Is it possible that there are some basic principles upon which your personal finance journey should be built? It turns out there are. I’ll warn you in advance – you may not like some of them. Just as THE Ten Commandments guide us away from our personal nature which is sometimes tempted to do things which seem fun at the time, but lead to long term harm, these “Personal Finance Commandments” can guide you away from doing things which will bring harm to your long term financial goals.
In full transparency, I didn’t come up with the original list. That honor goes to this article from MoneyStepper, which I just read tonight. I liked the concept and the guidelines presented so much, I’ve decided to build on the original article with original thoughts of my own, including the “10 Commandments” title. In my quest to “Help People Achieve A Great Retirement”, I think there’s a lot of room to share some of the best concepts I come across in my heavy reading on personal finance topics. This one’s a good one, and worth my effort to build upon the concept.
Strive to achieve as many of these commandments as you can, and you’ll be well on your way toward financial independence. Break them, and suffer the consequences.
The 10 Commandments Of Personal Finance
I. Keep Your Housing Costs Under 25% of Your Net Income
Personally, I like these “rule of thumb” guidelines to help you decide how much of something you can afford. When you’re shopping with a realtor, or talking to a banker, they often attempt to “stretch” you to a ratio that’s higher than you should really undertake. So, look at your last paycheck. How much went into your bank account? If you rent, your rent should be less than 25% of your monthly NET pay (after taxes). Ditto on your mortgage payment. If you’re spending more than the 25% “commandment”, consider downsizing, or seek out a job with higher pay.
II. Keep Your Mortgage Under 2.5 Times Your Annual Salary
Interesting that the first two “Commandments” focus on housing costs. Appropriate, given the cost of the roof over your head is the highest expense you’ll incur in your personal finance journey. Manage it carefully, and don’t buy “too much” home. If you’re making $50,000/year, your home should be worth $125k or less.
III. Don’t Buy A New Car Unless You’re A Millionaire
I LOVE this one. Bottom line: buying a new car is stupid (yes, I said Stupid!). It depreciates immediately, and it’s expensive. It’s one of the worst personal finance decisions you can make. Don’t “Buy New”! After a few months, it’s “just a car”. Within a few years, if you’re like most people, you’re “itching” for another one. AVOID the materialism – focus on the function. My wife and I have bought used cars for years, and paid cash for all but our first one. We bought her last car new (a 2012 Hyundai Sonata for $25k), but I’ve told her she can’t sell it until it has over 200,000 miles on it. Oh the fun we have on this topic. Yes, this one is a HOT button for me. Don’t let Madison Avenue talk you into a mistake. Here’s a challenge for you, which I’ve accomplished with several of my cars:
“$1,000 PER YEAR”
Depreciation, that is. Make it a personal goal. Think on it. If you buy a $20,000 car and sell it in 3 years, you’d have to sell it for $17,000 to achieve this goal. It can be done, I’ve done it twice (most recently with my 2002 Miata, which I bought for $12,000, and sold it 6 years later for $7,000). It’s really, really hard, but it helps you keep your car expense where it should be – MINIMIZED!
IV. Maintain A Savings Rate of 20% or More
I know, I know. You have a million reasons…… Get over it. When you get your next pay raise, divert the majority of it to savings. For example, if you get a 3% raise, increase your savings rate by 2% ON THE SAME MONTH that your pay increase hits your paycheck. You’ll never miss it, and within a few short years you’ll be over 20%. With pensions gone the way of the dinosaurs, and Social Security anything but secure, it’s critical you save at the 20% level to have a realistic chance of a “normal” retirement. Or, you can keep making excuses. Don’t say you haven’t been warned when you’re 70 years old and fearing for how you’re going to live on your meager savings. Do it now, while you still have time. You’ve been warned. Again. Getting the hint?
V. Earn A Minimum Of 5% On Your Net Worth
This is a new one, and my compliments to MoneyStepper for the concept. He argues that you should look at the return on all of your assets (including home value) and strive to achieve a minimum of 5% return. This is necessary to grow your savings into a large enough asset pool to offset inflation and provide the income you’ll need in retirement. The takeaway for me – keep your assets widely diversified, and don’t get in the trap of “too much in cash” beyond your 6 month emergency fund. You must earn a higher return than is possible on fixed income investments to grow your assets at the rate they must grow to reach your objectives.
VI. Think Before You Act
I’ve modified MoneyStepper’s rule, which read “consider every financial decision carefully via an investment analysis”, to a simplified “Think Before You Act”. Personally, I think the use of “investment analysis” scares people off, and it’s not necessary to make the point of this Commandment. The point here is to realize that your longer term personal finance success is nothing more than a long journey of little steps, every day. Don’t make spontaneous decisions on topics related to money (see Commandment III above), but realize that every decision you make has a long term impact. I’m a big fan of annual Net Worth tracking, as it gives you a nice way to see the results at least once a year from all of the little decisions you made during the year.
VII. Pay Off Your Highest Debt First
Make getting out of debt a huge focus. One could argue whether it’s best to pay off your “Smallest Debt” first (Dave Ramsey’s “snowball” method) or your “Most Expensive” debt first. Viewed strictly from a financial perspective, you’ll come out further ahead if you tackle the most expensive debt first. From a motivational perspective, the “smallest first” may be more encouraging. The point is: attack debt, and attack it HARD. It’s the fiercest enemy of your longer term financial goals (right up there with Procrastination!).
VIII. If It’s Not In The Budget, Don’t Buy It
Yes, that means you need to have a budget. A friend and I have had this discussion, and he believes if you’re saving more than 20% of your pay you don’t need a budget (as long as you’re not in debt). His logic – you’re saving 20% and you’re debt free. You don’t need to micro manage as long as you don’t spend more than the 80% remaining after your savings. I’ll give him that. Using the same logic, if you’re NOT saving 20% or more, or you’re in debt, you need a budget. If you’ve never done one, try it for one month. The purpose of the budget is to avoid making mistakes in your discretionary spending, which is exactly the point of this Commandment.
IX. Never Go Shopping Without A List
We’ve all been there, right? This one works. Make it a habbit, and only buy the items on the list!
X. Always Think In Terms Of Hourly Value
The MoneyStepper author uses this rule to guide you on what you should hire others to do. If you can make $20/hour working, but instead you spend an hour mowing your yard that you could pay the neighbor kid $10 to complete, pay the kid. I have a bit of a different opion on this one. You should only pay the kid if you WILL work the extra hour making $20 instead of mowing the yard. If it’s a choice between watching TV and mowing the yard yourself, mow it yourself. You just made $10 more by investing your time instead of paying the kid. Also, I think it’s helpful if you think of items you’re considering purchasing in “Hour Terms” instead of “Dollar Terms”. If you think about how much work it took you to pay for something, you may be just a bit more hesitant to open your wallet buying yet another thing you really don’t need.
So, there you have it. 10 Commandments For your Personal Finance. See how many you can apply in your own life. The next time you’re facing a money decision that falls within these commandments, stop and think. If you do that, the past 2 hours of my life spent writing this will have been invested wisely.
Make me proud.