Achieving success in personal finance is simple but not easy.
Make more money. Spend less than you make. Invest the surplus. That’s the formula to become wealthy over time.
The Nintendo fanboy in me calls this the Triforce of Wealth.
But doing those things requires habit, persistence, and a steady income. If personal finance was easy, everyone would be financially secure.
Most people are not.
Even as the U.S. economy is at its strongest levels in more than a decade, an uncomfortable percentage of people are still living paycheck to paycheck. The temptation to spend an entire paycheck is very strong.
Other factors challenge us too.
Making money requires work. Sometimes hard work. Not everybody is willing to do hard work.
Work may be difficult to find, even as the macro-economy is strong and opportunities to earn are widespread online. Lack of skills is often a hurdle, and smaller towns aren’t experiencing the same low unemployment rates as the big cities.
On top of all that, money makes us emotional and our emotions can affect our decisions, often for the worse.
Is it Worth your Time?
Material objects entice us. Saving money is boring. Why save for tomorrow when you can live for today?
Overcoming this mindset may be the biggest challenge people face in their financial lives.
When you invest your cash into income producing assets, the principal remains yours and it earns you more money (dividends, rental income etc.).
But when you spend your money on an item or experience, the money is gone. To acquire more money, you have to earn it again. This requires your time, muscles, and brainpower.
We all must spend money to eat, live in a home, and be entertained. But the fringe spending, that which doesn’t add value to our lives, should be more heavily scrutinized.
When considering non-essential purchases, it’s helpful to determine it’s usefulness or entertainment value by estimating the amount of time you need to work to pay for it.
For example, if an item costs $100 and you earn $20 per hour at a job, you’d need to work five hours to pay for it.
That’s the simplistic view.
To be a more accurate exercise, the hidden costs such as taxes, commuting, wardrobe costs, daycare etc., need to be factored in. Buying the item may actually cost six or seven hours of time instead of just 5.
If you don’t spend the $100, you are, theoretically, six or seven hours closer to the date you can retire.
I use this train of thought around my family sometimes. My kids are always sad to see me leave for work. When they are wasteful with food, I’ll say something like ya know, Dad worked hard to buy that slice a pizza, and you took a nibble and threw it away. So I worked for nothing.
Same goes for leaving the lights on or spilling milk.
This makes perfect sense in my head, but they don’t get it yet. Speaking to my kids this way won’t win me any parenting awards, that is for sure. But someday maybe it will sink in and they can apply it to their own lives.
I like to use a weight loss analogy to illustrate this financial concept more simplistically.
Don’t Eat the Doughnut
Like personal finance, weight loss is simple but not easy.
Eat less food. Eat healthier foods. Exercise more. That’s the formula for maintaining a healthy weight.
Doing those things also requires habit and persistence.
Eating and attempting to lose weight are also highly emotional activities. Unhealthy sugary foods taste great and make us feel good in the short-term but not-so-good when the weight keeps piling on.
Losing weight successfully requires willpower, mental fortitude, and the ability to cope with setbacks. Emotional support is paramount.
I usually eat a banana or a packet of oatmeal for breakfast early each morning in the office. Some mornings, I’ll walk by the kitchen around 9:30 and there is a box with leftover doughnuts from an executive meeting.
Since I already ate enough calories for breakfast, I don’t need any more food. But I see free doughnuts and I want one.
A typical doughnut contains about 400 calories.
If I eat a doughnut after my regular breakfast, I’ll fall behind on my summer weight loss goal. Do I eat it and enjoy the delicious taste and short-term happiness? Or stay strong and walk past?
Once eaten, the only options to compensate for the doughnut (besides barfing) are to eat fewer calories at a future meal or to exercise it off.
Humans are pretty smart about this stuff so we can calculate how much exercise it takes to burn off the doughnut.
To burn about 400 calories I’d need to:
- Walk four miles
- Run for 30 minutes at a moderate pace
- Swim for 45 minutes
- Play an hour of competitive badminton
- Play four hours of croquet
- Jump on a trampoline for two hours
- Play two hours of volleyball
- Skip rope for 35 minutes
You get the picture.
It’s far easier to not eat the doughnut than it is to burn off the calories with exercise.
Not to mention, the time you save not exercising can be spent doing something more enjoyable.
Low annual spending is a key factor in determining whether or not you can retire early. The lower your living expenses, the less money you’ll need to save to cover them in retirement.
As you save more money, you creep closer to enabling retirement. But every non-essential expenditure means you’ll need to work longer.
This all must be taken with a grain salt. Extreme early retirees think this way. Most normal people don’t.
There’s a balance between spending and saving. If you don’t spend any money on good food, cool gadgets, and memorable experiences, you might become miserable.
Where’s the joy in saying no to doughnuts every time? Treat yourself every once in a while, even if the calories are on top of the usual breakfast. Doughnuts are delicious, and they make us happy.
That’s what budgeting is for. Build non-essential spending into your budget. Just make sure what you purchase is useful or fun and not a waste.
Eat the doughnut, but maybe skip the third slice of pizza at dinner.
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