On my blog I talk a lot about investing in the stock markets and assuming risk in exchange for positive returns over time. In this world, things can feel advanced and overwhelming very quickly. Particularly for newer readers.
While it is fun to explore the deep dives of investment strategies and better ways to invest, sometimes we forget about the basics. A base for investing—being in a position where we can take risks.
I often get emails from newer investors who will ask questions about the various investing styles I explore. (And some that I don't.) Is Dual Momentum a good choice for them? Should they stick with static index investing instead? Is adding leverage to a portfolio too aggressive for them?
While I enjoy the interaction, it is always difficult to answer these emails. I'm not a professional financial advisor and don't hold myself out to be one. I'm a regular guy who is interested in the markets, is moderately well read when it comes to investing, have experienced some decent success, and am continuously learning myself.
But more importantly, everyone's personal situation is different. A retiree who needs stability and tax-friendly income requires a different portfolio from my own. Someone who is starting out but has a shaky job and a lot of debt is also in a much different category of responsible risk taking.
Speaking from personal experience, my ability to invest carefully with appropriate risk and the right mental mindset was advanced when my personal financial situation stabilized. It is very tough to invest properly when cash is low, money is tight, and debt is high.
When I had little money and a big mortgage, I was tempted to go for home runs, treating investing little different from a lottery ticket. The problem is these big wins rarely happen. In the worst cases the more likely large losses can scare a person away from the markets forever.
Very few people get rich with 5x, 10x, or 100x baggers on risky forms of investing (penny stocks, cryptocurrencies, options, etc.). Even fewer stay rich.
Sticky wealth is wealth amassed carefully and methodically over a long time with a lot of hard work.
A Firm Foundation
Like everything else in life, investing begins with a firm foundation. Before taking on risk and putting money into the markets, have everything else in your financial world tightened up.
Pay off debt. Debt is a major financial risk factor today. Way too many people carry enormous debt loads that bog them down. Deep down, most regret the choices that led them into debt. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to buckle up and do everything in your power to pay off debts. Take a second job, work overtime, live with mom and dad or in a low-cost roommate situation, spend nothing, sacrifice, do whatever it takes.
Never invest if you are carrying credit card debt or have personal loan or an unsecured line of credit balance. Paying these debts off aggressively can provide you with a guaranteed after tax return of 7 to 25 percent. It can also save you a huge amount of stress.
That said, a modest mortgage is okay to carry while investing. Your interest rates are likely to be low and the payments should not be overwhelming.
Cut expenses. Having low living expenses can provide substantial peace of mind. It is also likely to simplify your life. While a million websites will moan about spending on lattes and avocado, the best places to save money are the big expenses.
Downsizing your house, going down to one (or none) fuel efficient vehicle, getting rid of pricey toys like motorbikes or ATVs, selling the vacation cabin or time-share, and taking modest vacations are perfect ways to live better and save money. Way too many people have no money but think it is normal to live like millionaires. It's not.
Earn a decent income. It doesn't need to be a huge six figure take. In Canada I peg the healthy number at C$70,000 gross per year. In the U.S. this could be closer to $50,000. That's only a bit above average for a full-time skilled worker. In some areas of the country it will need to be higher, in others the number can be lower.
Many younger people follow the herds into Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, LA, NYC, or Seattle. For most a much better bet is a city like Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, or Phoenix. Or the hundreds of very livable smaller cities with low cost-of-living. You would be amazed how location can drastically improve your odds of building wealth and financial independence.
Save money. This is a big one and is the culmination of the prior three points. You should be in a situation where your monthly income consistently exceeds your monthly expenses. Nothing is worse for your portfolio than being in a situation where you put in a dollar and pull out 50 cents two weeks later.
This includes investing for financial independence but pulling money out to "invest" in a kitchen upgrade or "invest" in more reliable car. Investing is for the long-term. It should be kept completely separate from saving for a larger purchase, even if that purchase adds a bit of value to your home.
Build a cash cushion. I like to maintain a decent cash balance in our chequing account. Depending on the time of month, when income comes in and expenses go out, our chequing account will bounce from around $3,000 to $7,000. This provides a nice cushion to cover any spending needs without worrying about overdraft or credit card balances.
We use credit cards for most daily spending to defer the bill for up to a month and a half. Free short-term loans, free purchase protection, and free travel rewards are awesome! But I make sure I can pay it off in full every month.
I'm not a big fan of maintaining large emergency funds because odds are you will never need to use them if you manage your finances properly. Instead, get a personal line of credit set up at your bank. Don't use it unless you are in a financial emergency. Save and invest the rest of your money so it is working for you, not the bank.
Risk and Investing
When most people think about risk and investing, they focus on how risky their investments are. They might even dwell on the risk of losing money when investing—a virtual guarantee at some point in everyone's investing journey.
I prefer to look at the entire picture of risk. This includes investing but it adds in your personal situation (which in many ways is more important). A commissioned real estate salesperson is in a much riskier situation than a power lineman at the utility company. Even if the sales lady drives a BMW and wears nice clothes (or maybe because of that).
A shaky relationship with one very spendy partner is much riskier than a stable partnership of two frugal individuals. A family with a large house and a large mortgage is much more fragile than a family that rents a smaller house or rowhouse.
These ideas extend to a multitude of other factors: high debt compared with no debt, dual versus single income families, old versus young, kids or no kids, level of flexibility in pursuing the best work opportunities, renting or owning, biking and the occasional Uber versus multiple vehicles. The list goes on.
A young, dual income, no debt, apartment renting, no child, biking couple has the capability of taking on high leverage in their portfolio while still being lower risk overall. Flip the situation and invest in GICs and you are still setting yourself up for a major financial wipeout.
Set yourself up for success in your personal situation. Then let the markets do the rest of the work.
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