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The Fierce Girl's Guide to Finance

Get your shit together with money

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risk

Four things rich people do … that you can too

There’s a section in my favourite gossip mag, ‘Celebs – they’re just like us’, where photos like Reese Witherspoon hauling groceries to her car make us feel good – as though there’s not much separating our humble lives from theirs.

Well, I’d like to propose a column called ‘Rich people – they’re just like us. Except not really’.

My career has thrown me in the path of many rich people (who, curiously, don’t call themselves rich most of the time).

They are like us in that they struggle with personal relationships, self-esteem and whether to eat dessert or avoid the calories.

But they are unlike us when it comes to money. I’ve noticed a few things that they have in common with each other, and it might help you too.

Like another favourite section of the gossip mags, here’s my version of ‘Rich People: steal their style’.

1. They spend money to make money

Wealthy people have wealth managers. It might be a financial adviser or private banker (probably both). They have an accountant to minimise their tax, a lawyer to set up trusts, and then they pay fund managers to invest their money. And they’ll pay a lot for these services, if they see value.

The reason for having a coterie of advisers is that each one has specialist skills to maximise return and minimise risk.

Key take-out for you? Don’t be afraid to invest in professional advice. A good financial adviser could make a difference of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over your life.

A good accountant will make your tax and investments work harder for you (and likely give you a way better tax return).

Even a good career or business coach can make a difference to your earning potential and success. (Mine pushes me to be tougher than I naturally am)

2. They don’t avoid risk, they manage it

I get it: you work hard for your cash so you don’t want to risk it in investments you don’t understand. But shoving your cash in the bank will not build your wealth these days.

Most bank deposit rates barely keep ahead of inflation. For example, inflation is running at around 2%, you’re getting 3% interest, so in fact you’ve only made 1% on your money.

The key is to understand risk management. Diversification is key to that – having your eggs in a few baskets. Another is paying attention to the fine print, so you are only taking risks you understand.

Related to the first point above, good advisers will help you manage risk according to your timeframe and goals. And I’ve written a whole post about risk here – check it out!

The other thing rich people do is insure the hell out of everything. There’s a place called Lloyd’s of London that’s been around since the 1700s, where you can go and get insurance for anything from a giant container ship through to J-Lo’s butt (true story).

It’s a global institution, because insurance has been at the heart of the economy since men were wearing wigs in an un-ironic way.

Insurance is a crucial part of risk management, so if you haven’t seriously looked at your income protection and life insurance, now is the time. (Oh wait, here’s a handy guide I wrote!).

3. They are masters of debt, not slaves

There’s a concept called ‘productive debt’ (aka ‘good debt’), and it’s worth understanding. It’s the debt you take on in order to invest and make more money.

A home loan is the most common form of this debt. But there are also investment loans, such as a margin loan to buy shares. Business loans are also in this class – borrowing to build and grow a business is a big driver of our economy.

‘Unproductive’ or ‘bad’ debt is borrowing money to buy something that just costs you money – a car loan for example. The car you have at the end of the loan will be worth less than you paid for it. Credit cards generally fall into this category too.

I know, you may feel like the investment you made in an Urban Decay Nude II palette at Sephora is productive and will improve your life. But unless you’re an Instagram sensation, or land a millionaire husband who was lured by your perfect eyeshadow contouring, you will not make money out of it.

Good debt still has to be carefully managed, as there are risks associated with borrowing. For example, if the value of the asset you bought goes down, it can create issues. But when used well, leverage (as debt is also known) can magnify your gains.

I’m not saying all rich people use debt to build wealth.  I’m saying that many of them use debt strategically and with a goal in mind … not just because they can’t manage their cashflow in between paydays.

You can learn from these people by thinking about debt as a tool, not as a fallback for bad money habits.

4. They pay attention to their finances

One thing you learn in consulting is this: big clients paying $20K a month have zero shame in questioning a $25 taxi fare you’ve added to their invoice. The same goes for rich people. Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they’re careless with money.

In fact, they are generally the opposite. They won’t begrudge spending $20 on a cocktail, but they will check their bill in a restaurant. They won’t mind spending thousands to pay an investment manager, but they will expect strong returns.

And they will ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. The more money they are going to hand over, the more questions they’ll ask.

You should do the same. Whether it’s a phone bill, a bank statement, a payslip or an investment statement, pay attention to the details. People and companies frequently get things wrong. Some will deliberately rip you off.  Get ahead of them.

And more broadly, take just as much interest in your finances as you do in the ASOS sale email or the finer points of make-up contouring.

Ultimately, nobody will ever care about your money as much as you, so you’re in the driver’s seat.

 

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.

An Insider’s Guide to Finance: the risk-reward relationship

I’ve taken plenty of risks in my life. Some were productive, like packing up and moving to London. Leaving my marriage was a big risk that was hard to take, but the right thing to do. Wearing neon patterned tights with a crushed velvet skirt to a mufti day in year 7 – that risk did NOT pay off in either social or fashion terms.

When it comes to money, you need to get comfortable with risk. You see, there is a thing called the risk-reward premium, which means the higher the risk, the higher the (potential) reward.

This also means you can put a price on risk – the riskier the deal, the higher the stakes.

It’s why a car loan has a much lower interest rate than a credit card. The car can be repossessed if you can’t pay back the loan, while the credit card is ‘unsecured’ – they can’t come after you for the delicious cocktails you just bought, and the bank manager won’t fit into that Kookai dress. So the risk is higher for bank and more expensive for you.

Risky Business?

Now I am not saying let’s go to Vegas and put it all on black.

But when you invest, you want to balance the risk within your portfolio and within the asset class so that you get a good return while not losing your money.

Ok wait, I just dropped some jargon there. Let’s break it down.

Your portfolio is your entire wardrobe.

Your asset classes are each section: shoes, dresses, underwear, activewear, etc.

We talk about being ‘underweight’ or ‘overweight’ certain types of investments. For example, when the banks aren’t performing well, you might sell off some of those stocks and become underweight in banks. Or if you think resources are about to get hot again, you buy more and go overweight.

This can apply within one asset class – so you can be overweight on running shoes and underweight on high heels, within the broad ‘footwear’ asset class.

Or it can apply to the broader asset classes, so you have heaps of activewear, but not much in the way of work clothes (yep, me). That would be like having a lot of property (your own home) but only a small parcel of shares.

So now we have the lingo, let’s talk about risk. Here’s what you need to know:

1. You need some risk in order to make money, and that’s ok.

2. You can manage that risk by spreading it around – aka diversification

Now let’s talk more about that.

Why risk is ok.

Risk is what makes you money. It’s the old adage of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. So it’s safe to keep your money in a term deposit in bank, but that’s not going to make you money.

In fact you could even lose money in the bank.

Wait, what?

Thing is, there are heaps of different risks when it comes to money, and one of them is inflation risk. You know how a bag of lollies used to cost 20 cents when you were a kid, and it’s $2 now? That’s inflation.

The value of money changes over time (it’s a really complicated backstory as to why), but let’s just say, inflation usually runs around 2-3% per year. (It’s lower than that right now, but has often been 5-6% in the past 30 years).

If your money is in the bank getting 2% interest, and inflation is 2%, you aren’t making money, but you’re breaking even. But if inflation goes up to 2.5%, you’re actually losing money. The dollar you put in buys less than what it bought a year ago.

This makes intuitive sense right? Things cost more all the time.

So that’s called Inflation Risk, and it’s a risk you face even when you think you’re not facing a risk. Crazy huh.

Here are some other fun and friendly risks:

Interest Rate Risk – The risk that interest rates will change and affect your investment. For example, you buy a property at 5% interest from the bank and then interest rates go up. Suddenly, the $2000 a month mortgage that was covered by rent becomes $2200. Not only do you have to find more cash, it changes the yield – i.e. the return you’re getting for the money you spend.

Liquidity Risk – The risk that you might not be able to turn your investment into cash as quickly as you need to. In the example above, you decide to sell the house as you can’t cover the repayments. But a bunch of other people have been hit by rate rises and are selling too. And with home loans more expensive, the number of buyers falls. So you might have the house on the market for several months, even drop the price. The property investment has low ‘liquidity’ and it can cause all sorts of headaches.

Market Risk – You can be the best stock picker in the world – or pay the best stock picker – but if the whole market falls, it’s pretty likely your investments will fall too. Economies – and the markets they’re part of – are always cyclical. They go up and down – that’s as much a part of life as the fact that you’ll get your period on the exact day you don’t want it to come.  The trick is to be prepared for the cycle and have diversified your risks – that way you can manage the dips when they come.

This is just a short list to give you a flavour. There are plenty more, like

  • sequencing risk (the risk that your investments are in the toilet right at the time you need them);
  • credit risk (the risk that the company you lent money to – in the form of bonds – goes under and doesn’t pay you back);
  • operational risk (the risk that you invested in a company run by morons who bugger it up and lose your money); and
  • concentration risk (the risk that you put all your eggs in one investment basket and then drop the whole darn basket).

You can make friends with risk

I’m not trying to scare you though. You don’t avoid investing just because there are some risks. If I listened to my mum about all the risks of going on holidays to the US (being shot, getting raped, the plane crashing, the car crashing…) then I’d never go.

What you do is manage risk, by being clear about your time horizons and your goals. (A financial adviser can totally help you there).

The rule of thumb is that you only invest in shares if you have at least a five-year horizon, because that’s how long you need to smooth out their ups and down (technically called volatility).

An investment property generally needs even longer because of the costs and drama associated with buying and selling.

And with your superannuation, you have 30-40 years to smooth out the returns, so if you’re young (under 45 or so) then you can tolerate even more risk in the hope of getting higher returns.

Spreading the risk is crucial. The ideal (possibly over your lifetime) is to have a bit of everything. Not just a property, not just shares, not just a term deposit, not just bonds. A bit of everything.

But you can start small. For example, think about a managed fund or ETF if you already own your home. Think about buying listed property instruments (REITS) if you already have shares but can’t afford an investment property.

Basically, don’t just buy a bunch of super cute high heels but then never have any good flats you can walk in.

Risk in a nutshell

So here are the takeaways you should know about risk:

Risk is a part of life, and investing. But if you stay away from crazy, get-rich-quick, too-good-to-be-true investments, you can tolerate and manage risk effectively.

There is also risk in doing nothing. Letting your money sit there and track inflation is a risk, because you risk your future returns and wealth.

So don’t be scared of risk – because the other side of it is reward. Imagine if you never took the risk of drinking too much, wearing too little and partying too hard – what fun stories would you have to remember? Investing is just like that, but with less booze.

Photo credit: Aaron Perkins

 

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