A reader question …

A reader asks:

… [I have] a question on your Blogpost “Advice for a new Multimillionaire” you stated something that grabbed me “Wealthy people spend capital. What they should be spending is income.”
My question is this… when you were first starting out how did you determine how much of your income to turn into capital and at what point did you decide to change that ratio.

This is an excellent question because it ties into the common notion of “paying yourself first” i.e. putting aside a set portion of your income into debt reduction and/or savings.

For a very long time, I didn’t save anything …

Then I discovered my Life’s Purpose (a very expensive one at that!) and realized that I would need to make $5 million in 5 years [AJC: I overachieved, although it took me a little longer than hoped, hence the title of this blog].

That made me rethink everything in my financial life, including starting to save.

So, I pumped as much as I could spare into buying mainly real-estate and a little in stocks and other investments … and, as my income increased, I pumped almost all of that increase into more investments.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a strategy at that time beyond “save as much as I can”.

Now, I recommend that (if you are still earning income) you should pay yourself twice.



Pay Yourself Twice!

It is commonly taught that in order to build wealth, you first need to save; and, the best way to save – so common financial wisdom says – is to pay yourself first.

Investopedia (the online investment dictionary) explains Pay Yourself First:

This simple system is touted by many personal finance professionals and retirement planners as a very effective way of ensuring that individuals continue to make their chosen savings contributions month after month. It removes the temptation to skip a given month’s contribution and the risk that funds will be spent before the contribution has been made.

Regular, consistent savings contributions go a long way toward building a long-term nest egg, and some financial professionals even go so far as to call “pay yourself first” the golden rule of personal finance.

Whilst certainly better than the other 99% of the population who don’t even bother saving anything, paying yourself first doesn’t go far enough:

Never mind underestimating what it costs to live a reasonable lifestyle, realize that the old “retire a millionaire’ ideal is no longer adequate; this is largely because of inflation i.e. over 40 years, you will suffer roughly two doublings in the cost of living.

Another handy way to think about this is to think of your retirement date & financial target:

Think of a ‘number’ … the amount that you think is reasonable to aim for in retirement, given the financial strategies that you feel that you can employ. Can you save $1,000,000 by your expected retirement date? Less? More?

Don’t guess; there are plenty of retirement saving calculators around to help you with this task …

1. If 20 years out, ask yourself: “would I be happy with living off no more than 2% of that number, each year?”

2. If 40 years out, ask yourself: “would I be happy with living off no more than 1% of that number, each year?”

If your answer is a resounding ‘yes’ then you are done … it looks like your retirement savings strategy will work.


Now, stop reading this $%@@# blog, it will make your head spin 😉

But, I’m guessing that the answer will be ‘no’ … then what?

Then, you have to face some realities about your current “pay yourself nothing” and “pay yourself first” and “no debt in my life” strategies:

– A million dollars in 20 years (= approx. $500k today) to 40 years (= approx. $250k today), is too low a target,

– 10% isn’t enough to save,

– 20 – 40 years is too long to wait,

– Your 401k – more importantly, the underlying investments – isn’t the right place for your money,

– And, you are probably under-leveraged.

Today, we’ll deal with the first issue:

If you have two reasons to save money (1. to pay down debt, and 2. to build your investment war chest), then it stands to reason that you should pay yourself twice!

But, most people pay themselves second, if at all.

From now on, I want you to concentrate on paying yourself twicebefore you spend money on anything else (other than taxes and social security); here’s how:

1. Pay Yourself Once: If you currently participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, then you should continue to do so, and

2. Pay Yourself Twice: You should save an additional 10% of your take-home pay – for now, this can be in an ordinary savings account clearly separated from your other funds.

If you do not currently participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or if you and/or your employer are currently contributing less than 5% of your gross pay into your retirement account, then you need to increase your pay yourself twice target to 15% of your take-home pay.

Of course, this is easier said than done: if you had 10% of your take home pay just lying around, by definition you would already be saving it …

… in other words, you are already paying yourself twice; if not, all of your take home pay is currently spoken for!

So, let’s start slow:

Step 1 – Could you save just 1%?

Take a close look at where your money is going: do you think you could find any spending areas where you can cut back enough to allow you to save just 1% of your take home pay?

If you are already saving – but less than the 10% / 15% Pay Yourself Second target – do you think you could find any spending areas where you can cut back enough to allow you to save another 1% of your take home pay?

[AJC: No need to start at 1% if you can find ways to save more; start at (or, adding) 2% or even more, but make sure that once you start that you never turn back … be realistically aggressive in setting your Pay Yourself Second target]

Step 2 – Wait 3 months and double it!

Over the next three months, perhaps by scouring the personal finance blogs on the internet, dedicate yourself to finding ways to double your savings rate i.e. if you started at 1%, after three months you should be saving at least 2% of your take home pay. If you started at 2%, don’t take your foot off the gas … double your savings to 4% of your take home pay.

Step 3 – Repeat

Keep doubling every three months until you reach 8% of your take home pay; three months later, save that 8% plus an additional 2% of your take home pay.

Step 4 – Almost there

What you do next depends on your Pay Yourself Second target:

– if you are already saving at least 5% of your gross pay in an employer-sponsored retirement plan (or similar), then you are done! Keep saving that 10% of your take-home pay.

– if you don’t participate in a retirement plan, or if you contribute less than 5% of your gross pay (including employer contributions), then you should keep saving 8% of your take-home pay plus you should concentrate on doubling the additional 2% every 3 months (i.e. 2% to 4% to another 8%) until you reach your combined target of 15%.

Step 5 – NEVER give up

Start today and never stop!

Unfortunately, as I’ve already pointed out, saving alone won’t get you to Your Number … it won’t even replace your current salary!

So, next time, I’ll help you decide what to do with your Pay Yourself Twice savings …

More on the the myth of paying yourself first …

You can play with numbers until you go blue in the face, but unless you understand the principles you won’t be able to make the right life choices.

So it is with the myth of paying yourself first.

It’s usually pitched as putting aside the first 10% to 15% of your paycheck into your 401k with any excess (when your 401K’s maxed out) I guess being put to work elsewhere. Some offer slight variations on the theme, like David Bach’s one hour of salary a day (or 12.5% of your gross).

Any way the ‘gurus’ put it, the alluring promise is of following this discipline your whole working life to ‘finish rich’. David Bach – author of the book to the left – goes even further calling this a powerful one-step plan to live and finish rich.

We have to examine this promise very carefully, because following this line of reasoning for 40 years to see what happens leaves very little room to maneuver if you come up short.

If the ‘normal’ working life is 40 years – to me this concept is almost incomprehensible – then, picking a mid-point in your career and a mid-salary of $50,000, adjusted for inflation, that you think (another terrible assumption) that you will be happy with for the rest of your life, then in my last post I showed that you would need to save almost half of your pay packet (again, indexed for inflation) until you retire …

… simply to replace your $50k salary (by then, inflated to roughly $100k but so have all of your living expenses).

But, what if you start young – as Bret @ Hope To Prosper suggests – and are happy to work 40 years?

Firstly, I would have to ask why you’re reading a blog titled “How To Make $7 Million In 7 Years” 😉

Putting that aside, you would need to save a tad under a quarter of your paycheck if you want to maintain your $50k per annum lifestyle beyond retirement (inflation would have roughly halved your buying power twice in that period, meaning that you would actually be withdrawing around $200k per annum just to maintain the same lifestyle that $50k buys you today).

Unfortunately, you are unlikely to reach your desired salary so early in your 40 year working career …

So, if you’re a graduate with a starting salary of, say, $30,000 and you somehow ramp that up to $50,000 after 5 years (at which point you start saving for retirement), you would need to save around one third of your paycheck for the remaining 35 years until you retire.

To be clear, following the common wisdom and “paying yourself first” 10% of your $50,000 gross paycheck (then indexed for the next 40 years for inflation) as recommended by many (if not most) personal finance ‘gurus’ is a sure-fire way to make sure that you retire on over $60,000 a year.

However, far from being a pay increase, because of inflation it actually represents less than 50% of your current $50k salary. Work and save diligently for 40 years and cut your paycheck in half …. nice 🙁

Any way you look at it, paying yourself first is no Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich as claimed by David Bach and his ilk.

Next time, I’ll share a plan that will work much better …

The myth of paying yourself first …

One of the first books that I ever read on the subject of personal finance was The Richest Man In Babylon … if you haven’t read it, get it and read it.

It is a wonderful primer on the basics of personal finance.

The part that stood out for me – since repopularized by David Bach in his hugely popular Automatic Millionaire series – is the notion of paying yourself first.

The story goes: if you would only pay yourself first [insert popular pay yourself first amount here: 10% of your gross; 15% of your net; up to the employer match; one hour of salary a day; etc.] you will be well on your way to financial success.

Except that it’s a crock …

If you pay yourself first, you’ll be slightly better off than the Jones’, but that’s about it.

Does that mean that you shouldn’t bother to pay yourself first i.e. save a portion of your income?

Of course you should, but not:

(a) where the popular financial press tells you to,

(b) in the amount that the popular financial press tells you to, and

(b) for the purposes that the popular financial press tells you to!

Before we examine how they got it so wrong, let’s take a look at why it doesn’t work; we’ll start with the typical ‘pay yourself first’ amount of 10% of your gross salary:

Let’s say that you start with a $50,000 annual household income, and you want to maintain your current standard of living in retirement … which is in approx. 20 years.

[AJC: why anybody would want to work for 20 years just to maintain their current standard of living is beyond me?! But, let’s go with it, just for the sake of proving a point ;)]

Firstly, you can assume CPI salary increases between now and your retirement date, so in 20 years your salary will approximately double to $100,000. Of course, since they’re only CPI increases, you haven’t really earned a pay rise as all as your gas, bread, milk and so on have also doubled in that time.

At a 4% so-called ‘safe’ withdrawal rate (to allow for average investment returns less the effects of taxes and ongoing inflation, etc.), you will need an approx. $2.5 million after tax lump sum in 20 years to generate $100k for life [AJC: assumption, assumption assumption … but, we’ll go with this, too].

Note: you can get by with less, if you trust that Social Security will be around in 20 years, but I wouldn’t bet on it … and, neither should you.

In order to generate $2.5 million in 20 years you will need to pay yourself firstdrum roll please …. 75% of your gross income, starting now and continuing for the next 20 years.

This assumes a 9% after tax return on your investments; 8% undershoots by a couple of hundred grand and 10% overshoots by about the same.

So, what does David Bach’s 1 hour of salary a day (or 12.5% of your gross) actually do for you?

It gives you about $15,000 a year to live off (a little less than $8k a year in today’s dollars) making you a real Automatic Thousandaire 🙂

Next time, I’ll answer the where in for questions …

Early retirement in the extreme …

Jacob and I are really the bookends for early retirement: he says that he has retired on $6k per year (a budget of $500 p.m.), and I am retired on $250k per year (around $20k p.m.).

I know I’m happy, and I’m pretty sure that Jacob is happy, too.

Now, there are some non apples-for-apples comparisons, here:

– Jacob has a spouse who works; my spouse does not work but has thought about working

[AJC: one of the problems with being ‘rich’ is that it’s embarrassing to take a part-time admin. job that pays $13k per year, driving there in 10 years salary worth of car and driving home to 461 years worth of house! I told her that it might be better if she just donated her time to the charity that wanted to hire her]

– Jacob has no children; I have two

– Jacob’s net worth is higher than the typical American’s … so is mine!

Wealth is defined as being able to live comfortably on the passive proceeds of your investments; clearly, both Jacob and I can do that according to our individual assessments of ‘comfort’, so we are both wealthy.

Moreover, our wealth and retirement strategies are not for the masses … but, the lessons learned can be!

However – and, this is a big ‘however’ – I simply don’t believe that ‘extreme’ early retirement strategies really work for any, but a small minority of families. There will simply be too much financial pressure – some generated directly, and some indirectly (yes, peer pressure is real) from the children:

– Food: you may be happy eating home-cooked meals. Your kids will want sushi and sodas with their friends.

– Clothing: you may be happy with last-season Gap and TJ Maxx. Your kids will want this season Abercrombie and Ed Hardy.

– Education: you may be happy on $500 p.m., but how much college will that buy? Your kids will resent having to buy their own, so that you can do nothing.

– Health: your kids will be at the doctor every day … for everything from a runny nose to broken bones to removal of superfluous bits (foreskins, adenoids, tonsils, and appendix … and, that’s just in healthy children!). They won’t ask to go … every time they so much as sneeze, you’ll be dragging them there in a panic!

– Cars/phones/bling/going out/travel: see ‘college’, above!

Of course, you could bring your children up like BF:

He too, is a minimalist, but his parents (well, his father) trained him to be like that from young.

When they were kids, they weren’t poor in the sense that they were living paycheque to paycheque. They had money, they had savings, but they never spent it.

BF joked that to his parents, Money = No Object(s)!

No Television: “It’s all crap on there. Sorry kids. No TV. It’s not reality, and if you want to watch TV, you go over to your cousin’s place. But it’s crap. The radio is better. And free.”

Then from not having a TV they avoided buying:

  • TV accessories
  • A couch to sit in to watch TV
  • A VCR or DVR to record things on TV or to watch videos on the TV
  • …anything the commercials were selling

No Telephone: “Why do we need a telephone for? If you want to talk to somebody, just go over and see them.”

Then from not having a telephone:

  • No phone bills
  • No actual phone to purchase
  • No long distance calls

So what did they spend their money on? Food. And utilities to cook food. That’s it.

No extra clothes, toys, or anything I ever took for granted as a kid. Not even soccer club fees or lessons, because that would mean that you’d have to buy a soccer ball and a uniform.

… you could – and, it might even be character building for both you and your children – but, I wouldn’t count on your future familial happiness 😉

In case of emergency break glass …

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on how – and why – to set up an emergency fund with just $0. For a start, it doesn’t take much cash 😉

I suggested using a HELOC, or tapping your 401k in case of a true emergency. Some of our readers had other suggestions:

– Trainee Investor suggested selling stocks (they can be liquidated pretty quickly), or taking an unsecured overdraft.

– Evan suggested adding the “Cash value portion of a whole life insurance policy to the list. You can have the cash in your account within a day or two”

– Investor junkie says that you can avoid selling your stocks by taking a margin loan [AJC: just beware of the dreaded ‘margin call’ which can force you to sell your stocks – possibly at a loss – if there’s a drop in market price]

And, Yahoo Finance provides their view of the The Best (and Worst) Ways to Raise Fast Cash; check it out. Then let me know if you’ve changed tack with your own emergency fund, or if you still prefer to fund it with cash?

The Zero Dollar Emergency Fund …

If you own a boat that’s large, expensive, and is likely to take on water from time to time, you plan well ahead and put in a bilge pump.

But, if you have a dinghy and you’re paddling out on Lake Michigan, far away enough from shore to make swimming a poor second choice, then you carry a bucket … and, if the boat springs a leak (highly unlikely … it’s not a bad dinghy) or, water happens to come over the side from time to time …

… well, you start bailing water!

An Emergency Fund’s a little like that:

What you do depends on whether you expect the emergency [AJC: I know, it’s an oxymoron] or not. Of course, if you expect it – or, can reasonably foresee it (like problems with a beaten up old car), then it’s not an emergency at all … just something that you can’t budget an exact amount for.

But, you can provision for it; at least, as best you can.

But, true emergencies do arise – or, semi-expected events blow up bigger and/or sooner than you ‘expected’ – so what do you do?

Try and build up and emergency fund but not spend it even if a really great investing opportunity comes up [AJC: what’s the opportunity/cost of that?!]?

Or, why don’t you simply find a bucket of money that you can tap into IF an emergency arises … but, one that costs you zip (or, even makes you money) in the LIKELY event that an emergency does NOT arise.

Here are some examples of In-Case-Of-An-Emergency-Please-Break-The-Glass Funds:

1. A HELOC (home equity Line of Credit) that you put in place on your home ‘just in case’

Use an online mortgage calculator to make sure that you can borrow enough to cover your likely living costs + the repayments for as long as you think it will take you to get back on your feet and repay the loan. This is a pretty good, flexible option that only costs what you use.

The other advantage is that you should be able to raise a LOT more than you can save … and, it will be available as soon as you put the paperwork in place (a true emergency fund could take YEARS to save).

On the other hand – say, if you lose your job and the bank finds out – the HELOC may be revoked just when you need it the most … of course, if you’ve already drawn down the funds before the ‘pink slip’ is in your hands …. 😉

2. Your 401k

There are usually provisions that allow you to borrow or withdraw funds against your Retirement Account; again, this may allow for ‘protection’ against fairly large emergencies (say, a few months off work), but it may come at a hefty opportunity cost … particularly, if the fund rules don’t allow for the funds to go back in on a tax-preferred basis, if you’ve managed to recover quickly enough.

Also, the tax and/or penalty interest costs may be quite high.

3. Your Car

Maybe you can do a sale and lease-back on your car .. or, maybe you can sell your car for cash and either use some of the proceeds to ‘trade down’ (therefore, freeing up some cash) or even make an exception to the “don’t finance a depreciating asset rule” by financing a (cheaper) one, instead (thereby, freeing up a lot more cash).

Remember, you’re really borrowing some money to tide you over in an emergency … you don’t expect to get out of it squeaky clean.

4. Credit Cards

Yep … this is the time that a bunch of credit cards sitting in a drawer can be really useful … but, it’s very expensive (19%+ p.a.) so make sure you only take this route for really short-term emergencies that you KNOW you can trade your way out of really quickly (i.e. less than a year).

5. The Three F’s

And … don’t forget that getting on your hands and knees and grovelling to your Friends, Family, or other associated Fools is also an option!

Anybody have any other true ‘Emergency Fund’ source ideas?

The Murphy’s Law Fund

Scott who – in my post proposing a Zero Dollar Emergency Fund – says:

I’ve given this topic a lot of thought and how do you feel about seeing a typical ‘emergency fund’ as more of a temporary ‘war chest’? In that, you are building up this cash savings reserve as fast as you can, while you scout for that next great investment opportunity (ie; stock in that excellent undervalued company that you researched, or that terrific foreclosure that you’ve scouted out in a great area that you want to purchase and turn into a rental property, or an excellent business idea or perhaps funding the expansion of your current business).

I figure that way, this money has a specific target(high returns that are more likely to get you to your number by your date) BUT, in the meantime, if Murphy pays you a visit while you’re building up this ‘war chest’, you have some liquidity(ie; emergency funding) to tackle that emergency. But, as soon as you have enough built up to take that next investment opportunity, take it with this money!

The short answer is that Scott has some cash lying around, and hasn’t yet figured out what to do with it. An ’emergency’ pops up, so the logical thing to do is to dip into that cash and use it to solve the problem.

I don’t have any issue with that: but it isn’t an Emergency Fund. It also isn’t a ‘war chest’. It’s just some spare cash lying around …

Of course, I’m overstating things for dramatic effect, here 😉

So, let’s take a look at the following graph to see what may be happening [AJC: I’ve adapted this graph from something to do with the ‘mating cycle of dogs’ that I found on Google image search, but I think it suits our non-canine purposes just fine!]:

Let’s pretend for a minute that this graph represents the amount of ‘spare cash’ that Scott has lying around (Y-Axis) at any point in time (X-Axis):

Scott starts building up his savings, has a little glitch as he realizes that he forgot to pay his car insurance premium by installments so he has to pay it all at once, then steadily builds up again until it reaches Scott’s ‘peak’  – his ideal Emergency Fund of $10,000.

Then Scott hits paydirt: an idea for a new online business, and he starts to spend that $10k on programming, domain name registration, hosting, Google Adwords and all the other stuff needed to get the ‘side business’ off and running. A couple of months and $9k later, Scott’s business is paying it’s own way [AJC: well done, Scott!].

Great, now Scott can start building that Emergency Fund again …

Do you see the problem?

The only time the Emergency Fund is adequate is between the time that Scott has managed to save up the full $10,000 and the time he starts spending the money on something else (in this case, his new business idea; it could easily have been a vacation, new car, girlfriend, or …?).

[Sigh] If only Life’s little ’emergencies’ knew how to fit into Scott’s calendar [double sigh]

I guess it’s up to me to propose a better solution …

Next time 😉

An inch is not a mile …

You decide that you need a new TV because your old one blew a tube (do they still have those?) and watching the blank screen is a real bummer.

You check your budget then the catalogs and decide that $900 is a reasonable target price for the type of TV that you want, so you trundle down to Best Buy [AJC: Ka-ching! That’s another $1,250 for product placement. Whoohoo!].

Luckily they have the TV you want at only $850 … better yet, with your $50 Best Buy Rewards vouchers [AJC: + $350 Voucher Mention Bonus] you get the whole kit for $800.

So, what should you do with the $100 that you just saved?

That’s the question asked (and, comprehensively analyzed) in a guest post on I Will Teach You How To Be Rich on The Psychology of Money Savings, where the author talks about this as “the last mile of saving”:

So you’ve cut back your car insurance, negotiated a lower interest rate on your credit card—or nabbed a great deal on a new TV. You’re congratulating yourself for being a smart saver, and keeping more of your hard-earned money in your pocket.

Peter Tufano, professor of consumer finance at Harvard Business School, says that many people confuse a lowered rate (on car insurance), or getting a discount (25% off a TV) with saving money.

You can thank a psychological phenomenon that economists have dubbed malleable mental accounting.

C’mon, this isn’t a ‘mile’ … it’s barely a savings ‘inch’: you haven’t ‘saved’ anything … you’ve just spent 800 bucks.


If you really want to think about saving, treat the $100 that you ‘saved’ from your original (actually, notional) $900 budget as ‘found money’ and save 50% of that.

Better yet, vacuum the dust off the back of your TV from time to time and maybe it won’t overheat and you’ll be able to ‘save’ the entire $900.

Got it?

The Zero Dollar Emergency Fund!

Last week I asked How many months do you have in your emergency fund?

Earlier, my blogging friend JD Roth at get Rich Slowly (GRS) asked the same question of his readers, and this is what he found:

How many months do you have in your emergency fund?
GRS 7m7y
less than 3 months 38% 29%
3-6 months 26% 24%
7-12 months 13% 24%
more than 12 months 14% 16%

This shows that more 7m7y readers have 3+ months living expenses in their ’emergency funds’ than GRS readers, which means …

I’ve done a terrible job 🙁

On the other hand, if you answered “what’s an emergency fund?” good for you, you’re already a step ahead of the pack … you see, not everybody – including me – thinks that you need to have an emergency fund at all!

[AJC: At least not until after you reach Your Number]

For instance, Liz Pulliam Weston writes at MSN Money that you should have a $0 emergency fund, replacing it with a concept that she calls ‘financial flexibility’:

The whole idea that everyone needs a big pile of cash, and needs it right now, should be rethought. In reality, the failure to have a fat emergency fund isn’t inevitably a crisis. At the same time, those who feel safe because they have three or even six months’ expenses saved up might be kidding themselves.

Let’s say your take-home pay is about $4,000 a month. Although you have been spending every dime, you make a concerted effort to trim your expenses by 10%. This not only frees up money for your emergency savings but lowers the total amount you need to save from $12,000 to $10,800.

Still, it will take you 27 months — more than two years — to scrape together your emergency fund. And that assumes nothing comes up that forces you to raid your cache.

Let’s explore this a litter further: JD Roth has $10,000 in his emergency fund, but that doesn’t just represent $10,000 today …

…. it represents the future value of $10,000:

Let’s say that you intend to retire in 20 years, if you earn 9% on your money (say, invested in Index Funds) then you are giving up, say, 2% bank interest (by having your emergency fund sit in an ordinary savings account for quick ’emergency’ access) to earn 9% – or, a net of 7%.

That extra 7% earned represents about $8k in extra interest/profit that you are giving up for the benefit of ‘peace of mind’ in an emergency. But, we aren’t investing our money in Index Funds, because we are on a mission: we want to reach $7 Million in just 7 Years!

To us – that is, those of us on a steep financial trajectory – this $10k pile of cash represents seed capital for your new business venture or next real-estate acquisition [AJC: and, don’t tell me that an extra $10k wouldn’t be a big help for either of these endeavors] …

… now, $10k ‘invested’ at:

  • 15% (stocks) grows to $35,000 after just 10 years
  • 30% (real-estate) grows to $106,000 after just 10 years
  • 50% (business) grows to $384,000 after just 10 years

… a slightly larger price to pay for peace of mind 🙂