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“When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” said Tim Gurner on “60 Minutes” a while back. His comments, appearing to deride millennials’ financial habits, caused quite a stir.
While nobody would argue that eating out is the most efficient way of paying for a meal, it turns out that millennials don’t spend all that much more on restaurant meals than other generations of Americans. Those millennials who can’t pull together enough for a 20% down payment on a house mostly declined to accept this rebuke from someone who had the good fortune to receive an early $34,000 loan from a grandparent to help him launch his business. His truly hard work notwithstanding, if he wasn’t so fortunate to get that familial support, it’s not clear Gurner would have achieved his huge financial success (Gurner, at age 35, has a real estate business worth over US$300 million).
Setting aside the legitimacy of the messenger, let’s concentrate instead on the message. Any number of financial gurus have repeatedly suggested that people bootstrap themselves out of their financial woes by brown-bagging lunch instead of buying a sandwich, forgoing a daily latte, or avoiding any other of a host of small daily or weekly purchases.
If so many financial experts are telling us to stop frittering away our money, surely they know what they’re talking about, right?
From a purely mathematical perspective, yes, they do. If someone making $50,000 a year brings lunch from home every workday and makes her own coffee in the morning, she’d likely save over a thousand dollars a year. Invested at say 7% annual return and compounded over a 40-year career, that could add up to a tidy $200,000 ignoring inflation, and perhaps $100,000 accounting for the relatively tame 2% or so annual inflation we’ve seen over the past few years.
But (and there always seems to be a pesky “but” with these seemingly simple calculations, doesn’t there?), the above only holds true for automatons. For the overwhelming majority of us humans, there’s a deeper calculus that comes into play, as illuminated by the work of 2017 economics Nobel laureate Richard Thaler. The Nobel committee recognized his work in the field of behavioral economics, especially for the concepts of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control.
One point that comes out of research in this field is that we humans often make sub-optimal decisions, even when we know better. This is partially attributed to seeing willpower as a limited resource, and the “decision-making fatigue” we suffer if faced with too many choices too frequently.
Accepting our limited ability to consistently make good decisions, especially when confronted by the practically endless assault of temptations put in front of us by marketers intent on separating us from our hard-earned cash, how can we possibly win? How can we ensure, or at least make much more likely, our long-term financial success?
Here are three secrets to financial success, none of which requires you to adhere to a strict budget.
Choose Your Financial Battles Wisely
Instead of worrying if we’re frittering our money on repeated small purchases, we should be far more concerned about frittering our willpower and decision-making abilities.
Buying lunch and having a latte out a couple of hundred times a year may indeed cost an extra $1000, but avoiding it requires making hundreds of decisions a year, with each one saving only a few bucks.
Instead, save up that willpower and decision-making capability for the really important decisions.
For example, buy a car and drive it into the ground rather than leasing a new one every 2–3 years. This only requires one decision every few years, and (depending on the price of the cars in question) can save you $2000 or more a year on average.
Save your willpower for the really important decisions. For example, buying a car and driving it into the ground rather than leasing a new one every 2–3 years requires one decision every few years, and can save you over $2000 a year on average.
Not moving to a part of town where the majority of people make far more than you do requires one choice in a decade or three, and can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is especially so when you consider all the temptations avoided by not seeing your neighbors driving more expensive cars than you can afford; not hearing about their expensive vacations that you shouldn’t be taking because the only way you can pay for them is by borrowing on your credit cards; and not feeling pressured to buy your kids more expensive clothes, shoes, and tech than you would in a less affluent part of town, just to avoid having them feel like the poorest kid in class.
Systematize, Automate, and Minimize Fees
One thing the financial gurus did get right is the old saw that we should “pay ourselves first.” What they mean by that is that we should set up automatic deductions from our checking account into a low-fee investment such as an index-based mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) as soon as our paycheck hits the account.
By diverting money from your account into savings as soon as it comes in, you force yourself to live on less than you make, paying your future self before you can hand out the money to all the merchants surrounding you, endlessly hawking their wares, most of which you don’t really need. What’s even better is that you only need to make a single “set and forget” decision to set this up.
Set up automatic deductions from your checking account into a low-fee investment such as an index mutual fund or ETF as soon as your paycheck hits the account. Doing this forces you to live on less than you make, paying your future self before you hand out the money to all the merchants surrounding you, endlessly hawking their wares, most of which you don’t really need.
If you want to buy lunch daily, find a service that sells healthy pre-made meals for a reasonable price. That way you avoid the negative health outcomes and higher costs of buying unhealthy restaurants lunches, where you’ll likely be tempted to buy endlessly refillable sodas, and possibly an unnecessary dessert to boot. This provides a systematic solution that allows you to eat healthy, control costs, and retain the convenience of not having to prepare meals daily to take with you to work.
Similarly, in every arena of life where you spend significant sums over time, do your research, figure out the best choice for a systematic solution, and automate it as much as possible. This is the best use of your limited willpower and decision-making resources, the most “buck for your bang” if you will :).
“Opher, good health is your most important possession,” my mom kept telling me until she passed away at 91.
She was right. Just imagine being super-wealthy, but suffering an incurable debilitating illness. Wouldn’t you give away your fortune if it meant you could be well again? In fact, countless Americans suffer financial ruin as a result of sudden catastrophic medical expenses.
Countless Americans suffer financial ruin as a result of sudden catastrophic medical expenses.
While none of us is immune to falling ill or suffering a devastating accident, you can shift the odds in your favor by doing your best to keep healthy. This includes eating healthy (I know not all of us can afford this, but do your best within your means), and working out at least to the extent of walking a few miles a day — try parking at the farthest edge of the parking lot rather than the closest to where you’re going, and using the stairs instead of riding the elevator. Yes, this does require some of your limited willpower, but (a) it’s important enough to spend that resource, and (b) you can, and should, make it into a life habit so it becomes easier and easier with time.
The Bottom Line
There are many other “secrets” to long-term success or growing rich slowly, but the above are most within your control, even if you’re not entrepreneurial enough to start your own business (one of the best ways to grow your wealth, but more on that in a future story).
What non-budget secrets have you found to be useful in your personal finance journey? Conversely, what have you found to be toxic to financial success?
About the author:
My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.