Here I take a 1000-foot view and define levels 0 to 3 of personal financial competence. One of the big things I’ve learned about personal finance since I started writing this blog is the staggering number of people mired in the lower levels.
Level 0: Spend as you please and tomorrow will take care of itself
The main thing that characterizes people at this infantile level is declining net worth. They use credit to go out to eat, vacation, and buy cars. They justify their spending with nonsense like YOLO and “I’m worth it.”
I don’t include in this group retirees who are sensibly drawing down their life’s savings. Their net worth may be declining, but with a logical purpose. I also don’t include people who face serious medical problems that prevent them from making a living and require them to spend on health care. Foreseeable events like a car breakdown or needing dental care don’t get you off the hook for a level 0 label.
In my parents’ day, this level largely didn’t exist because there was limited access to personal credit. It’s not that people were smarter decades ago; they just didn’t have the same opportunities to borrow. When you go to the bank with each pay cheque, trade it for cash, and have to go hungry for a day if you don’t make the money last to the next pay cheque, reality hits you quickly. Young people today face a minefield of banks and other financial institutions sending the strong marketing message to spend as you please on credit.
Level 1: Steady state
People in steady state are managing to live within their means, but just barely. They’re not getting richer, but they’re not getting poorer either. Typically, people at this level have some debt, but they manage to make minimum payments, and they don’t build new debt any faster then they’re paying off old debt.
Everyone in level 0 will eventually be forced into level 1. You can’t spend other people’s money forever. The smart ones see the problem with living at level 0 themselves and cut their spending. The dumbest people in level 0 build up debts so large that no one will lend them any more money. Through no fault of their own, they get upgraded to level 1 and downgraded to a much lower lifestyle.
I don’t include in this level people who have enough savings to prepare them for retirement, and they choose to spend their incomes and their investment returns. Even though their net worth isn’t increasing, they qualify for a higher level.
Level 2: Saving for the long term
People in level 2 are building long-term savings. This doesn’t mean saving for a car or a vacation; it means saving for some far-off purpose such as retirement.
However, just contributing to an RRSP or TFSA isn’t good enough to make it to level 2. If you’re building debt just as fast as you’re saving, you’re not really saving at all. People who grow their lines of credit, car loans, or other debts at the same time as building long-term savings get sent back to level 0 or level 1.
The critical thing to make it to level 2 is to be building your net worth at a pace sufficient to be adequately prepared for retirement. Most people should target having a substantial nest egg by about age 60; career disruption after age 60 is very common. Maybe you won’t be able to do the same job you’ve always done, or even if you can, your employer may not agree.
Level 3: Investing savings sensibly
If you’ve made it through the minefield of overspending and are managing to increase your net worth over time, you have a shot at making level 3. As a very rough guide, I’d say that “investing savings sensibly” means investing in a way that has the expectation of beating inflation by 2% or more each year.
A lucky few have no need to seek investment returns. If you’ve got millions saved but live a modest life and see no need for anything but GICs at a few different banks, you can have your level 3 stamp right now. However, if you’re slaving away at work saving as much as you can, but saving it all in GICs, go back to level 2.
If you invest in balanced funds and pay a 2.5% MER, a little more in trading expenses, and the occasional deferred sales charge, you’re expected long-term return is less than 2% over inflation. Go back to level 2.
If you sold out of the market in 2009 and are still looking for signs that it’s safe to get all the way back in, your prospects aren’t good. Most market timers make their moves at the wrong times. Go back to level 2.
If your portfolio turnover exceeds 100% per year, odds are very strong that you’ll trail market averages badly. Go back to level 2.
If you pore over mutual fund descriptions of the type Gordon Pape used to publish each year to decide where to move your money, you’re likely a performance chaser who will lose out over time. Go back to level 2.
If you’ve been reading analyst reports and are sure that Blackberry is poised for a rebound, even though less than half of your previous picks didn’t work out, go back to level 2.
Personally, I’m hoping to beat inflation by at least 4% per year, on average, with index investing. It’s ironic that the average dollar invested with a plan to beat the index will end up doing worse than the index. Those who take the biggest chances to beat the index actually belong back in level 2.
It would be interesting to see the results of a poll asking people to self-assess their level. Because the average person can’t grow wealth faster than the economy grows, there is limited room in level 3. But I’d bet that a great many people think they’re at level 3.
For the most part I’ve aimed this blog at people who are in levels 2 and 3. Being a natural saver, I have no personal experience of living in level 0 or level 1. However, from reader feedback and watching friends and family, I’ve gained some insights.
Preet Banerjee’s excellent book, Stop Over-Thinking Your Money, is mostly about moving people from levels 0 and 1 to level 2. He says that if you can start saving and avoid the worst investing mistakes, you get an A in personal finance. You can expect me to keep writing about moving from an A to an A+.