hiking up a mountain

Financial Advice I Wish Someone Had Given Me

As a senior software engineer, I spend a good deal of my time mentoring others. It’s usually on technical stuff, but often we get into tangential things such as finances. I’ve done this enough times now and received enough thanks to warrant a blog post on the subject, so here goes.

My advice boils down to 3 main pillars: minimize expenses, maximize income, avoid debt. Pretty obvious, I know, but there’s more details and tips to come.

Cut your expenses

One of the best ways to improve your financial situation is to cut how much you spend. It’s usually faster and easier than increasing your income because you are in control. If you can cut down your monthly expenses by $50, you’ve essentially given yourself a $600/yr raise. Maybe it’s not a ton, but it could cover the flight to your dream destination, or invest it and make it really grow.

Opportunities to cut monthly expenses:

  • Phone bills: Plain and simple, it’s crazy for anyone to pay $70/month for phone service. Especially when there are companies like Mint Mobile offering plans for as little as $15/month with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 3gb data. Need more data? They have plans up to 12gb for $25/month. Still need more data? No, you don’t. Get off your phone. Hang out with your friends and family.
  • Cable television: Just cut that cord!
  • Streaming services: Cancel things like Netflix, Hulu, etc. Or if you have multiple, just choose one.
  • Amazon Prime
  • Meal kits or beauty boxes
  • Gym memberships: When is the last time you went to the gym? If it’s more than a month ago, consider dropping it. If you do go, keep the subscription because health is important.
  • Eating out: I value going on date nights, so I don’t suggest never eating out, but if you can set yourself a limit, it’s easier to manage. For example, I’m only allowed to go out to eat 1 day a week. Once it’s done, it’s done until next week.
  • Anything else: Try to avoid needless spending. If you do really need something, consider a second-hand store. It’s cheaper and greener.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

Epictetus

Put your money to work (aka maximize income)

Once you’ve started increasing how much money you actually have in the bank, you need to start following that old advice “make your money work for you”.

Wealthfront: Far and away my favorite service at the moment. It’s primarily a robo-investor account where you give them money, and they manage it for you. Their minimum investment is very low ($500), their fee structure is very cheap (0.25% on managed assets), their returns have been very good (over 9%), and they have several other great features. I really cannot recommend them enough. They also recently added a cash account that has no risk and excellent rewards, over 2% interest. Use this referral link and they’ll manage $5,000 for free for both of us.

Alliant Credit Union: This is my main bank for savings and checking accounts. They have good rates, few fees, and I’ve been very happy with them for my standard savings/checking account needs.

Vanguard: You should put as much as possible into a retirement account as early and as often as you can. The best institution I can recommend for this is Vanguard, and I recommend a “Roth IRA” instead of a “Traditional IRA”. For the US, in 2019, individuals can contribute up to $6,000/year. Once you transfer the money into your IRA, you still need to actually invest it. This is the scary part for a lot of people, but a very simple and solid approach is to invest 90% in stocks and 10% in bonds (or 70/30 if you are more conservative). For stocks, you can keep it to just “Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VTSMX)” and for bonds, “Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VBMFX)“. These ETFs basically just buy 1 of every stock or bond on the market, and trust that with enough time, the market always goes up. It’s a good solution that is inherently diversified, easy to get right, and beats out 70% of hedge fund managers anyway. Nice!

SigFig: Also a robo-investor like Wealthfront, SigFig is a place you can just give them money, and they will manage it for you. So far it has not performed as well as Wealthfront, but it was a lot more stable. So when the stock market took a dive, my Wealthfront account felt it a lot worse than my SigFig account.

Worthy: This is a pretty new player to my team. They promise 5% guaranteed returns, and no fees to take your money out. So there seems to be no downside. It’s not as much returns as stock market investments, but it’s guaranteed, so that’s great. If you use this link we both get a free bond added to our accounts.

Fundrise: If you’re looking to get into real estate investment or just want to diversify your portfolio, Fundrise is a good way. They basically crowd-fund real estate purchases. So they do all the research, find the right opportunities, then a bunch of people get in to purchase the property. So far I’m seeing about 7% returns on my investment, and they pay out every quarter which is cool. I just set those dividends to automatically re-invest, so it continues to grow.

Aspiration: Aspiration offers many different products from savings to retirement to investing accounts. The thing that makes them cool is that they focus on social impact. So their investments are in things like green energy, or they totally avoid any fossil fuels. They also have a very low minimum ($10).

Citi Double Cash Card: I’ve spent a lot of times comparing credit card rewards for airline miles, points, and cash. With so many cards that offer great rewards, it would be a shame to have one that doesn’t offer some. My favorite right now is the Citi Double Cash Card because it gives 1% back on all purchases, then another 1% when you pay those purchases off. So 2% back on everything I spend money on. It’s like getting a 2% discount.

Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.

P.T. Barnum

Avoid debt like the plague

This one is pretty plain and simple. If you can’t afford to pay for something today, you probably shouldn’t buy it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t own a credit card. Definitely own one, or a few, but make sure to pay those suckers off IN FULL every month. Otherwise, you are just giving money away. Now, I understand that some debt is good, such as mortgages or student loans (but not always). If you have debt, pay off the one with the highest interest rate first. You may also consider consolidating your debt to get a lower rate.

Track how well you’re doing

If you follow the steps above, you will most likely be doing well for yourself, but it’s better to know for sure. For that, you should use a finance tracking app like Mint and/or Personal Capital. These sites let you log in and connect to all your financial accounts (banks, credit cards, investments). By doing so, you can track your performance all in one place. They also have some nice budgeting features, and they will notify you if something looks suspicious.

The most important thing

Don’t just read this article, nod along, and then leave. You don’t have to do EVERYTHING On this list today, but if you can pick one or two things to get started with, it can have a big impact over time.

Disclaimer: some of the links on this page are referral links which either benefit me, or benefit us both. None of them cost you anything, and all the links are to things I actually recommend. So If you’re down with helping me out, please use the link. If you are not down with referral links, I’m cool with that too.