Financial Advice I Wish Someone Had Given Me

Throughout my career, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of mentoring others. It’s usually about software engineering, but often we get into tangential things such as finances. It’s come up enough times and folks have been grateful, so I thought I’d write it down.

My advice boils down to 3 main pillars: minimize expenses, maximize income, avoid debt. Pretty obvious, I know, but there’s more details and tips to come, and the goal is to be approachable for folks that are getting started on their financial journey.

Cut your expenses

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

Epictetus

One of the best ways to improve your financial situation is to cut how much you spend. It’s usually faster and easier than increasing your income because you are in control. If you can cut down your monthly expenses by $50, you’ve essentially given yourself a $600/yr raise. Maybe it’s not a ton, but it could cover the flight to your dream destination, or invest it and make it really grow.

Here are some of the things I do to reduce monthly expenses. Maybe they can fit into your life as well.

Car payments

I drive a fifteen year old Honda Civic Hybrid that I bought used. I love it! I don’t have any monthly payments to make, it’s never broken down, and it gets around 45 miles per gallon. Not to mention the insurance and registration is super cheap. I can only imagine how much I have saved compared to buying some fancy, expensive car from a dealer. My views on cars are that they take me from point A to point B. Your views may differ, and you may have actual needs (like towing horses) that require something less economical. If not, a downgrade on a vehicle may be an upgrade for something else in life.

Meals

Date nights are important for my relationship. One way we spend quality time together is by eating out, but we limit it to once a week. It keeps those evenings special. The rest of the time, we prepare our meals, and it saves us a ton. We are also very careful about what we but at the grocery store. Not that we focus on getting cheap things, but that we get good quality food and we don’t buy more than we are going to eat.

Phone bills

Plain and simple, I think it’s crazy for anyone to pay $70/month for phone service. Especially when there are companies like Mint Mobile offering plans for as little as $15/month with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 4GB data. I’ve been using Mint for several years now and am very happy with it. Need more data? Hello Mobile has unlimited talk, text, and data for $25/month.

TV/Streaming

I consider these non-critical sources of entertainment. I still watch some content online (PBS has some great documentaries!), but probably not as much as if I had a Netflix account. It saves me money, and I also find myself wasting less time on binging. If you’re unsure, you can usually pause your service for a month and see how it feels. There’s little risk if you decide to keep it.

Gym memberships

I had a gym membership through work once and it was great. I was going weekly and my health benefited. When that job ended, I canceled the membership but kept on exercising. Instead, I go for runs, watch YouTube classes, or lift weights at home. I’m not advocating for folks to stop going to the gym, but if you have a membership and it’s been more than a month since you’ve gone consider dropping it. If you do go, keep the subscription because health is important.

Shopping

Every time I consider buying something, I take my time to think if I really need it. For bigger expenses, I’ll even think it over for months. As a result, I avoid a lot of needless spending, and whenever I can find something from a second-hand store, I prefer that. It’s cheaper and so much better for the environment.

Put your money to work (aka maximize income)

Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.

P.T. Barnum

Once you’ve started increasing how much money you actually have in the bank, you need to start following that old advice “make your money work for you”. This is my favorite kind of advice.

Basics

  • Savings/checking accounts: Folks starting out will keep most of their money in a savings or checking account. So it’s important to get the best rate you can for the majority of your money. My main bank for savings and checking accounts is Alliant Credit Union. They do fine for a bank, but I recommend them is because their savings account rate is 1.70% for the savings account and 0.45% for their checking account. They also reimburse you for any ATM fees (up to $20 a month). High rates and low fees is a solid combo.
  • Credit card: Another thing most people have is a credit card, and with the right one, you can earn good rewards. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing credit card rewards for airline miles, points, and cash. My favorite right now is the Citi Double Cash Card because it gives 1% back on all purchases, then another 1% when you pay those purchases off. So 2% back on everything I buy.

Retirement

Vanguard

My returns: 9.4% per year

You should put as much as possible into a retirement account as early and as often as you can. The best institution I can recommend for this is Vanguard, and I recommend a “Roth IRA” instead of a “Traditional IRA”. For the US, in 2019, individuals can contribute up to $6,000/year. Once you transfer the money into your IRA, you still need to actually invest it. This is the scary part for a lot of people, but a very simple and solid approach is to invest 90% in stocks and 10% in bonds (or 70/30 if you are more conservative). For stocks, you can keep it to just “Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VTSMX)” and for bonds, “Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VBMFX)“. These ETFs basically just buy 1 of every stock or bond on the market, and trust that with enough time, the market always goes up. It’s a good solution that is inherently diversified, easy to get right, and beats out 70% of hedge fund managers anyway. Nice!

If you’re interested in reading more, I have to recommend JL Collins Stock Series.

Investing

SoFi

My returns: 39.82% per year since 2020
Minimum: $1000
Referral Bonus: We both get $50 worth of stocks when you invest with at least $1,000.

I’ve had to update this page with my latest, favorite investment product. Far and away this robo-investor has outperformed all my other investments. On top of that, I love that they offer a whole suite of services like loans, financial planning, and even their own 2% cash back credit card.

Wealthfront

My returns: 20.30% per year since 2016
Minimum: $500
Fees: 0.25% management fee
Referral Bonus: They waive the manage fee on $5,000 for both of us.

It’s primarily a robo-investor account where you give them money, and they manage it for you. Their minimum investment is very low ($500), their fee structure is very cheap (0.25% on managed assets), their returns have been very good (over 9%), and they have several other great features. I really cannot recommend them enough. They also recently added a cash account that has no risk and excellent rewards, over 2% interest.

Fundrise

My returns: 12.4% per year since 2016
Minimum: $1000

If you’re looking to get into real estate investment or just want to diversify your portfolio, Fundrise is a good way. They basically crowd-fund real estate purchases. So they do all the research, find the right opportunities, then a bunch of people gets in to purchase the property. So far I’m seeing good returns on my investment, and they pay out every quarter which is cool. I just set those dividends to automatically re-invest, so it continues to grow.

Worthy

My returns: 5% per year
Minimum: $10
Fees: n/a
Referral Bonus: We both get 1 free bond (worth $10).

This is a pretty new player to my team. They promise 5% guaranteed returns, and no fees to take your money out. So there seems to be no downside. It’s not as much return as stock market investments, but it’s guaranteed, so that’s great.

SigFig

Minimum: $2000
Fees: 0.25% for balances over $10,000

Also a robo-investor like Wealthfront, SigFig is a place you can just give them money, and they will manage it for you. So far when things are going well in the market, it has not performed as well as Wealthfront. However, when things are going poorly, it’s been a lot more stable. So when the stock market took a dive, my Wealthfront account fell it a lot worse than my SigFig account.

Aspiration

Minimum: $10
Fees: Pay what you want
Referral Bonus: We both get $50 after you sign up and spend $250.

Aspiration offers many different products from savings to retirement to investing accounts. The thing that makes them cool is that they focus on social impact. So their investments are in things like green energy, or they totally avoid any fossil fuels.

Investments I do not recommend

As you explore investment options, you may want to try out other platforms than the ones I’ve listed above. Here are some others that I have tested, but did not like for one reason or another.

  • LendingClub
  • Ally
  • Betterment

Avoid debt like the plague

This one is pretty plain and simple. If you can’t afford to pay for something today, you probably shouldn’t buy it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t own a credit card. Definitely own one, or a few, but make sure to pay those suckers off IN FULL every month. Otherwise, you are just giving money away.

The caveat here is that some debt is good. For example a mortgage or student loan (not always).

If you have debt, pay off the one with the highest interest rate first. You may also consider consolidating your debt to get a lower rate.

Track how well you’re doing

If you follow the steps above, you will most likely be doing well for yourself, but it’s better to know for sure. For that, you should use a finance tracking app like Personal Capital. It looks like SoFi and Wealthfront also offer similar services, but I have not used them myself. These sites let you log in and connect to all your financial accounts (banks, credit cards, investments). By doing so, you can track your performance all in one place. They also have some nice budgeting features, and they will notify you if something looks suspicious.

The most important thing

Don’t just read this article, nod along, and then leave. You don’t have to do everything on this list today, but if you can pick one or two things to get started with, it can have a big impact over time.

Disclaimer: some of the links on this page are referral links which either benefit me, or benefit us both. None of them cost you anything, and all the links are to things I use and recommend. So If you’re down with helping me out, please use the link. If you are not down with referral links, I’m cool with that too. But I would like to see more people getting a better hold on their finances.

If you liked this advice and think others may find it useful, please share it. You can also sign up for my newsletter to get my other advice as it comes out.

Thank you so much for reading. If you liked this article, please share it, and if you want to know when I publish more articles, sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter. Cheers!


Originally published on austingil.com.