Five rules that can change your life
Old habits die hard. But it is possible to change your approach to money. Here's how.
If you've ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight or even just skip your afternoon latte, then you know how difficult it is to modify your behaviour and make it stick. In our own small way, that's what we at MoneySense try to do with each issue of the magazine-give people the tools they need to change their money habits for the better.
But it recently occurred to us that we could be wasting our time. After all, if your habits are set in stone-if we are all born spendthrifts or tightwads and there's absolutely nothing we can do to change that-then why read a personal finance magazine? It may be interesting to consider that if you doubled your savings you could retire 10 years earlier, but if you have no control over how much you save, it's purely a theoretical consideration.
You could say the same for financial planning. Many times we've pointed out the benefits of having a financial plan-but they're no good unless you actually follow them. And we have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people don't. Once a year they may sit down with their planners and pledge to spend less, sort out their investments, and set up that RESP, but how many actually do it?
To find out, just over two years ago we set up a little experiment. We invited Canadians from across the country to take part in a week-long financial boot camp we called the Seven-Day Financial Makeover. From more than 200 entries, we selected four participants-three couples and one single woman. We flew them to Toronto, put them up at the Fairmont Royal York hotel for a week, and told them to brace themselves for the most intense personal finance workshop of their lives.
Nine of the country's top financial experts put our participants through a grueling series of sessions covering everything from budgeting and bank fees to insurance and investing. When they were done, we asked top financial planner Norbert Schlenker- chartered financial analyst and founder of Libra Investment Management-to draw up a comprehensive and personalized long-term financial plan for each participant. Then we sent them home and waited.
We learned a lot about how financial planning works from the experience, and we think you can learn a lot from reading about it . But we also knew that the real value of the exercise wouldn't be revealed for a while. As they left, all of our participants told us that our boot camp would change their lives. But would it really? It has now been more than two years since the Seven-Day Makeover and it's time to find out. Can an impulse shopper really become a bargain hunter? Can a couple who always argue about money live happily together? Can a woman with almost no investment knowledge stick to a sound investment plan? Read on to find out the five key pieces of advice that succeeded-and three approaches that don't work at all.
1. Write down your goals
Seven-Day Financial Makeover participants Caroline and Sam say that of all the habits they picked up during our week-long boot camp, it was learning to put their goals in writing that really made the difference.
When she first applied to take part in the makeover, Caroline, 31, had been dating Sam Crosbie, 29, for two years. Caroline worked as a physiotherapist and Sam as an X-ray technologist (we've changed all names and some details to protect the privacy of our makeover participants). The couple's biggest problem was that Sam's spendthrift ways were causing Caroline-a self-confessed tightwad-a lot of stress.
But since returning to their home city of Saint John, N.B., they've found that putting a detailed plan in writing has made a world of difference. That's because it gave them a neutral document to refer to whenever they have to make a big decision. Their plan, written with Schlenker's help, includes a "Statement of Purpose" at the beginning, specifically stressing the importance of shared goals, and finding a financial balance between pinching pennies and wasting money.
That plan came in handy just recently when Caroline became pregnant with the couple's third child. Sam suggested upgrading to a bigger home, and Caroline's initial knee-jerk reaction was to say no, they couldn't afford it. "We had gotten the mortgage on our home down below $100,000 and for me, that was a huge financial achievement," she says. But then she pulled out their plan where "Sam and I had very consciously set down in writing the common goal of having another child."
Caroline was reminded that their life was actually unfolding according to plan, and that helped her relax. Feeling calmer, she then sat down to run the numbers on a new home, and quickly realized that their combined income of $100,000 a year put a bigger home within their reach. "Don't get me wrong, I still struggle with spending-but the plan we put together at the makeover made me realize that quality of life is worth spending on if you can afford it," says Caroline. "We owe more money now with the new house, but I'm comfortable with that because we can easily fit the monthly payments into our budget. Writing our goals down in the plan was the key to my accepting the new mortgage debt without stress."
Ruth Hayden, a financial educator and author in Minneapolis, Minn., agrees that writing goals and aspirations down on paper has a profound effect. She has seen it work with her own clients. The key is including a Statement of Purpose that both partners buy into emotionally and intellectually. It works because we're more rational when we're planning for our future selves than we are when we're confronted by an immediate concern. Having a guide that you can refer to later is a bit like connecting your emotional self to your rational self for advice when real life hits you with a shocker.
To make this tip work for you, talk through your financial goals with your spouse (if you're single, talk them through with a friend or your adviser) and then write down a list that both of you can go to when you need a reminder or some encouragement to spur you into action. Remember, there aren't "good" financial goals and "bad" financial goals-different goals are important to different people.
Spend a couple of evenings working on the list until you have all your dreams set out in black and white. "The great thing about writing down these financial goals is that if you follow your budget then you know there should be money there to meet them," says Hayden. "So be clear about what you want and what you don't want." If you want to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe, for instance, then setting up a second account where $200 is deposited monthly for the next year or two will keep you focused on your upcoming trip-and guarantee that the money will be there when you need it.
2. Break the journey down into steps
"If you can write down specific steps to implement your goals, then you'll be good at reaching both short-term and long-term goals," says Richard Petty, a professor of social psychology at Ohio State University. "Of course, it also helps if you build in small rewards along the way. It keeps you going."
Martin and Jennifer Murphy, our second makeover couple, can attest to that. When we first met them, they told us they felt poor, even though between them they made $100,000 a year. The problem was that after paying the mortgage on their nine-acre Christmas tree farm near Oshawa, Ont., and feeding their three kids, they never had a dime left over. The Murphys were worried about financing their kids' university educations in a few years and wondered if Jennifer should go back to work full-time, even though she didn't want to.
During the financial makeover, Norbert Schlenker came up with a plan that helped them address all of their concerns. At first they felt relieved, but when they got back home, they found themselves facing a massive list of financial tasks. Schlenker had told them to sell the insurance policies they had on the kids, cancel their expensive wrap account, build a portfolio of index funds, and given them many other tasks, each one requiring dozens of forms to fill out, lots of phone calls and likely, a fair bit of stress. The big risk was that the Murphys would become overwhelmed by the enormity of their assignment and do nothing at all.
Luckily, rather than setting off in a dozen different directions at once, the Murphys prioritized what they had to do and attacked one goal at a time. Their first step was to construct a computer spreadsheet to track their expenses. Next was setting up a weekly budget meeting every Monday to keep track of their progress (they still meet weekly to this day). After that, they set about selling off their wrap funds. Then they cancelled the life insurance products they had bought for their kids.
Life threw them a curve ball when Martin was laid off at the nearby auto plant, but Jennifer soon found a full-time job of her own, and they continued to attack their goals one by one. They set up an automatic transfer of $200 a month from Jennifer's chequing account to an RRSP, whisking away the money as soon as she's paid. "By building up my RRSP, we are hoping to retire at 55 with our house paid off and a healthy amount in RRSP savings," says Jennifer. "That will be one of our long-term rewards."
Even with their savings plan on automatic pilot, it doesn't mean that the Murphys don't worry. But now they know how to manage. "If we get anxious, we just take out the financial plan Norbert Schlenker helped us write and re-read all of that good advice," says Martin. "We go through it step by step and make sure that we're doing all that's needed to keep on track. It's reassuring and calms us right down."
You can do the same by breaking your big financial goals down into manageable chunks and writing them down. For instance, if your goal is to pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible, you might start by changing your payment schedule from once a month to once every two weeks. Then you may decide to apply your annual RRSP tax refund to the mortgage principal every year too. Those two small steps alone could shave years off the length of your mortgage and make your goal of owning your home one step closer to reality.
3. Open yourself up to change
Part of the reason it's so hard for us to change is because deep down, most of us don't really want to. We're used to living life a certain way, and change means facing the unknown and making mistakes. While many say they want to achieve certain goals, only about 20% of us are actually willing to change our day-to-day habits to reach those goals.
If you want to succeed you have to be honest with yourself about what you're willing to change and what you're not. For instance, you may run the numbers and find that you could save $5,000 a year by staying home to eat on weekends rather than going out. But what if eating out is the highlight of your week? What if Sunday brunch is where you and your partner connect and strengthen your relationship? You may decide you simply don't want to change that aspect of your life.
Other times, you'll realize that you need to change. Or at least you'll realize that the long-term goal is more important to you than the short-term indulgence. "It's a matter of priority," says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist based in Hawaii. "Ask yourself: if everything continues like it's going right now, what are the consequences if there's no change?"
Make no mistake. Keeping focused and committed to goals is difficult. There's nothing harder than making sacrifices today for a better life tomorrow. So what's the key? Keep reminding yourself of your long-term goal's benefits and visualize what your life will be like when you achieve them. If both spouses are convinced that it's really worthwhile, you'll have a better chance of succeeding. "Change is difficult because it's not part of a person's comfortable habits," says Hayden. "The discomfort that comes from change and commitment is hard. But believe me, it works. I wouldn't be doing this if people couldn't change."
We also know this is true. How? Because all four of our makeover participants have changed their financial habits for the better. And it was mainly because they were open to change in the first place. We would never have that kind of success with couples chosen randomly off the street. But our participants were self-selected: only those who were truly ready for change would take the time to write to MoneySense about their financial situation. And then, once they were chosen to take part, they had to book a whole week off work and come to Toronto to spend hour after hour working on improving their financial picture. If you have that kind of dedication, you can change too.
4. Go with the flow
We know that life isn't always as simple as setting lifelong goals and then working to achieve them. Sometimes we think we want something, but when we get halfway there, we realize we don't. Sometimes, unexpected events happen along the way that change everything. "Often, you have to get at the root cause of your behaviour and address that first, before you can modify your behaviour," says Richard Petty of Ohio State University. The upshot? "You have to be adaptable to changing course."
Being flexible is a strength when it comes to achieving your goals. We saw this in action at our makeover with Chris and Monica Neilsen, both police officers living in Vancouver. When they flew to Toronto they were stressed out and emotionally fragile. The couple earned a high income-$170,000 a year-yet all their money seemed to be slipping through their fingers.
Eventually it became clear that many of their financial problems stemmed from deeper problems in their relationship. They were overjoyed at the makeover when Norbert Schlenker revealed to them that their pensions were collectively worth about $1 million, and they returned to Vancouver with a renewed sense of purpose. But the cost of raising the two young children from their marriage, plus the three from Chris's previous marriage, soon started creeping up again. Within a few months, they had accumulated another $15,000 in debt.
Monica attributed much of that debt to Chris's generosity with the kids from his previous marriage. Whenever they needed new clothes, new electronic equipment or more sports activity fees, Monica says that Chris handed over the money without thinking about the consequences for their household budget. Monica and Chris talked about the problem, they tried to come up with plans to make things better, but in the end Chris refused to change his behaviour. Just six months after the makeover, the couple decided to separate.
The makeover certainly didn't have the outcome the Neilsens expected, but it may have helped them face some difficult facts. "Denial is common and a lot of people don't want to examine their situation," explains Klontz. "So they don't look at it. They then spend a lot of years staying in a really bad relationship. Monica and Chris didn't do that. They split up and got on with their lives."
Chris and Monica declined to speak to us for this article, but when we checked in with Monica a year ago, she felt that the makeover had helped open her eyes to problems that had been there all along. "I feel that I actually have more money now as a single mom because I'm in control," she said. "I'm not paying Chris's debts anymore. And once the divorce is complete, I'll be in a better position to put the rest of the advisers' money tips from the makeover into action. It's all going to work out fine for me."
If you're hoping to succeed with your own financial plan, you should be aware that you won't always be in control. You'll eventually run into events that you could have never seen coming. They could be detrimental, such as divorce or an illness, or they could be helpful, such as an inheritance or a healthy new relationship. Either way, you've got to take life as it comes, re-evaluate your priorities when you hit an unexpected detour and set new goals. The key is to always feel like you're heading in the right direction.
5. Get a second opinion
When Jennifer Gunn, 44, flew into Toronto from Kelowna, B.C., for her makeover, she was in rough shape. Just a two years earlier, she had been a married lawyer with a six-figure income and two happy children. But her marriage had disintegrated, and soon after she separated from her husband, she was in a terrible car accident.
She quickly found herself without a job, trying to support herself and her kids on $65,000 a year in disability payments-a $50,000 pay cut from her lawyer's salary. She was short about $1,000 every month, and her debt was piling up fast. "I was separated from my husband and went from being a two-income family to a one-income family," says Jennifer. "I was paying huge fees on all of my financial investments and I wasn't shopping wisely at all."
Thanks to the advice she got at the makeover, Jennifer has since turned her financial life around. She managed to complete her divorce and negotiate a monthly support payment from her ex-husband. She has also sold off her tangle of high-priced mutual funds and switched to our low-cost Couch Potato Portfolio of index funds. This year, Jennifer even saved an extra $6,000 to invest. But like a lot of investors, she was nervous-the stock market crash of 2008 shook her up, and she was afraid it could happen again.
So what did she do? Jennifer decided to get a second opinion. She set up an appointment for later this year with Norbert Schlenker, who had helped her draw up her financial plan in the first place. "I just need to talk through the merits of the Couch Potato Portfolio one more time and get reassurance that I'm still doing the right thing," she says. "I trust Norbert and going over my plan one more time with him will help me get back on track with my investments."
Everyone needs reassurance from time to time. Consulting with a loyal financial adviser or friend is helpful when you feel unable to move forward with your money goals. "If you have such a person in your life, count yourself lucky," says Hayden. "In the end, they could be the key to future financial happiness."
If you're a couple, you should be able to talk about your financial concerns with your spouse. But you may also find that, from time to time, it helps to have a trusted financial adviser to give you impartial advice. Uncertain financial times make it easy to become paralyzed with uncertainty. When that happens, no financial goals are met and your net worth seems to stagnate. "Norbert Schlenker is my trusted adviser," Jennifer says. "The clarity he brings to my plan is the key to keeping my life stress-free and happy. It's made all the difference for me."
After following our Seven-Day Financial Makeover participants for more than two years, we've come to the conclusion that financial planning really does work. But only if certain conditions are met. You have to be ready for change in the first place. You have to know what your goals are. You have to come up with a step-by-step plan for achieving your goals. You have to write it all down. And you have to adapt when things don't go the way you hoped.
Change happens gradually. You build up a million-dollar portfolio one dollar at a time. It's not always easy to stay focused, but if you can really visualize where you're going and it's important to you, you'll get there. When you have doubts, talk to your planner, your spouse and close friends-not just for advice, but for inspiration too. It worked for our four couples. With a little effort and the right attitude, there's no reason it can't work for you.
Information is current as of the original date of publication.
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