Financial lessons can be learned in different ways
Just like all life lessons, you have to learn financial lessons somehow. Life lessons can be taught by your parents if you’re open to them. They can also be learned in school if the school program includes financial basics for youth. Unfortunately, in my case I had to self-teach myself financial literacy through trial and error. This usually is accompanied by great financial pain.
As I’ve explained before, I didn’t have a good starting position for myself in my life journey when it comes to financial literacy. Being an immigrant from another country where economy and money function in a completely different fashion, it was literally like being an alien from another planet (but no lightsaber). I didn’t have basic knowledge of personal finance when I’ve arrived. I didn’t know what one is supposed to do with money. Economy as a whole was a complete mystery to me. Unfortunately, my parents were in the exact same position so they couldn’t teach me Personal Finance 101. I was also too old for high school where they teach it.
When it comes to personal finance, some of the concepts that are familiar to any average Canadian were in fact completely foreign to me. For example, I didn’t know how credit cards work and how much they can cost you if you don’t pay attention to your balance. I had no idea bank will lend you the money for just about anything as long as you pay it back with steep interest. Saving for the future retirement seemed unnatural since my grandparents back home were enjoying government provided pensions for life. All of a sudden, I had to learn all of it - and sometimes through great financial pain.
But sometimes pain is exactly what you need. If you burn yourself on a stove once or twice, you learn to avoid touching it at all cost. Your brain will scream at you “Hold on there, sport. Last time you did that it hurt like hell!” Financial lessons for me were exactly the same. Sometimes painful, but as long as they taught me something they were be quite useful. I’m glad for all the pain they caused me; I just wish I could have learned these financial lessons sooner:
Live on a budget
As a young man of twenty something, living on my own and fresh to this beautiful country, I didn’t know how to handle money. More importantly, I didn’t know how to control what little money I had. Money was coming in, bills were coming out. It was a never ending cycle of debits and credits to my account with no rhyme or reason.
My only limitation to spending money was my bank account. If I had money in my account on Friday night, I would go on spending it. If I didn’t have any money in my bank account, I would stay home. Same principle for all purchases, really. Basically, I would make my decisions on what I had at the time. As a consequence, sometimes my expenses would be much higher than my income.
Then I discovered a new way to live financially. I’ve started to base my decisions off what I had coming in. If I had $2,000 coming on one particular month, I would map out how I would spend this money ahead of time without paying attention to my bank account. Two thousand dollars comes in, two thousand dollars get spent. Bank account money doesn’t get touched as it would mean spending more money than I have coming in - and that is unacceptable.
People usually cringe when somebody mentions “budget” because budget means limits and boundaries. But if you think about it, budget just means putting together a plan on spending your money. It’s actually quite liberating.
Once I’ve learned how to budget and changed my perspective on spending, I’ve started putting more thought into planning my everyday finances. Saving towards big purchases became a second nature to me as I’ve started automatically set saving goals for myself. Need a new laptop for school? Figure out how much you want to spend on it, how much time you need to save it, and how much you should be putting away monthly towards it. Now some of my paycheck is going towards the laptop - instead of me just checking my bank account to see if I can buy this laptop right away or even worse - borrowing money for it (more on this later).
I didn’t learn budgeting overnight. Little by little, I figured out what works for me and what makes most sense. But if I could have learned about budgeting earlier, I bet me and my family would be further ahead in life right now. But hey, as long as we’ve learned it at some point.
Say “NO” to acquiring stuff
You don’t really need a lot of stuff in your life. Some items are quite necessary such as transportation, shelter, and basic clothes. But anything above your basic needs is not essential and spending money on acquiring more and more stuff can turn your happy existence into a vicious cycle of never-ending work and spending.
Imagine yourself camping and sitting next to a fire. A few small logs can provide you with ample heat for the night. You don’t need to shove more and more logs into the fire; while big fire might be impressive, it doesn’t match your needs. On top of it, you’ll have to work very hard on controlling it and continuously running into the woods to get more firewood. Why bother?
Same approach with money. You can make your life all about earning more and more money, and spending it all. Your 4,000 sq. feet house will be surrounded by beautiful landscaped land, German cars will sit in your 5-car garage, and you will spend 360 days at work while stressing over your financial situation and never seeing your family.
I’ve learned that I prefer simple life (and I don’t mean that awful TV show with Paris Hilton). It doesn’t mean that I want me and my family to live like monks. But driving a used car with much lower expenses as opposed to leasing a new BMW can be quite beneficial as it gives me more money to invest, and lowers the stress by improving our financial situation.
We can probably afford a bigger house for ourselves if we borrow as much as bank will give us. Still, we’ve decided against it because living in a nice condo meets all our needs. Sure a big house would be nice and would probably impress our friends - but big houses come with big problems and higher expenses, once again. For example, we can easily repaint our little townhouse ourselves over one weekend. What if we lived in a 4,000 sq. feet house? Repainting it would probably require hiring professional painters and thus opening our wallet and saying goodbye to a considerable amount of money. Simple just makes more sense for me.
Invest early and regularly
It took me quite some time to understand the importance of investing. For this, I had to completely change the way I was thinking about investing.
This is the way I used to think about investing:
” You work all your life and get a paycheck every two weeks. You put away money for your retirement. A little of your paycheck goes towards your life in your senior years. You slowly build up a retirement fund for yourself and your family, and once you have enough you start taking from it and can stop working. As long as your money outlives you, you’re golden!”
But what twenty something person really thinks about senior years? The prospect of buying something cool right now outshines any future needs. Especially when you’re talking about your paycheck - after all, we all work very hard for our money and want to enjoy the paycheck right away. My senior years are so far ahead of me that saving for them just didn’t make sense. Let me in my 20’s enjoy life a little bit, perhaps me in my 30’s or even me in my 40’s will take care of me in my senior years! For now, New Sony Playstation, here I come!
Here’s how I think about investing now:
“You work every day and get a paycheck every two weeks. A little of your paycheck goes towards your freedom fund. The money collected in your freedom fund starts producing income. If you have a little freedom fund, it produces a little stream of additional income. If your freedom fund is substantial, it produces a substantial stream of income. Whether or not you still work, it still produces income. If this income is high enough to live off, guess what - you can stop working and still receive paychecks in the mail every two weeks. Income without work is a beautiful thing!”
For some reason, this way of thinking about retirement really changed my perspective about investing. Imagine being able to cover all your living expenses with your investment income instead of working to pay your expenses when you’re old and retired. If you live a simple life, you don’t really need a lot of money to retire - a moderate stream of income will cover all your expenses without waiting till you’re in your 70’s to retire.
So now I think of investing as building that addition stream of income. Saving money towards it feels meaningful and investing became one of our primary goals.
Never borrow money.
The concept of borrowing money from a financial institution was quite foreign to me when I arrived in Canada. Up until then the only borrowing I’ve done was through friends - very small sums of course. My parents would sometimes borrow money from their friends when our funds run out at the end of the month to buy groceries. But Canadian borrowing is much different.
Here you can borrow money for pretty much anything. School classes, everyday purchases, vehicles, clothes, housing, and even home pets. Yup, apparently some pet stores will lend you money to buy a puppy.
What did it all mean to me back then? FREE MONEY! Everybody wants to give me money so I can buy stuff, how awesome is this? I can buy stuff right away, and pay it back later once I make money by working! I’ve borrowed money for night school - and boy, was it easy. First day on campus, a major bank was giving out credit cards - and I’ve signed up right away. Then I borrowed money on it to buy everyday things - as long as I could afford minimal payments on it. My paychecks (already pretty low) were spoken for by the time they hit my pocket. Fairly soon, I’ve started falling behind. Soon after, I’ve learned what it’s like to receive a phone call from a collection agency.
Just like the proverbial hot stove, I’ve burned myself on borrowing money a few times before I’ve learned my lesson - never borrow money. If you have to borrow money, it means you’re broke and don’t need whatever you’re about to buy. If you can’t pay for something in cash, you can’t afford it, so move on. Major financial institutions make serious money by lending it to people, and by borrowing money you’re willingly handing over your cash to them just to enjoy something right away.
You don’t need to hand over your cash to a bank just so you can buy a puppy - just save money, and buy it yourself. Remember that when you borrow money you have to pay it back. If you want to buy something for $100 but choose to borrow it, you have to pay back the original $100 PLUS $20 in interest. Interest becomes an additional expense to you and a nice source of profit for your bank. Don’t you have better use for your $20?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like my bank enough to give them money for nothing. Housing would probably be the only exception to this rule.