Personal Finance 101
By David Berky
The subject of personal finance is very broad, but as a
beginning, I would like to discuss what I consider the
foundations of personal finance: Security, Stability, Growth and Protection
Security to me means that I am prepared for the "hit by a
I have life insurance to provide for my wife and children.
Health, disability, auto and home insurance policies also
provide me additional protection in their respective areas.
I also have a list of where these policies are, who my
agents are, phone numbers and basic policy information (#s, amounts, costs,
etc.) I keep this information both in a
file at my house and in a safety deposit box at the bank (a
friends home will also work - think: "house burns down"
scenario). Also my wife and my brother and sister-in-law
who live nearby also know where these things are.
I also try to maintain an emergency fund of cash in a bank
account or money market account (with checks) so that I am
prepared for a financial disaster, layoff, or natural
disaster. It took several years to build up this cash fund.
I started with a goal to have enough cash for 6 months of my
normal financial needs (mortgage, food, insurance,
transportation, etc.). Now I am trying for 12 months'
worth. I do this by saving a little each month, and
"investing" a portion of all "found" money (gifts,
inheritances, tax returns, anything unexpected).
I have a will and update it each year around New Year's to
reflect any changes in my life during the past year (new
children, new home or business, etc.). Most people don't
need an extensive will, the forms you buy at your office
supply store will do. But in some states if you die without
one, watch out. What happens to your money and even your
children could be entirely up to some state or court
The next level of personal finance is stability.
Stability to me means that first of all I live within my
means. I don't spend more than I earn. Otherwise I am
spending my savings, investments, emergency money, or
getting into debt. I have a lot of debt, but most of it is
real estate which is producing some income. I try to avoid
credit card debt and purchase everything with money I
already have. I don't buy things expecting that next month
I will have more money or I will get a big raise or
promotion. You can't sell me a car based on a monthly
payment amount; I want to know the final price!
In order to make sure that I am living within my means, I
created a simple budget and I track my expenses using Simple
Joe's Expense Tracker. I can tell how much I have spent in
each budget category and I know when to keep a closer eye on
certain types of expenses, or when and where I can cut
expenses and what I can live without in order to stay within
my budget. Counting pennies is pretty tedious, but tracking
where the dollars go can be eye-opening.
Another aspect of stability is avoiding or eliminating debt.
Debt in itself is a form of stability; you always have to
make those payments until it is all paid off.
Some recent reports show that the average American is $7,000
- $20,000 in debt. Most of it is consumer debt: credit
cards, store accounts, rent-to-own, auto loans, etc. And
those types of consumer debt usually charge a higher
interest rate than any savings account, CD, or money market
account; even more than most high-flying risky investments.
This means that $1,000 in debt at 18% is costing you 9 times
what your $1,000 savings account at 2% is producing.
Consumer debt is a dangerous spiral that is very hard to get
The first problem is, as mentioned before, living within
your means. Don't get further into debt to support an
extravagant lifestyle. Or even if you are frugal, if you
are using credit cards and debt to finance your purchases,
you either need to stop purchasing luxury items or find a
way to increase your income to support these
You may even have to lower your standard-of-living because
you have racked up considerable debt and need to free up
some money to pay it down. But don't wait to start. Those
minimum payments are often designed to keep you paying 18%
interest for 40 years! That's longer than most home loans.
You could even end up paying more than 10 times the original
cost of the item just in interest payments. Is that new
stereo really worth that much?
To help people get themselves out of debt we created the
"Pay Off My Debts" tool in Simple Joe's Money Tools. It is
also available as a stand-alone product called Simple Joe's
Debt Eraser. These tools help you create a Rapid Debt
Reduction Plan which shows you how much to pay on each debt
each month in order to save as much on interest charges as
possible and pay off your debts as soon as possible.
These tools can help you systematically eliminate your debts
whether you owe $1,000 or $100,000. The key is to start
living below your means and start focusing on paying off
It doesn't make much sense to be worried about whether or
not your 401k earns 8 or 9% this year, if you are paying 21%
on your credit card debt.
A third aspect that starts in the stability category and
transcends to the next personal finance level, growth, is
the concept of investing in yourself. By this I mean
spending time to educate yourself in personal finance
matters, as you are doing right now and spending time
gaining more knowledge and improving your skills or even
developing new ones.
As an employee, this can have a direct relation to who gets
laid off during the next round of cutbacks. If you have
some skills or have demonstrated some abilities that are not
possessed by your co-workers and these skills make you a
more valuable employee, you are less likely to get the
Also while you are making yourself more valuable to your
current employer, you are also making yourself worth more to
future employers. It is much easier to land a job if you
have some special skills that are in high demand or even if
you bring some special knowledge or experience that you
fellow job-seekers may have overlooked or failed to invest
Being in the computer industry, I have to spend hours each
week reading trade magazines, exploring web sites, and
reading emailed newsletters to keep abreast of what is new
in my field. If I stopped learning just five years ago, I
would have missed out on the Internet revolution, email, web
sites and the majority of the income I now enjoy.
Keeping myself informed and up to date takes time and
resources, but it helps me protect my current income and
expand my skills to help me earn income in other areas.
This increases my stability by allowing me to not have to
rely on one client, employer or source of income. A chair
with four legs will always be more stable than a stool with
The next level of personal finance, as I alluded to before,
Once you are secure and stable, you can begin to think about
building your wealth. Not that you have to figure out how
to become the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. But you
have to start building the "nest-egg" that you will rely on
when you retire.
And don't think that Social Security has you covered, or
that your 401k will grow back to what it was a couple years
ago. Or that your current employer is going to re-institute
the generous pension plans of yesteryear. 401ks are much
cheaper to administer and you, the employee, take the hit
when the market goes down, not the employer.
My father is nearing retirement age and I think he has a
good plan. He has done some research and estimated what his
expenses are going to be when he is retired. He then took a
look at his potential sources of income during his
He figured that Social Security would cover about a third of
what he wanted to live on. Only a third! And he has worked
his entire life. Would you like to instantly have to live
on only one third of what you currently make? Retirement is
suppose to be the golden years, so where's the gold?
Luckily throughout his career, my father has worked for
companies that have had pension plans and he had worked long
enough at each company to be eligible for some pension
money. This is rare these days because today the average
worker will change jobs and companies at least five times
during his/her career. Also, as I mentioned before,
companies are switching to lower cost 401k plans that do not
guarantee you any fixed payments.
In my father's situation, his pension money would cover
another third of the retirement income he wanted. So now he
had to either figure out where the last third was going to
come from, or start cutting out expenses during retirement,
like not visiting his children so much. None of us liked
the sound of that.
So my father started learning about the stock market and
investing in stocks and mutual funds. He made a plan for
growing his wealth and then educated himself as to how he
could accomplish his plan.
I wish I could say that he is doing better than he is, but
luckily he has some time still to put his plan into action
and ride out any market downturns. (He can do this because
he has the security of insurance and emergency money, and
the stability of little debt and a strong set of skills.)
By learning about how stocks, bonds, mutual funds, index
funds, options, futures, commodities, real estate and other
financial tools work you lay the foundation for growing your
wealth. You may start with just $100 in a bank CD, but as
you learn more and become more sophisticated, you can invest
in more and more opportunities.
You will learn about how risk and reward are related, that
as the risk increases so does the size of the potential
reward. Just like at the race track, you'll make more on
the long shot, but the odds are against it. Also you can
learn how to tilt the odds in your favor and protect
yourself against risk.
For those who are just starting out in the growth phase or
who want to dabble a bit before completing the other levels
of personal finance, my suggestion would be to look into
index mutual funds. Especially no-load index funds (no
These funds are made up of the same stocks that make up the
popular market indexes like the Dow Jones, S&P and
NASDAQ100. The costs are low because management is simple
and as a mutual fund you can invest a little at a time.
Also they are easy to follow since you see them on all the
news shows and in the newspaper.
Protection and Management
The final level of personal finance is the protection and
management of your wealth. Most people never develop wealth
enough to need this level. But some of the concepts can be
applied to any amount of wealth you possess, $10,000 to
Part of the protection harks back to your will as we
discussed on the first personal finance level: security.
With any significant wealth or valuable asset (your home,
car, heirlooms, 401k, IRA, business, etc.) you will want
some way of disposing of that asset upon your death.
Whether it is go to go your family, favorite charity, or
local church, if no one knows about it, "it ain't gonna
As you start to accumulate wealth in excess of $350,000, you
may want to consult an attorney about creating a trust. A
trust is an entity that can own property and pass that
property to anyone you name in your will. Usually the trust
is designed to provide income to children from the assets
that are placed in the trust.
The trust can survive you so that your assets and income may
be passed on to your children or next-of-kin without
excessive taxation and legal entanglements. Some states
will take up to 55% of your assets as taxes when you pass
Protection also relates back to insurance. Now it may be
time to look at a multi-million dollar umbrella policy that
will protect you from lawsuits designed to part you and your
wealth. You may now be a bigger target, so purchase a suit
The management aspect comes into play where you may start to
concern yourself with taxation, ownership, distribution of
income and possibly endowments to charities or other
You may hire a person or company to manage your wealth, or
you may choose to do it yourself. Most people who have
earned their wealth through the "sweat of their brow" have
already become adept at managing their assets. Some
continue to personally manage their wealth because of the
enjoyment or challenge it gives them.
Others are ready to turn it over to a trustworthy manager
(who only gets paid a percentage of your increase) and
travel the world, or sit on a beach and count the waves.
Whatever your dreams for retirement (and why wait until you
are 65), understanding the different levels of personal
finance and spending the time and resources to educate
yourself will pay off whether you live next to Bill Gates or