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The Fierce Girl's Guide to Finance

Get your shit together with money

Month

May 2017

The three numbers you need to care about

When they tack sport onto the end of the news bulletins, I have an uncanny ability to tune it out. Not on purpose – I just have zero interest in who sportsed harder than the other.

I’ll bet you do that with the business news too. You legit don’t care about the price of gold or Texas crude oil. You don’t care that the All Ords was down 4%.

I get it – even I only listen with half an ear. (Daily movements don’t mean much – it’s all about the trend lines.)

But there are some numbers in the world of economics that have a real impact on you and your life.

Keeping an eye on them not only makes you smarter, it helps you make better decisions.  So here is a list of numbers I watch and care about, even as someone who can barely use Excel. (Seriously, I can’t even do formulas – it’s like some sort of learning disability).

GDP Growth – This is a simple number with a huge amount of stuff sitting behind it. It’s kinda like saying ‘This is a smoky eye’ when actually this is 20 minutes, five make-up brushes, eyeliner, mascara and probably some swearing.

Gross Domestic Product Growth is a sign of how well the economy is doing: what business is up to; how productive people are (every time you check Facebook at work you are hurting the economy. JK! Well sort of); how technology is making things more efficient. You don’t need to know each thing, but you do need to know the effect.

When the economy is growing, things are pretty good. There are lots of jobs, people spend money, investments grow in value.

If the economy is going backwards, it’s called ‘negative growth’, (an oxymoron in my view, but a thing nonetheless). This is VERY BAD for jobs and general chill levels.

GDP growth is measured every quarter and if you have two consecutive quarters of negative growth, that is a RECESSION.

Now the weird thing (in a good way) about Australia is that we’ve now had over 100 consecutive quarters of positive growth. While all those Europeans and Americans had a post-GFC recession, we didn’t (see side note below).

But it hasn’t been amaaazing growth either, which is one reason why the Reserve Bank has cut interest rates so many times – to try and pump up the economy by making it cheap to borrow and invest.

Unfortunately, most of that borrowing and investing has been by consumers and not businesses. Hence the housing market has gone bananas, while business investment levels have fallen off a cliff (here are the stats if you’re interested).

The reasons behind that are complex, but I think it’s partly a risk-averse corporate culture, and partly because shareholders are demanding big dividends instead of putting profits back into the business.

Side Note Why politicians matter to the economy – if you aren’t interested skip to the next section.

Remember K Rudd sending everyone some free money in 2008 (the ‘stimulus’ program)? That was to avoid a recession. The idea is that if everyone keeps spending, the economy will keep growing.

Sounds simple right? And it is, if you believe my friend Keynes (he’s my friend in the way Beyonce is – we don’t actually hang out. Also, he died in 1946). Keynes says if consumers and business stop spending then the government needs to step in and spend instead. Or give consumers the cash to spend (hello K Rudd!).

The alternative approach is where the government cuts spending to the bone – called ‘austerity’ – and then hopes for the best. It’s been proven to be totally fucking useless and just sends countries into deep, long-term unemployment (see Greece, as an example).

But the weird thing about economic policy is that governments often do stuff that has never been proven to work, because it’s based on the ideology of the people in charge.

Like, tax cuts for business and rich people have never been proved to trickle down to the rest of the economy, but Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump fucking love them anyway because they love business and rich people. OK, end of side note.

Inflation – measured as the Consumer Price Index (CPI), this tells us how much prices have moved. They take a ‘basket’ of goods and services – food, clothes, school fees, petrol etc – and track how much people are paying for them.

Some prices go up – hello, glass of wine in a bar! (I paid $13 for one the other day. I nearly vomited). And other prices go down, like TVs and clothes from H&M.  When they are all added and averaged, it gives us the inflation rate – most recently 2.1%.

Why does this matter? Well every time things get more exy, the money you have in your hot little hand is worth less. So you don’t want inflation to be too high.

But if it doesn’t grow at all, it’s a sign that the economy isn’t healthy, so you don’t want it too low either.

Tricky huh?

The Reserve Bank has decided the ‘just right’ level of inflation is 2-3%, so this is the their ‘target inflation band’. If the rate falls below it, they might cut interest rates (see why this stuff matters!).

Or they might not, depending on what else is going on, like house prices going crazy.

TBH, the Reserve Bank has a pretty tough job. Their overall goal is to keep the economy humming. But it’s harder than doing a wedding seating plan. Like if you put that cousin with that friend, they will argue about Trump. And where do you put that lone friend who doesn’t know anybody? Should you put all the single peeps together, or is that telling them they are non-married losers who should be separated from society?

Well that’s how the RBA feels when they try and balance inflation with house prices, growth with avoiding a bubble, stimulus with fairness. And worst of all, they only have ONE TOOL for doing this: interest rates. Up, down or on hold.

And that’s why inflation matters – not just because it affects your spending power, but because it drives interest rates. If you have a mortgage, that matters.

And if you don’t, it still matters, because it affects a) the price of the property you might buy one day and b) the investors buying the property you rent.

Wages Growth – This is very closely related to unemployment, and right now, these two numbers are not good friends. They grew up as besties – doing the same stuff together. When unemployment was low, wages went up. That’s how they rolled.

But in the past few years, they’ve really started going separate ways. One of them likes raves and EDM, the other is into Indie bands at pubs. One of them is vegan and wears recycled fashion, the other is shopping at Forever 21 and gets eyelash extensions.

Don’t believe me? Check out this RBA graph – see where they diverge and also how damn low wages growth is now.

Image result for wages growth unemployment australia 2017

What’s changed is the amount of UNDER-employment – people who want to work more but can’t find the hours. They stay out of the headline unemployment rate but are still economically disadvantaged.

Which is a long way of saying that the economy is complicated, yo.

You should care about wages growth because it relates to your market price as an employee. On a national scale, it’s getting harder to march into your boss and ask for a payrise. So you need to make sure you stay relevant and in-demand, and that you’re acquiring new skills that increase your value. You may also need to be realistic about your payrise expectations (soz).

The Upshot

I know, that was a long and detailed foray into economics. And hardly any celebrities to break it up (well, we had K Rudd and Keynes, I guess).

But I want you to know that this stuff matters. It’s not just numbers on the news; it’s stuff that makes a genuine difference to our lives and should affect our voting decisions.

There are actually tons more cool figures I could have included in here, but hopefully this gives you a taste for that exciting world of ‘the national accounts’. Woot woot! Let’s party with Bey!

 

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hongatar/ 

Top 3 tight-arse meals for the week before payday

As a tight-arse from way back, I hate spending money on work lunches.

And as a weightlifter, meal prep and Tupperware containers are 80% of my life. So I can teach you a thing or two about high-protein, low-cost meals.

First of all, let me just recap the numbers on work lunches. Say you buy lunch twice a week and it costs you $12 each time. You work 48 weeks a year, so that’s $1152 a year on burritos and sushi. If you cut that down to once a week, not only does buying lunch become a fun treat, it will save you nearly SIX HUNDRED BUCKS! You could spend that on shoes or investments or savings – whatever.

But I know, you don’t have time to prep lunches because you have kids/drinking sessions/work events/Netflix commitments.

So here are my foolproof ways not to end up in the food court, being fleeced for a bento box … especially if you have too much month at the end of your money.

The Ultimate Pantry-Freezer Lunch: Tuna Special

I thought everyone knew about this, but apparently not. And not everyone knows about the special secret ingredient either. It’s pretty simple:

  • A tin of tuna (I use the 180g ones, because gainz)
  • Mixed frozen vegetables (Aldi – $1.79)
  • Rice (you can use the microwave packets but I think they are wasteful and exy, so I cook a couple of cups of brown, black and red rice on the weekend – lasts a week in the fridge)
  • Secret ingredients: sesame oil and soy sauce

You chuck a handful of the veg in a container (to defrost during the morning) then add your rice, a tiny splash of sesame oil (seriously, go easy on this stuff, it’s really strong – no more than 1/2 teaspoon), and a small slurp of soy sauce.

At lunch, heat in the microwave for a couple of minutes, add the tuna, heat another minute or so. This will cost you about $2 AND make you feel super healthy and virtuous!

Looks way special, huh?

The Ultimate Make-ahead Freezer Lunch: Mince & Veg Extravaganza

I eat this for breakfast every day, but some people think that’s weird. (Those people haven’t been doing squats before work, obvs.) But it’s a great lunchtime option especially if you want a hot meal. It’s based on:

  • Beef mince (I use 1kg but you could use 500g if you’re a pussy)
  • 1 Onion

Chop the onion and cook it on medium heat. Turn heat up to full and brown the mince. Now add a bunch of spices. I don’t measure anything, but if I did I guess I’d use about 1/2 teaspoon of each:

  • Ground cumin
  • Ground coriander
  • Sweet paprika
  • Smoked paprika

And whatever else I feel like. Cook them up with the mince for about 1 minute. Then throw in (for 1kg mince):

  • 1 tin whole tomatoes
  • 1 tin crushed/diced tomatoes
  • Quarter or half a jar of passata

Again, you can play with these quantities. Just depends on how thick or saucy you like it. You can also skip the passata and just add more tomatoes. It’s all very fluid.

Then you add in all the vegetables (especially old, dying ones) in your fridge.You can throw them in a food processor or chop them by hand. I like some combo of:

  • eggplant (diced)
  • carrots
  • zucchini
  • broccoli (srsly – just chop it into small pieces)
  • kale or spinach (I often use frozen portions – $1 a pack!)
  • brussel sprouts (sliced or pulsed in the food processor)
  • mushroom
  • capsicum
  • choko (if you have an aunty or nanna who grows it)

Throw in a good pinch of salt and pepper then simmer for at least half an hour – til everything is soft (the eggplant seems to take the longest). Cool it down a bit (don’t leave it out too long if you don’t like salmonella), put it in little containers and pop in the freezer.

I use the dedicated Tupperware freezer range, but the cheap stuff or even snap lock bags do the trick. Then when you tell yourself you have no food for lunch, grab these little lifesavers and let them defrost all morning. Simples!

Also good for late-night, I’ve-been-at-the-pub dinners.

The Ultimate Lazy Girl’s Low-Carb Frittata

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you about this one, it’s so easy and cheap. It’s our old friend the Frozen Mixed Vegetables and a packet of frozen spinach.

  • Defrost the veg (in the microwave if you have one, on the bench for an hour if you have allocated the microwave nook to protein powder, like me)
  • Whisk up some eggs. It depends how big your oven dish is. I have a loaf tin that takes 8 eggs to fill. Just play with what you have. If it’s not non-stick, try lining it with baking paper to avoid egg mess.
  • Now I add some egg whites from a carton. You buy them from the fridge at the supermarket but they are always in hard-to-find places, and I end up asking.
  • Add a sprinkle of chilli flakes if you like them, into the eggs.
  • Lay the veggies out nicely in the dish and pour over the eggs.
  • Baking time depends on how deep the dish is and how many eggs. My loaf tin takes an hour. A flan or pie dish would be about half that.

 

cheap meals Before…netflix … And after

 

This version gives me enough for a 4 days of eating. Just depends how hungry you are. Have a side salad with it and it feels more satisfying (I’m talking some baby spinach and cherry tomatoes – nothing fancy or hard).

And that’s it my friends! No more excuses for not taking your lunch to work. Also, you will be healthy and feel virtuous – and who can put a price on feeling smug?

photo credit: gborin Hang on little tomato via photopin (license)

I know you’re bored AF of the Budget, but just read this one thing

Because I am going to give you a useful view on it, probably with some swearing, and then you can go back to drinking that glass of sav blanc.

First question: Is the Super Saver Scheme the BEST THING EVER for first home buyers? 

No, not really. But it’s not bad either.

The best thing that could happen for the poor young first home buyer is that we stop immigration, use more contraception and go back to living with three generations in one house. None of which I am actually advocating – but the point is, supply is the biggest issue.

I listened to a story on ABC Radio National this week, about the economics of population growth (that’s the kind of party girl I am). Our population is growing faster than ever, and we have to house everyone. At the same time, the number of people who live in each dwelling has gone down a lot since the 1960s. I found this graph in a delightful RBA research paper on house prices (which I read so you don’t have to).

I live by myself, so I am guilty of driving this trend. But the ethics of resource consumption aside, it’s clear that we have too many people and not enough housing, and this will keep prices high for the foreseeable future.

However, that’s OVERALL. House prices rise and fall in line with the fate of the particular cities and towns they’re in. Townsville, Mackay and Perth are just some of the places that have faced steep falls in prices, as the mining industries propping them up have faltered. Hence why the old property investment game is a bit tricky.

“But what does this all mean for me?”

This is a bit of a diversion to say a couple of things: 1. The government isn’t going to solve house prices for you and 2. if you want to buy a property in Sydney or Melbourne you’re kinda screwed.

Well, not completely. There are other ways to get into the market – they just take longer. For example, the ‘rentvesting’ idea: rent where you like living, buy where you can afford to. My new boss, who is a famous finance guru (cos who else would I do PR for?) reckons you should buy not just one, but two or three properties this way.

The key is, they are in areas where the price is more manageable. Regional towns or smaller capital cities (although probably stay out of Brisbane high-rise apartments for the moment – they went a bit nuts building them and have too many now).

You buy these places, build up the equity in them, and then eventually sell them to buy your dream home. That’s the theory anyway – the execution needs to be pretty spot on, so you don’t end up with some shitty properties languishing for years.

Obviously this is a long-term play – five or ten years even. But you won’t die just because you aren’t living in a house you own. The key is that you’re doing something.

The worst fucking option is renting, moaning and spending your money on shit you don’t need ‘because I can’t afford a property anyway’.

But even doing this requires a deposit. Which brings me back to the initial question: how good is the Super Saver Scheme (SSS)? 

Look, it’s better than a slap in the face with a wet fish. Jessica Irvine, whom I love, has a done a great job of breaking down the detail for you here. But I’ll give you the highlights:

  • It’s a good discipline – once you put that money in there, there’s no pulling it back out for a splurge on a new dress or a fancy holiday you just had to have. It’s either ‘spend it on a property’ or ‘get it when you’re 67’ (see ya bye, money!).
  • It’ll mean you pay less tax going in – the cash that goes in gets taxed at the super rate of 15% instead of your personal rate of up to 47% (depending on how much you earn). Think about it like this: for every $100 of your pre-tax pay, you get to keep $85 if it goes into the SSS. If you just took it in your take-home pay, you’d keep as little $53 (in theory – progressive tax means it would be a a bit more than that).
  • …And going out. Anything you earn on the money you save will be taxed at your marginal rate, less 30% when you take it out. If you’re on the 37% rate, you pay just 7 cents. But that’s not bad – if it was bank interest you could pay your personal tax rate – which, as mentioned above, is likely higher.

Of course there are tons more annoying details but if you want a disciplined way to save, and you think you’re getting slugged on your income tax (don’t we all?), it could be a go-er.

“Hey, what about the bank tax? Should I care about it?”

I hear you asking and my answer is, only a little bit. Those banks are not just gonna take the hit to their bottom line, so they will pass it on to either staff, shareholders or customers.

I suspect a bit of each. Interest rates on mortgages and credit cards could rise – if they do, shop around to one of the banks who isn’t paying that tax (remember, it’s only the Big 4 plus Macquarie bank, and odds are you don’t have private banking with the latter).

And although bank-bashing is a national sport, let me just remind you that anyone with superannuation probably is a shareholder in them. The Big Four are called that for a reason – they are the four biggest companies on the ASX. And if your super account is made up of about 40% Aussie shares (most default funds sit somewhere around that level), then you, my friend, own a shitload of bank shares.

So before you gleefully stick the boot into the big greedy banks, remember they are funding your retirement. (Well, not mine – I’m in Australian Ethical and they only invest in Westpac).

So, of course other stuff happened in the Budget, but everyone else has covered that. For a Fierce Girl about town, these are some of the more relevant ones. And now, we may never speak of this again.

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Don’t panic and start early: wise words from rich people

One perk of my job is that I get to hang out with some pretty rich people.

Ok, when I say ‘hang out’, I don’t mean we are drinking champagne on their yachts. More like, we are in meeting rooms and they are telling me the finer details of their investment strategy, so I can PR the shit out of it.

How rich? Well some are just really well-paid, others have a few million sunk in their fund management companies, and a handful are serious, yacht-owning, penthouse-buying ballers.

(On a side note, they are generally totally low-key about their wealth – you have to notice their watches, or do the sums on their ‘funds under management’ to get the idea).

Anyway, because I love you Fierce Girls, and am always thinking about ways to help you own it, I have been asking these people what advice they have for the mere mortals among us. Here are some of the wise words I’ve heard.

Don’t Panic. This is from a lovely fund manager who grew up on a pineapple farm and has just launched one of the biggest listed investment companies on the ASX.  Oh, and he was a professor of finance at one stage (WTF).

His message was that in the current housing market, it can feel like you have to do something fast or you’ll miss out forever.  That’s a natural reaction when prices go up as fast as they have been. And it doesn’t help your FOMO levels when you read about 30 year old property barons. (By the way, Buzzfeed has a very interesting take-down of these stories – recommended read).

Yes house prices are crazy, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. But every generation has its challenges in getting onto the property ladder.

My Gran and Poppa lived in a car container for the first year of their marriage. Gran said she felt pretty lucky, because all some people had was a tent! That was actually a thing in post-war Australia – building materials were rationed, hence all those pokey little fibro cottages. Buying land was kinda easy, but building a house on it? Not so much.

And then our parents’ generation struggled with 18% interest rates and a major recession. Yes, they were still spending less in comparison to wages (as I explain here), but I’m sure we can all agree it felt pretty fucking stressful at the time. And unemployment was high AF, so there was also the chance you could lose your job.

Yes, it’s hard and scary to buy property now, but it always has been. You have to accept that and find a way around it. Maybe you can’t buy in Sydney, for example, but can you buy somewhere else for under $500K and rent it out? Probably.

You still need to do boring things like cut back your spending and save like a tight-arse – but I can tell you right now my Gran was not getting her nails done when she was living in a one-room shed with a husband and a baby.

And if you play the long game, knuckle down, and get serious about saving, you will get there eventually.

Start investing early and take on more risk when you’re young – This solid piece of advice comes from one of my favourite low-key rich people. He manages ridiculous amounts of money for ridiculously rich people, but still gets excited about getting a great deal at the Anytime Fitness near his apartment building. And when I say his building, this guy’s company literally built and sold the whole thing.

Anyway, the point here is two-fold. Firstly, the earlier you start, the easier it is to make gains – this is the magic of compound returns. Please go play with this calculator to see what I mean.

The second point is that you can tolerate more risk when you’re young, because you have a longer investment horizon. If you lose a little bit one year, you have more years to make it back.

Markets are volatile, so you have to build in the likelihood of loss every now and then. In fact, most super funds work out their investment risk based on how often they can lose money. A medium-risk option might tolerate 2-3 years of negative returns over 20 years, while a higher risk option would make a loss in 4-6 years – although aiming for higher returns too. (There’s a good explanation of this concept here).

The upshot is, you can’t make all the money, all the time – but if you have time on your side, you can upsize your risk profile, as well as capture the magic of compound returns.

As you get closer to retirement, and have less time to make up for losses, you should dial down your risk profile accordingly. Some super funds now just do it for you – it’s called a ‘lifecycle’ strategy.

(If you want to read about risk and the different ways it applies to your money, check out my earlier post.)

The key here is that  you don’t have to drop a million bucks on a property to make this advice work. You could sign up to the Acorns app, for example, and start socking away loose change into an ETF. (Of course, do your own research on it).

But remember, you can start small, just as much as you can start early.

So that’s it for now. I have a few more nuggets of advice up my sleeve, which I’ll share in future. In the meantime, ladies, stay Fierce.

What’s holding you back from being Fierce?

It was always going to be tight. I found it hard to negotiate the notice period at my old job and the start date of my new job. Well, when I say ‘negotiate’, I mean I didn’t do that at all; I just did what everyone asked me to.

And so it was that I found myself at Queenstown airport yesterday, with heart racing and palms sweating. With all the demands from employers old and new, I ended up flying to a wedding in Queenstown for about 72 hours. What I didn’t know is that Queenstown is in the Top 10 most difficult-to-land-in airports in the world, with the runway flanked by mountains and choppy winds. The pilots tried to land twice, failed, then flew on to Christchurch to refuel and consider their options.

All this was revealed after we’d cleared customs and reached the gate, and so began a three-hour wait to see if the plane would come back to Queenstown, if it could land, and whether I could start my new job today.

I was pretty zen at first, but as the time dragged on, I cursed my decision to cut it so fine, and my failure – two year earlier – to negotiate down the excessive notice period in my contract.

Thank goodness for those lovely pilots at Jetstar (you didn’t think I’d be on a full-price airline did you?). They finally landed on the tarmac and hauled us back to Sydney.

Knowing your value

It’s a strange thing. If you ask me whether I’m good at my job, I’d say yes. My skills are in demand, I’m a specialist in my field, I bring a wide range of experience. And yet, I have never asked for a payrise. (Click here if you want some tips on that).

In fact, I forgot to ask about salary in my last performance review. I’ve never negotiated a starting salary, always taken what they offered.

This is nothing less than a failure on my part. Because most pay increases are incremental, the earlier you fatten your pay packet, the greater the increase next time. If I hadn’t been so damn nice, there’s a good chance I would make more money now.

This was brought into stark relief for me in the last few months. I was headhunted by a recruiter who was puzzled by the mismatch between my level of pay and years of experience.  I stumbled and mumbled when he he asked what salary I was looking for next.

Then when my employer replaced me, they hired someone with less talent and paid him more. It makes me angry, but at myself more than anyone.

Here I am, cheerleading for the girl squad and telling them to take life and money and career by the balls, but I’m not the best example.

However, I’m trying. I had an ex-investment banker give me a stern talking-to at the wedding. I had an old client make me promise I wouldn’t resign again without him coaching me. I had a colleague promise her I’d never again say in an interview “I’m not that focused on money”. Yeah, that was an actual thing I said. WTF.

The cost of pleasing others

I’ve been trying to unpick the puzzle about why I’m my own worst enemy in this sense. Why do I dislike asking for money? Why do I feel uncomfortable putting a dollar value on myself?

One factor was a fear of the price I’d pay. I believed that if a company paid you more, they expected a pound of flesh for it. That every pay rise would come with a concomitant increase in work. That’s not the case, in reality. You learn to work smarter, you find balance by being good at what you do and you learn to create boundaries.

Another issue is impostor syndrome. I question, in my heart, whether I deserve more money. Whether I’m that good or useful or worthwhile. Usually I can tell that bitch inside my head to shut the hell up, but not all the time. Sometimes she stands at the edge of my thoughts and whispers such taunts to me.

But I think the biggest issue is my tendency to be a people-pleaser. I don’t want to rock the boat by being troublesome. I don’t want to be the difficult one who makes a fuss. I feel uncomfortable making others uncomfortable. And so I leave difficult conversations about money well alone.

So now that I have identified these issues I can work on them. I can be alert to my own pitfalls.

When I was in that airport, waiting for the plane to break through the clouds, I decided that I had hit rock bottom on people pleasing. Today is the day where I start saying no more often. Where I value myself and my skills and my time more dearly. Where I start learning how to put aside the discomfort of negotiation, and do it anyway. I can do hard things in other areas of my life, so surely I can do it here.

I tell you all this not just because I am a massive over-sharer (although I am), but as a cautionary tale. I see a lot of women consistently undervalue themselves or question their worth in dollar terms. Granted, I’ve also seen women go hard in negotiations, (sometimes against me, their boss!) and succeed in getting more than they had been offered.

The tendency not to make demands seems to sit somewhere alongside the female tendency want to be smaller, less troublesome, less Fierce.

The world pushes us to take up less space all the time: to diet away our body fat, not to get ‘too big’ (as a weightlifter, I’m sometimes warned against this fate). We are told to quieten our voices lest we be called ‘shrill’ (god knows I have been).

All of these are simply attempts to stop us owning our power, and I admit, I fall for it sometimes. I doubt myself, I question my talent, I wish to be leaner. And so do many, many women I know and love.

So I encourage you to question which behaviours are holding you back from being truly Fierce.

What is stopping you from owning your power? Because whether or not we acknowledge it, our wealth is tied up deeply with our power. Our power to demand something from the world. Our power to say, “I am here, working and caring and sweating and delivering, and I ask you to remunerate me accordingly”.

Nobody will give us anything more than we ask, so we must to learn to ask.

And I am learning to ask.

Photo credit: Queenstown Airport by Curtis Simmons

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