A new tax guide arrived late last week: The Complete Analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It’s what I consider light reading on a Sunday afternoon.
Tax season is over, but tax planning is more important than ever with the new tax laws and changes. Consulting and planning with clients started May 1st and continues strong. I’m booked out until mid-July. If you own a business or investment properties you need to consider consulting with a tax professional to take full advantage of the new Qualified Business Income deduction.
One problem from earlier in the year has probably corrected itself. Withholding tables were adjusted in early February to account for the elimination of exemptions and the new tax brackets. The new tax tables overcompensated by under withholding. This meant people would pay less tax while getting a smaller refund or even owing! It was a timing issue of when you would actually pay your tax liability.
Mid-April brought revised updated withholding tables correcting the issues. Preliminary analysis of client files show the new tables handle around 60% of withholding correctly. The reason for the 40% error rate is the elimination of exemptions. The good news is that the withholding tends to err on the conservative side, creating slightly higher refunds than the original withholding tables.
It might pay to review your tax situation this year. The last decade or so had modest annual changes to the tax code. This year is radically different. New deductions, expanded tax credits and extended tax brackets created opportunities to reduce your tax liability if you plan properly. This extra money funneled into an index fund or reducing debt should have long-term positive affects to your wealth creation. You have a window of opportunity to reach financial independence and early retirement funded by the tax reductions.
All is not rosy. The limits placed on state and local tax deductions (SALT) coupled with the elimination of itemized deductions, subject to 2%, means some taxpayers will see a tax increase.
I’ll need a copy of your 2017 tax return and a list of questions prior to our meeting so I can adequately prepare. Sometimes I can do more than just cut taxes. Several clients were able to reduce their expected larger refund and funnel it into a Capital One 360 or similar savings account where the interest on the lowered withholding will exceed my fee. Each situation is different so I need your information to provide the best advice. Keep in mind I consult on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week only. I sometimes open another day, but I do have other obligations consuming my time.
We have three winners since the last Stalking installment. Gretchen D of Birmingham, Terry C of Dallas and Cindy M of Rapid City, SD saw some Amazon gift card love slide their way.
What I’m Reading
Bill Gates contacted me the other day to share a book he found interesting. He is well aware of my love for good books and was excited to share another gem. The conversation went something like this:
Bill: Hey, Accountant guy! I have an awesome novel you must read.
Accountant Guy: Bill, you know I don’t read many novels anymore. It better be darn good to break me away from my regular science and financial planning books.
Bill: Trust me! You’re going to love this book.
So I dragged my feet for a year before I decided I needed a comfortable summer novel to disappear into. Enter Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves.
Seveneves starts with the moon blowing up. The book alludes that it might have been a micro black hole racing through our neck of the galaxy. Regardless, people didn’t know what caused the catastrophe. The event split the moon into several large pieces. A few days later the first two large pieces smashed as gravity brought the pieces back together, creating smaller pieces. Scientists realized the collisions would continue breaking the moon into smaller debris. It also meant a large amount of moon debris would eventually hit the Earth.
Mankind has two years to get to space if it wanted to survive. The International Space Station was the beginning building block of a larger space habitat. A few thousand people were brought to space to wait out the Hard Rain that would turn Earth into a boiling inferno where no life could survive. To keep the Ark manageable, DNA and DNA data were transported to the Ark.
Space is unforgiving. The Hard Rain came and the Earth was destroyed. A safe haven was finally achieved by the Ark with one problem: only eight women were left alive. One woman had reached menopause. The seven Eves were all that remained of the human race and its hope for a future. The human race was all but extinct. These seven women would use technology brought from Old Earth to bring humanity back from the abyss.
The novel picks up 5,000 years later when Earth is ready for life again. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll stop here.
Seveneves is hard to put down. It isn’t light reading either, as I teased at the open of this section. It is classified as hard science fiction, something I do enjoy. If you want a solid novel to fill a few sunny afternoons or early evenings, consider Seveneves. It’s worth your time.
Wealth Building Resources
When you think of the most powerful, motivating speeches ever given, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes to mind. In less than three hundred words* Lincoln encompassed the issues facing the nation. As great as the speech was, it was backward looking (Four score and seven years ago) with hope to the future. Lincoln was able to clearly articulate his message in a few minutes. He struggled up to the moment of addressing the crowd as Gettysburg. It was the planning and preparation that lent to the quality of the message.
Closer to home we might consider the commencement address Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. At fifteen minutes, Jobs communicated a narrower message with significant reinforcement of his theme. Once again, serious planning took place prior to the presentation. Jobs was legendary in his drive toward excellence. He could speak before a crowd extemporaneously, but preferred formal presentations he could and did practice again and again until everything was choreographed to perfection. Errors were ironed out. He practiced so much that when he was live he could continue without missing a beat if technology failed while he was on stage. A Steve Jobs presentation was a show to behold.
Speeches that resonate come in many flavors. YouTube is filled with powerful speeches from movies and sports coaches. Speeches that cause a shiver to run down your spine include elements of life itself. “You can do it” is motivational, but when the words and emotions dig deeper we quickly realize the importance of what we are hearing.
Today I want to share a short speech (10 minutes from a longer interview) by Jordan Peterson. I’ve been reading and listening to his work for a while now. His recent rise to fame makes his plea more vital than ever.
A Typical Day at Harvard
The excerpt comes from a longer interview Peterson gave to a group at Harvard University. The video begins with Peterson asked what advice he would give students that want to make a difference in the world after they graduate. Peterson never missed a beat when he said, “Read great books!”
You can watch the video on your own and should several times to digest the entire message. What you should get on the first pass is that while Peterson was giving an interview, his responses are not completely extemporaneous. Over a long career he has developed a remarkable philosophy on how to live a good life. Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s been a while, but I’ve talked about Stoicism plenty enough in the past in this blog.
The overtones in this interview are dripping with stoic thought. Around halfway through the excerpt the interviewer even asks Peterson how to live a good life. What makes the responses so powerful is how Peterson opened the floodgate and released an articulate and passionate plea for listeners to accept how incredibly awesome our lives are today in the Western world.
A Game of Cards
Friday night is sheepshead (a card game with some (okay, few) similarities to bridge) night in the Accountant neighborhood. Since we are all a bunch of old duffers living in the backwoods of Nowhere, Wisconsin, the game starts at 7 and ends shortly after 9. (Did I mention us country folk prefer to hit the hay shortly after sundown?)
A few weeks ago one of our players, Pete, asked — as he always does — how our week was. I decided to return the favor and ask Pete how his week was. The rest of the night was shot. I don’t think we got more than three or four hands in before closing time.
My polite interest in Pete’s prior week was all it took to open the gate and let it all out. Pete couldn’t stop talking about how awesome and great life was. Backwoods people live a frugal life due to environment. We can’t order pizza delivery. (There is no pizza delivery in our neck of the woods.) The closest shopping opportunity is 30 miles away and none of us miss the chance to be separated from our cash. (The card game is frequently brutal on the family budget. We play for dimes and a bad night could set a guy back a full dollar, dollar and a half. Like I said: brutal.)
Pete didn’t miss any of the highlights of our incredible modern world. We have internet (high speed!) here in the backwoods. Food is cheap and varied. The cost of living is cheaper than ever. We live longer and have medical technology to not only keep us alive, but to live better. A bum knee is a simple replacement today; in the past it was a permanent diminution to quality of life.
Debt is the only real problem messing up all the fun in our ultra-modern world, according to Pete and company. When things get tough (as if that is even possible today) you can reduce spending in all areas. You can cook more at home or turn down the heat/turn off the AC. You can walk or bike instead or burning gasoline. All budget items are easily reduced, expect debt payments. Those stay stubbornly locked in place regardless of events chipping away at family finances.
Pete retired fifteen or so years ago when he was about my age. He cut back even earlier, enjoying three day (or four) weekends. Now Pete is looking down the barrel of Social Security. Any day now he can pull the trigger and enjoy the influx of even more income. In Pete’s own words, he can’t spend what he already has! He has lived off an amount less than his Social Security check promises to be for years.
What Everyone Must Learn in College, But Rarely Does
Back to Jordan Peterson.
Peterson made it clear what college and a college education is all about. Most people think college is about learning a skill you can use to get a job. It’s not! College is where you must learn to think; a place where you must learn to articulate. That’s why he places such emphasis on reading good books.
Books have been a massive part of my life from an early age. I took a super early mini retirement in my young 20s to sit at home and read all day. There is no doubt the three or four years I bowed out of life to immerse myself in quality literature determined the success in all areas of my life.
My thirty year marriage has been the highlight of my life and still going strong. I learned from people who spent a lifetime together how to have that very thing. I read about raising good children, running a business, investing, personal finance, budgeting and taxes. I also took time to read novels with a powerful message.
So, if you go to college to learn how to articulate, think and speak, what are you to do with this superpower? “Stop unnecessary suffering,” according to Peterson.
Money is only a tool. This is a personal finance blog firmly in the categories of tax, financial independence, early retirement and wealth building. But none of that is the underlying theme. I need to learn to articulate better, as Peterson suggests, to communicate this message. You don’t want money; you want to be useful!
The wisdom Peterson shares in a ten minute interview segment is a lifetime worth of knowledge. He shares another secret society is struggling with currently. He talks about how the 1% are not greedy bastards. He explains why you are not richer than you are. It’s because you are young! If you are a good steward of your money it will grow. Given time it will grow rather large. Your favorite accountant is a prime example. I’m currently on the top of the net worth list over at Rockstar Finance. I’m also a bit old to be telling people I’m considering early retirement. Give it another decade and I’ll be looking over the edge of late retirement (grow up, man!). The truth is I had more time than folks in their 20s to accumulate my wealth. And as Peterson said, I’m not a greedy miser hoarding my money. I’m looking for new opportunities to reduce suffering in the world so to speak.
Life is so good today! When people whine and complain over how oppressed they are, I, like Peterson, am so disappointed. We can make a difference, but it will never happen complaining about everyone else!
My card-playing buddy, Pete, shares some traits with your favorite accountant. He doesn’t like to travel and has managed to live a life with far less traveling than yours truly has done. His wife likes to travel and does so with her friends. Pete happily drives his old truck (he recently bought a new one since the old one gave up the ghost) around the neighborhood playing with his solo rental property. He milked cows for a farmer just south of my farm for many years to pass time. If he gets bored and something pops up (it always does) he will do that for a while. Oh, and he stops at Frogg’s Ice Cream a lot in the summer.
If you get the chance to cure cancer, then do it! The suffering your will reduce in the world will be incredible! Most of us will make a smaller mark in the world. I’m here to tell you it’s okay to make a small difference. Just make a difference! Daily incremental improvement compounds into massive results.
Pete provides shelter for a family and helps neighbors in need of fill-in help. He reduces suffering in his small way while living the life of his dreams. Maybe you prefer travel and grander endeavors. Awesome! We each need to play the role our personality allows.
I’m a lowly tax accountant. Yes, I reduce suffering by solving tax issues for businesses and individuals. I also contribute by sharing my experience and knowledge on this and other blogs.
Jordan Peterson makes it clear we need to learn to articulate because the world is in desperate need of people who can communicate a message, knowledge and information in an articulate way. I still have room to grow.
And good thing because I’m not ready to hang up my cleats yet.
* There are at least five versions of the Gettysburg Address, each with slight variations from the others, including word count. The Bliss copy is the most famous.
Wealth Building Resources
It’s hard to see when watching at the speed of life, but there is no doubt it keeps getting easier to reach financial independence. Some in the crowd might disagree with me. The statistics are clear, however. As the hand of time ticks by the human race is finding greater and greater opportunity at every turn until now when it is laughably easy to reach virtually any financial goal.
But we need to start at the beginning.
In the Beginning
Depending on whom you ask, humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for around 300,000 years. For most of this time we were limited in our conversion of energy into useful tasks. Men, women and children all contributed to their subsistence lifestyle.
Because energy input determines so much of quality of life (as will soon become clear) we need to use a consistent measure of power. Energy is best describes in joules and power by watts (W). This allows a better understanding of inputs by humans over time.
A human can sustain around 100 W of labor. From the beginning when modern humans started its own branch of the family tree until the third millennium BCE, the most power mankind could muster was limited by the backs of the very same people. It took several hundred thousand years before mankind figured out a way to utilize more than the limited 100 W of power available from an average adult male.
Sometime during the third millennium BCE people learned to harness draft animals and their sustained 300 – 400 W of sustained labor. Not satisfied with the several fold increase, humans experimented with different ways of harnessing draft animals and even breed animals for greater labor.
Over thousands of years the maximum prime movers (draft animals in this instance) slowly increased until around 1000 of the Common Era when horizontal waterwheels came into wider use, providing up to 5,000 W of power. (The waterwheel was employed earlier, but not widely or in a modern sense.)
What took over a hundred thousand years to move from 100 W of manpower to draft animals and their approximate 350 W of power only took four millennium to reach the technology of the waterwheel. As slow as it moved it was still an improvement. Progress was slow because people needed to expend all their resources to survive. Draft animals allowed more land to be tilled which meant more people could be fed and better.
By 1800 steam engines surpassed 100,000 W (100 KW) of power. The late 19th Century brought water turbines, driving the maximum power of one unit to as much as 10 megawatts (MW).
The pace of energy use expanded rapidly. Life was still harsh for many people, but the goods and services available grew as more prime movers grew more and more powerful. Subsistence living was declining. Life was still hard, yet more people than ever had a better diet. Also, more people than ever before were able to live an upper class lifestyle. As power use increased due to technological advancement, fewer people had to work to cover the basics of living for the entire community.
The rate of increase accelerated until 1960 when the largest steam turbine reached 1 GW of power.
The more technology increased the power of a single prime mover, progress advanced in efficiency. The first draft animals could replace three or four men max. By the 19th Century better harnesses and certain horse breeds could do the work seven or more men.
Waterwheels increased in size and efficiency until steam turbines were invented, catapulting the power available in one unit (prime mover) to unheard of levels.
Thermodynamics places a limit on the maximum power that can be extracted per unit of coal or other energy source. Steam turbines also have theoretical maximums. The first steam engines were extremely inefficient. Advances in efficiency were slow at first, increasing faster until the gap between best performance and the maxima narrowed.
The first steam driven machines operated at less than 1% efficiency to over 40% today! While 40% seems like there is lot of efficiency left to wring out, there is only modest possible improvements available.
Home heating has come even further. Heating a hut with grass or dung has serious disadvantages. Wood was a major improvement once tools were invented to cut trees versus the limited supply of branches available on the ground. Early gas furnaces enjoyed 40% or less efficiency; today homes have gas furnaces up to 97% efficient.
Lighting has an even greater efficiency improvement. Candles convert between 0.01% to as much as 0.04% into light. Edison’s first light bulbs were 0.02% efficient. The first fluorescent bulbs in 1939 were 7% efficient. In the year 2000 a lumen of light in Britain cost 0.01% of what it did in 1500 and 1% of what it did in 1900 (see reference at the end of this post).
The Ease of Wealth
We will now switch from the historical use of power to how the above information yields increased ease in acquiring financial independence.
It seems like wages have been stagnant forever while prices continue to climb. The data tells a different story.
Adjusted for inflation, wages have been flat for at least 50 years (see chart)! Before anyone become alarmed, know that wages are what drive inflation. When wages increase it eventually is reflected in the prices of goods and services, kind of.
Natural gas and gasoline prices have been steady to lower over long periods of time, adjusted for inflation (see charts). Natural gas has been up and down, but is basically unchanged since the mid-1990s even before considering inflation or the unadjusted growth in wages. All this while vehicles are larger than ever with more gizmos and home gas furnaces are the most efficient than they’ve ever been.
Inflation causes the most angst. In 1913, when statistics were first kept in the U.S., the CPI-U started at 9.8. The latest CPI-U (April 2018) stood at 250.546. What cost a dime is now 25 times more expensive. The average worker earned around $300 per year in 1910! (A competent accountant could earn $2,000! I would like to think I’m competent so, adjusted for inflation, I should make around $50,000. Looks like this competent accountant is doing a bit better than expected. Bet you are too.) In 1918, after the inflation of WWI, the average household earned $1,518, which is, adjusting for inflation, less than the average household income today.
Inflation is real and affecting household budgets. But while prices are increasing, wages are oscillating around the baseline, adjusted for inflation. At first glance we might be depressed to learn we’ve made no progress. However, wages and inflation only tell part of the story.
A hundred years ago many homes lacked indoor plumbing. We’ve rectified that problem since. Electric appliances have been added to the daily luxuries of life. Over the last 30 or so years we have added computers, internet and smart phones to our list of luxuries. You’re probably reading this on a smart phone.
Increased efficiencies are where most of our increase in living standard comes from. Wages mimic prices as efficiency keeps rolling along. Energy costs have gone nowhere fast over the last century. But what we do with that energy has changed radically. Heating our home takes less than half the natural gas of 50 years ago. Of course, our homes are twice as big so we’re still broke. The electricity needed to light our homes has decreased to such a level that it is an insignificant part of our budget.
Money for Nothing: FI for Free
Frugal today is nowhere near what frugal was a century ago! What we consider austerity would get us laughed back into our time machine if we had such a machine to transport us back in time. Most households spend less than 10% of household income feeding the family. There was a time not that long ago when 50% or more of the budget went to feeding hungry mouths. Back then the house didn’t glow at night the way our cities do today.
As technology allows us to utilize energy resources like never before, we have a lifestyle never before enjoyed by any species in history. And it gets easier to reach financial goals!
Once upon a time all but a few worked till the day they died. A select few, very few, enjoyed a life of luxury supported by the backs of the masses. Then draft animals were put to work, allowing for a larger population and a better diet. Later coal, oil and gas powered the turbines of industry and heated our homes. More work horses (steam turbines, et cetera) meant we could delegate the most back-breaking labor to machines. We went from nearly 100% of the population working in the fields to under 2%. The freed labor did other things. Many spent more time in educational pursuits; some did nothing at all, choosing to live longer with mom and dad.
Some lived frugally for a few years and retired early.
In the U.S. 49% of the population works a traditional job. That percent has probably crept up in the last year so we might be over 50% as of this writing. Young children and the old are understandably unemployed. Still, of working age adults, we are near the multi-decade low labor participation rate. What gives!
The answer is rather simple. Our use of energy resources continues to become more efficient while wages remain stable and prices are moving in tandem with wages over time. Productivity slowly grinds higher. After centuries of progress, the cumulative gains have made it possible for large numbers of society to pursue other interests. Food is plentiful thanks efficient use of energy. Even with half the population not engaged in traditional employment, we still have abundant food, shelter and clothing.
Financial independence keeps getting easier and the trend will remain intact! There is no excuse to not have financial wealth. None. We are so rich today with abundant resources and technology we can throw away massive amounts of money on interest to support debt. This is unheard of in history. Debt was always considered bad, if not an outright sin. Governments had debt, but regular people who knew better followed the adage: neither a lender nor borrower be.
Mass media has brainwashed us into thinking things are hard. The 2008 financial crisis was not that bad compared to reality of 100 years ago. The Great Depression was bad. The Irish potato famine was bad! When was the last time you heard of a famine in a developed country? It’s been a long time and for good reason. The only reason less developed countries starve is because they have not implemented the prime movers the way developed countries have. Once you use the energy resources efficiently you can move food from any part of the planet to wherever a drought or blight is affecting crops.
We live in an age of abundance like never before. We need to start acting like it. We need to feel grateful for our largess. It’s easier than ever to save a massive percentage of our income and invest it safely into index funds. You can retire early with plenty of financial wealth because you live in the most awesome time in history. All thanks to the never ending increase in energy utilization and increasing efficiency of its use.
Smil, Vaclav 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History: Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (Pages 397 – 407 were used in the writing of this post.)
Wealth Building Resources
Note: This post is not intended as personal or personalized advice. It is provided for informational reference only and is the opinion of the author.
Anyone who has been around the FIRE, leanfire, FI blogosphere, podcasts and book tours know the demographic is heavily invested in index funds and for good reason. Active management’s record tends to be unflattering compared to index peers and with a heavier expense ratio for opportunity to enjoy underperformance.
People serious about building wealth as quickly as possible learn the index fund trick early on. But there are times when index funds are not an option.
Back in the 1990s I was a securities broker with H.D. Vest Financial Services down in Dallas as my broker/dealer. Broker/dealers have an obligation to monitor their brokers so they require all investments of brokers placed though the broker/dealer. Back then it meant actively managed funds only and the expense ratios were a heck of a lot higher back then. There was only one redeeming grace in the deal: all mutual fund trades were commission free with the exception of 12(b)1 fees which generally were 25 basis points of the account’s value. In a way all mutual funds looked like no-load funds for me.
My net worth grew significantly slower during my tenure with Vest. Actively managed funds with heavy fees caused underperformance. My choices were also limited. The worst part is the rule extended to my other businesses and immediate family. Mrs. Accountant and the girls couldn’t invest elsewhere either. Vest even wanted to know where I had money in the bank and a list of all income properties and loans. It was a pain in the tail. Now you know another reason why the dream of schlepping securities wore off fast.
Normal People with Abnormal Choices
Stock brokers aren’t the only people with restricted investment choices. Work retirement plans hold a large percentage of all investable funds in most households. 401(k)s and other work retirement plans are notorious for limited choices. The choices are frequently laden with fees driving down performance.
Matching and the ease of regular investing make work retirement plans the best options even when the choices are bad. I’m asked to help clients make the best choice in their 401(k) more than any other request. Most people are clueless to the jargon used to help employees invest their contributions and employer matching wisely.
In my stock broker days my investments were exclusively growth & income funds. Before I knew about index funds front-brain I already knew a basket of successful growing companies throwing off an increasing dividend was a solid decision. The advantage I had was the large basket to choose from. I had my pick of thousands of funds so I had options, even if they were limited to actively managed funds.
Now we need to learn how to pick the best investment from a limited pool. The right choice in your 401(k) could shave years needed to retire and add tens of thousands of dollars to your account value.
Needle in a Haystack
Employers offer more retirement plan options than ever before to limit their liability. However, most employers aren’t licensed to give financial advice so they steer clear. Large employers may bring in an investment advisor, but these advisors may not have your best interest at heart and they may not have the time to know you well enough to give quality advice.
Your best defense is knowledge. Certain choices tend to better than others. Specialized funds are almost always the worst choice as they usually have higher fees and are not broadly diversified. Sector funds are a good example. I know of no reason anyone would want a gold fund in their 401(k) portfolio.
International and aggressive growth funds also tend to have higher fees. They can outperform, but they still have a higher mountain to climb to offset the higher fees. All else equal, the lower a fund’s fees the better the long-term results.
Realistically there are only a few acceptable choices for most 401(k) investments. Money markets are out because you have no chance of growing your nest egg. Bond funds are a poor choice in a low interest rate environment and only a small percentage of the portfolio should be in bonds if you are approaching retirement and rates justify a modest investment. Company stock is not diversified and if your employer does poorly your job and retirement are both at risk. Insurance products are almost always the worst of all choices. That leaves broad based funds.
Acceptable choices (in this accountant’s mind) include: growth & income, growth and international or world funds. It is my opinion the largest investment in most 401(k) portfolios should be a growth & income fund when an S&P 500 index or total market index fund isn’t available. Growth & income funds will be the closest choice to an S&P 500 index fund and G&I funds tend to have lower expense ratios than other actively managed funds.
I’m content with one investment in a 401(k). A G&I fund is a diversified choice, grabbing a large slice of large growing companies. But it looks too barren to be correct so people want more. More isn’t always better.
Growth funds are similar to G&I funds with the exception that they can hold non-dividend paying stocks. Amazon is a large growing company that doesn’t pay a dividend. A growth fund can own Amazon; a G&I fund generally cannot.
You may also wish to have international exposure. BP (British Petroleum) is more likely to be in a world or international fund. (Some G&I funds may hold BP.) Toyota is another example. International funds have higher fees due to higher trading costs and travel expenses for the active managers.
G&I funds have the lowest expense ratio of my group followed by growth funds. Fees play such a large role in long-term performance that I have an allergic reaction to more than 10% or so of a 401(k) in an international fund.
If you can’t stand a simple G&I fund in your 401(k) there are a few mixes I approve of:
70% G&I; 20% growth: 10% international, or
80% G&I; 10% growth; 10% international, or
60% G&I; 25% growth; 15% international
Of course you need to modify to your personal situation. (I have to say that for liability reasons. Personally, I can’t think of a better mix than the first choice I offered unless index funds are an option.)
A Plethora of Choices
Studies have shown more choices aren’t always better. If you have a dozen choices in your 401(k) you are more likely to take advantage of the 401(k) than if it had 20 choices. The more choices added might reduce employer liability, but it also discourages employees from taking advantage of the 401(k) due to the apparent overwhelming nature of setting up the account.
I’ve seen this first hand in my office. Some employer retirement plans offer a small number of choices, but some come to a rabbit hunt with a bazooka! A hundred choices aren’t needed to offer employees quality choices!
When the stack of papers to sign up for a 401(k) plan exceeds an inch employees are lost. Even I need to spend time digging through the papers before providing reasonable options. Here is what I look for when reviewing employer retirement plan options.
First, most choices are junk. I dump all the specialty funds and insurance products. I’ve yet to see an insurance company fund outperform. The gold and bitcoin funds are removed from the list, too.
Next I separate my choices by investment house. I like Vanguard and Fidelity. If I’m unfamiliar with the investment house, but like the fund option I need to dig deeper. I want to feel comfortable with the investment house as well as the mutual fund.
Then I separate further into categories. I pray for at least one reasonable growth & income fund in the lot. If not, I have to settle for a growth fund.
Last, I review expense ratios. Once again, the lower the fees the higher the chance the fund will perform better. The change in the total stock market value is reflected in all investor accounts, minus fees. Unless you can prove you can outsmart the market, fees are a good determinant of return comparable to the overall market (peers). (Don’t even start with me. Even the pros can’t beat the market consistently.)
From my list I usually pick the fund with the lowest expense ratio with attention paid toward which investment house runs the fund.
The Final Choice
Employer retirement plans are often the best tool a person has to accumulate significant wealth. Many employers match contributions at some level. The money is tied up so it is difficult to withdraw; this prevents impulse decisions from ruining your plans. Employers are providing more choices than ever. This is a double edged sword. Move past the psychological deer-in-the-headlights response to a large number of options and hone the list to a workable few choices and then make the choice! Employer retirement plans also make it super easy to invest on a consistent and regular basis, the true foundation of any retirement plan.
Lack of an index fund as an option is no excuse to not invest in an employer retirement plan. Many people face the same problem. I did back in the 1990s and made the best of it. My current net worth would be well into the seven figures lower if I took a pass when I sold securities because of restrictions. The bank would have been a much worse choice.
Of course, you need to modify my suggestions to your personal situation. I think you will find the best choice for you will be very similar to what I propose. No choice is the absolute worst choice! Without investing you will never reach your retirement goals or financial independence!
It’s your life. You can get serious with whatever choices you have or work forever.
Wealth Building Resources
Today we have a special feature. My daughter provided today’s post as promised last week. It is hard to capture the work she did in preparation to winning all those scholarships and the pitch contest. She practiced in front of anyone who would sit still long enough for her to get it out. She honed her presentation until it was as smooth as silk. I even tried to interrupt and distract her as she practiced so she would be prepared for anything.
A few notes are in order. When Heather says the pitch conext was organized by a local bank, local business owners and the college, know I was not involved in any way with the program and had zero influence over the results. I listened to Heather practice, but did not attend the event. I didn’t want to be a distraction.
I want to point out Heather mentioned hard work. Sorry to say you can achieve great things as long as you are willing to do the work necessary to succeed. Another point I hope people don’t miss is Heather’s encouragement to never give up. If one thing doesn’t work, research and study more and reapply. The prize frequently goes to the consistent and persistent.
Taking the Lottery Out of Scholarship Applications
by: Heather Schroeder
I’ve never been comfortable with bragging. I wouldn’t go around telling people I got the best grade on a math test or that I got accepted into one of the best colleges in the United States. This is something I just can’t get myself to do. So, when my dad asked me to write a blog post about a recent success I had, I had to tell myself that it’s OK to be excited about winning something.
I struggled when I was in primary school. I was in a special reading class as I couldn’t read at the level I needed to be at and I was equally horrible at comprehension and writing. My reading disorder continued throughout my middle school career and I thought, based on my experiences, that I would never be able to read. Once I entered high school and wasn’t forced to read, I willingly picked up a book at my high school library. In less than a year, I had read more than twenty books and suddenly I knew how to write. This was the starting point that has led me to where I am today—an entrepreneur, a mentor, and a teacher.
I’m currently a student at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin. Fox Valley Technical College has a 94% employment rate, the highest in the area. This was the first year that the college had a pitch contest for FVTC students. A local bank, several entrepreneurs in the area, and FVTC staff all supported and funded the pitch contest.
Naturally, I felt a need to sign up, but even though I signed up, there was no guarantee that I would be picked to be one of the eight finalists. Three months after I signed up, I got the email stating I was accepted as one of the finalists. I was rejoicing, and I felt like I was on top of the world. There was only one problem, though—I had a lot of work to do because my business was not what the judges were looking for. And if I wanted to win the grand prize, I needed to switch from being a solopreneur to an entrepreneur.
Think about it. I started a tutoring business with the intention of being the only employee and taking on as many clients as humanly possible. This worked great and was a nice way to have some extra cash coming in on the side; yet, I wasn’t making enough to survive. This is one of the reasons I decided to go back to college. I knew I needed an education, no matter how little or how much, to be taken seriously as an academic tutor.
I had one month to come up with a 90-second pitch for the Fox Trap Pitch Contest in hopes of winning the grand prize. First through third place were guaranteed a financial award. This is something I was bound and determined to win.
My adrenaline was pumping as I entered the room full of judges and FVTC staff. My entrepreneurship teacher was also running the show. I had to make him proud as my entrepreneurship teacher is the reason I’ve come so far. My pitch went great and the judges seemed interested in my teaching style I created and the opportunities for people in the valley and around the world to become employed by me. I’m an ambitious little thing that doesn’t let my size determine how big my dreams can be.
I won first place at the Fox Trap Pitch Contest. This was one of the first times I’ve seen myself succeed at something and then be told that I need to continue with my plan. I learned many things when I prepared and presented my 90-second pitch. The most important thing I learned was that writing a pitch is nearly identical in writing an essay for a scholarship.
When preparing my pitch for the contest, I had to identify a problem, identify the target market, identify the solution or solutions, and determine how my idea will make money. I also had to identify what I was going to do with the winnings. This outline is exactly how many scholarship essays should be written.
All scholarships follow the same general rules including determining the winners by how creative the applicant is, how well written the essay is, the quality of the information, and determining if the applicant is a right fit for the scholarship. When writing an essay for a scholarship, follow these simple rules.
- Identify the problem or identify the topic
When writing essays, research reports, and personal memoirs, the stories or the introduction introduces the audience to the situation. Research reports are the easiest when determining and solving a problem. With my pitch, I determined the problem by stating startling statistics and examples of why it’s important to help “at risk” students and students in special education succeed.
- Identify the target market or who you are trying to reach
Scholarship essays usually want applicants to write about issues that are affecting others in the United States. One scholarship I run across yearly is the drinking and driving scholarship that requires applicants to write about and videotape themselves on describing how they think they can help make people aware of the risks that come with drinking and driving. With my pitch, I determined my target market by identifying who I wanted to help. My target market is “at risk” students and students in special education. The target market for the drinking and driving essay could be people who drink often and take the risk of driving or college students. According to the college drinking prevention website, “1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.”
- Identify the solution or what you think could be done in the future
When writing a scholarship essay, determine what you think could be done to solve the problem. My solution for my pitch was offering academic tutoring services for “at risk” students and students in special education and teaching these students by utilizing my teaching style, which has so far been a success.
- Identify what you will do with the winnings
Like with the pitch contest and writing scholarship essays, judges want to know what you will do with the winnings. I determined in my pitch that if I won I would use the winnings to go to China to determine if my business idea can work globally. With scholarships, determine how you will use the winnings. I usually state that I would use the winnings for housing, tuition, food, and supplies.
The last piece of information I can give is to research how to write scholarships outside of reading this blog post. I have given some valuable information, but there is so much more available online. I suggest looking on YouTube and searching for videos on pitch contests. These contests have great insight on how to reach your audience and make a difference in lives of others.
I wish you the best of luck.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
Endnote: Once again I encourage you to reach for your dreams. Heather is 23 years old and living her dreams. She is on her way to China for a month to teach in a few weeks. More opportunities are coming her way as a result. I don’t like to travel; she does. I never asked my kids to live the life I expected of them. I always encouraged they walk their own road. There will be bumps and even painful experiences. It’s part of life. But the journey is all worth it.
Wealth Building Resources
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, 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.
Amazon good way to control costs and comparison shop. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.
The last time it snowed more in NE Wisconsin was March of 1888. That’s a long time ago.
My oldest daughter, Heather, was home from college when the storm hit. It was so bad they closed the college so she stayed with us an extra day. Our family bonding time consisted of shoveling wet, heavy snow a good part of the day. Such is the way of things in the Northwoods.
April snowstorms melt fast. The days are long and the sun is high in the sky. Cold temperatures fight a losing battle.
But when record snow falls it takes time to clean the roads and melt the piles. We should have the last of the piles melted by May 1st.
Heather’s car had to stay outside because the garage is full. With modest coaxing I got the AGCO tractor started and started moving most of the snow out of the way. Heather’s car was the last thing we dug out.
The next day the roads were plowed and it was time to head back to college. On the way back her car died for no apparent reason. The car was towed to a shop south of Neenah for repairs. The bill came to nearly $500, a princely sum for a college student.
As bad as Heather’s luck was, it could have been a lot worse. She saved and invested for several years before committing to college full-time. Still, she is determined to finish college without a penny of debt. (So far, so good.)
But that isn’t the reason why car problems were nothing more than a hiccup along her college journey. And her story can help countless others attain a college degree without cost.
Heather had grand ideas when she reached adulthood. She wanted to attend Full Sail University in Florida on dad’s dime for an art degree. I’ll save you the damage to your eardrums and refrain from my response.
At the time Heather was selling artwork and stashing it away into investments. She is quite good at a variety of art forms. What she struggled with was scholarships and dad wasn’t in the cooperating mood.
Then she got the idea she would go to college (art again) in Thailand. She got her passport (more on that later) and sent the school $500. The short story is she never went to Thailand. She did get one heck of an education for the lost $500 and the cost of a passport. Truth is she wasn’t ready to be alone in a foreign country. Yet.
Then she looked into a school in Missouri that was affordable, but it wasn’t what she wanted. Then she toyed with Japan and more seriously with South Korea. The only place she didn’t want to go to school was some of our affordable options right here in Wisconsin.
Seeing the Light
Dad made it clear he wasn’t paying for any college costs unless Heather found some scholarship money. It wasn’t that Heather didn’t try. She applied to a hundred or more scholarships without a nibble.
The first turning point came when Heather decided the local technical college was an okay place to start her formal education. She busted her tail working to fund her education so dad relented and provided a modest—around $2,500—of financial support. When my kid puts in the effort I’ll do my best to help them.
Choosing a local college and a career she could reasonably expect to earn enough at to calculate a return on her education investment gave dad hope. Heather likes to travel the way I like to nest on the farm. Heather wants to see Asia. She is in love with the cultures and peoples. The only thing missing was some scholarship money to grease the process.
Now that she was going to college close to home she was able to get some small grants and scholarships. Most of it was state or local government provided. Wisconsin chipped in $300 and the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) invested around $1,000. (DVR provided support because she has her own tutoring business and she has some medical issues.)
Still, scholarship successes were scarce. I read a book by Ramit Sethi (I Will Teach You to be Rich) years before where the author claimed he had so much scholarship money when he attended college he was able to save and invest some of the funds since they weren’t all needed for college expenses. I was concerned Heather was unable to apply the same procedures to her college funding.
Sethi was slamming one scholarship after another while Heather couldn’t get them to open the envelope. Something was wrong. When something isn’t working it doesn’t mean you double your efforts doing the same thing. You just go nowhere twice as fast!
Dad had no solutions. College was a different animal back in the early 1980s. I had my own home (didn’t live on campus) and paid my own way. Scholarships weren’t necessary because $1,000 would cover a semester easily, including books, with a meaningful remainder left over for social activities.
Heather is like her dad: knuckle-headed. She wanted to go to college so bad it hurt and she wasn’t going to be denied. Mom and dad are supportive, but we will not give a free ride. Eighty percent of a college education is getting there. If you want to make it in the business world you better be able to figure out how to get an education without visiting bankruptcy court.
Money was tight her first year. She wanted college to be self funding; no dipping into long-term savings either. She studied hard and has a 4.0. And she never stopped researching scholarships and other college funding opportunities. She also clung to her dream of teaching English as a second language in China.
As Heather approached the first year as a full-time student (she was taking a class or two prior) opportunities she never knew existed were exposed to her. Since she has a tutoring business several organizations were interested in helping her. Her college started a Fox Trap Pitch Contest. (We live in an area called the Fox River Valley and the Fox Cities.)
Heather tackled this contest the way she did everything in school, with unrelenting effort. First prize was $1,000. Want to guess who won first place. Yup! My daughter! All I can say is, “Good genetics. Especially from the paternal side.”
The pitch contest did more than help her promote her business and raise capital. It taught her how to pitch an idea, like maybe to a scholarship. And this is where it gets interesting. In the last few months she finally figured out how to pitch her business and submit to scholarships in a way that works.
You can’t imagine how proud I am of my oldest daughter. She never quit no matter how down she got or depressing it was to work without results. (My youngest shares the same attributes so I’m proud of her, too.)
The best part is she knows how to do it herself. If dad wrote a check Heather would still be clueless on a good many things. I would have robbed her of the most valuable part of her education!
Remember how I said Heather wants to go to China to teach English as a second language? Well, her degree is for teaching. She is also leaving in a few weeks for China to teach for a month. She has been contacted for job interviews when she gets there. When her month is done it is back to Wisconsin to finish another school year. She will probably tutor via internet during the school year and head back to China for a much longer stay after she graduates. Her passport was a worthwhile expense after all. BTW, China instantly gave her a 10 year work visa.
China and the United States are two very different cultures. But as Warren Buffett has said all along, the United States has the “secret sauce”. In the last week he added China to the list saying China also found the “secret sauce” economically. With two great nations and cultures, with a heaping bowl of sauce bridged by my daughter and her efforts, the human race is destined for glory never seen before. (Yes, dad’s pride is swelling.)
Grabbing the Chance
Things were different when I went to school. Higher education is expensive today. Student loans are out of control. School counselors want to help students manage loans. Heather was quick to interrupt when the topic came up to explain she wasn’t interested in loan. God, that kid is smart. Mom had to have done something right because I’m not that gifted.
Scholarships are everywhere. Large numbers of scholarships go unawarded due to lack of interest or quality entries.
Heather was recently elected vice president of the Wisconsin region of Phi Theta Kappa. She gets to do more of that traveling she loves now and is guaranteed another scholarship. This one could be meaningful, if you know what I mean.
As a side note, Heather tried to convince me Phi Theta Kappa means “the smart ones” in Greek. Dad was suspicious and looked it up. Good one, Heather. And yes, I know you’ll be reading this. BTW, it means “wisdom, aspiration, purity.”
A Scholarship for Every Wealthy Accountant Reader
Some things I can’t do no matter how important they are. I’m not in the trenches when it comes to college funding.
Heather is getting an education on how to get an education. Therefore, I asked her to write a follow-up article to this post which she promised me in a week. If all goes according to plan I will publish Heather’s post next week on how she discovered how to write killer scholarship applications that work.
I think she will also include other resources she has used. For example, her college has a service called SALT. The SALT program has a massive clearinghouse of scholarships where the college helps you submit a quality application. And it’s FREE! Just be careful when they try to help you with getting student loans. Student loans are the last line of defense when all other options are exhausted. When you stand firm expecting scholarships to pay for your education, the counselors have to up their game to help you. Make it clear you want scholarships, not debt!
My opinion on college has been published before. Education is the most important thing you can do to improve your life. Most education happens outside the classroom! That doesn’t take anything away from a formal education. College is about learning and making contacts.
Next week, if all goes well, you will make a powerful contact with Heather.
Finally, remember Heather’s $500 car repair bill? She discovered there is a program at the college where they will help pay one major expense per year, in Heather case, up to $500. She kept her eyes open for opportunities removing a car repair bill from the budget.
Smart, girl, don’t you think?
Wealth Building Resources
Twin brothers walk into the Wealthy Accountant’s office. One brother is as smart as a whip with an IQ of 147 and a wiz with numbers. The other twin, while looking identical to his brother, is a bit short in the mental category. The less bright brother is hard working, but knows he can’t outthink his twin brother.
Which twin do you think has the greatest financial advantage? Which one is likely to become a millionaire?
Would you believe me if I told you the super-smart twin is orders of magnitude less likely to amass a financial fortune? Yet time and time again I see it in my office: smart people underperforming and average people hitting it out of the park.
Here’s the funny thing. Both brothers are probably equal in intelligence. Life experiences caused one brother to think of himself as average. Perhaps the less intelligent brother preferred working outside with his hands while the high IQ brother pursued a profession.
Doctors and attorneys are awesome at playing financial offense. Many professionals share this quality. But high levels of intelligence don’t correlate well with high levels of financial wealth.
Big Hat, No Cattle
Thomas J Stanley argues in his 2001 book, The Millionaire Mind, that many professionals with a high income don’t have a corresponding level of net worth. Decamillionaires (people with a net worth north of ten million) have a term for people with high levels of income and little to show for it: big hat, no cattle.
These high earning professionals are also extremely intelligent. So intelligent, in fact, they start to believe they can outsmart the markets by timing them. They also have another weakness. Professionals need to maintain an outward appearance of affluence to convince other they are really good at what they do. Who would ever believe an accountant driving around in a bank reposed beater or attorney living in an 800 square foot home?
Average people in average income jobs are more suited to seven and eight figures of wealth! You read that right. The salvage yard owner is far more likely to have a serious level of net worth than a doctor, attorney or (gulp) accountant. Stock brokers and other financial advisors should have an inside track, but spending levels and a high level of understanding of how markets work causes many of these professionals to trade or time the market. The only traders with a snowball’s chance in hell of winning long-term are the market makers and financial newsletter publishers.
My Side of the Desk
Swing around, if you will, to my side of the desk. From my perspective you can see things clearer.
Every day people from all walks of life wander through my office. I have law firms, doctors and even accounting firms as clients. By and large this group enjoys a higher income than average. They also have a low level of net worth compared to what they earn. Worse, I’ve seen more than a few of these professionals pulling in upwards of a half million annually with only a low six figure net worth to show for it.
Before we continue, re-read the last sentence of the last paragraph. For some reason I find it vaguely important to our discussion.
There are plenty of excuses as to why these people are worth only slightly more than their last paycheck. None of them resonate with me.
Don’t leave my side of the desk yet. I have a few more clients to introduce you to.
Oh, here comes Sam. He worked in the mill his entire life. Not the smartest guy in the world, but a helluva family man. He goes to church every Sunday. His wife died a few years back. Worked in the paper mill his entire life before retiring with $4.7 million. By looking at him (or his car or his home or his . . . ) you would never guess he is rich. (Sam is a real client with a different name.)
Here comes another wonderful client. Jack has a landscaping company. He clips and maintains lawns for businesses and rich people, you know, the doctors, attorneys, financial advisors and accountants. Don’t say anything, but the guy maxes out his retirement accounts before adding more to his non-qualified accounts. Oh, and he is a millionaire too. Didn’t expect that considering the rust bucket he’s driving, did you?
The same pattern holds for farmers (they’re not all poor!), truckers, salvage yard dealers and guys laying concrete.
Don’t bite your tongue so hard. They aren’t all rich. Yes, I know guys in the military (or retired from) who are pretty darn rich. Many are pretty darn poor, too.
Not every doctor and attorney is net worth poor compared to their income. Many people in average jobs struggle. What I’m getting at is the people you expect to be rich are putting on a show. They have a big hat, but no cattle. They spend all their money putting on a façade. There’s nothing left to fund real wealth!
People with average incomes in jobs where there is little to no expectation of wealth have an easier time hiding their financial accumulations. A worn pair of jeans is more than fine to wear to work at the salvage yard or auction house. It’s expected!
When I first started investing in micro-loans on the Prosper platform I was able to see a few details on the borrower. Prosper provided a credit score and income range along with the borrower’s occupation. For some reason accountant’s needed loans in May. This blew me away for two reasons. First, an accountant should be flush with cash after tax season.
Second, some accountant’s work outside the tax field so they could need additional funds. Prosper also listed the reason for the loan request. When an accountant requests a loan to pay bills in May I’m dubious. Online lending platforms are not the cheapest way to borrow money! Any accountant worth his salt would never make such a poor financial decision. I say “his” because no woman would ever do something so foolish. (Yes, that was a joke.)
Prosper confirmed what I suspected from serving my clients. High income professionals frequently are poor handlers of money.
There is a lesson for the wise in this tale. You do NOT need a high income to be wealthy or financially independent! Average people in average jobs with average income can excel financially. The statistics are clear.
Sure, a high income can get you to seven figure net worth status faster if you can avoid the siren call of excessive spending to play the role. Even a below average income can grow into a tidy nest egg if handled properly. Minimum wage is a hard racket, for sure. But once your income climbs to a level even below the national average you have plenty of resources to fund an early retirement!
Excuses will show up in the comments. It goes with the territory on blog posts with this topic. They are still only excuses. Income level plays a role in your net worth. By age thirty you should have at least two years income invested. Once you reach 40 your net worth should exceed at least 10 times your annual income. If you are pulling down a $50,000 annual salary you should have a half mil tucked away in an index fund by your 40th birthday. As each decade passes the net worth report card should grow larger.
This is where the rubber touches the pavement. Really smart people want to trade stocks and bonds. They want to time the market because they did all the research. Of course the market makes a fool of the well educated.
There are only two ways to accumulate money in the market. The first is to drop the money into an index fund, or, if you are so inclined to engage an actively managed fund, a growth and income fund. Forget about aggressive funds and other crazy ideas. Your goal is to be rich!
The other way to get rich investing is to research listed companies for undiscovered value. Buy these gems and hold them for somewhere in the neighborhood of forever. Then go out and find another undervalued business to invest in.
Remember, you don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room. The smartest guy is often broke!
I want to be smart. Just not that smart.
It’s been a while since I showed you my working papers. Below are my unedited notes for this post. It should also be noted the working title of this post was Attributes of a Wealthy Individual; or The Smartest Guy in the Room isn’t the Richest was added at the last minute as a tribute to the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Hope the insight into my writing style helps you with your writing.
What characteristics are most common in the wealthy? High intelligence doesn’t guarantee wealth, it actually hurts! Smart people think they can outsmart the market and time it. Professionals have an appearance to keep. Doctors and sales people need to look the part. The massive spending required to “look good” reduces savings and all the profits those savings generate.
Average people have a much better chance. The salvage yard owner has nothing to prove so she socks away a massive percentage of her income and puts it into index funds because she know she can’t do better,.
I see it in my office all the time. A recent client picked up his return. He is retired with a serious seven figure retirement account before looking at non-qualified monies or other assets. He is an average guy from an average family retired from a mill job. And he’s rich.
Don’t be so smart to talk yourself into poverty. Intelligence can only dig you out of so deep a hole.
Those little devils are everywhere. Drone fever has swept the country and it has me hopping mad. In the last week my office has been buzzed every workday and the Accountant farm had its privacy disrupted three times.
The animals hate it! Drones buzzing overhead send the chickens running for cover while the steers run the length of the pasture trying to get away. Privacy is the main concern at the office. If somebody wants to invade my privacy on the farm while I water the horse out back there isn’t much to see. (Ah, that didn’t come out right.)
Therefore, I hereby announce The Wealthy Accountant will start selling anti-drone guns for $500 a pop with the beautiful logo of The Wealthy Accountant emblazoned on the side. This is a limited offer! Only 10,000 will be manufactured. When they are gone they’re gone.
To recoup my costs fast I’ll be announcing the anti-drone guns all over social media, especially Twitter.
There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend. Those who love to annoy people with their drone and those who love to shoot’em down. I’m betting you are like me and fall into the latter camp.
One problem still needs to be resolved before shipping starts. It seems UPS doesn’t allow shipping of a package with ANTI-DRONE GUN printed on the side. My solution is to changes the package to read NOT AN ANTI-DRONE GUN.
Branding is one of the most important tasks a company undertakes. This blog also needs to brand or it will fall into irrelevance as cobwebs start gracing the corners of the site.
My tax office has built a brand over the previous three decades locally and finds its footprint spreading far and wide as of late.
Many readers here are in the accounting profession looking for ideas to save their clients more money and get ideas on how to grow their business. Other readers have a side gig. In either case you still need at least a bit of branding to turn a profit.
Branding is where the real money is. Most goods and services are commodities. Everybody can sell what you’re selling and everybody does. There is always some schmuck willing to cut corners and offer a discounted price to yours.
President Trump is a master at branding. Whether you like the guy or not you still have to sit back and watch how he has done so well financially. Even if his net worth numbers are inflated he still can teach us a lot. Trump has turned his name into a worldwide brand generating hundreds of millions of dollars.
Trump doesn’t really build anything. He licenses his name so the real builder can slap Trump’s name on the side of the building. Yeah, I know. He does build some stuff. But the big money, the money his fortune is built on, is his brand.
By now you probably realize the opening of this post was a gag. Anti-drone guns exist and the military and police can buy them, but you and I are probably not allowed.
The opening is a play on Elon Musk’s latest attention-getting behavior. Musk is playing a flamethrower stunt for all its worth. In the end he will probably never ship a one, returning all deposits while he keeps all the press.
Musk has flooded Twitter with the sensationalism of his flamethrower sale. To give the stunt some legitimacy he found a loophole in the law allowing flamethrowers that shoot flame less than ten feet. Of course when you make a splash like Elon with a sale of 10,000 flamethrowers, lawmakers get nervous. What could possibly go wrong?
Even with the flamethrowers sold out Musk has played the publicity stunt for all its worth. First he had the sale. Then they sold out. (Lot of pyromaniacs out there, I guess.) Then UPS said “no” so Musk tweets boxes will say NOT A FLAMETHROWER. Then he tweets about the law probably killing the whole idea. Don’t worry, Musk assured. If the law is changed and the idea flames out, all monies will be returned. I think Elon keeps any interest that accrued on the nine mil and all the free PR.
Wait for It
I stand in awe of the skills Musk has at marketing and generating free publicity. The value of the attention (branding value) he gets is immeasurable. I can’t get CNBC, Business Insider or MarketWatch to even mumble my name.
Warren Buffett has a way of catching headlines without the drama. Ryan Holiday went to extremes at times during his career to generate buzz. Musk and Trump are legends.
Then we have respectable family men like Richard Branson. Once upon a time Virgin Atlantic (the Virgin brands belong to Branson) added shiatsu messages to their on-board Upper Class service. Branson is from the UK and British Airways (BA) thought Virgin Atlantic’s shiatsu messages were a joke. When BA didn’t follow suit Virgin bought ad space in a few select locations at Heathrow Airport stating: British Airways doesn’t Give a Shiatsu.
Funny, Richard. Real funny.
Sometimes a branding opportunity falls into your lap. British Airways once again took a thinly veiled jab at Virgin with two-page ads in the New York Times and other newspapers with the message: More people choose British Airways to London than any other airline. Duh!
BA is the largest airline in the UK so they do carry more passengers than any other airline. But the Duh! at the end was an unnecessary jab.
Branson’s team went to work producing a fitting response. Within hours they were ready to go. (It shows their sense of humor is as sick as your favorite accountant’s.) The next day the New York Times had another two-page ad, this time reading: More people switch to Virgin Atlantic from British Airways than from any other airline. Hah!
According to Branson it got heated quickly. My understanding is a lawsuit was threatened. Oh, well!
Branding with Integrity
Branson has written on leadership and building a company from scratch and fighting against the big boys. Branding is absolutely necessary to survive! The cost of building a brand is prohibitive if you use traditional advertising venues. Even social media is expense for a micro-sized firm.
Social media makes it easier to find an audience than ever before. My earlier writing from the 80s and 90s found it hard to find a home. My brand was nonexistent so my work sold for peanuts or worse, tear sheets.
I adopted Amazon and social media relatively early in promoting my brand, but was never real good at it. I’m getting better. Unfortunately, I fell into the sinkhole of time social media demands when you don’t automate and do it wrong. It’s impossible for me to communicate with every reader individually even on social media. With 100,000 page views per month and growing the task would be daunting moving toward impossible.
Branson said it best in his book The Virgin Way: If It’s Not Fun It’s Not Worth Doing when he wrote:
We have always relied on smart, cutting-edge creativity and scads of often quite self-deprecating humour to get ourselves noticed — it’s called getting a bigger bang for a much smaller buck.
Every blogger looking to grow their viewership must read Branson’s book!
The first thing that jumps out of Branson’s quote in my prime problem. He said smart. My challenge just got more, ah, shall we say, challenging.
Humor and self-deprecation are powerful tools when communicating. To the best of my ability I use these tools when writing posts. Growing traffic and an award might be the result of such behavior.
Shootout at the OK Coral
How far do we have to push to be noticed? Branson was lowered from the top of a building on a rope while wearing a dress and did that hot air balloon thing.
If I thought it would work I’d wear a mini skirt and high heels, too, but I’m worried I’d lose the remaining three clients I have left. (To the ladies in the office. NO!)
Ryan Holiday took the extreme measure of vandalizing his own posters and your favorite accountant begged people to steal his stuff.
Warren Buffett uses whimsical country humor.
Musk builds fast electric cars, rockets, and solar panels, plans to go to Mars, and has a Boring Company selling $700,000 of hats and $9 million of flamethrowers.
Will it require even crazier ideas to be noticed? Artists do it. Musicians especially. Getting noticed in a crowded room takes effort and talent.
There is a point where it goes too far. How would Musk feel if he did manage to get the flamethrowers built and delivered and some psycho burned a daycare to the ground killing dozens of children? He’d get more publicity, but this time the kind he wouldn’t want.
Consistent quality work speaks volumes. Getting noticed doesn’t require a massive budget. A well placed Facebook ad for under $100 could generate quality buzz. A free tweet could do the same.
Mild self-deprecation is the best branding you can do. Shouting the loudest or craziest as our current President does isn’t always a good idea. Trump mastered that shtick, but most will fare poorly attempting the same.
I like some of Musk’s ideas and think Branson has hired a team of geniuses when it comes to branding and PR.
My original idea was to claim I was selling nukes stolen from North Korea. After some thought I came to the conclusion a couple percent of my readers might think it was unbelievable or even clickbait.
So I’m left stealing an idea from Branson. If I thought for a second I would triple my page views permanently by wearing a dress all weekend at FinCon, I would.
Ugh! Just had a visual.
Maybe we should stick with flamethrowers.