Financial Planning for Geeks

What's the Best Financial Advice You Ever Got?

- Potpourri

I recently saw an article on MSN asking readers to post the best items of financial advice they ever got, so I decided to do my own riff on it. I ventured out onto the Interwebs and also asked some friends for contributions. Here is a list of my 10 favorites:

An old, black-and-white advertisement for shoes made by Joseph Leckie of Edinburgh. There are drawings of shoes with the prices attached, and a banner with the company name and location.
Buy my shoes!

1.       Courtesy of my husband: Don’t spend it if you haven’t got it. Don’t charge anything you can’t pay off in full when the bill comes. Credit cards are fine…as long as you don’t carry a balance. I love this advice, because it runs counter to all the marketing and advertising we see. It also helps us resist the lure of easy credit and ever-increasing debt. We are under continual pressure to feel better, look better, and BE better just by installing a luxury toilet or wearing the right shoes. I know you know better; stay vigilant!

2.       An obvious corollary to #1, from a guy I found online called Ron, and probably three million other people: Live well within your means. Ron got a promotion and large raise as a young man, and one of his older co-workers asked, “Well, you’re living on what you’re making now. Why don’t you save it?” Ron took his colleague’s advice to heart and did just that…with that raise and each of his future raises. It worked out well for his financial independence, as you might imagine.

3.       From Michelle Perry Higgins, a financial advisor, as well as my friend, Cornelia, and my friend Rae’s bartender: Save as much as you can as early as you can. Perry Higgins specifically mentions saving in your 401(k), but of course you might have some other retirement savings vehicle(s) available to you. The earlier you start, the more you can take advantage of compounding over time, because you earn a return on your contributions AND your investment gains, and so on, and so on, and so on. That means you don’t have to contribute as much as if you wait until you’re older. And yes, savings includes non-retirement savings, which you set aside for emergencies or other financial goals you want to achieve.

4.       From my friend, Brad: Take a hard look at those small, recurring expenses. They can really add up over time and reduce the amount of money you have available to save. Maybe it’s that daily coffee on the way to work (which has had a lot of media and pundit attention). Maybe it’s buying your lunch every day, or never wearing the same pair of underwear twice. Thinking about these purchases will help you stay mindful about your habits and encourage you to consider what you need and why. I’m not here to judge your choices; I’m just asking you spend money on what really serves you and let everything else go.

5.       From my friend, Rae, who heard this from her mom: Balance your checking account at least once a month. This is great advice for a couple of reasons. The first is that it keeps us aware of what is coming in and going out each month. It prevents us from forgetting about what we’re spending or even hiding from that knowledge. It helps us stay mindful and accountable, as we saw in #4. The second reason this is great advice is we might find fraud or mistakes and be able to deal with them in a more timely way.

And if you’re one of those people who charges everything to a credit card instead of using a checking account, I would advise matching receipts against transactions when you pay the bill each month. Whether you get hard-copy, email, and/or text receipts, the benefits are the same. And see #1 if you’re not paying that bill in full every month.

6.       A corollary to #5 from my friend, Mark: Track how much you’re saving and where you’re saving it. This doesn’t have to be complicated, but he made a spreadsheet to track how much money he puts into emergency reserve, 401(k), brokerage, his Health Savings Account, and so forth. This practice will help ensure you’re increasing your savings over time, as needed, and help you decide where to put that next raise (see #2).

7.       From Dale Brown, a senior executive VP at an investment firm: Invest in stocks. I’ve also found that Nick Murray is a fierce and vocal proponent of stocks. Fundamentally, stocks are where you will find growth in value over the long term. You might have noticed that we’re in what seems like an interminable era of low interest rates, so your interest on bonds and cash doesn’t keep up with inflation. And even over the long haul, stocks have outperformed bonds and cash (through downturns, high inflation, AND worldwide pandemics). Strap in for a bumpy ride, but ride you must!

8.       From Charles S. Gofen, principal at an investment firm, comes this corollary to #7: Diversify. Don’t just buy Apple and think you’ve got it made. You might be one of those lucky few who picks a winner early and rides it all the way to glory…but statistically speaking, you probably aren’t. The best strategy is to diversify those stocks as thoroughly as you can, because this means the failure or stagnation of one company won’t impact your entire portfolio.

You will need to invest in hundreds or even thousands of companies across categories: a variety of countries and regions; blue chip and higher volatility; growth and value; small, medium, and large; a range of industries; and so forth. The quick and easy way to do this is to buy mutual funds and/or ETFs, keeping an eye on investment fees and internal fund management costs.   

To be clear, you’re not necessarily diversifying by purchasing different mutual funds or ETFs. There is often significant overlap in the holdings of funds in a similar sector. That’s why it’s important to hold funds in the different sectors and categories listed above.

People frequently use “diversification” to refer to asset classes as well, not just categories of stocks. Asset classes are different types of investments, like stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, hedge funds, and so on. I don’t have space to go into it here, but you will need to decide which and how much of each of these asset classes you want to hold.

9.       From MSN: Don’t spend money without your significant other’s knowledge. This undermines the trust you have with your partner and can even put them in a position where they’re responsible for your outlandish debts.

Of course you can decide how far to go with this advice; maybe you don’t need to check with your partner if you’re buying an iced tea. Maybe each of you has a budget each month to spend on anything you want, but over a certain dollar amount the other partner has to agree. I also like the rule the family in the MSN article implemented: for major purchases, if one person says “no,” the other person can’t harbor a grudge. Oooooh.

10.       From The Minimalists: Love people, use things. Friends, nothing matters if we are more tied up in our money and possessions than we are in our loved ones. When I asked my clients to really think about what was important to them, it was never the money itself. There was always another goal money would enable, and it almost always involved people (yes, “people” includes you, so take care of yourself). Even if you don’t want to become a minimalist, if you put thought into what and who is important in your life, you’ll know where to put your money, energy, and time.

11.       A bonus piece of advice: You may be wondering if I have a piece of financial advice to contribute to this discussion. Yes, I do, and thank you for asking! The best time to start investing (in stocks; see #7) is TODAY! I don’t know who originally came up with this idea, but I was first struck hard in the face with it by Nick Murray. There will never be a “good” time to start; you’re just starting in your career and paying off debt, you just got married, you just bought a house, you just had kids and now, oops, the kids are going to college, and now they’re getting married, and now it’s too late. Stop the madness! Just start now, even if it’s a dollar a week. It’s never too late (or too early).

The other point I’m trying to make with this advice is that there’s no point in waiting for the perfect time to jump into the stock market, since no one knows when that is. Just get in now and hold on over the long term; discipline and consistency are the only solution for those of us who aren’t in a position to manipulate markets.

This post has been great fun for me to write, and now I’d like to invite you to share the best piece of financial advice YOU ever received. Let me know where you got the advice, too. If there’s enough interest, I’d love to write more of these posts and give you a chance to see your advice featured here.

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Penny Farthing

I, Penny Farthing (non-wizarding name Kerry Read ), actually have a day job in the world of finance. This blog came into being because of my deep and abiding love for geeks and Personal Finance.