Four common personal finance tips you should feel comfortable ignoring


Have you heard the phrase, “conventional wisdom?”  It’s typically used when information is thought to be so common-sense correct and accepted, that numerous alleged authorities echo the same sentiment, thought, or advice.

When preparing to cross the street, it’s conventional wisdom to look both ways.  Okay, no argument here.

But in the personal finance niche, I have learned over my 30+ years enrolled in TSOHK (The School of Hard Knocks) that conventional wisdom isn’t always the savviest take, nor can it be assumed to be applicable, or even helpful.

Sometimes, it can be downright detrimental.

In this week’s BWE post, I want to talk about some examples of when conventional wisdom simply isn’t the best way to go about your money life. Now, to be fair, not all of these are blatantly false.  It’s just that in some cases they over-simplify a topic, and while I’m usually in favor of keeping things straightforward, I’ll never support the notion of bypassing applicable specifics.

So, without additional adieu, here are some money misconceptions:

1) All debt is bad.  As noted author Robert Kiyosaki of the pioneering finance and investing book, ‘Rich Poor Dad,’ has often said, there is most definitely such a thing as “good debt” as well as bad debt.  Kiyosaki correctly postulates that good debt is used to buy assets, such as stocks and bonds or investment real estate, and bad debt is associated with credit card debt and other methods of purchasing liabilities – things that depreciate over time.

But I’ll take it a step further in noting that a debt doesn’t have to directly purchase an asset in order to be good debt, even if a liability is being bought.  If the debt, in itself, creates the opportunity to profit, I believe it should be considered good debt.  This scenario is most common when discussing home mortgages – low interest rates, the interest being tax deductible.  Mortgages, when utilized correctly, can be truly valuable.  But there are other ways to reap these types of benefits.

For example, say you need a new car – not brand new, necessarily, but an updated vehicle because your current wheels are costing you too much in repair and maintenance.  Because of your stellar credit, you qualify for 1.9% financing through your bank.  You’re looking at spending about $20,000 on a certified pre-owned car.

Should you pass on financing the purchase because you’re acquiring additional debt?  Maybe… if you can’t afford the monthly payment in your current circumstances, none of the forthcoming pointers will truly be applicable. Still, go with the point I’m making here and let’s assume your budget allows for the payment.

Being that this is for buying a car, are we to assume automatically that this is bad debt?  After all, the car will most certainly depreciate in the coming years, right?

Most people would read the above and suggest, “sure the terms are great, but you’re still better off paying cash if you have it available.”  I disagree, because what is being overlooked – and this happens frequently – is the opportunity cost.

Instead of forking over $20K on the car up front, what if I can put that money to work earning, say, 4-5% with tax-free access to this money if I ever need it, and still acquire the car?  Wouldn’t that be a 2-3% positive Rate of Return over what the auto loan is costing me?  Sure is.  And if you’re thinking perhaps that the small profit I’ve illustrated would be devoured by the car’s depreciation, that really isn’t so because the car will go down in value over time regardless of how I buy it.  In other words, if I pay $20,000 cash now, the car will still be worth only $15,000 (or less) in two years.  How I went about buying the car isn’t really relevant.

In short, it actually makes (arguably) more sense to take advantage of the ultra low-cost financing, put the cash to work earning more than that, and still drive my nearly-new ride.

2) Live below your means.  I really hate this expression, which virtually EVERY financial guru insists you must do, because it is so vague.  If the key is to avoid unnecessary spending, just say that.  But even then, more specificity is needed.  If you go out to the movies once a month as your sole entertainment, you’re certainly spending money unnecessarily – you don’t HAVE to go see the flick.  But obviously, if that is your only fun all month long, you’re most certainly living below your means.

I’m also opposed to the concept that you have to set a living standards guideline.  Determine your fixed expenses, and your necessary discretionary expenses, then decide how much of what’s left from your paychecks you’re comfortable with saving and investing, and otherwise live normally.  Make a reasonable, thought-out plan, pay yourself first before you do the rest, and have a life.  Progress doesn’t have to be excruciatingly painful.

3) Tax-deferred is better.  There are some pretty savvy financial minds out there who harp on the idea that if you can defer paying income tax until later, you’re going to be better off because more of your money is working for you. Sounds logical, but I will prove it’s balderdash.

The most obvious example is a Traditional IRA (or an employer-sponsored 401K), which uses before-tax income to be funded, with taxes not due until you take the money out down the line.  This is opposed by the Roth IRA, which uses after-tax money now, and allows you tax-free withdrawals later.

A quick look at the numbers through an example:  Teresa opens a traditional IRA and commits to putting $200 per month into it, for 20 years.  For this exercise, we’ll assume a 25% income tax bracket and a 7.2% rate of return on the invested money.  Richard goes the Roth route, and so his after-tax monthly contribution (based on the same 25% tax rate) is $150 per month, again with the same 7.2% ROR.  Where will each be in 20 years?

  TERESA:  $200 per month for 20 years = $48,000 invested.  At 7.2% ROR, her account balance after 20 years, according to a financial calculator at, is $103,844.78.

  RICHARD:  $150 per month for 20 years = $36,000 invested. At 7.2% ROR, his account balance after 20 years is $77,884.34.

Now of course, Richard has already paid his income taxes, so he keeps the whole $77K+ should he choose to take it out.  Teresa, however, still owes the 25% income tax.  Her balance after paying the tax?  $77,884.34.

Well, how ’bout that!  In the end, with both getting the same ROR and owing the same percentage of income tax, they come out exactly the same.  Except for one thing… Teresa paid $25,960.44 in tax, while Richard paid just $12,000.00 ($50 per month times 12 months times 20 years).  Which do you suspect hurts more – $50 each month on the front end, or more than $25K straight to Uncle Sam in exchange for simple account access?

This example demonstrates why the government loves deferred taxes – because it makes more money that way.  Those who insist that tax-deferred is the better method fail to understand that the extra compounding in the account benefits only the government, NOT the account owner.  Why? Because unlike you, the government doesn’t pay taxes (to itself) on the gains.

One last point:  Is it feasible to conclude, based on the current national financial state of affairs (i.e. the national debt nearing $20 trillion!) that tax rates might very well be higher down the road than they are now? I believe so. Sure, they might go down… but who’s willing to bet on that?  Pay now-pay nothing later is a much safer and prudent way to go.  As many before me have pointed out, would you prefer to pay taxes on the seed, or the harvest?

4) Average Rate of Return is important.  Another fallacy I enjoy debunking.  It sounds innocent enough – “the average rate of return for the ABC Fund over the last three years is a sparkling 15%!”  Really?  Okay, well’s let’s consider the following scenario and see if a 15% average annual ROR is truly beneficial.

ABC FUND:  Year 1 ROR = +30%, Year 2 ROR = -55%, Year 3 ROR = +70%. Average ROR annually over the three years = +15% (30 – 55 + 70 = +45 divided by 3 years = +15 per year).  Total opening balance in the account at the beginning of the three-year period:  $10,000.  Total after the three-year period at 15% annual average ROR = . . .  $9,945.

Whaaaaat??  We actually fell by 55 bucks?  What the fudge?

Yep, it’s true.  And this is just the investment itself.  It doesn’t take fees into account.

How can this be?  Run the math, my friends.  After Year 1, with a 30% gain, you would have $13,000.  After Year 2, down 55%, you would have $5,850. After Year 3, even with the monstrous 70% gain, you end up with $9,945.

The above is an example of Wall Street ‘gotcha’ at its finest.  Losses matter much more than gains.   If you have $1,000, and lose half (50%) the first year but gain half in the second, are you now back to even?  Nope… you’re still down 25%.  When you drop 50%, you need a doubling (100%) gain the next year just to get back where you started.  Crazy, but true.

The big banks and investment companies don’t want you to understand this, which is why keeping full control of your assets, through sometimes unconventional strategies like whole life insurance (see last week’s post) is the only way to really know what you have and, better still, what you can expect to have at any point in the future.  Steady gains every year, even small ones, are much better for you in the long run.

Once again, thanks for reading.


DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Importance of Emergency Fund over-emphasized by most finance gurus


This week’s post is being sent to you via Lake Tahoe, NV, and I gotta tell ya — it’s friggin’ beautiful up here.

But of course, you don’t read this column to hear about my vacation travels, so let me get right to business. I will note, however, that I have intentionally shortened this post in the interest of time (as in, more time for me to play!).

Okay, so did my headline catch your attention?

The idea that having a monetary reserve to cover you in the case of an unexpected significant expense is, on its face, a no-brainer.  We don’t want to have to borrow from friends or family, or go on a Top Ramen diet just because the car radiator is leaking and needs to be replaced.

But the notion that the majority of folks should put emergency funds in a savings account, which yields virtually no interest, while maintaining a credit card balance that charges more than 20% APR, strikes me as non-sense.  Many of the most prominent minds in the world of personal finance insist that you have at least $1,000 – preferably a lot more – set aside and accessible before you pay off debt, invest for retirement, etc.

Phooey on that. There are more productive ways to accomplish the same thing.

The main concept behind emergency money is that it has to be liquid… but that doesn’t mean it has to be as liquid as bank ATM access. Withdrawing from investment accounts, life insurance cash value, and even tapping a credit card can be utilized smartly to accomplish the same goal – and allow the individual to have his or her money working at full income-producing capacity in the meantime.

For example, if you are currently investing in a Roth IRA, you can withdraw the monies you’ve put in (but not the growth) without penalty.  This is, of course, not the ideal scenario for gaining quick funds to pay for an emergency because you want your investment account money to stay put and grow using the magic of compound interest.  But the setback is usually temporary if you do need to tap the funds, and the smart money managers account for the scenario of not having an emergency as well as the what-if something bad happens.

The idea that we probably won’t need those funds set aside for an emergency is the basis of my approach.

If you have a permanent life insurance policy – which I will talk about in detail in a future post coming soon – you can withdraw dividends the policy has earned and/or borrow from the policy’s cash value.

In both the above instances, the average time to have your money in hand is about 3-5 business days.  So you’re probably thinking that in an emergency, you might have to have the money RIGHT NOW.  Then what?

That’s where the credit cards come in.  You see, using a credit card to pay for an emergency is only a dubious idea if you’re not prepared to pay off that charge before the end of the grace period.  But if you use the card to pay the emergency cost as it happens, then use one of the two above scenarios to pay off the credit card, you’re golden.

Now, I realize that not everyone has money invested in a Roth or has insurance cash value to tap, or wants to bother family with the ultimate taboo question.  For some, who truly have no other means to cover a significant unexpected occurrence, it’s a choice between putting some unproductive cash aside or rolling the dice with the knowledge of using a credit card if absolutely necessary and perhaps paying a higher cost in the process.

But people should be aware of all their options, and quite frankly, I’m sick of reading about concepts that are allegedly Finance 101 when, in fact, the logic is potentially faulty.

Understand all the choices and consequences, and then proceed with the best strategy for your particular situation.  Don’t get pigeon-holed into following the masses.

As always, thanks for reading.


DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Whoa… let’s back up for a moment


In case you didn’t already recognize the signs, this site is new… and is published by a blogging newbie.  I don’t mind admitting that.  I’ve been writing professionally nearly 30 years, for established publications and as a freelancer, but represents my first foray into the blogosphere.

And as I was contemplating my next post, and briefly reviewing what I’ve released so far, it occurred to me that I have failed to share this blog’s true message – my actual philosophy on personal finance, and the often contrarian angle from which this subject matter will be provided in the coming weeks, months, and (hopefully) years.

Yes, I established in my introductory post that I am not a financial professional in the sense that I sport a bunch of impressive designations in front of my name – my only official title is as a licensed life insurance agent in California – but instead I am relying on a combination of my “PhD in the School of Hard Knocks” and some diligent research over the last decade-plus.

Still, I hadn’t truly shared my perspective – so here it is:

“Most of what you have learned about money, either from your parents, teachers/professors, or from so-called gurus, is NOT truly in your best interest.”

Say whaaat?

There are many, many valid basic points that I would never try to contradict – spend less, save more, know what you’re investing in, etc.  This is mostly common sense that doesn’t require you to read it in a blog post in order to recognize it as fiscal wisdom.

But the American system of, shall we call it, “public economics,” is mostly baloney. Our system is still the best in the world, in my opinion, but it falls shy of being truly valuable across the board for most citizens.  Far from it, actually.

I will give you one example now – trust me, you will get plenty more in future posts.  The 401K Plan.  We have been told that your company’s 401K plan is far and away the best way for an individual to save for retirement.  Put every dollar in that you can muster, many experts recommend.

As Col. Sherman Potter said on the 20th century TV show, “M*A*S*H*, at least once, “Monkey muffins!”

OK, so how would you react if I offered you the following savings plan? My strategy that I recommend to you is not liquid, meaning that once you put money into this instrument, you cannot retrieve it (for an emergency or any other reason) until the government says you can – beginning at age 59 1/2 and with the account open at least five years – unless you wish to pay a 10% penalty for the privilege.  This strategy frequently charges you among the highest fees in the industry, as much as 2.5% of your holdings annually, and gives you  little if any say in what specific investments your money will go into.  This strategy says to save a small amount on income taxes now, by having your contributions taken from your paycheck pre-tax, but pay a much larger gross amount of taxes in the future, when you are finally allowed to access the dough.  Oh, and if you happen not to need your money when you get past retirement age, well, that is irrelevant because when you turn 70 1/2 the government forces you to withdraw a minimum amount, the failure to do so costing you not only the taxes you would owe but IN ADDITION, a 50% penalty tax for good measure.

What do ya think?  Sound like a good way to go?

I just described the primary characteristics of the typical company-sponsored 401K plan.  Does Uncle Sam rock or what?

Now, to be fair, the 401K does have one desirable trait – the possibility of a company match.  Many companies offer some sort of matching funds to your contribution – a percentage of what you put in based on a percentage of your income.  But here’s the kicker – not every company offers a match.  In fact, according to multiple sources, the percentage of companies which offer matches, among those that sport 401K plans at all, is declining.

Under most typical circumstances, it makes sense for folks to contribute enough to their 401K plan in order to maximize the benefit of any company match.  But not always, and never a penny more than what counts toward the match.  There are simply other strategies available, which virtually anyone can utilize, that are significantly more beneficial than what Washington D.C. has laid out for you.

And very soon, we will be going into those.  Thanks for reading.


DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part or all of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Profitability is NEVER guaranteed.  Invest at your own risk.