Financial Advice for my Children
I’ve made a few (hundred) bone-headed financial blunders in my past, probably starting with my purchase of a poorly made Yes t-shirt in 1984, but I wish I could say my financial ineptitude ended there. Within the last two years I was late with a credit card payment (really dumb) and didn’t consider the tax implications of some of my family’s finances (also dumb, but more forgivable, unless you conclude that we should have hired an accountant years ago and called it a day). But of course blunders can be and should be avoided. Last week I wrote about the essay Neal Gabler authored in the May issue of The Atlantic, wherein he too admits to his financial gaffes, albeit in the context of a larger national epidemic of financial illiteracy. But here’s the thing: financial illiteracy isn’t a condition. It’s a choice, at least for those who know better (and Gabler certainly does). Yes, I’ve made my mistakes, but I’ve kept reading and over time have done less harm and more good for my family’s finances.
(Of course, someone could simply argue, “You want to do good for your family’s finances? Get a fricking job!” Fortunately, my wife is not among those someones.)
But even those who've managed to do a fairly good job of staying on top of the myriad of investment choices, saving maxims and cryptic tax laws might find themselves doing a piss-poor job of passing on that education to their children. I’ve found that while my parents had good sense and certainly taught me the value of a buck, most of my education was self-initiated by way of living and screwing up royally from time to time. I would like to see if I can spare my children of too much learning by living, because it seems as though these days the stakes are a bit higher. Growth is down, good jobs are more scarce, college costs are higher, housing is through the roof. It’s all gotten a little more insane.
So, recognizing that I’m offering nothing new here that hasn’t already been stated countless times before, I offer my children my twenty pieces of financial advice.
1) Become educated. Hey, some people might make fun of Suzy Orman, but the gal can teach. Clark Howard is also a personal favorite. There is a ton of material out there, whether on TV, radio shows, books, DVDs or simply the Internet. I started way back with the books The Wealthy Barber and The Millionaire Next Door and went on from there. Sometimes it helps to read a well-written book instead of plowing through dozens of articles on-line. Whatever method you choose, there is no excuse to be financially illiterate.
2) Avoid dept. Aside from a mortgage, a car, a personal business investment, and (maybe) higher education, never pay for something you can’t pay off at the end of the month. Never.
3) Start saving now, gradually building to an amount equal to six month’s salary for emergencies. Yes, it will take time to establish such a fund. Start saving now. Even setting aside a few hundred dollars a month for a while will be helpful. And don’t settle for the crap interest rates that your bank offers. Consider looking at online banking (Barclays is currently paying 1%) or joining a credit union.
4) Always pay off your credit card bills each month. Always. I’ve missed I think three in my life, and that’s three too many.
5) Start saving for your retirement immediately. Parents, you can open up an IRA for your child and invest any money they make (and that you claim on their taxes), even if they personally keep what they earn. I opened up IRAs at eTrade for my daughters when they turned sixteen and managed to match what they earned for a couple of years. Now that they’re in college they certainly can’t afford to invest all they earn, but even a small percentage is preferable to nothing. Five percent would be a nice place to start. Once you have access to a 401K that has a company match, max out your 401k up to the point of the company match, and then invest the rest in a Roth IRA, if eligible.
6) Once you do start saving for retirement, never, ever, ever (this is for you, Neil Gabler) take out money from your 401k for something as stupid as a wedding. By definition, spending a ton of money on a wedding, a bar/bat mitzvah, a confirmation or quinceanera is stupid. Paying for it with a 401K is beyond stupid. It’s colossally moronic.
7) Stop eating out so much. You have an oven and a stove. Use them. When you do eat out, if things are tight play it smart and don’t pay for a $10 martini. Go to BYOB places, or pack a picnic and watch a free concert in the park. You can live well without living like a king.
8) Don’t indulge in every desire, and if you do want to indulge in something, have a plan. If it’s going to take six months of saving before you can buy that musical instrument or take that vacation, then save for six months.
9) Try not to take any loans out for college, but if you have to, don’t graduate with more than $30,000 in loans, and I would argue that this should only be for majors that will definitely result in a good paying job. $30K in loans means $333 a month for ten years, before rent, before food, before insurance, before utilities, before anything else. That’s a lot of money if you’re intending to major in political science. I can’t recommended highly enough Frank Palmasani’s book Right College, Right Price and I wish many of the parents I’ve spoken to had read it before sending their kids to college that will result in a degree and $80,000 of debt. You’re not doing your kids any favors by having them graduate with whopping debt.
10) Don’t buy life insurance unless you have people dependent on your income, but once you do have dependents, buy a long-term term life policy while you’re young and healthy. Lock it in.
11) Once you have a legal partner and/or dependents, suck it up and pay an attorney for a will. Don’t leave the government in charge of your death and your assets.
12) Don’t get divorced. Seriously. Yes, the idea of marriage being a financial partnership isn’t sexy, but if you can avoid leaving your partner, you’ll be way better off financially. Of course, if there’s abuse of any kind, get the fuck out. But if not, see if you can work it out.
13) Speaking of marriage, don’t wait until the wedding day to find out your partner has $150K in debt (think it doesn’t matter, that love conquers all? Think again.) or wants to open up a pizza joint in Little Italy. For goodness sake, talk about some of this stuff while you’re deciding to spend the rest of your lives with each other.
14) Budget. Back in the day my wife kept a written log in a notebook of various things we were saving for (a wedding – which we paid for – musical instruments, a down payment on a home, etc.). Of course, once I transferred this log into Excel it became my responsibility, so my next piece of advice is: don’t transfer your wife’s written log into Excel.
15) Give to charity. You’ve got to be one sorry sack not to give some of your time and money to others in need. And I don’t mean donating your old clothing. I mean feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, protecting wildlife, teaching a child or an adult. Help someone other than yourself.
16) Don’t lease a car and don’t buy a new car, at least not until you’re in good shape financially. You could consider leasing if you’re someone who truly gets pleasure out of having a new car and who wants one every couple of years. Most of us can get by without this.
17) Speaking of cars, drive your car until it costs more per year to repair it than it does to buy a newer used car.
18) And one more about cars – don’t skimp on the obvious: change oil according to manufacturer’s instructions, check brakes and tires regularly and stay on top of other maintenance issues.
19) Of course, the same can be said for a home once you own one. Take care of it. That doesn’t mean indulging in additions and renovations you can’t afford, but at least maintain the property.
20) Speaking of mortgages, when rates are low, lock in and pay the minimum. If rates go up at some point (and they will) lock in but pay attention and refinance when appropriate (and don’t pay for the refi). I refinanced I think seven times in nine years when we first moved to Illinois.
So there you are. I’ll probably think of another twenty in the next few weeks, but this is a good place to start. Children, read and take heed.