Blog Anniversary: 5 years

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5 years ago, I published my very first post on the Money Savvy Blog. Its title was the cost of eating-out.  5 years and 181 posts later, my view on this particular topic hasn’t changed. When convenience becomes a daily necessity, it will derail most financial plans. I still refuse to pay for these by the way.

A number of things has changed in my life in 5 years. I became consumer-debt free, traded houses, switched to part-time work and decided to obtain an MBA. This one thing, however, hasn’t changed.

As for the topic of Personal Finance, my overall perspective has drastically shifted. I realized Financial literacy alone wasn’t enough, that some of the advice dispensed out there was way too generic, if not downright judgemental. It is not all about avocado toasts and lattes. It is more about focusing on the big picture and increasing income. There are Financial killers way more potent than lifestyle inflation. And, oh, living in the suburbs isn’t necessarily cheaper; and sometimes renting is the better option.

There are a few topics, however, on which my perspective hasn’t changed. I don’t see any change happening in the foreseeable future. Debt will always be debt; whether good or bad, it still needs to be paid off. The necessity of an emergency fund is not up for debate, regardless of how it is structured. A line of credit is not an emergency fund per se. While saving for the kids’ post-secondary education is not a requirement, saving for retirement is. To do so, becoming proficient in investing is a good start.

Last but not least, net worth has nothing to do with self-worth. It is also OK not to be into F.I.R.E. In the grand scheme of things, health is more important, as well as being grateful. Happiness can’t be bought on any stock exchange.

To conclude, here are the 5 most read posts for each year I have been blogging.

10 Financial killers

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In my previous post, I shared how F.I.R.E. has an element of privilege to it. I also indicated that for most people, F.I.R.E. will remain a pipe dream.

There are very real obstacles to becoming financially independent and potentially retiring early. Here they are, in my personal order of importance:

FINANCIAL KILLERS # 1 & 2: STAGNANT WAGES AND INFLATION

5 years ago, Statistics Canada published a very interesting study on the evolution of wages in Canada between 1981 and 2011. The study shows, among other things, that hourly wages barely bulged during that period. A full-time worker would earn about $ 21 in 1981 and just under $ 24 in 2011. Not even 15% more.

There were also gaps depending on gender, age and education.

In the meantime, inflation during the same period rose by 149.16%. 

FINANCIAL KILLERS # 3 & 4: DISAPPEARANCE OF JOB SECURITY AND PENSION PLANS

Job hopping is the new normal these days. Most people will have an average of 15 to 20 jobs and 2 to 3 different careers. Sadly said so, most employees are seen as disposables. Job security is a thing of the past, just like companies’ pension plans.

Only 37% of Canadian employees have a pension plan today, primarily in the public sector. It used to be over 50% in the seventies. A company pension plan used to be an important pillar of retirement, making-up for paltry CPP amounts and lack of personal savings. Nowadays, workers need to save more for their retirement. It can be an arduous task when looking at Financial killers # 1 & 2.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 5: POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION COSTS

Canadian students graduate with an average of $ 27 000 in student-loan debt. Depending on the degree and university, this amount can be much higher. Starting adult life and career with such burden is crippling, even more so when looking at the previous 4 financial killers.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 6: UNHEALTHY OBSESSION WITH HOME-OWNERSHIP

Yes, I am aware I am a home owner, thank you very much. That being said, I did not think about buying until I was in my mid-thirties, and after doing thorough calculations. Nothing says you have to buy a property right after graduation or after getting married!

In order to buy, you need to save for both a minimum down-payment and the closing costs. You also need to stay put for at least 5 years, if you want to gain equity and recover from the closing costs you paid.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 7: CAR AND COMMUTING COSTS

A subcompact car will cost on average $ 10 000 per year. This includes car payment, insurance, gas, maintenance and tolls. Since more people have to move to suburbia to find affordable housing and easily need 2 cars per household, these costs can only go higher.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 8: STAGGERING DAYCARE COSTS

If you chose to have children, it is very likely you will have to go back to work, despite the Federal government paid maternity leave and the Canada Child Benefit program.

This is not always a question of personal choice. It is merely based on at least the 5 first Financial killers.

A spot for an infant in a licensed daycare in Vancouver costs close to $ 1 300/month. For a toddler, you are looking at just over $ 1 000.  Prices in other big Canadian cities are similar, with the exception of Montreal. The Quebec government has its own childcare program and costs are way lower.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 9: CONSUMER-DEBT, AVOCADO TOASTS AND LATTES

A lot of people are still trying to keep-up with the Joneses, by constantly upgrading to bigger and shinier things.

That being said, a lot of people are also using credit cards to make ends meet, due to the above financial killers.

FINANCIAL KILLER # 10: LACK OF FINANCIAL LITERACY

Unfortunately, we are not taught at school that we need to save for retirement or for emergencies. We are also not taught how to best do these things. We are not taught how interests on credit cards or loans is calculated. We are not taught about management fees.

This doesn’t help, but it is not what sends someone to a trustee in bankruptcy, contrary to popular belief.

To combine finances or not?

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When two people are in a committed relationship, the question of moving-in together comes-up at some point. This question actually triggers a series of other questions such as how to share household chores and if all the belongings are going to fit-in in the new place.

However, there are a couple of very important questions that should not be overlooked: how are we going to pay for the bills and are we going to combine finances?

Long before you move-in, you should have had “the money talk”, as a couple. There are crucial details that partners need to know about one another, such as income and debts, as well as goals.

Once you have the basics down, it is time to take your conversation to the next level.

Option 1: partial combination; 1 joint checking-account, 1 joint savings-account

A joint checking-account is used to pay for common expenses like rent, utilities and groceries. More categories can be added, depending on your situation. If you are a one-car household, then car expenses would also be considered as a joint expense.

If you have similar incomes -or close enough-, you can both contribute 50% to the account. If there is a large disparity between your incomes, use the percentage method instead.

Add your respective monthly net incomes. Divide your individual net income by the combined income and multiply by 100. Always use your net income.

For example, if your net combined monthly income is $ 10 000 and one partner earns $ 2 500, their share is 25%.

It is also a good idea to have a 3-month emergency fund for the shared expenses.

Option 2: almost complete combination

With this option, all the money is deposited in a joint-account and a portion is transferred to each partner’s individual accounts.

All the bills are paid from the joint-account, regardless of their nature. The individual accounts work like an allowance.

The most challenging part of this approach is to decide what amount should be transferred to the individual accounts!

Option 3: complete combination

This approach is definitely the most transparent one. When both partners are on the same page financially, it is also the best.

Communication is key. It is best for both partners to sit down and discuss how to consolidate all their accounts, as well as how to manage them on a day-to-day basis. Both need to be actively involved.

As years go by and children come into the picture, the line between “yours, mine and ours” becomes more and more blurry.

Option 4: complete separation

In this scenario, the couple does not combine finances at all and keeps everything separate. I personally find this method counter-productive. Some household expenses are higher than other ones, and it can be tricky to decide who pays for them. It can also be an hindrance to saving goals or paying-off debt.

You may want to revisit why you are not considering combining finances to some extent. Maybe you have done this in a previous relationship and it was a disaster? Maybe you don’t trust your partner? Maybe your partner has an opposite financial style?

Again, communication is key here. Money is a huge stressor for couples and the leading cause of divorces.

Final word

Deciding to combine finances -or not- is a very personal decision. What will work for a couple may not work for another. It is important to find the system that works for both your partner and you. Don’t worry about what outside people think.

The problem with personal finance blogs

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I totally understand the post you are about to read may confuse you, and even more so since I am a personal finance blogger who has been blogging about personal finances for over 3 years.

That being said, I believe it is also important to have perspective.

PF blogs are either too generic or too specific

A lot of blogs out there are either about extreme frugality, early retirement, stock investing or becoming debt-free. If you don’t fit in any of these categories, it is hard to relate to these blogs and the bloggers behind them.

Same goes with geographic location. A lot of blogs are written by US residents. Well, I live in Canada so that does not necessarily help me.

It is one of the reasons most people create their own blogs in the first place. I was no exception.

most pf blogs are written by non-specialists

This is a highly sensitive area I am coming to. The majority of people blogging about personal finances have no background in it whatsoever. Quite a few are writers trying to cash in on the popularity of the subject.

Writing is also influenced by personal experience. Bloggers are sharing tips and advice because it worked for them. By extension, it should work for everybody else, right? Wrong!

In order to work, financial advice has to be personalized. You don’t get this in PF blogs. It is crucial for readers to always check facts and not take the advice too literally.

PF blogs are repetitive

How many times have you read that you need to save money for retirement or have a budget?

Don’t get me wrong, basic financial advice is and will always be needed. It is a foundation to build on. But we also need different takes and perspectives in order to progress.

So, that what my blog will be aiming to do from now on. Readers will still see basic advice from time to time, as it allows for a broader audience. But, there is some conventional wisdom that can and needs to be challenged.

 

Choosing a Financial Advisor

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Over the last week or so, 3-time Olympian Harold Backer has made headlines here, in British-Columbia, and not for the right reasons. After retiring from rowing, Backer became a Financial Adviser and Mutual Fund representative. He mysteriously disappeared in 2015 amidst allegations of defrauding former clients. He turned himself in last week and has since been charged with two counts of fraud over $ 5 000.

this story illustrates how badly the financial services industry needs to change

The industry is largely unregulated. Anyone can set-up shop and call themselves a Financial Adviser, a Financial Consultant, a Money Coach, a Personal Finances Expert. You do not need any particular qualifications or experience.

Unfortunately, most canadians do not seem to care and are far too trusting

I don’t know which one I find scarier here, to be honest. A lot of personal finances bloggers also call themselves “experts” when they are anything but. This a post for another day.

So, how do you choose a Financial Advisor?

first, look for the following credentials

The Financial Services landscape is full of designations that can be very confusing. Unlike the Accounting profession, there is no talk of “unifying”.

  • Certified Financial Planner®: this is the “Gold standard” of the profession. This designation is international. To obtain it, candidates need to take classes in Financial Planning, pass exams and have a minimum of three years of relevant work experience. In Canada, the CFP® designation is administered by the Financial Planning Standards Council.
  • Personal Financial Planner®: this an alternate designation, administered by the Canadian Securities Institute. It is very similar to the CFP® designation.

A lot of Financial Planners also have one or more of the following specialized designations:

  • Chartered Investment Manager®: a CIM® usually handles and manages portfolios of wealthy clients.
  • Chartered Financial Analyst®: a CFA® also handles and manages portfolios. They also do research and analysis on companies, stocks and other securities.
  • Trust and Estate Professional®: a TEP® is very knowledgeable in estate planning and management, trusts, wills and taxation. Note a TEP® does not replace a lawyer or notary.
  • Chartered Professional Accountant ®: a CPA® prepares and analyses financial records for companies and non-profit organizations. They also do tax returns.
  • Chartered Financial Consultant®: a CH.FC® specializes in retirement planning and wealth accumulation.

The five above designations are very good complements to a CFP® or PFP® designation. However, as stand-alone, they are not enough to provide comprehensive financial planning.

Ignore the LLQP and Mutual fund license

The LLQP is for people who want to sell insurance products. These two credentials do not cut it to provide sound and objective financial advice.

Then, LOOK FOR A FEE-ONLY ADVISER

In my opinion, this is the best way to receive unbiased advice. A fee-only planner will charge you for their time. Some will charge you a percentage based on the total value of your assets.

It will definitely be more expensive than meeting with an adviser at a bank. The main difference is that a fee-only planner will not sell you any products and will put your interests first.

Experience is a bit more relative. Education is key when it comes to choosing a Financial Planner.

 

When and how to financially cut off your adult children

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As I previously wrote, times have changed. Gone are the days of working in the same company for your entire career as well as receiving a generous pension plan upon retiring. With tuition fees on the rise and employment prospects rather scarce, a growing number of parents found themselves helping their adult children well past their university years.

I will probably sound harsh here but doing so is a disservice both to the adult children and the parents. Let me tell you why:

  • Parents, your children are not going to pay for your retirement. You can’t borrow for this!
  • Parents, if you can’t pay your own bills in order to pay your child’s, you have a problem!
  • Parents, if you are cashing your retirement savings or your home-equity to help your children, you have a problem!

Constantly helping your adult children actually teach them to be helpless and unmotivated. Think about it for a minute or two. If your adult children know you will catch them when they fall, what are they learning? Probably nothing. Do they have any incentive to proceed differently? Probably not.

There is no question in my mind that adult children need to be responsible for their lives, in every way:

  • Adult children, if you need to get 1, 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet, so be it! Stop relying on the bank of Mum & Dad for your basics.
  • Adult children, if you need to postpone vacation, wedding or home-buying until you can actually afford it, so be it!
  • Adult children, if you are never able to go on vacation, pay for a grand wedding or buy a house, so be it!

What is the best way, as a parent to help their adult children, you might ask.

  • Teach your child about money management. It is never too late to learn! You may find out you need a refresher too, as a parent.
  • Set boundaries and stick to them. Saying no to a child is the hardest thing to do for a parent, but is both liberating and powerful. But by doing so, you are fostering their independence and creative-thinking. If you gave them a move-out or cut-off date, follow through.

My own parents only helped me once, financially, as an adult. It was back in 2009, in the midst of the economic downturn. I was unemployed and had exhausted the little savings I had.  It is the only time they bailed me out…and that’s the way it should be.

I had previously asked for financial assistance for other items, and my parents always declined. I found it hard, but looking back I know it was in my best interest. I made my own mistakes but I also learned valuable lessons, such as the value of a dollar and the value of planning. It also rid me of any sense of entitlement I may have harbored.

Financial things to do (and not to do) in your 30’s

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The 30’s are definitely an interesting decade. Chances are they are a mixed bag for most people in them, including myself: wedding, kids, house, career…etc. This decade is probably the most taxing on hard-earned dollars.

The good news is that your 30’s are also your top-earning decade. Without further ado, here is what you should – and shouldn’t- be doing in your 30’s:

  • become established in your career. You probably have a few years of experience under your belt by now. Make the most of them to negotiate your salary and promotion or to find a better job. If you are considering a career change or want to become self-employed, you will need to plan for this. Keep reading.
  • make use of work benefits: benefits are basically free-money, and even more so when they are employer-paid. If your employer offers extended health and/or disability insurance, please enroll. Same goes for a pension or a group RRSP plan.
  • track your expenses and income. There is no way you can budget and set goals if you don’t do this.
  • have a sufficient emergency fund. Whether you want to call it a back-up fund or an opportunity fund, it is all the same. It needs to be adequately funded. Chances are $ 1 000 are not going to cut it anymore, particularly if you have dependents. Most people aim for 3 to 6 months of living expenses. Aim for what is right for you, given your circumstances.
  • have adequate insurance coverage. Unless you are loaded with cash you need insurance. Check my previous entry on this subject.
  • plan and save for items: whether it is car repairs, your wedding or your annual vacation, these are neither emergency nor a surprise. If you are unable to save the money, then you may have to postpone or consider other options.
  • don’t keep-up with Joneses. You should be way past this.
  • you are really saving for your retirement. This should be the top-priority, before your kids’ education, if you have them. Ultimately, your children won’t pay for your retirement.
  • you are investing in the stock market. You still have a few decades before retiring. The stock market has always provided the highest returns. Educate yourself and invest your money. Do not let it sit in your savings account earning 0.5% interest.
  • you have your debt under control. It is unlikely you will be able to completely avoid debt in your 30’s. Your student loans should be on their way out, if not paid off. You are not racking-up credit card debt to buy stuff or to pay for living expenses. When borrowing, it should be to buy an appreciating asset, when the cost of the loan does not impact other saving goals and will be paid off before retirement. Anything not under that category should be off-limit.
  • Don’t buy too much house. If you decide that home ownership is for you, do not become cash poor over it. Too many Canadians make their home their entire financial plan, including to retire. This is a mistake. You also need highly-liquid, easily disposable assets.
  • have your legal affairs in order. You need a will, even more so if you are married and/or with children. Ensure you designate a beneficiary for your life insurance and other registered accounts.

 

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RRSP myths debunked

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As 2016 is slowly but surely coming to a close, it will soon be tax season again.

I want to broach on the biggest RRSP myths that are still circulating around.

  • A contribution equals a tax refund. Sorry to disappoint you here, but this is simply not true. A contribution will lower your income tax payable, but does not necessarily trigger a refund. It depends on your income and situation in general. Also, your refund will never be for the full amount you contributed.
  • RRSPs are tax free. No, they are not. An RRSP is a tax-deferred account. It is like “contribute now, pay later”. You only pay taxes when you withdraw from the account. The only 2 exceptions when you won’t pay taxes is within the Home-Buyer Plan or the Lifelong Learning Plan. That being said, under these 2 programs, you have designate a minimum repayment amount each year when filing your tax return. If you don’t, you will be taxed accordingly.
  • Dividends and capital gains within an RRSP are not taxable. This is by far the biggest myth around. If you have stocks, ETFs or mutual funds, you may be paying taxes on any dividends or capital gains. It all depends on the country the stock/ETF/mutual fund is from. If Canadian, then yes, you will not pay taxes on any dividend or capital gain. Canada also has an agreement with the United States regarding dividend-paying US stocks held in a Canadian RRSP. These are not subject to taxes either. For the rest, the area can definitely be more gray. Many countries levy a tax on dividends paid to non-residents. If there is no tax treaty with Canada, CRA will levy additional taxes. Because an RRSP is a registered account, you won’t be able to claim the Foreign Tax Credit.
  • Everyone needs an RRSP. If you are in a low tax bracket or have a pension plan at work, you won’t benefit from an RRSP. If you are in a high tax bracket, you need to figure out what your tax bracket will be when you retire. If it is expected to remain the same, the RRSP is probably not the way to go either. With the clawback on the Guaranteed Income Supplement, you may end-up paying more income taxes! The RRSP is best suited for medium or high earners whose tax bracket will be lower upon retirement, and who don’t have an employer pension plan.
  • An RRSP loan is a good idea. Not necessarily. As I indicated above, your refund will never equate the amount you contributed. Unless you can reimburse your loan in full quickly, you will pay interests on said loan. You also can’t deduct the interests paid on the loan, because you can’t do so on registered accounts. Your RRSP also needs to return quite a bit more than the interest rate on your loan.

There are plenty of other misconceptions about RRSPs, but these 4 are probably the most common ones.

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Building your net worth

A net worth is everything you own minus everything you owe, in other words, assets minus liabilities.

More often than not, people owe more than they own, meaning they do not have any net worth.

In order to build your net worth, you need to focus on 4 elements: “income-ing”, saving, investing and simplifying your life.

Income-ing: yes, it is a word I have just created. Making money is the basis of building net worth. There are many ways of making money: through a job or a business, but also from investing or earning royalties. The list is pretty much infinite!

Saving: next, you need to save some of your income. You can make a whack load of $, but if you don’t stash some away, you will never build any net worth.

Investing: once you have some cash, put it to work for you. Educate yourself about the various investments out there. It really isn’t rocket science! Make sure your investments are in line with your risk tolerance and the stage you are at in your life, as well as your goals.

Simplifying your life, a.k.a. spending less: This one is the toughest for most people, including myself. Our brains are wired to spend and seek instant gratification. It is about balancing immediate pleasure with long-term goals. It is about consciously creating a lifestyle in which you need less money to live on. The money freed can be used for saving and investing, thus building net worth.

The best way to see and commit to your net worth is to regularly track and review it.