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The Fierce Girl's Guide to Finance

Get your shit together with money

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February 2017

4 reasons you can stop panicking about buying a home

Sometimes it feels like all money conversations come back to this issue. Can I buy my own home? Will I be a failure if I don’t? Can I ever afford one?

And it’s not a daydreamy, hypothetical convo, like ‘What if I called my kid Joaquin? Would people know how to pronounce it? Did the Pheonix family really lay the groundwork here?”.

No, the tone is more like ‘Will I die in a gutter, languish in poverty, or be photographed collecting mail in nothing but a bedsheet, if I don’t get onto the property ladder?’.

There is a sense of panic, as if not hobbling yourself with a million dollars in debt means you will end up on the scrapheap of life.

So let’s all just take a moment and STOP PANICKING. People who panic don’t make good decisions. You know that dress you bought the day before a high-stakes date with Mr Future Husband? Let’s admit: you’ve never worn it again.

Instead, let’s have some realtalk about property, saving and wealth.

Because there are more ways to build wealth than buying a house.  Property is just one ‘asset class’, as the professionals call them. There are many more (read a whole post about it here) and they are all viable ways to build wealth.

However, there are some valid reasons that people go nuts for property in Australia. For example:

  • It can increase in value without you doing anything (aka ‘capital growth’)
  • It is easy to borrow money, because it’s a secured asset. In other words, the bank can repossess it if you go broke, to get its money back. It’s more complicated for banks to do that with something likes shares.
  • You get great tax breaks. If you sell the home you live in and make a profit on it, you don’t have to pay capital gains tax on that profit. If you did the same with any other investment – e.g. shares, bonds or an investment property – you would. And then there is the old negative gearing heist (which I won’t go into here – but basically the government rewards you for losing money – wtf?).
  • You get to live in it and nobody can kick you out. You can also renovate and hang hooks and shit. (Although why anybody in their right mind would renovate is beyond me. Dust, paint splatter and interminable trips to Bunnings. Lord give me strength).

These are all compelling reasons that I acknowledge warmly. I own property and it has been a good investment.

But here are some downsides that don’t get a lot of airplay, especially in the media.

By the way, the mainstream media has a huge vested interest in talking up property. Ever notice those thick, glossy real estate liftouts in the paper? Yep, they are rivers of gold for media companies, so it’s not in the interests of News Ltd, Fairfax or their mates to say ‘hold up, property is totes overrated!’, is it?

But here are some counterpoints to the national narrative.

1. You pay a huge amount of interest over the life of a mortgage

This graph is from an earlier post (which you should also read). I include it here to defy the people who say ‘renting is just giving money away to someone else’. Well, Mr Mansplainer, a mortgage is just giving  interest payments to a bank.

Say you borrow $500,000 over 25 years, you will pay nearly $300,000 in interest (at 4%, which is a historically low rate in this country). That interest amount is represented by the light pink below.

Source: Moneysmart.gov.au

Source: Moneysmart.gov.au

Hopefully the property increases in value so you make some of that money back. But it’s not guaranteed. Which brings me to the next point.

2. House prices don’t always go up

I know, they do in your living memory, and certainly in the last few years. Mr Mansplainer may even tell you ‘house prices double every seven years’.

HOWEVER, this somewhat dubious assertion is based on averages, which don’t tell the whole story. You know, your ex-boyfriend was only an arsehole to you half the time, on average. But that didn’t make it worth staying with him.

Don’t just take my word for it – take the Reserve Bank’s! I know you won’t read their paper on the topic, so let me summarise. House prices rise faster and slower depending on other stuff going on in the economy.

But over the long-term, that shit is all over the place. The graph below gives you an idea of how house prices resemble a 5-year-old kid high on fairybread and Cheezels at a birthday party.

screenshot-2017-02-26-at-11-28-45-am

 

 

 

 

Source: RBA (which is why it’s crappy low-res). NB: This shows prices when inflation is removed. 

So it depends on when you bought, and also where you bought. And so we come to another point.

3. Picking property is a lottery

When we talk about property going up by, say 7% a year, that’s averaged out across the country. It masks the fact that some people bought gems, while others bought dogs.

Maybe they paid too much in the first place. Maybe they bought in an area that hasn’t gone up much, or worse, in an area that has gone down. Places like Mackay or Townsville boomed as a result of mining a few years back. Now, they have bust, with prices actually dropping.

Here’s a real-life example. A couple I know, let’s call them Kylie and Jim, bought a new house in an estate in Townsville in 2004. They paid $254,000.

Five years later, having been sent interstate for work, they sold it for $379,000, netting them a tidy profit of $125,000 (less taxes and costs). Nice deal.

That same house sold this year for $340,000.

Yep,  eight years later, it sold for nearly $40,000 LESS than it did in 2009.

Kylie and Jim were just lucky that they caught the cycle on its way up, and got out before it went down.

If you live somewhere like Sydney right now it’s easy to feel like there is only one direction and pace for prices: up and fast.

But I know another couple with an investment property on Brisbane’s outer edges, whose property value has grown at about the same pace that I lose fat, i.e painstakingly slowly.

I did some sums on it and the capital growth has been about 2.5% a year. That’s not taking into account the extra money they need to find every month for the mortgage, because it’s negatively geared.

The moral of this story is not that Queensland property is a mug’s game. It’s not – plenty of people have done well there, and all over Australia.

The point is that there is a good deal of luck and timing involved in buying property. The same is true of any asset class. But don’t look at the headline figures and decide buying a property is a rolled-gold, surefire way to get rich. As with any investment, there are risks.  And so, to the next point…

4. We may be in a property bubble – and it could burst

Now I am not a crazy doomsayer. I am only saying we might be in a bubble.

But some people are convinced of it. Here’s a chart of house prices since the 19th century from a blog called macrobusiness (they are a little ‘out there’, but I read widely). All the labels on it are theirs, btw.

Source: Macrobusiness
screenshot-2017-02-26-at-1-21-26-pm

 

 

 

A while back, I fan-girled Greg Medcraft, the head of ASIC (our corporate watchdog in Australia). He was on the 389 bus to Bondi, so I went up to him and started chatting about property bubbles. (True story, I swear). He said words to the effect that when people are in a bubble, they’re in denial about it.

“This time it’s different”, they say – like an ex-boyfriend who’s trying to win you back.

For my mate Greg, this market looks, smells and tastes like a bubble. And that was 2015, before we hit the point of a $1 million median house price in Sydney.

Other people disagree, and point to population growth, lack of supply and a bunch of other factors driving prices ever upward. I see their point too.

The fact is, nobody knows for sure.

If house prices stay high, there are benefits, mainly to people who already own them.

If house prices fall, the economy will definitely suffer – but it will also mean aspiring buyers get a better shot at affording something.

Either way, you shouldn’t give up on the idea of buying your own pad eventually. Which brings me to…

One last (very important) thing. 

If you can’t afford a property yet, that doesn’t mean you can piss your money away in protest or despair.

There are plenty of options for building wealth (check out this post). But you have to get serious about saving and investing to do it (check out this post about the four best friends who will make you rich).

Just because you don’t have a white picket fence doesn’t mean you can’t be a serious money saver or investor.

It doesn’t matter how much you have, saving and investing is a mindset and a habit. So work on that and ignore the noise about house prices, smashed avo and property bubbles.

You’ve got this!

If you liked this post, you could totally sign up to receive more! I post every week and you might not always see them on Facebook (because something something algorithm). So pop your email address in that box up top. Thanks! 

photo credit: ruimc77 Burbujas via photopin (license)

Why the baby boomers have all the money, and what we can do about it

I love my parents, and my parents’ friends and all the wonderful baby boomers in my life.

But geez they annoy me as a generation.

Swanning around in million dollar properties they paid 25,000 bucks for. Earning a tax-free income in retirement. Cashing in on their free university qualifications without a HECS debt in sight.

Baby boomers account for 25% of the population but own 52% of the wealth. They built their careers and wealth over an unprecedented period of economic growth.

Did you know we’ve now had more than a hundred quarters of positive growth? This is like having a hundred consecutive days of perfect dieting with no accidental chocolate incidents – i.e. practically unheard-of. (I admit we have lived through this period too – but with a lower base of assets to grow from).

Sure they had the recession in the 90s and the 1987 stockmarket crash. They had to live through skinny jeans before lycra was invented, and they didn’t get to play Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego at school. I’m not saying their lives were perfect.

But they have done ok, and Smashed Avo-gate brought this simmering divide to the surface. It’s partly because the world has changed so quickly, so deeply. Home ownership used to be an expectation for any adult with a job and a bank account. It’s now a mythical place of $100,000 deposits, heartbreaking auctions and million-dollar median prices.

The luckiest among us will get help from our parents. Others have parents who can’t or won’t contribute, creating a further divide.

So, what can we do about it? How can we stop those greedy (but totally loved and appreciated!) baby boomers from stealing our futures?

Don’t get mad, get even. And get advice.
Investment Trends says baby boomers account for four in five dollars under advice (i.e money being looked after by financial advisers). That means they are out there getting financial advice while all of us suckers are messing around reading The Fierce Girl’s Guide to Finance. JK! That’s a great idea!

But it might not be enough. I’m not a profesh, and I can’t tell you what’s best for your circumstances.
Sure, advice isn’t free, but it is an investment. Do it early, do it right and it will pay dividends in future. It’s like the difference between messing around at the gym on your own and losing half a kilo in six months, or getting a PT and dropping 5kg in six weeks.

And just like paying a PT makes you really think twice about eating that piece of cake (because hey, you just dropped 80 bucks on a workout), getting a financial plan can make you much more focused and disciplined. If you want to find a good one, my homegirl Nicole P-M has a good column about this.

If you still don’t want to stump up for the full box and dice, you could look at a digital option – aka Robo-advice. Decimal and Stockspot are some of the bigger players (but I haven’t used them so can’t provide a recommendation).

Take Baby Boomer advice with a very big grain of salt. The stuff our parents did to get ahead was done in a different world. Back in the 80s you could get 15% interest for sticking money in the bank. Inflation could be up to 10% as well, but worst case scenario, that’s still a 5% gain.

The best you can hope for today is a 3% interest rate if you shop around. Inflation has been hovering around 2%. So, that’s a big old 1% gain for stashing your money in a bank. (Don’t understand the inflation thing? Check out this post).


Before 2008, the world hadn’t heard of quantitative easing (i.e. governments printing money) or negative interest rates (an actual thing). Now, bank deposits barely keep up with anaemic inflation rates (and in countries like Switzerland you have to pay the bank to look after your money, thanks to negative interest rates. I shit you not).

Buying property was a stretch, but a sure bet for building wealth. You could probably even do it on one income. Today, a mortgage that’s 6 or 8 times the average income means you both work and possibly pay for childcare too. And the stockmarket generally doesn’t deliver the double-digit returns it did back then.

The finance industry calls this a ‘low growth, low return’ world.
So hey, thanks boomers for setting that up!

I’m sorry that have no good news for you on this front. It’s going to be like this for a while yet.
What it does mean is that taking advice from your folks can be tricky. They’re in a different headspace (in retirement or close to it) and need to focus on protecting their nest egg.


But we don’t.


There’s a concept called ‘pushing up the risk curve’ – it means that you take on more risk in order to chase higher returns. Instead of buying bluechip stocks you buy cheaper, more speculative ones. Instead of investment grade bonds you buy unrated ones. Instead of buying fixed interest bonds, you buy shares with high dividends.


Remember when you first start drinking alcohol and it took you two Bacardi Breezers to get hammered? But as you increase your ‘piss fitness’ you need a whole six pack and some shots to get to ‘hilarious drunk shenanigans’ level.

Similarly, we need to take more risk in this environment to get the same returns as before.


I am NOT saying go to Vegas and put it all on black. I am NOT saying attend a property spruiker seminar that promises you vast riches if you sign up RIGHT NOW, TONIGHT ONLY!

What I am saying is that we may need to look at something more aggressive than a bank account. Buying bank shares because your dad says they’re good? Maybe not. Buying an investment property because your parents made a killing on a Gold Coast apartment circa 1994? Maybe think twice.

The good thing is, we are young. We can tolerate more risk. If we go backwards we have many more years to go forward.

So just make sure you run any well-meaning advice through a filter, the same as you would when your mum gave you fashion advice as a teenager. (On second thoughts, my mum probably had some useful insights then). 

And short of just asking your folks to stump up funds for a house deposit, I don’t have a lot more advice than this: save more, spend less. That’s what a lot of our parents did. My family ate at the Yarrawarrah Windmill Chinese Restaurant once in a while, but that was the eating out budget. They didn’t get a new iPhone every two years. We had the world’s shittiest cars (Subaru Enduro – wtf). They never took to us to Disneyland. And that’s how my parents ended up paying off the house.

So, take the best bits of the boomers, ignore all the cushy tax breaks they’ve made for themselves, and crack on with you own money goals.

 

Tears, fights and vomit: why economics is as fun as your 21st birthday

Think you don’t like economics? Oh stop, I know: you fell asleep just hearing the word. I used to as well. But somehow I actually learned to love it.

It was kinda like that nerdy guy who grows on you – the more you get to know him, the more he seems surprisingly sexy.

Wait, is that just me? Sorry. Anyway, there are a few concepts that shape your life more than you know; understanding them can help you with your own money.

Also, being able to converse about economics is a great party trick. Not as good as doing The Worm, but I can’t do that anyway … so here I am in the corner, drinking martinis and discussing central bank policy.

martini

Here’s how you can be that cool too.

The lowdown on interest rates

Interest rates have a big impact on your life because they’re tied up with property prices, and therefore how much money you have to spend or save once you’ve put a roof over your head. (I have another post about this topic, but it’s already outdated because bloody Taylor Swift can’t keep a boyfriend – read it here).

The thing to remember is that interest rates are both a cause AND an effect. The Reserve Bank of Australia (our central bank) uses them to influence economic growth, but they only do this in response to other trends.

For example, the RBA will raise interest rates to ‘cool’ the economy, when inflation is running high and wages are growing too fast – what’s known as a ‘wages breakout’.

(How awesome does that sound though? Like, somehow our paypackets go nuts and party hard and we all end up as total ballers driving Porsches). Apparently, however, this is NOT A GOOD THING.

When things go too hard, too fast and too enthusiastically, they end in disaster, and you’re lying there like ‘Wait, what? Are you done already?’.

Obviously I am talking about inflation (get your mind out of the gutter). High inflation is bad because it reduces the value of your money, drives prices up and creates general chaos in the economy.

It’s not ideal when it’s too low either, as wages stagnate and the economy slows. Basically, inflation is like a fucking needy pedigree cat who only wants the exact right amount of food in the exact right bowl at the exact right time of day. So the RBA tries to tame it with interest rate policy.

Interest rates and housing affordability – aka ‘why am I destined to rent forever?’

I bet you’ve heard your parents complain about  the 1990s, when interest rates climbed as high as 17.5% (compared to 1.5% today).

I know right! Apparently there was more to worry about in the 90s than whether Pearl Jam’s second album could possibly be as good as Ten (It wasn’t. Like, it was good, but no Ten).

pearl-jam

Anyway, they have probably told you this in the context of ‘But we had it so hard when we bought a house‘ and ‘we had to walk six miles to school, through the snow, in bare feet.’

If they try this on you, feel free to point out that yes, rates were higher, but the amount you had  borrow was miniscule compared to now. A handy chart from the Government shows the price of a house in the 90s was about four times the median income. It’s now six times that.

housingaffordability01

So what has made prices rise so much?

There are lots of factors such as population growth and land supply.

But loose monetary policy is also to blame. And no, I’m not implying anything about the morals of said policy – it is actually talked about in terms of ‘easing’ or ‘tightening’, as though it’s some sort of screwdriver. (Obvs invented by men.)

When shit gets real at your party

When the GFC swept through, economic growth fell off a cliff. Business and consumers stopped spending money because they were totally freaking out.

So how does a central bank convince you to spend again? They cut rates. The lower rates are, the cheaper it is for businesses to borrow money and invest it in things that create jobs.

Since the GFC, the central banks of the world have been using low interest rates to pump more money into the economy and make it grow.

This is like walking into a 21st birthday party and giving everyone tequila laybacks on the dancefloor – it will definitely liven up the party, but you can’t predict exactly how.

Well, we can make general predictions: someone will vomit over the balcony; at least two girls will cry; and there will be a punch-on among the boys. Standard.

Similarly, when interest rates go down, house prices go up  because more people can afford to get a home loan. Other asset prices often go up too – like the stock market – for the same reason.

In the same way that tequila makes everyone feel super hot and ridiculously charming, low interest rates make people feel rich – like they could go to a strip joint and make it rain.

But you know how at a certain point, you can’t drink anymore? You’re too drunk, too sick or too tired, so you lie on the nature strip and have a little ‘rest’. That’s where the world is right now with monetary policy. The central banks have pumped so much tequila into the party that everyone is sick of it and it’s not working anymore.

Not before median house prices in Sydney hit a million bucks though. Thanks RBA!

I have some personal views about the failure of this whole approach, its link to rising income inequality and the resulting rise in destructive populist politics. But I’ll save that for the party talk.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this thought. You can’t control the big picture economics happening around you. But understanding them will give you greater insight into how you might respond to them – or even make money from them.

So, don’t be afraid to read more, listen more and think more about that hot, nerdy guy known as economics.

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