest — around 30% — should go to Wants (which is everything else).

Warren and Tyagi are adamant that less than half your budget should go to Needs. If you pour too much toward necessities, you don’t have room in your budget for fun or the future.

The authors are just as insistent that you should build room into your budget for Wants. “You should ask yourself,” they write, “are you making enough room for fun?”

Wally and Jodie aren’t spending much on Needs at the moment, but they’re not spending much on Wants either. They’ve been pumping most of their money into Saving (in the form of debt reduction). This is a Good Thing. But maybe it’s too much of a good thing?

Making a Plan

On Sunday morning, Wally sent me an email. After meeting with me, he and Jodie formulated a plan:

  • Until their wedding in September, they’ll keep their debt snowball where it is today: minimum payments plus the $438 they’ve freed from satisfied debts.
  • They’ll use an envelope-like budget for entertainment, travel, gifts, dates, and personal items.
  • With the rest of their monthly gap, they’ll create a dedicated savings account for their wedding. After the wedding, they’ll throw this money at debt.

This seems like a good, purposeful plan to me. It balances today and tomorrow. And you can be sure that I’ll follow up with them in the fall to make sure they’ve stuck to the plan — that they’ve remembered to prioritize their debt snowball again.

In the meantime, I sent Wally this Reddit post in which a young guy realized that by pushing for a 65% saving rate, he was miserable. He writes:

I’m currently shooting for a 55% saving rate and I cannot tell you how much more I enjoy life. I went from feeling like I couldn’t spend a dollar that wasn’t strictly budgeted, to travelling with friends, going to concerts, and enjoying the pleasures of life. That 10% made all the difference in the world

As for me, I still feel anxious. I’ve done a good job of controlling my small, everyday expenses this year, but the big stuff is still stressing me out. I need to heed my own advice and find better balance. That will come, I think, as I consciously make better decisions about future large expenses — and as I work to increase my own income.

Source: getrichslowly.org