Posts Tagged ‘debt’

The Coming Collapse of China

Protect your finances if China's debt bubble implodes. Don't let the trade war ruin your retirement plans.

Protect your finances if China’s debt bubble implodes.

When the Western economic world collapsed in 2008 there was only one beacon of light: China.

For decades China has grown at nose-bleed speeds and looked like an unstoppable economic miracle. Now the foundations of that miracle are exposed and the house of cards is in peril. Shadow banks and ghost cities are only the tip of the ice berg.

Speculation over the years of fudged official economic numbers coming out of Beijing is starting to haunt the government there. As 2018 came to a close the government reported the slowest growth in 28 years. This was still a bit north of 6%.

Unfortunately, these slower growth numbers are probably a wildly exaggerated lie. Recently, a former chief economist for the Agricultural Bank of China mentioned a report that two recent studies show China’s economy growing at a mere 1.67% and another showing the economy actually declined.

While there is no doubt China has made massive economic leaps over the past several decades, much of the recent growth is built on a shaky foundation.

In many Western nations an economic crisis can ensue from excessive indebtedness. The difference between Western nations and China is what the debt funding was used for. In the U.S., for example, corporations can over-extend themselves, causing over-production and an inventory hangover. Household debt might be wasted on stuff that has virtually no value. But homes and autos have at least some value and a good amount of utility. Something we will see China wasn’t spending on.

 

Dangerous Foundation

China is mired in a massive amount of debt. Trustworthy numbers are hard to come by, but many reports claim China’s government and municipal debt are several times larger than the annual economic output of the country.

What China spent the money on is a bigger problem than the excessive debt! The growing mountain of debt is difficult to manage. However, if the debt was used to produce something of value it would be possible to work through the financial problems with only modest economic pain.

China did some of that (spending on productive investments) and a whole lot more creating rubble. 

People inside China have captured videos of buildings built in the last decade tipping over and put them on YouTube. Ghost cities in China are well known outside the country. Whole cities with virtually no people living there. 

What is worse is the quality of construction. A large number (based upon information from people living in China a long time) of buildings only a few years old look like they are more than a century old! It is hard to imagine the crumbling facade and disrepair huge parts of these cities can fall into after only two or three years. Again, YouTube videos allow you to glimpse the slow moving disaster in the works.

The layers of debt these unlivable buildings have is equally ill-constructed. Municipalities borrow so they can encourage growth which generates tax revenue. (The tax system in China is untenable as local governments frequently find the greatest source of funds though the crazy financial deals with developers.) 

Builders, which are frequently state-owned and very inefficient, pile on more debt to build the structures.

Then the final layer of debt is added when individuals buy, believing real estate never goes down in value. People in China buy real estate because they consider it a good investment even when they don’t live there or rent it out.

Renting is also far cheaper than buying a property in the populated areas of China. Rents frequently only cover a fraction of the mortgage payment so ownership is even more financially demanding.

 

Inside Information

A year-and-a-half ago this blog was one of the few websites allowed inside China by the government. Today it is officially banned!

My oldest daughter spent time in China last year and was able to pull up this blog. She taught English as a second language and lived with a host family. That is no longer possible.

Are you prepared for the collapse of China and the debt bubble? Protect your finances with these 3 simple steps.Many foreigners teaching English as a second language in China are sheltered from the worst parts of China. My daughter, Heather, sought the real experience and got it. Fortunately she had a host family who considered themselves unconventional and enjoyed Heather’s presence. Her friend stayed with a family that wasn’t unconventional and had a miserable experience.

When Heather returned home she stayed in contact with her host family. She grew a bond with the host mom and their 5 year old daughter. 

In the last few months contact has been more difficult. We actually lost contact for over a month and feared the worst. These are good people and we worry about them because they are friends. 

As we started to give up hope of ever hearing from our extended Chinese family the host mom made contact. The story was grim.

This family had another foreign teacher and they had to send her home early over safety concerns. From the inside China has already started to implode.

The government’s solution to the stagnant economy was to set off another round of debt spending. With state-owned firms extremely inefficient and getting a large portion of the additional spending it is like doubling down on stupid.

 

Reality Test

You can hide fiscal malfeasance for a very long time if the government want the facts hidden. However, the natural laws of economics still apply and eventually assert themselves. 

The growing mountain of debt will eventually cause a crisis. The longer the delay before appropriate remedial action is taken the more pain will be measured out. 

China had started steps to resolve the issues. It would have taken a long time to fix the worst of the financial problems. However, the risk was high China would implode before they resolved the worst of the imbalances. The world community, knowing the approximate depth of the problems, quietly played along. What other choice did they have.

Unfortunately for China, the new American president had no patience for such slow resolutions. The trade spat exposed the underlying weakness of China’s economy quicker than expected and might be the trigger to set off the avalanche. 

The Los Angeles Times recently reported China announced more than $600 billion of economic stimulus. The goal is to fix the problem as fast as possible before catastrophe strikes. More debt seems a poor choice of ointment.

China’s history in not encouraging if the slowdown is too fast and/or a currency or debt crisis occurs before adequate safeguards are in place. 

The debt may be too large for an economy the size of China’s to navigate to calm waters. Many Chinese banks are insolvent because they can hide behind government censors. In a true capitalist economy these banks and other companies would have been shuttered long ago. So the inefficiency of the system trudges on and deepens.

Normally I would have an optimistic option at this point. And while I think this could be the next financial crisis to strike, I don’t think it will be the end of good times forever. All I’m saying is there will be a few moments when people get really scared if China collapses.

 

Preparing for the Storm

Dinny McMahon in his book, China’s Great Wall of Debt, does a better job digging deeper into the debt issues in China. This short post can’t cover the details the way a book can. The issues are deeper than I mention with shadow banks and incredible debt loads even greater than the government in China understands since they also know much of their data is faulty. I recommend reading this book. 

The risks posed by China should not cause undue alarm. Planning for the possibility is wise, but no one knows when, or even if (the miracle could actually be a miracle), the boom will drop. 

Is China's debt bubble about to burst? Learn how to protect your investments before it's too late.Since timing a crisis of this nature is impossible you can’t sell all your investments and hope it is the right move. The investments you sell might benefit from the Chinese crisis or the market could rally for years before the flood of Chinese debt consumes the news feeds.

There are some steps you can take to protect yourself if China implodes and if it doesn’t will bolster your financial situation regardless.

The 2008 financial crisis that started in the U.S. was a debt crisis. Home lending was out of control. Appraisals were based on fantasy and fake documents. Almost sounds like what China is dealing with today. 

Debt crisis are always painful events. Companies fail and jobs are lost. People with money hold it tight for fear things will never improve. 

As we saw in 2008, a financial crisis in a major world economy spreads. Very few parts of the world went unscathed by the 2008 events in the U.S. Even China was affected. 2008 set China on a massive borrowing for growth scheme they can’t seem to get off. Once the lie starts you need bigger and bigger lies to keep the charade going. 

Since debt is the cause of so many financial crisis I suggest you insulate yourself by reducing or eliminating debt. (I prefer the elimination of debt because the seriousness of the China issue is large enough to harm virtually anyone holding debt.)

Reducing debt is an easy (relatively) and simple (relatively, again) way to insure your fiscal soundness if China stumbles. Like all debt, it takes time to pay off. Today is the best day to start the process. When the tsunami is visible on the horizon it’s too late; there will only be time to grab something solid and hold tight.

A second security procedure is to keep some of your finances liquid. Most of your money should probably be invested in broad-based index funds all the time. Market timing just doesn’t work. Having two years of spending in a money market fund might also be a good idea. This is a similar tactic people in or near retirement use so they don’t have to dip into investments when the market is down.

 

Final Planning Tips

I wish I could share more, but I fear if I was totally blunt it might harm my friends in China. 

This is a serious issue China works hard to keep from the press around the world. It is easy to think China is loaded with cash since they hold so many U.S. Treasuries. In a crisis China may have to sell large amounts of these Treasuries to defend their currency causing an interest rate spike in the U.S. This would be economically disruptive even if the Federal Reserve fights to counter the effects of such a liquidation. 

The most serious issue happened when we lost contact with Heather’s host family for over a month. They only contacted us because they were traveling outside China. This is very concerning. When things get really bad (and usually just before), totalitarian governments clamp down hard. Foreigners in China have been learning this. The security alert for Americans traveling in China is elevated and travel there is not recommended. This is not a warning to be disregarded.

If the same thing happened in Russia it would be less an issue since their economy is so much smaller. Even with inflated numbers, China’s economy is still one of the largest on the planet. If China stumbles we will all feel the ground quake, especially since some of the debt is in U.S. denominations.

This post is not about inciting panic, rather the opposite. Risk is high and even the U.S economy looks to be softening. Smaller refund checks this tax season means people were enjoying a slightly higher take-home pay during the previous year. That could lead to a softer U.S. economy for a while.

You can weather almost any economic storm without debt. Even in good times debt can be a burden. 

I worry because a family in China close to my heart is living dead center of where the storm will strike. I wish them and all of China well. 

We are all in this together. So take precautions, reduce debt, increase your financial cushion and be well.

 

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Credit Cards can be a powerful money management tool when used correctly. Use this link to find a listing of the best credit card offers. You can expand your search to maximize cash and travel rewards.

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

Regaining Motivation When You Have No Debt

What happens when the thing that motivated you most of your life is removed? Here is how you can bring meaning and purpose back to your life.
What happens when the thing that motivated you most of your life is removed? Here is how you can bring meaning and purpose back to your life.

What happens when the thing that motivated you most of your life is removed? Here is how you can bring meaning and purpose back to your life.

The literature is largely silent on what you should do once you attain financial independence(FI). Plenty has been written about building wealth and how much is needed to reach FI and how much you can safely withdraw each year in retirement.

Plenty of debate has also revolved around paying off the mortgage — any debt for that matter — versus plowing the excess payments into investments that pretend to offer a return greater than the interest rate on your debt. While investments can provide outsized returns, the return isn’t guaranteed; the interest on the debt is.

As much as we preach about eliminating debt as part of a smart wealth building program designed for FI, there are some benefits to having certain kinds of debt. Risks are always present, but the advantage may be worth the risk. Buying a home without debt ever would mean most people would never have a chance at home ownership. And you can forget about income properties if you can’t use leverage to start your real estate empire unless you inherited from a rich uncle.

A mortgage (all debt) does have one powerful advantage most people overlook. Debt is the #1 motivator when it comes to getting people to sacrifice time with family and friends. Debt motivates you to work harder than you ever would if debt demands were not hanging over your head.

So if debt is so caustic to financial success a prime goal should be to remove debt from your life except for only the rarest of cases. But then what?

If you pay off your debt and build a sizable nest egg, a primary motivation to keep producing declines! How will the economic engine of progress ever survive? (I’m being facetious here.)

People will take a second, or even third, job just to pay for prior sins, plus interest. Families are destroyed; health ruined; children neglected, just to make good on your obligations. You did give your word and you’re a person of your word.

 

And then you had a come to Jesus moment. Maybe you read a blog or had a serious talk with a councilor or your accountant. Debt became enemy #1. And then the debt finally disappeared and cash kept accumulating in your investment accounts until money was no longer a reason to work; money is only a tool now.

A once powerful motivator in your life is gone. You either took an early retirement, did the traveling thing you always wanted to or started a side gig from a childhood dream. And it didn’t take long before you asked: Is this all their is? Is there no more?

Travel became dreary as it was nothing more than a replacement for the old job. Life on the road isn’t what you hoped it would be. Travel is wonderful in modest gulps, but inhaling the elixir sends it down the wrong pipe and you end up coughing it back out.

Early retirement left you with long days and nothing to do. The fellowship from the work environment is gone and you miss it.

The side gig fills some of the gaps, but still something is missing.

Finding the Meaning of Life and Motivation

While debt can be a thorn in your backside motivating you to action, it is a cruel taskmaster at best. Better the drudgery of excess travel, days of boredom or a side hustle that doesn’t completely fill the gaps of emptiness. Debt can do more than motivate; it can destroy. Best to keep the debt where it belongs; in the past.

Use the secrets wealthy, successful and happy people use to achieve anything.

Use the secrets wealthy, successful and happy people use to achieve anything.

A mixture of options can improve the attitude. Some travel is a great thing. Time off to read, think, reflect and enjoy family time is important and something to cling tenaciously to. And side hustles can be a lot of fun so why give that up.

If you really think about it, traveling, more free time and side gigs are not the problem! The problem was created by debt and you’re still suffering the consequences even when it’s gone.

For the first time in your life you can do something truly meaningful. In the past you were so focused on paying the bills you never learned how to make a real difference in the world that juiced you to the max. You were too busy helping Wells Fargo meet analysts expectations for the quarter.

The travel, family and free time and side gigs are good things to have and do. But too much of a good thing is bad. (Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But can you imagine me connected to the hip of Mrs. Accountant? I’d have a rolling pin beside the puss by the second day! There is such a thing as too close.)

So now we need to add meaning back into our lives; something that makes us excited to get out of bed and charge into the day.

Before I share what I consider the best motivational tool any FI individual can have, let me share a few other ways to bring viva! back into your life:

  1. Plan: You may have heard retired people saying their more busy once they retired than when they worked. It’s true! I see it all the time. And it was because they had a plan. They planned retirement before they got there: the travel ventures, entertainment choices, how much family time and with whom, how much time to dedicate to a hobby. If you plan you will find more than enough meaningful stuff (a purely technical term, I might add) to fill your day; more than enough to motivate you to get out bed exited daily. Too many people think they will retire and do one thing like travel or golf. That ends up the new job and drudgery. Variety is the magic potion.
  2. Turn your side hustle into a real business: A side gig can occupy a portion of time each week. Depending on the depth of your side gig determines the time and enjoyment involved. However, a side hustle doesn’t contain the drive necessary to really push. (You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.) If you really enjoy your side hustle, consider going all-in. A full-blown business takes work, but if the work is pleasurable it becomes a powerful motivator. A business provides much more to a community than a mere side gig. Not only will you provide more valuable goods and services for your community, you might even create jobs. Best of all, when you run your own business you are the captain. You can make real changes; solve real problems perplexing society.
  3. Challenge yourself: Of course travel and side gigs have challenges, but I’m talking about something more. Using travel as an example: you can take a tour or strike out on your own. Striking out on your own have various levels. Consider an extended stay in a country, learning their language and culture on a deep level. Since many reading this blog are younger, consider mountain climbing or similar challenging tasks. It takes time and dedication to learn serious climbing. It could take years or decades to reach a level on competence. (You will not climb El Capitan in Yosemite the first week. Not if you want to live long enough to get your motivation back, at least.) Striving for excellence in a large goal will have you jumping out of bed each morning early to meet the day.
  4. Set personal goals: This pertains to what was said above. Business is filled with goals; planning is a form of goal-setting; undertaking (remember we used mountain climbing as an example so the pun was intended) a massive challenge (learning a new skill to a level above mere competence) will bring motivation back into you life. Not all goals need to be grandiose. If your life is consumed by one all-encompassing goal it can cost you in other areas of life. Notice I said “personal” goals. Goals must include family and friends and should include many short, easily attainable goals. Business and rock climbing are major goals. That isn’t what I’m talking about in this point. Numerous smaller goals of things you think you’ll enjoy is what I’m suggesting. It’s all about enjoying the process and feeling motivated and alive each day.
  5. Take on a large project: Turning a side hustle into a full-fledged business is a “large” project. What I’m suggesting in this point is a bit different. The large project I’m suggesting straddles the business and personal world. For example: get a college degree in a field that interests you (history might be a poor degree choice, but now you have the time and money to really dig in). Now is the time to write that novel you always promised yourself you would write. Maybe start a blog and share your adventure from subsistence to abundance.

The whole idea of these ideas is to give you one big thing to do with your life with multiple smaller goals to keep you active and motivated. Any of these endeavors will fill a good portion of your day and provide motivation to keep moving forward.

The key is to choose something important, that makes a difference in the lives of others. Hedonism will only take you so far. When you do something that benefits others your life is filled with meaning and purpose. That is the birthplace of motivation.

And that brings us to the last and most powerful way to gain motivation, meaning and purpose in life when you’ve reached the safety of financial security.

The Meaning of Life is to Give

I work with numerous wealthy individuals in my practice. What I see in private I also see in the news: wealthy people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett giving large chunks of their net worth to charity.

The happiest people in the world have a reason to get out of bed each day. Learn the lessons the wealthy use to do the impossible.

The happiest people in the world have a reason to get out of bed each day. Learn the lessons the wealthy use to do the impossible.

It goes beyond mere financial donations. Peter Lynch, the great mutual fund manager at Fidelity Investments’s Magellan Fund from 1977 to 1990, volunteers his time and experience to charitable organizations. Bill Gates not only donated a massive chunk of his wealth; he started and funded the foundation he runs, changing the world for the better. Gates’s experience allows him to make a serious difference.

You also have skills and experiences many organizations can use. There is no greater satisfaction or satisfying job than to work with people of a common cause doing good. 

Listen, we hear all the bloggers bragging about their exotic travel and early retirement bragging. After a while the selfies get old. It must be depressing to spend so much time in self-aggrandizement.

We can do better! Let’s use the 5 points above to illustrate what I’m suggesting:

  1. Plan your giving: Each gives what each has. Maybe you have loads of money so you spend time reviewing the best organizations to fund. Maybe you’re good at helping raise money for organizations. (You’ll be in higher than demand than you can imagine if you are.) Maybe you love working with your hands. Perhaps Habitat for Humanity could use someone with excellent construction skills.  You have limited time and resources so you need a plan on how to give wisely.
  2. Experience: People tend to enjoy what they are good at. Familiarity bias is something we can use to our advantage. I work with a non-profit connected to Goodwill helping people with serious money and/or tax problems. It’s what I’m good at; it’s what I enjoy, so it is where I can do the most good. Take an inventory of the skills and experiences you have and match it with the things you most enjoy doing. Satisfaction of a job well done and demand for your skill sets will leave you massively motivated, satisfied and enjoying every day to the max.
  3. It ain’t easy, but it sure is darn fun: Life is most enjoyable when challenged. Charitable organizations are designed to deal with challenges. The work can be hard at times, even frustrating, as you try to achieve goals that make the world a better place. Working with like-minded people is one of the most pleasurable things you can do.
  4. Pace yourself: Don’t turn your good nature into drudgery. Set limits (read: goals). You can’t solve all the ills plaguing our world alone. The nice thing about FI is you can pace yourself. One day of challenges at a time instead of overwhelm is just the ticket to living the good life post-debt.
  5. Service: Serving your community is a large project by definition. Remember, you can help more than one organization. But don’t spread yourself too thin. The goal is motivation.

People are happiest when they give. (Read that again.) Giving is the meaning of life.

You spent a lifetime fighting to retire debt obligations. Now that you buried the debt-demons and built a mighty financial fortune, it’s time to find a reason to live another day.

There are so many things you can do to feel alive each morning.

I get up early; I always have. I’m excited about life. Deep down I kept a mortgage around way to long, knowing it was a powerful tool to motivate me. (You can check the links at the beginning of this post to read more about my mortgage/wealth adventures.)

Debt is a stupid way to stay motivated.

I knew once I retired my mortgage a serious motivation pillar would be removed from my life. My net worth is well above the FI threshold.

No more than the mortgage was gone and I noticed the loss of drive to set more appointments or even write so much on this blog. The nice thing about FI is you no longer have to do anything anymore; it is also the greatest problem.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can live a life filled with excitement and adventure; you can live each day knowing there are people who really need you.

Find what motivates you. Sit down and really think about it. Write your thoughts out.

The world will be a better place if you do.

 

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Credit Cards can be a powerful money management tool when used correctly. Use this link to find a listing of the best credit card offers. You can expand your search to maximize cash and travel rewards.

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

 

 

The Benefits of Having a Mortgage

Paying off the mortgage is the American Dream and the first step toward retirement; it’s harder to retire with a mortgage payment blowing a hole through a fixed budget. Owning your home is the foundation of any vibrant financial plan. Until your home is unencumbered (without a mortgage) the bank still owns it in a manner of speaking (and they’ll remind you of it if you miss a payment).

Still, a home mortgage has its benefits. The traditional reasons to carry mortgage debt are bad reasons to carry the liability, but there are still a few good reasons.

We will review the traditional reasons for borrowing against your home and why the benefit is perceived rather than real. We will finish with the three reasons a mortgage can help you build wealth.

Revolving Mortgage

The debate is legend: should I pay off the mortgage faster or invest the extra instead? I recently finished that personal debate permanently.

In Accounting 101 they teach students how leverage (borrowed money) spikes investment returns. It all makes sense.  If I pay cash for a $100,000 home and it increases in price by $3,000 the first year I managed a meager 3% return on my investment (assuming you feel your primary residence is an investment). If instead you borrowed $90,000 and only invested $10,000 of your own money, the gain jumps to 30% ($3,000 increase in value divided by the investment of $10,000).

A mortgage is a powerful financial tool to build wealth. It also carries risks that can harm. Learn how to use a mortgage to build wealth.

A mortgage is a powerful financial tool to build wealth. It also carries risks that can harm.

They also teach of the risks of leverage in the classroom, but it doesn’t feel as real as the real world will make it. Leverage is wonderful animal when your assets are increasing in value. When the inevitable decline happens real pain begins.

In our above example the 30% gain is an illusion. If you have a mortgage against your home you will pay interest and that reduces the actual gain. Let’s assume a 5% interest rate on your mortgage. This equals $4,500 in interest the first year without consideration for the principle payments on each monthly payment. Your 30% gain went south darn fast, taking a $3,000 gain and turning it negative!

But if I invested the $90,000 (assuming I didn’t need a mortgage) and earned a return there I once again should be popping some mouth-watering returns. Maybe.

We’ll return to this in a moment.

Understanding how leverage can spike investment returns, I always subscribed to holding a mortgage. I bought my first home in 1986 and had a loan against it. It was paid off when the home was sold. (I’m embarrassed to say it was a mobile home, but in my defense I was single and enjoying life to the max. I was retired at the time (turned out to be gap years only) and immersing myself in an endless supply of books.)

From the mobile home I moved into a three bedroom ranch in town (1989); full mortgage in place. Opting to invest every dollar I had, the mortgage was never paid a penny sooner. Then I bought the farm (sounds morbid, doesn’t it?).

The farm is my final resting place and — embarrassed as I am to say it — was used as an ATM since 1995 when I took ownership. The farmhouse was unlivable, but I wanted a traditional barn and the 10 acres also appealed to me. I coughed up a $120,000 hairball with a $100,000 mortgage. I handled some remodeling on my own to make the farmhouse livable until I was ready to seriously remodel with an addition.

A few years later (somewhere around the year 2000) the mortgage was down to $40,000. It was time for a serious upgrade.

My 900 square foot farmhouse swelled to 3,000 square feet and cost close to $200,000 to remodel and expand. (I still swallow hard when I think of that. Not to be outdone, the bank (Farm Credit; they have awesome terms and interest rates for farmers) allowed me to borrow 80% of the value of the finished home; $400,000. That means I was able to grab another 80 grand and drop it into the market.

By 2008 the farm mortgage was under $100,000 again as I paid extra in spurts. The market tanked and good credit came to the rescue; I was able to take another quarter million. Into the market it went.

Of course I look like a hero because the timing of my remortgages coincided with market declines. This wasn’t an accident. When the market died I wanted to add to the account and the ATM was cheap money. (You can read the prior article linked above for more. The ends do NOT justify the means so the increase in investment value is a poor reason to toot my horn.)

I tell you this story for a reason. I struggled with paying off the mortgage for decades as many readers also do. I had the funds to retire the debt a long time ago, but chose to keep the mortgage anyway. Until last month.

At the beginning of this year I had whittled down the mortgage to ~$100,000. I didn’t want to sell assets/investments to pay the mortgage, causing a taxable event. Hyper-frugality set in. By June the mortgage was down to $57,000 and the sickness set in. It was time to kill the mortgage forever!

And I did it! On October 5th I made a special trip to the bank to put the final nail in the mortgage. (Mrs. Accountant came with to experience the magical moment. Either that or she didn’t trust me and was worried I might chicken out and drop it all in an index fund.)

Traditional Benefits of a Mortgage

Mortgages have been touted for a variety of reasons with promises of helping the economy, providing liquidity to the housing market and offering tax advantages to some. We’ll now run down many of the most popular traditional mortgage advantages and why it’s best to avoid the boondoggle.

 

Real estate is a known way to create and build wealth. Turn your property into a cash cow using the right financial tools.

Real estate is a known way to create and build wealth. Turn your property into a cash cow using the right financial tools.

1.) Tax Advantages. This is the most popular reason given for having a larger mortgage. Banks and other financial institutions have a vested interest (pun intended) to get you to borrow more. You know the advertisements: Mortgage interest may be tax deductible. Consult your tax professional. Rarely do people consult with their tax professional and the bank is counting on it. All people hear is mortgage interest is tax deductible.

Why this is bad advice. 

Every lie has a grain of truth to it. Mortgage interest is deductible. Unfortunately many will not benefit from the deductibility of the mortgage interest they pay because they don’t itemize. Also, paying the bank $10,000 in interest just so the IRS might give you up to $3,000 back is a really stupid move.

 

2.) You can afford more house. Yes, the more you borrow the more house you can buy. If every home was required to be purchased with cash the price of homes would drop precipitously.

Why this is bad advice.

Just because you can dig a deeper hole doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Dig a deep enough hole and it’s called a grave.

 

3.) You can invest the difference for a higher rate of return. Fair enough. If you borrow the maximum you free up capital for other investments.

Why this is bad advice. 

This concept is fine as long as you don’t take on more house than you can afford. And you have to actually invest the difference. After 35 years in the tax profession I can count on one hand with fingers left over of people who invested money earmarked for additional mortgage payments into an investment account. Sure, some may have invested the money without a formal accounting. But my suspicion (gathered from decades of experience) is that people tend not to save the money; they just increase lifestyle spending. All is fine until storm clouds appear.

 

7 ways to use your mortgage to build wealth.

7 ways to use your mortgage to build wealth.

4.) You don’t have to sell assets triggering a tax event to put more down on the house. Once again, fair enough. I used the same philosophy when paying my home off faster (fast!). Selling assets to put more down on a property can cause a serious tax issue. A larger mortgage (temporarily) makes a lot of financial sense.   

Why this is bad advice.

The larger the mortgage (the more leverage) the larger the risk something can go wrong. The investments you didn’t sell could decline in value. Selling to have a reduced mortgage means you forgo future gains on the sold investment. By keeping the asset and acquiring a larger mortgage you take on market risk while paying additional interest to boot.

 

5.) Investment gains. I hear it all the time, “The market goes up 10% a year while I’m only paying 5% interest.” It is true the market averages gains of about 10% per year on average. Some years the market increases more; other times the market gets cut in half! 

Why this is bad advice.

As we noted at the beginning of this article, leverage seems like a great idea. . . until you look under the hood. It might be easier to see with an income property.

The choice is to pay cash for the property or mortgage it to the hilt. If you mortgage the property you can invest the difference.

Let’s assume you purchase a $120,000 property for cash. If the value increases 3% the first year your net worth has increased $3,600, plus any profits from renting the property. Sound good, but the real estate agent introduced you to his banker friend and he says you can borrow $100,000. This means you can buy more properties (now you know why the agent recommended his banker) or keep the money in an index fund or other investment.

A good banker can make the numbers look compelling and this banker is gooood. You decide to borrow $100,000 for 15 years at a fixed 5%. We’ll use simple interest to keep this easy to follow. The value increased the same 3% as above (and also a common annual increase in value for real estate). The value of the property increased $3,600; the mortgage interest amounted to $5,000!

Yikes! You actually lost on the deal!

Maybe not. The property in a vacuum with the mortgage appears to have lost $1,400 the first year. Hopefully you didn’t invest in 5 more properties with the same mortgage deal because then you are hurting. The $100,000 you left invested earned, let’s say, the average 10%, or $10,000. Added together you made $8,600. It seems the mortgage was a good deal after all.

Buuuut. . .  You have to assume a good market (or a pretty good return on whatever investment you made) to justify the out-sized mortgage. If the investment under-performed, or, {gulp!} declined in value, you not only suffered a loss on the investment, the property has interest expenses in excess of the gain in value, increasing the total loss from the investment.

 

 

The above traditional advantages are not bad in and of themselves. Most people don’t decide between paying cash or a mortgage; they don’t have the money to pay cash so a mortgage is the only choice. Home ownership, especially as you begin your financial journey, almost always requires a mortgage.

Now we turn to non-traditional reasons to have a mortgage; reasons that might actually make sense.

text-align: center;”>Good Reasons to Have a Mortgage

Real, or good, reasons to have a mortgage are few. The risks of leverage are higher than most people anticipate. The odds are virtually 100% the economy will decline one or more times during the lifetime of a mortgage. Job loss or disability further add to mortgage risks. Rare is the person who doesn’t have a few times when the mortgage payment is a challenge.

All the negatives of the mortgage doesn’t mean the liability is totally worthless. There area a few reasons I can think of to have a mortgage, reasons worth their weight in gold.

 

There are good reasons to have a mortgage. Tax benefits are the smallest benefit. A mortgage can do a whole lot more when used properly.

There are good reasons to have a mortgage. Tax benefits are the smallest benefit. A mortgage can do a whole lot more when used properly.

1.) Free up capital. Leverage entails risk; no working capital can be a greater risk! If you pay cash for a property and have no working capital to deal with maintenance, insurance, property taxes or other expenses you can find yourself in just as deep as if you have a large mortgage.

Landlords should be acutely aware of this issue. Vacancies early in property ownership can cause serious financial harm. Without a mortgage the landlord should have a really good cash flow. But, you need a maintenance fund and resources to cover insurance and taxes should the property refuse to rent early in the ownership cycle.

The same can be said for those buying a primary residence. Without any emergency fund, a minor unexpected expense can create hardship.   

Solutions to potential problems. 

Up till now I’ve used the all-or-none approach. Taking out a small mortgage can free up capital to deal with any of the problems listed above.

Another very low-cost solution is a home equity line of credit (HELOC). For a couple hundred dollars you can secure a line of credit against the property. If things go well you have no additional mortgage expenses; if cash gets tight you have a resource to manage the bumps.

 

2.) Working capital. In business, investment properties and even your personal life, working capital is necessary to achieve your financial goals. Being property rich and cash poor means you have to pass on obvious opportunities for financial gain.   

Solutions.

When I bought my office building I didn’t want a mortgage. Profits are really nice when you don’t owe anyone anything. However, the seller wanted to spread his taxes out so I accepted a land contract (7 year amortization; seller allowed me to make a final lump sum in the fifth year).

But owning my office building requires ~ $200,000 of my net worth to be tied up in real estate. If an opportunity comes along I might have to pass and that would bother me. (It really would!) So I’ve always had a line of credit in my business. Originally it was attached to the building; now I have an unsecured line of credit. This allows me to smooth out the lumpiness of my business income (spring is good; year-end not so much).

I haven’t used the LOC for a few years so the only cost in $150 per year. Still, if I ever needed funds I can dip into the LOC for a very short term. This allows me to invest excess capital more quickly without fear I’ll need it before the good times return the following tax season.

 

3,) Motivation. This is the reason I wrote this post. I knew from the beginning if I ever paid off my mortgage, to be totally debt-free top to bottom, I would no longer have a financial motivation to get out of bed. And just as I predicted, I’m feeling the slump.

Financially I had the money to pay the house off decades ago without even a minor hardship. My logic was that I invested the extra money I borrowed so it was okay to keep the spur of a mortgage in my shorts.

Don’t worry too much, kind readers. I still roll out of bed around noon and put in an hour or two before calling it a day. (I’m joking, guys!)

Financial independence is different from debt-free! A mortgage always focused my attention. It helped me push my frugality (defense) while encouraging more income growth (offense). The frugal part has been good since the mortgage is gone; good habits continue on.

However, I find myself thinking more and more about how much I don’t have to do now that I’m mortgage free. I need $2,000 a month to live without a mortgage payment (a bit more during the winter heating season; a bit less in the summer). The nice thing about a mortgage is I needed lots of income to fully fund retirement accounts, add to non-qualified accounts and then pay extra on the mortgage. Without the mortgage money is no longer a driving force even on a minor scale!

 

And this is where we stop for now. My next post will deal with finding motivation when money is no longer an issue. Debt creates (or at least should) a crisis environment. As my good friend Mr. Money Mustache says, “It’s not a debt emergency; it’s a DEBT EMERGENCY!!!

I used a DEBT EMERGENCY to prod me in the past. Now I need to grow up and find motivation from other places. While debt can focus one’s attention, it is a poor way to achieve a goal! I used it way too long.

Debt is a tool with serious risks. Debt in and of itself isn’t bad, but it can create the illusion it is making things better when all it is really doing is increasing risk. We can do better than that.

Paying off my last liability has been liberating. I’m glad I did it. There are many ways to refocus attention so you can continue to create value in the world around you and in your life.

I think you’ll enjoy the answers I publish next week.

Happy Thanksgiving, American readers!

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Credit Cards can be a powerful money management tool when used correctly. Use this link to find a listing of the best credit card offers. You can expand your search to maximize cash and travel rewards.

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

 

How Debt Spurs Economic Growth

Debt is harsh taskmaster. End the stress of student loans, credit card debt and mortgages. Break the chains of debt. Live debt-free. #daveramsey #debtproblems #stress #studentloans #creditcarddebtAs mankind evolved they needed a way to store value that wasn’t cumbersome. Sure, trading a cow for supplies seems like a good idea, but what about wages? Do you get a cow or a peck of barley for a good day of labor? Well actually, yes. That is exactly what happened. It held back commerce because you needed an immediate need between two or more parties to have an equitable exchange of value. And God forbid you were really good at mass-producing something. The oversupply of that item would make it worthless.

Even before mankind invented money as a store of wealth, people were able to borrow. Rather than make an equitable trade now, you would promise to provide a good or service later. And you better keep up your end of the bargain. The punishment for reneging on a debt was severe. You could lose a hand, be imprisoned, forced into servitude (slavery) or outright killed. No, in the early days of money and prior, it was best to honor your commitments. The alternative was unthinkable.

Slavery was a common result for nonpayment of debts. Debt was not entered into lightly as it put your freedom at risk. The Old Testament of the Bible has several passages which show how ancient man dealt with debt absconders. They were merciless.

The Invention of Money and How It Works

Debt has lost much of its fearsomeness nowadays. I promise not to get religious on y’all, but need I remind you around half of the parables of Jesus dealt with money and wealth. Money is important. People knew it two thousand years ago and they know it today. Unfortunately, people don’t understand it much better than the Classical Greeks did as they tried to come to terms with the new way to store and transfer value.

Free yourself from the slavery of debt. End the burden and interest expense adding stress to your life. End debt. #enddebt #debtfree #nomoredebt #studentloans #paydayloansMankind has gone from, “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be”, to, “You need a good credit score to live in modern society.” The dividing line happened somewhere between the Shakespearean play Hamlet—where the above phrase comes from—and today. Lending was always considered risky business for all parties involved.

Money makes it easier to borrow (and cheat). Governments have been debasing money since its invention. Don’t worry. The proletariat figured out how to shave coins before the first day was out. A deal between two people needed to be honored and violence could result if one party felt the other party cut corners on their end of the deal if both ends of the transaction happened at different times. The horse you promised in six months for the purchase of twenty acres of land might have developed a lame hoof. Negotiations took a decidedly more hostile approach afterwards.

The more people started to understand money the worse it got. Money requires a level of trust. If most people refused to accept the item used as money at a set rate of value it becomes useless. That’s why precious metals and other small valuable items were the first forms of money. Government debasement and coin shaving was a serious issue. Debasement destroyed trust in government issued coins and coin shaving was a crime because it was honing in on the government’s debasement turf.

Then somebody got the idea to create fiat money. Fiat money is declared valuable by the government by decree. I sometimes call cryptocurrencies fiat money when in fact they are not. My argument is cryptocurrencies are declared by decree of the blockchain rather than the government. Both declare value for something that has none and gets us all to agree the fantasy is real. That is why money has value today; because we all agree to pretend it does. Fiat money in not backed by anything of value, just faith in the issuing government. Good luck with that.

The Problem with Debt

In modern times debt seems a reasonably risk-free way to transact business. In my office we frequently bypass even fiat money for a check which we trust the bank will honor with fiat money or we allow the client to take a loan from their credit card company which once again pays us in fiat money. It’s all based on trust.

But risk-free (or nearly so) transactions are relatively modern. Reneging on a debt was a serious matter for good reason. The lender would have a hard time replacing the lost value promised. Powerful banking families and governments were also the ones doing the lending so they were inspired to formulate laws with serious consequences for not upholding your end of the obligation. And as bad as people knew debt was, they could still get in trouble. The landlord wanted rent, the church wanted a tithe and the government wanted taxes. You were a serf or risked your eternal soul. And your taxes were an implied debt forced upon you.

And still the government loves debt!

Why the Government Wants You to be a Slave Go into Debt

Economists falsely believe that more debt lubricates an economy. It doesn’t. It sucks interest from productive labor and gives nothing in return. Think about it for a second. Human beings dreamed up a store of wealth based on trust and that had only pretend value. Then, we convinced people if we let them use the fantasy value for a short while they would have to go into slavery get a job and earn imaginary value to repay the pretend money. The only “real” thing in this whole process is the part where you trade part of your life to satisfy your obligation based on fiat money. (Bet you feel kinda foolish right now, don’tcha?)

Well, if debt doesn’t lubricate economic growth as the government and economists all tell us, why is it so darn important for the Federal Reserve to encourage people to borrow more? The answer is in the above lecture! Slavery!

Yes, borrowed money is generally spent instantly, causing the short-term illusion of economic growth. Heck, when you put a vacation on the credit card it’s all fun and games. PARTY TIME! When you get back from vacation it still feels good. Then the payments come due. Still okay, but not as much fun. Then you have a serious need for funds and you are saddled with debt. The car breaks down or medical bills arrive and Katy bar the door. Debt now has you firmly in its grip. A serious matter is made worse because the other side of party time just came home to roost.

The root of the word mortgage is “death pledge”. Is that a graphic enough term for you? People knew from early times a mortgage wasn’t a home loan—the soft language we use today for a death pledge. It was something a lot more serious.

A World without Debt

It sounds melodramatic when you echo the warning over debt. Most people today either have debt or once upon a time did. Bankruptcy laws are generous these days. And why not? If the banks get in trouble the government bails them out by creating more money out of thin air, or as we say on the farm, by fiat.

My family has always been business owners. My dad has an agricultural repair business. While it pains me to admit my dear ol’ dad might be right, he did make an observation decades ago I never forgot. He noticed employees loaded with debt were a double edged sword. First, the debt kept’em coming to work. They had no other choice. In short, their debt made them a slave to my dad’s business. Self inflicted slavery, for sure. But slavery all the same. But second, the debt load made for high drama employees. It takes time and massive energy to juggle a debt burden. Paying the boat and car loan, mortgage or rent, Jet Ski payment, cottage payment and credit card bills are exhausting work. These people were under severe stress and it showed. They got sick more often and tended to have other bad habits (smoking, drinking and/or drugs) to relieve the stress. The stress drove them to the unhealthy lifestyle.

People walk free-willing, eyes open, into debt. Then reality strikes. You’ve been enslaved by your own doing!

Break free from debt today! The stress of debt is killing you. Get the plan and motivation to end debt in your life today. Regain your financial freedom. #financialfreedom #debtfree #studentloans #creditcarddebt #debt #stressThe economic imprint the borrowed money caused is long gone. Only the pain remains. And the pain lasts a lot longer than the pleasure did!

The government knows all this. They know your debt fueled spending is ointment that quickly wears off. The government also knows you are now left with two unpleasant options: sell a large part of your life and freedom to satisfy those debts, plus interest, or declare bankruptcy where they restrict you financially for a time. Bankruptcy doesn’t solve the problem; it only eases the pressure a bit so it’s possible to claw your way back. Part of your life is getting sold, slave. Get used to it.

And there’s your answer to how debt spurs economic growth. It forces you to work more than you have to. It wasn’t the debt fueled spending; it was your forced servitude to satisfy your obligation. In debt, they (government and employers) own you. You have to work. And you only keep a portion of the benefit! You are forced to work for a lower wage because you need money now! Debt comes first, eating second. That is why we have homeless and starving people in the richest nation in the history of mankind.

Interest sucks a portion of your hard-earned labor, too. Not only are you forced to work and accept a lower wage, you give up some of the remainder to the lender in interest. Remember interest? The stuff created out of thin air—fiat money—now requires you to repay a fantasy debt you agreed to with flesh and blood.

Coda

When I write these kinds of posts I get a lot of complaints I sound like Dave Ramsey. Well, for the record, I was a Dave Ramsey Endorsed Local Provider for many years. And I consider it a compliment when compared to Dave and his simple, yet powerful message. A lot to like in the guy.

I’ll make a deal with you. When the you guys stop telling me how smart and responsible with debt you are, I’ll stop taking the sledgehammer to your skull on this issue. Debt can be a powerful tool, no doubt. But debt is enslavement, as we illustrated above. Stop telling Dave and me we’re wrong.

Get your life back. Live your dream. The bank is the largest expense in most households. Big income and nothing left to live on. Insane! I beg you, kind readers. In these awesome economic times it isn’t the place to become complacent. Debt feels good now because it mentally feels like tax-free money. Paying it back means you have to make more money to repay the debt and pay tax on that money, too. You don’t need much to live a good life, but a boatload of income to pay all your debt obligations. More required income to cover debt and living means more taxes for the government.

And that is why the government tells us debt fuels economic growth. By the way, only a fool believes what the government tells him.

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

Stealth Investing and Net Worth Accumulation

I have noticed a trend involving wealth building that is all wrong. I see it in comments on other personal finance blogs a lot lately. I am sure it has been there all the while and it only jumped out at me recently for whatever reason. The misinformation is so important it needs clarification.

The comment goes something like this: I am not saving right now because I am paying off student loans/credit cards/car loans/making extra mortgage payments. When you pay down debt you ARE saving and also building your net worth. The real question is: How can you balance debt reduction with retirement savings for maximum net worth building?

Paying down debt removes the most caustic item on your balance sheet holding back wealth creation. Debt interest is an expense you can only slay by destroying the debt (paying it off). Debt is not a bad thing in and of itself when used as a tool, but most consumer debt is bad. Mortgages are the exception if used properly.

Let’s take some time to explore the best way to reduce debt and maximize return and net worth.

Pecking Order of Debt Reduction

We will address retirement savings in a moment; for now we will focus on debt only. My opinion is built on maximum return for each action you take which is different from other personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey. Ramsey teaches you should pay the smallest debt balances first (snowball effect) so you reduce the number of bills quickly, giving you a mental boost. I was a Dave Ramsey Endorsed Local Provider (ELP) for years; I am very familiar with his teachings. My advice is slightly different.

I assume we are all adults and understand LESS debt (especially consumer debt) is better. You don’t need hand-holding or mental tricks to act like a responsible adult. You are here because you want to grow your financial understanding and increase your net worth.

The debt with the highest interest rate should be paid down first! Eliminating the highest interest debt does give a psychological boost as interest is reduced at the fastest rate. It also allows for faster net worth accumulation.

Debt payoff IS saving! Think of it this way. Example: You have several loans and a mortgage with payments of $2,000 per month of which $1,600 is interest. Making the minimum payment will increase your net worth $400. Do you get it? You made $2,000 in payments which included $1,600 of interest and $400 loan principle. The $400 reduces your balance, thereby increasing your net worth. Any extra payment will all go to paying down the debt eliminating interest on that part of the liability forever.

Debt Reduction Master Plan

There are a few steps (Ramsey calls them baby steps) to maximize debt reduction.

  • Emergency fund: I don’t have an emergency fund. Most people with any amount of net worth generally don’t either. If you are saddled with debt you will need a small emergency fund of $1,000 to $5,000 until you have the resources to handle small emergencies. I don’t want you reducing debt and have a setback that causes more harm than good. A furnace or roof forcing you to take out high interest loans undoes all the hard work you have done reducing debt. Most people can get by with a $1,000 emergency fund. Once you have the financial ability to raise $1,000 or so quickly to handle emergencies the emergency fund is no longer a requirement.
  • Order of Debt Reduction: The only way to guide a boat is with a plan. Gather all your bills and debt together and assess the situation. Now you can find ways to reduce spending and funnel the money toward extra payments on debt. Start with the highest interest rate consumer debt and apply the extra payments there. Large balances should be reviewed for refinancing. Eighteen percent credit cards and high interest auto loans and student loans require special attention.

The process is simple in theory, hard in practice. Debt builds easy for too many people. Living within your means and funneling the extra money first to debt reduction and later to investments is a radical shift requiring new habits. Cut spending to the bone. Every extra dollar reduces debt faster.

Track your debt reduction on a spreadsheet. Each month you should see the interest expense declining. From our example above, if your interest is $1,600 this month, the $400 principle payment and any additional payment applied to the balance will reduce the interest expense going forward. Next month your interest will be less, let’s say $1,580. Now you reduce your debt this month $420 just with the minimum payment. Staying on course does not mean paying small credit card balances first to get a psychological boost. The mental boost comes from seeing the interest assessed each month drop like a rock.

515KZrY0bDL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_Retirement Plans and Investing

Debt is a crisis as serious as a heart attack. The trick is to eliminate debt as fast as possible without making the problem worse. The balancing act comes from taxes and retirement plans.

I know the desire is to fund a 401(k) up to the matching level regardless your debt level. I feel the same, but also know if your debt is high, funding anything other than debt reduction risks toppling the house of cards. When debt is maxed out you need to regain control of your finances first to bring you back from the edge. Once you have a small emergency fund and the most egregious debt well on its way to debt Hades you can consider balancing debt reduction with investing.

Just like paying off the highest interest rate debt first is a priority, you now need to bring investment returns into the equation. In this instance we only consider guaranteed rates of return. The stock market has excellent long-term returns, but they are not guaranteed. Employer retirement plan matching is one area of guaranteed high return. Investing into your employer’s retirement plan to the matching level provides two benefits: a high instant return on your investment (100% if funds are matched dollar for dollar) and a tax break. (In this post I will assume retirement investments are the deductible kind. The discussion between traditional and Roth retirement plans are left for another day.)

Taxes

In the United States the tax code is stacked against spenders. The government taxes the shit out of you when you spend (income tax, sales tax, excise tax, gas tax, et cetera). What Congress has a hard time doing is taxing savers. To appease the masses Congress created several tax advantages for savers. The cost is minimal to government collections because most people are stupid and spend all their money and then borrow some more. You are not one of those people.

Savers pay a significantly reduced tax bill. We will focus on two benefits today: the Savers Credit and deductions. The Savers Credit applies to the first $2,000 net investment to retirement plans. Distributions from retirement plans affect the Savers Credit negatively so leave your fingers off the retirement stash. The Savers Credit is up to $1,000 per year. You never pay it back. The extra tax savings can be used to increase retirement investments. Unfortunately the Savers Credit is limited to relatively low income taxpayers. For example, the credit for joint filers phases out at $61,000. The Savers Credit is generally smaller for most people, around $200. Still, $200 is a nice additional benefit for investing in your future.

Traditional retirement plans (IRAs, 401(k), and similar employer plans) are tax deferred. Your contributions to the plan are not included in income until distribution. If your tax bracket is 25% and your employer matches dollar for dollar, your first year return prior to any investment gain is 125%. (I am aware I am playing fast and loose with the math. The goal is to show the return is large.) While you are in debt reduction mode you still want to take advantage of such generous opportunities whenever possible.

Putting It All Together

Let’s take a look at what we learned and put it into order for easier use:

    • Assess Your Situation: Create an honest personal balance sheet, including all assets and debts. Now you have your net worth and all debts owed on one understandable page. Next, create an income statement from the household income and expenses. The income statement should help in determining where expenses can be reduced and applied to debt reduction.
    • Assess the Debt: Debt should have a separate page to assess debt balances and a payoff strategy. List the debt with the balance and interest rate. Start with the highest interest rate debt and apply additional payments to this liability until it is laid to rest. Then move on to the next victim.
    • Emergency Fund: Build a small emergency fund if your debt situation is excessive. You don’t want a flat tire to sink you right back into high interest debt.
    • Prioritize Debt Reduction and Retirement Planning: Once you are away from the precipice it is time to maximize net worth building. Employer retirement plans with matching will provide a greater return on investment than the interest you are paying in most cases. Participating in an employer’s retirement plan to the matching level is an intelligent financial move. Don’t lose sight of debt reduction. The goal is to reach the highest net worth without risk. Debt reduction is a guaranteed return. Debt paid off does not accrue additional interest expenses. Once debt is eliminated you will max out all retirement accounts for the largest tax savings.
    • Good Debt, Bad Debt: In my opinion consumer debt is bad. Car loans and credit card balances are caustic to financial health. (We leave credit card bonuses for another post.) Mortgages are different. We never get a loan because the interest is deductible, ever! Mortgages, however, are generally lower interest loans and will be one of the last things you pay off. Mortgages can be a powerful financial planning tool when used correctly.
  • Mortgages: When consumer loans (auto, credit cards, et cetera) are eliminated it is now time to plan the assassination of the mortgage. I have a small mortgage and plan on killing it over the next two years even though it is not a net worth maximizing strategy. I started with a $300,000 death pledge and decided to plan its murder. I chopped it to under $130,000 this year with the final assault killing the darn thing over the next year or two. It hurts when I do this. The interest rate on my mortgage is 2.375%. Any other investment would have a better return than the mortgage cost. However, there is something to be said about living debt-free. Once your net worth is well on its way it is not always about maximizing the results. Debt spikes returns when things are increasing in price, but also causes downward spikes when things are not all roses. Debt-free is good even when it is not the best financial move. It is the best ‘sleep at night’ move.
  • Time for Rocket Man: Once debt is history in your life you will have massive amounts of money to invest in retirement plans and index funds. Your skills acquired while reducing debt are still in play. While you reduced debt you learned how to cut costs, increase income, live within your means, and still remain happy with life. Without debt it takes almost nothing to live. Debt is what makes it so hard to make ends meet; the ends are rather close without debt payments. Now, interest is turned on its head. Instead of paying interest you are earning a return on your investments. What a concept!

There is no better feeling than waking in the morning, taking a deep sniff, and knowing you already made $722, more than you will spend in a week. A modest nest egg with no debt will generate a nice income stream to cover your lifestyle. Interest income, dividends, rents, and business profits all add to the mix. Like I said, the plan is simple in theory, difficult in practice. The sooner you start, the sooner you reach your goal, regain your sanity, and start living life the way you were meant to.