The biggest truth in personal finance

For the past six weeks, I’ve been hard at work writing my “introduction to financial independence and early retirement” project for Audible and The Great Courses. It’s been challenging — and fun — to rework my past material for a new audience in a new format.

Naturally, I’m emphasizing two important points in this project: profit and purpose.

I believe strongly that you need a clear personal mission statement in order to find success with money (and life).
I also believe that the most important number on your path to financial freedom is your personal profit, the difference between your income and your spending. (Most people refer to this number as saving rate. I prefer the term “personal profit” because it’s, well, sexier.)

That last point is important.

Too many people want magic bullets. They want quick and easy ways to get out of debt and build wealth. They believe (or hope) that there’s some sort of secret they can uncover, that somehow they’ve missed. Well, there aren’t any secrets. Money mastery is a combination of psychology and math. And the math part is so simple a third-grader could understand it. Wealth is the accumulation of what you earn minus what you spend.

There are only two sides to this wealth equation — earning and spending — but a disproportionate amount of financial advice focuses on the one factor, on spending, and that’s too bad. Sure, frugality is an important part of personal finance. And if you’re in a tight spot and/or have a high income and still struggle, then cutting expenses is an excellent choice. But the reality is, you won’t get rich — slowly or otherwise — by pinching pennies alone.

The Biggest Lie in Personal Finance

Recently at his excellent blog, Of Dollars and Data, Nick Maggiulli wrote about the biggest lie in personal finance. What is that lie? He writes:

While there are lots of people who are in financial trouble because of their own actions, there are also lots of people with good financial habits who just don’t have sufficient income to improve their finances.

That’s why the biggest lie in personal finance is that you can be rich if you just cut your spending. And the financial media feeds this lie by telling you to stop spending $5 a day on coffee so that you can become a millionaire.

With charts and graphs and data, Maggiuli demonstrates that the problem facing people with low incomes isn’t their spending — it’s their earning. If you’re living at the poverty line — currently $26,200 per year for an American family of four — you’re not going to escape through thrift. Thrift is an emergency measure, a stopgap. It’s a bandage on a major wound.

Here’s the bottom line:

If you’re poor and hope to be not poor, your attention should be focused on increasing income, not on cutting costs. Your expenses are likely already very low.
If you have an average household income — currently $63,179 according to the U.S. Census Bureau — your path to building wealth will probably include both frugality and income enhancement.
If you have a high income but still struggle to make ends meet, your attention should absolutely turn to cutting costs. You need to rein in your lifestyle. But you won’t accomplish this with frugality; you’ll do this by optimizing the big stuff.

Maggiuli is fed up with the Biggest Lie. It “triggers” him.

“This is the same financial media who write stories about how people save money by living in a trailer, making their own dish soap, or reusing their dental floss,” he writes. “Yes, it’s that ridiculous. But what really gets me is how these examples are provided as ‘proof’ of how cutting spending can make you rich.”

From my experience, this sort of stuff is perennially popular because it’s easy. It’s easy to write and it’s easy to read, even if it doesn’t offer any real solutions. It’s more difficult to write about boosting your income. And, it’s more difficult to act on that information because it takes time, effort, and actual sacrifice.

Real-Life Examples of the Biggest Lie in Action

Just this morning, Trent at The Simple Dollar published an article about optimizing dishwashing for money and time. Trent writes:

If I can invest some time and thought and effort into optimizing a routine I do three times a week, and that optimization trims off five minutes of effort and $0.50 in cost, I’m literally saving 13 hours per year and $78 per year for the rest of my life.

Trent isn’t wrong. If his math is correct (and his discipline too), he will literally save 13 hours and $78 each year by optimizing how he does dishes. This isn’t a lie. In this case, the lie comes from what is implied: Do this and you’ll grow rich. You’ll reach financial freedom by becoming a smarter dishwasher.

Here’s the truth: You don’t reap the thirteen hours and $78 annual benefit as a one-time win. You’re saving five minutes and fifty cents per day. This may seem like a niggling point, but it’s important. If you gain thirteen hours or $78 at once, that’s something real and tangible, something you can work with. But an extra five minutes and fifty cents per day? Not so much.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t optimize your dishwashing routine. Do it! But don’t expect it to make you rich. Because it won’t.

Here’s a bigger example of the lie in action.

Elizabeth Willard Thames writes at Frugalwoods, which is one of my favorite money blogs. Recently, especially, Liz has been publishing lots of amazing stuff. I look forward to each new article. (Those of you who make use of the Spare Change list of links on the GRS front page have probably noticed that I bookmark Frugalwoods frequently.)

As you might guess from the name of her blog, Liz focuses (almost?) exclusively on thrift. She and her husband practice extreme frugality. She wrote a book, Meet the Frugalwoods [my review], that documented their journey from poor college students to achieving financial independence on a 66-acre farm in central Vermont.

Now, there’s no doubt that Liz and Nate are thrifty. They practice what they preach. But their frugality is not the reason for their wealth, the reason they were able to retire early. You can’t buy a 66-acre farm in Vermont simply by optimizing your dishwashing routine. Or clipping coupons. Or hosting potlucks. To do this, you also need a high income. And that’s a part of the story that Liz doesn’t share with her readers. She and her husband made a lot of money, and that’s how they got rich — not through frugality.

I’m sure Liz doesn’t mean to obfuscate the truth, but that’s the net effect. She’s complicit in “the biggest lie in personal finance”.

To her credit, Liz seems to be incorporating more of the truth in her writing. Today, for instance, the About page at Frugalwoods acknowledges their high incomes. This didn’t used to be the case.

Now, I don’t mean to dog on Liz and Trent. They’re both good people and fine writers. But I think they do their readers a huge disservice by covering just one aspect of the wealth equation, by rarely (if ever) mentioning income. They’re active participants in Maggiuli’s “biggest lie”.

And I’ll confess: For a long time, I was guilty of the same thing. Sometimes, I still am. Hell, I’ve spilled a lot of words lately about my quest to optimize my food spending, haven’t I? I’m not claiming to be any better than Liz or Trent. But I want to at least acknowledge the lie — and the reciprocal truth.

The Biggest Truth in Personal Finance

If frugality isn’t the path to riches, what is? The answer is simple: Big Wins. Big Wins are the quickest way to wealth.

You can scrape your dishes and rinse them in cold water every day for the rest of your life, and you still wouldn’t match the benefits you’d obtain by purchasing a cheaper home. Or choosing a more fuel-efficient car. Or negotiating your salary.

The best way to spend less is to cut back on the big stuff.

If the average American family were to trim their housing costs by 10%, they’d save roughly $150 per housing payment — more than twenty times the benefit of optimizing your dishwashing routine. Transportation offers similar opportunities. According to the American Automobile Association, the average driver spends just over $9000 per year on her vehicle. Reduce this spending by less than one percent and you’ve accomplished the same thing as a year of diligent dishwashing.

But, as Maggiuli notes in his article, income is the elephant in the room, the subject that too many writers ignore.

You can only cut costs so far. There’s no way to reduce your spending below zero, and most of us can’t come close to that. As I mentioned earlier, the U.S. poverty line for a family of four is currently $26,200. (For two people, it’s $17,240.) Not counting his business, Mr. Money Mustache (a famously frugal fellow) spent $13,068 in 2019.

If you’re living like this and want to escape, you shouldn’t look for ways to cut costs. That stuff is useless to you. If somebody tells you otherwise, they’re lying. In these circumstances, you should be trying to increase your income. And even if you have a standard middle-class salary, boosting income is usually the best way to meet your goals.

There are three primary ways to earn more money.

First, become better educated. Despite the dire details in the gloomy mass media, one fact is undeniable: The more you learn, the more you earn. In the U.S., education has a greater impact on lifetime earnings than any other demographic factor. It’s more important than your race, your religion, your gender, your location. (In fact, the Census Bureau says education has five times the impact of gender on annual earnings.) That’s great news because while you can’t control your age or race, you have total control over your education.
Second, become a better employee. I read a lot on Reddit (and other places) where people piss on their employers, complaining about how their boss (or company) is out to screw them. This stuff is counter-productive. Sure, there are some shitty employers out there, but most are happy to promote and reward their best workers. If you want to earn more, work longer and harder than others will. If you’re in a situation where hard work goes unrewarded, switch jobs.
Finally — and most importantly — learn to negotiate your salary. Study after study shows the same thing: Failing to negotiate your salary can cost you over half a million dollars during the course of a typical career. Half a million dollars! For over a decade, I’ve been pushing Jack Chapman’s book, Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1000 a Minute. Let me do so again.

“You can’t frugalize income you don’t earn,” Liz writes in Meet the Frugalwoods. She speaks the truth! The biggest truth.

I’m no enemy of thrift. Yes, absolutely, pinch your pennies, if that makes you happy. Frugality is an excellent way to build good habits. Over the long run, many frugal habits combined can make a big difference to your financial situation.

But if you have a low income, do not focus on thrift. It’s a red herring. Instead, turn your attention to Big Wins. And, especially, to increasing your income. Because this is the biggest truth in personal finance: You can’t get rich through frugality alone.

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