Twenty years I sat down at a Royal typewriter in the Harrison Avenue offices of the Boston Herald American. It was my first job at a newspaper and I wrote my first 700 words as a newspaper personal finance columnist.
It was like coming home.
That was more than 3,000 columns and 2 million words ago, all written during a period of massive change. It has absolutely not been one year, repeated 20 times. Then, the New York Times was calculating how long it would take Saudi Arabia to buy all the stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Later, others worried Japan would do much the same, starting with our favorite golf courses.
During that period the investment world has sprouted mortgage securities, an entire universe of derivatives, discount and deep discount brokerage, financial planning, variable annuities, 401k plans, variable rate mortgages, and the number of mutual funds has grown from a mere 427 to over 7,600.
Where in 1977 I worked on a Royal office typewriter and was proud to be adept with a financial calculator, I now work on a personal computer with more power and better tools than mainframes from the seventies. I can spreadsheet, array, and optimize. I can access, screen, and sort massive databases that didnt exist twenty years ago or were only available at equally massive annual cost to institutional investors. More important, virtually all of the tools I use in this column are available, at reasonable cost, to readers.
You and I can now "do" our personal finances. And we can make them very, very complex. We can visit the local bookstore and peruse 900 page tomes that booksellers should market by the pound. We can also read books with only 300 or 400 pages on the nuances of options and other arcane financial arts.
We could do that.
But it wouldnt make a lot of sense. The basics of personal finance are T shirt simple. They were T shirt simple twenty years ago and they are T shirt simple today. Master them and your financial future is assured. We can capture it all in seven "laws."
Hey, they might even be immutable:
Spend Less Than You Earn. Millions of people still dont grasp this simple principle, choosing instead to believe they can borrow their way to security and wealth. Unless you spend less than you earn so that you have money to invest all talk about personal finance is fruitless.
Make Your Saving Automatic. Saving cant be something you do with money that is "left-over." There is no such thing as left-over money. Saving has to be as real and constant as buying food or paying the mortgage. The best way to do it is to arrange your finances so that you never see the money. That means uses a 401k plan to the hilt, if you have one, or at least arrange for automatic withdrawals to an investment account.
Take Free Money. Many people who would drive miles for a store sale routinely leave easy money on the table: they dont take advantage of company provided 401k plans or 403b plans. The first benefit is tax savings, the second benefit is the dollars frequently contributed by employers.
Keep The Return On Your Money. Share as little as possible with the tax man. And be tight fisted with your commission or advisory dollars. Getting a high return on your investments is only good for you if you get the return. If you get the risk and someone else gets a guaranteed return, youre losing money.
Owe As Little As Possible. There was a time owing money was a good idea. That time is long gone. Mortgage debt should be paid off in 15 years or less; non-deductible debt should be avoided or paid off as soon as possible.
Tend Your Own Garden. The favored selling illusion is that someone else, somewhere else, has opportunities that are not available to regular folks. We have limited control over the return on our investments, we have great control over the amount of money we invest. Concentrate on what you control.
Trust The Power Of Average. For the handful who want great wealth, competition for the highest returns is essential. For the rest of us, it is only necessary to participate in the broad creation of wealth. That means favoring index investments unless there is a compelling case to "bet" on a particular competitor in the contest of creating wealth.
The Seven Laws of Personal Finance, Couch Potato T shirt edition, will be available if we get around to it, in two versions: (1) The Tell Your Kids version will be up front and in your face, printed for others to read; (2) The Thinker version will be printed upside down, as a reading convenience to the navel contemplation we Couch Potatoes love so dearly.
Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent to: Scott Burns, The Dallas Morning News, PO Box 655237, Dallas 75265; or faxed to (214)-977-8776; e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Check the website: "www.scottburns.com." Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.