Okay, the tips are technically from Buffett’s biographer… as told by Parade magazine. STILL, it’s a decent list, and as a HUGE Warren Buffett fan, I can’t help but share them. The original Parade story is HERE.
I’ve copied the 10 items below with my own take on how to make them actionable in your life.
1. Reinvest your profits
This is key. When your income goes up, invest/save a large portion of that increase (like, 75% of the gross!) This keeps your lifestyle in check while allowing you to build more wealth. For youngish people, continuing to basically live like college students after graduating and getting a ‘real’ job is brilliant. You don’t feel like your neglecting yourself because you’re used to living cheap, and you can get a great start on retirement, saving for a house, paying off debt, etc.
Another corollary to this rule is to do what I call ‘banking windfalls’. This just means that when you run into unexpected cash (a bonus at work, an inheritance, or a tax refund check), save it or pay off debt, don’t blow it. To celebrate, treat yourself to something small like a nice dinner out with your significant other rather than immediately take a vacation or buy a big screen TV. This allows you to feel good while preserving most of the windfall.
2. Be willing to be different
Buffett talks frequently about the importance of having an ‘Inner Scorecard’, “judging yourself by your own standards and not the world’s”. This is really key to being financially successful (or successful in many other ways) because success by its very definition usually means doing something that the majority of people have not and will not do.
For personal finance, this means saving a large chunk of your income and investing in a smart-yet-unflashy way (hint: stock index funds!) It also means forgoing what others might think of as ‘normal’ or at least highly desirable: spending a lot of money going out, driving an expensive car, not talking about money, etc. Instead, take control of your own money by deciding exactly what’s important to you AND what’s not. You should splurge on things you love, but make it up by cutting costs aggressively on things that are less important to you, and always keep track of how this spending relates to your financial goals.
3. Never suck your thumb
“Thumb-sucking” is Buffett’s phrase for not taking action when you should be. Personal finance is full of this behavior. People ignore their debt, investments and other parts of their financial lives because of mental blocks they have dealing with these areas. Instead, take action on the areas of your personal finance that you know deep down need work. If you’re not even sure where to start, read through this blog, talk to a friend who you know is on the way to wealth (it may not be who you think; ask for balance sheets as proof 🙂 ), or contact a professional advisor like me who can help you.
4. Spell out the deal before you start
This means always knowing the price, rates, and any other terms of any financial agreement, formal or informal, small or large. On the small scale, this means simple stuff like knowing how much drinks or that delicious-sounding special on the menu is going to cost you (AFTER factoring tax and tip.)
(A personal aside: I HATE it when waiters rattle off the specials without telling you how much they are! I suspect this is because 1) they know you’ll feel like a cheapskate if you ask how much they are and 2) they are usually much more expensive than the ‘regular’ items on the menu. Same thing with bars that don’t list prices next to alcoholic drinks, what the hell is up with that!? I want to know what beer is going to cost BEFORE I order it damn it!!)
Large scale financial deals require proportionally more caution. Understand all the terms of any loan, investment (check expense ratios and other fees), credit card, real estate purchase, job offer, insurance, etc that you buy.
For me, the key things to ALWAYS be aware of are 1) Price, 2) Fees, 3) Interest rates/historical rates of return (investment sellers try to trick you here, so be careful accepting what they seem to indicate you should expect), and 4) periods of payment or any timelines associated with getting or giving a good or service.
5. Watch small expenses
I would note that while this is true, pay even more attention to LARGE expenses and small, recurring expenses that add up to large expenses (think, your cable or cell phone bill.) An extra $50 per month for a cell phone data plan may not sound like a ton, but that’s $600/year, which is roughly $12,000 in present value (a fancy term for adding up all future payments and discounting them back to the present.) For comparing recurring expenses to one-time purchases, I use a rule of thumb of multiplying the yearly expense by 20. So, saving $20/month on your heating bill by turning the thermostat down 3 degrees amounts to $240/year or ~$4,800 in present value (assuming you keep it up for the rest of your life.)
Improving your credit score to secure a lower mortgage interest rate in the future will similarly save you dramatic amounts of money in interest payments saved. Buying a cheaper model of used car vs an expensive used or new car will similarly make a huge difference in your finances.
6. Limit what you borrow
Try to never incur high-interest debt like that associated with credit cards or car loans. I recommend always paying cash for cars, and never financing a house with less than 20% down. In both instances this forces you to avoid buying things that cost too much relative to your saving ability, and to keep interest payments low. Keep lower-interest debt like that associated with student loans and mortgages to the bare minimum too. You want to have your money making interest for you by investing in stocks and bonds, rather than letting someone else (bank, credit card company) use their money to keep you paying them.
7. Be persistent
Stick to financial goals. The easiest way to do this is through automatic investing and debt-paying. Use direct deposit and paycheck withdrawals to fund savings and retirement. 401k plans are great for this. Set up automatic transfers that take money out of your paycheck BEFORE the rest of it goes into an account for you to spend on discretionary items. (You’ve probably heard of this rule as ‘pay yourself first’.)
Being persistent also means continuing with a well-thought out plan in the face of adversity. When the stock market tanked in 2008 and 2009, did you keep you money in there and keep investing? I and many others did, and it paid huge dividends.
8. Know when to quit
Just like a bad relationship, you need to break off financial deals when they aren’t working. This might mean giving up smoking to improve your health and wealth, switching to a no-fee credit card or checking account, or moving your money from high-priced, broker-pushed mutual funds or annuities into index funds, perhaps with the help of a no-commission financial advisor. It could also mean asking for a raise, leaving a job where you’re underpaid (find out if you are here), or getting a new job where you’re paid more.
9. Assess the risks
Know the potential risks of decisions you make. This does NOT mean avoid risks. On the contrary, it means taking appropriate risks for your situation. My entire retirement portfolio is in stocks. Is this risky? For me, absolutely not. I don’t plan to retire for at least 20 – 30 years, so what do I care when the market dives in between this period? (In fact, I viewed ‘bad markets’ as great opportunities for youngish investors like me to buy more of the market at a cheap price.) On the other hand, if I was a widow(er) living on a social security and some small personal savings, having ANY amount of money in the stock market might be too risky.
Take risks that you can afford that have large upside and only moderate downside (or downside that can be mediated) given your situation. When you’re young and living well below your means, you can afford to take more risks to make you even better off.
Just make sure you’re being honest about the upside of your investments and not just abusing the notion of ‘taking risks’ to gamble in negative expectation situations (casino gambling, lotteries, penny stocks, picking individual stocks, etc.) Even though I’m in an all-st0ck retirement portfolio, that money is safely invested across thousands of companies and in the hands of a secure financial company.
10. Know what success really means
For me, being wealthy doesn’t mean having a huge house, expensive car, wine collection, etc. It means being able to live in comfort and security and do the things I really care about doing: spending time with my family & friends, traveling (on a modest budget), eating well for cheap, reading, and savoring the world’s greatest beers. This essentially boils down to being able to control how I spend my time, rather than slaving away at some job I don’t like just to pay for an expensive lifestyle that doesn’t make me any happier than I would be without it.
Lest you think wealth has to only be about you, I also would like to have efficiently given away a large sum of money to help those most in need by the end of my life. Whatever your philanthropic impulses, I encourage you to factor them into your financial plan as well.
I’ll leave you with a great quote by Mr. Buffett himself on this subject (bolding mine):
“I know people who have a lot of money,” he says, “and they get testimonial dinners and hospital wings named after them. But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them. When you get to my age, you’ll measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you. That’s the ultimate test of how you’ve lived your life.”