A Letter To My Brother about Finances

My brother is about to finish school and start his first job. I'm writing this post to him, based on lessons and things I've learned along the way, but hopefully it's helpful to everyone! My financial goal here is to live comfortably (not excessively) and be able to retire someday!

  1. If your employer has retirement matching, max it out! This is free money, and will really add up in 30-40 years. It means you'll have less immediately available spending cash... but it will make it easier to meet your long term financial goals.
  2. Pay off high interest debt as fast as you canDebt with interest rates over about 4-5% will bleed you dry. Always pay the minimum monthly payment, but whenever possible, any money you can put towards this debt will likely save you more money than you can make through investing. Plus, lowering your debt will improve your credit, which could save you thousands of dollars when making big purchases like a car, or a house.
  3. Debt is not a bad thingOur parents raised us to be debt averse, and I'm mostly thankful for this... but interest rates presently are much lower than they ever were when our parents were our age. If you have the opportunity to buy something with cash, or take a loan at a rate less than 4%, you might come out ahead if you take the loan and invest the cash! *This assumes you don't get a floating interest rate that could skyrocket, and that the stock market doesn't crash...
    1. Credit Cards aren't bad either! Some money gurus will tell you to cut up your credit cards. If you can't use a credit card responsibly, I'd agree with this advice, but with willpower, credit cards can be a very powerful tool giving you cash back bonuses or points towards vacations. Just make sure to always pay off the full balance every month, and your credit card will pay you to use it. *There's a lot of subtle arguments against this, which I'll link to, but not dive in here...
  4. Plan for Goals. Whether it's a downpayment on a house or car, a new mountain bike in a few years, or a remodel, think about purchases you'll make 5-15 years down the road. I use an investment tool with low fees called Betterment which automatically helps me estimate how much I should put aside each month and invests the money in stocks and bonds.
    This screenshot shows how I might use Betterment to plan a bathroom remodel in three years. It says I need to put away $132.82/mo to meet my goal.
    1. Home Ownership is NOT always a smart move. The 2008 housing crisis challenged the notion that buying a home is a no-brainer investment, and that renting is "throwing your money away." In reality, the choice between renting and buying is very muddy.  The NY Times has a really nice calculator to help break down the cost/benefits of renting and buying. What can be real deal-breakers in the Rent vs Buy decision are things included in rent (Free Internet, Trash, Water), and things like HOA fees in a neighborhood you might buy in.If you live in a market, like Denver CO,  where home prices are growing at a rate of 10%, (and rents are growing at a similar rate) than buying a home can be a very sound investment... but if you live in an area where rent and real-estate are relatively flat (like Springfield, IL) renting can be a sound choice. This is especially true if you do not enjoy home maintenance/improvement projects and shopping for and maintaining appliances.
  5. Be careful about subscription services. These can really sneak up on you, and eat away at your money. When you start paying monthly fees for cable, internet, smartphone data, streaming entertainment (Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, Pandora), cloud storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Box, etc.), online shopping (amazon prime, etc.), a big chunk of your income can start to disappear. Figure out what has value to you, and try to limit the rest. Even saving $10 a month on subscription services can turn into $15,000 by the time you retire.
  6. Budget the Rest. After setting aside money for your big goals, little goals, and necessary bills, find a system that works for you to budget your money. I use mint, although there are a lot of great tools out there.  For me, the key is to be aware of my spending so I can make data-driven decisions on my actions.
    1. Sometimes being cheap can cost you money. A stupid example is pants. I wear pants to work every day, and I was buying cheap $40 pants, and blowing through the crotch or knees of my pants every 6 months or so...  I then bought a pair of higher quality $70 jeans that have lasted years.

What other advice did I miss?