As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Net worth is a calculation that immediately defines an individual’s or household’s financial position. It’s only one piece of a greater financial puzzle, but it’s an important piece. The concept of wealth relies mostly on net worth, which contrasts with the concept of poverty, which is generally related to a different financial equation, income.

Wealth however, is relative, while net worth is absolute. Place someone with a net worth of $50,000 in the middle of New York City, and she’s likely to have problems living the same lifestyle as those around her. Place the same individual with the same net worth in rural Kentucky, and the wealth will go further. Visit a developing nation elsewhere on the globe and $50,000 will feel like a million bucks.

In the Naked With Cash series, readers are sharing their net worth every month. And before that, I shared my financial reports publicly since 2003. Readers who stayed with me since the beginning — and there were many — followed my journey from a net worth of $21,000 in July 2003 (a few years after I began trying to improve my financial situation) to a “non-business” net worth of $373,000 in December 2011. (If I had included my business net worth, which would have consisted of income earned from my business but not distributed to me personally and the proceeds from the sale of that business, the figure would have been significantly higher.)

As a net worth calculation is valid only for one specific moment of time, seeing net worth change over time provides some context to a net worth calculation and offers more insight into one’s financial condition.

How do you calculate net worth?

The equation is Wn = A – L. Wn is your net worth, the value you want to calculate. A is the value of all of your assets. L is the value of all your liabilities. Being able to calculate your net worth depends on understanding what your assets and liabilities are.

Assets include everything you own. That means everything from bank accounts in your name to the value of your furniture and linens.

Liabilities include everything you owe. Your credit card debt is a liability, but so are the taxes you will owe on your investments when you sell them.

Add up the value of all your assets, add up the value of all your liabilities, subtract your liabilities from your assets, and the result is your net worth. It’s a fairly simple calculation, but people often get in trouble when trying to determine the value of their assets and liabilities. It’s not always straightforward. In fact, most of the time, people don’t include all their assets and liabilities. When you want to track your financial progress from month to month, sometimes it makes sense to exclude certain factors, and settle for a “modified net worth” equation.

When I reported my net worth each month, and when the Naked With Cash participants do the same, the number on the bottom line is a “modified net worth,” not a true net worth, because there is room for some customization of the equation. We don’t need to show every asset and every liability to get a continuing picture of financial progress.

How does a house fit into net worth?

The house one lives in is a curious asset. It’s so curious that some people refuse to believe it is in fact an asset. This seems to have started with a popular book promoter and seminar salesperson, Robert Kiyosaki, who in his influential book declared that houses are liabilities. It’s blasphemy! Regardless of whether you have a mortgage, a house is a physical object you own. Liabilities are not physical objects, at least when it comes to liabilities on a balance sheet (the net worth equation).

The word “liability” can have a broader meaning: anything that has the potential of causing you trouble. In that sense, children are liabilities. Responsibilities are liabilities. Performing your own electrical maintenance is a liability. Your neighbor’s dog is a liability. Therefore, your house is a liability. But don’t include it as a liability on your balance sheet, because your house is an asset when it comes to your finances.

There is absolutely no argument otherwise. I’m always happy to entertain dissenting views on Consumerism Commentary, and I’ve been proven wrong on issues before, but your house is an asset.

So now that we know your house is an asset, with absolutely no room for disagreement, why is a minority of financial experts so adamant that houses are liabilities? If they are, they’re not talking about the net worth equation. They simply want to point out that owning a house is a money-draining endeavor. There are two categories of assets that can appear on your net worth statement: income-producing assets, and expense-producing assets. In Kiyosaki’s infinite wisdom, he has completely confused his legion of fans by calling the first category “assets” and the second category “liabilities.”

It’s like a famous chef deciding to call unhealthy meats “meats” and unhealthy meats “vegetables,” and then inspiring a rather loud community of followers, after heavy promotion on The Food Network, to believe that healthy meats are actually vegetables.

Your house is an asset.

Where does a mortgage fit into net worth?

Your mortgage, if you have one, is a liability. The remaining balance of your mortgage loan is included on the liability side of a balance sheet. It, along with all the other amounts of money you owe someone else, is subtracted from the total value of your assets to determine your net worth.

If you take the value of your house (more on determining this value) and subtract the balance of you mortgage, you have your house equity. That’s the same calculation for any secured loan, or a loan that is “attached” to an asset. But your equity does not need to be included separately in your net worth, because you’re already accounting for the value of your house on the asset side and the balance of your mortgage on the liability side.

The idea is that by paying your mortgage bill each month, your equity increases. Some mortgage loans are structured in such a way that your equity would only increase if the underlying value of the house increases. That’s the case with interest-only mortgages. For a long period of time, borrowers who have interest-only mortgages never get to the point where they’re decreasing the principal balance of the loan.

Why not just leave your house and mortgage off your balance sheet?

If you rent the space where you live, you generally don’t include your future rent payments as a liability, even though they are, in one sense. Furthermore, the increasing or decreasing value of your house has little relationship to your financial activities on a day-to-day basis. Your net worth could be increasing every year due to your living in a developing neighborhood, but this could be masking financial problems with credit and debt, or other decisions with money that will eventually get you into trouble.

What good is your net worth bottom line if it reflects positive increases during a period where your checking account is dealing with overdrafts and your credit card balances are increasing?

This is why it’s important to look at more than just the bottom line of a net worth statement. When you see an increase in net worth from month to month, look at the details. Did he receive a windfall inheritance? Is he changing his house’s value every month based on an estimate? Did she pay off her debt but completely deplete her emergency fund? Context and details are important in a net worth calculation. Otherwise, it’s just a number that doesn’t explain much about one’s financial situation.

But how do you come up with the right value for your house? I’ll look at some methods for determining your house’s value for the purpose of net worth in a future article.

{ 0 comments }

Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs).

For more information, read this introduction.

This year, we have four participants who will share their financial reports, exposing the results of their financial choices. Each participant is paired with one of our Certified Financial Planners. The experts will provide insight and guidance that will help our participants take their finances to the next level by the end of 2014. Learn about this year’s participants and experts.

Brian and his wife have two children. They are a one-income family since Brian’s wife stays home. They pay off their credit cards each month, so their only debts are student loans and a mortgage. This month, the focus is on emergency preparedness. (Read Brian’s update from last month.)

After reading Brian’s comments, you can see video commentary from Jeff Rose, CFP. Jeff Rose appears courtesy of Good Financial Cents and Life Insurance By Jeff.

Read the full article →

{ 1 comment }

Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs).

For more information, read this introduction.

This year, we have four participants who will share their financial reports, exposing the results of their financial choices. Each participant is paired with one of our Certified Financial Planners. The experts will provide insight and guidance that will help our participants take their finances to the next level by the end of 2014. Learn about this year’s participants and experts.

Jake and Allie are animal lovers who enjoy their pets and have no plans for children. Both are committed to early retirement. Jake and Allie are both interested in owning side businesses, even though they plan to use their nest egg for living expenses. The couple enjoys travel and make it a priority to take trips throughout the year. They believe that it makes sense to use part of their combined $140,000 income to enjoy life now. (Read their update from last month.)

After reading Jake and Allie’s comments, you can watch a Google Hangout they participated in with Financial Planner Neal Frankle. Neal Frankle appears courtesy of Wealth Pilgrim and MCMHA.org. This month’s Naked With Cash focus is on emergency preparedness.

Read the full article →

{ 0 comments }

The prevalence of tipping is simply a fact of society. On several occasions, a friend of mine bemoaned the perceived necessity of tipping a specified amount to restaurant servers while dining out. He would ask the rest of our friends eating together at a restaurant, “When did the expected base tip go from 15 percent to 20 percent?” I’m not concerned so much as when cultural norms like these change, but how they change. Is it regional? Does a trend like this start among a wealthier subset and then trickle down to everyone else?

Most everyone who dines out understands that tipping is part of the unwritten agreement. If you can’t afford to pay and tip, you can’t afford to dine out. This social tradition has what I would expect to be practically full penetration throughout the United States. We’ve come to accept that restaurants do not pay their servers and bus staff a living wage on their own, and it’s the customers’ responsibility to bring that compensation more in line with a level necessary to prevent too much attrition in the industry.

With social media, the customers’ responsibility — or negligence — is clear. If you spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve seen any news programs covering entertainment, you’ve likely seen many incidents in the last year in which a disgruntled, undertipped server shames a celebrity by posting a copy of his or her meal receipt with a low tip. There’s two sides to every story; for every shamed, allegedly cheap celebrity or NFL professional, there is an allegedly disrespectful wait staff. It really doesn’t matter who is “right.” The point is that tipping in a restaurant, and tipping 15 percent to 20 percent for typical service, is a pervasive social expectation.

Hotel housekeepers may not benefit from the same, strong tradition of tipping as restaurant servers. An organization is trying to change that. A Woman’s Nation, an organization whose mission is to ensure that the value of women is recognizes and respected, is leading a program they call “The Envelope Please.” The purpose of the program is to encourage hotel guests to tip housekeepers one to five dollars a night, every night by placing an envelope for that purpose in every guest room.

Marriott is the first hotel brand to sign on.

And the hotel will certainly face significant criticism for doing so. If a hotel company blatantly encourages customers to tip, it is, in a way, admitting that it does not pay its staff a living wage. And if a large international corporation wants its employees to be paid a living wage, shouldn’t it be that corporation’s responsibility to do so? Shouldn’t it also perhaps be the industry’s responsibility to ensure it?

Of course, the idea of raising compensation faces the same old corporate obstacle: “If I raise the wages I pay, I have to raise my prices. I can’t raise my prices because I need to remain competitive.” There’s no doubt that it’s a difficult perspective to be in for a business. I have several friends who are not only small business owners like myself, but who also have a growing employee force, and they face these problems all the time.

I used to say that it’s the business owner’s problem to figure out, and if they can’t remain profitable while paying competitive wages, they have to come up with a different business plan. But I see that it’s often more complicated than that.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t always tipped housekeepers when I’ve stayed in hotels. That’s simply due to the fact that when I began staying hotels on my own, I had no idea at least a portion of hotel guests considered it normal to tip housekeepers. At the same time, I knew it was expected to tip hotel porters; maybe that’s because you see the “bell boy tip” in fictional entertainment so much, but never see the act of leaving a tip for the housekeeper in an envelope on the bed or nightstand.

This lack of understanding is the reason a non-profit organization focusing on the value of women would consider it important to provide some attention towards the option of tipping hotel housekeeping staff. But do housekeepers even need the tips in order to earn a living wage?

I checked Salary.com to put some numbers behind this movement.

In my zip code, a restaurant server gets paid a median hourly wage of $14, which was higher than I expected. A hotel housekeeper receives a rate of $13 an hour. In San Diego, California, both job types are paid a medium of $12 an hour. In Tampa, Florida, they both earn $11. From these figures alone, it seems that both job types require some additional compensation to make up for the industry’s low valuation.

Restaurants also know that customers will tip, so that is a justification for keeping pay low. As the idea of tipping hotel housekeepers becomes more pervasive, hotels may be just as willing to feel justified in the level of wage they pay because they know customers will make up for some of the deficiency.

According to one hotel insider, housekeepers are scheduled, at least in his institution, to clean 15 rooms a day. To a housekeeper, if everyone follows the expected guideline, she could walk away at the end of the day with between $15 and $75. If it costs very little to Marriott to put envelopes in every room every day, it could add up to a lot of extra compensation for housekeepers. If you assume the additional tips raise the effective hourly rate of a housekeeper by $4 a day, a hotel would not be able to match that through its own compensation plan. There’s no way a hotel could easily raise that pay of its housekeeping staff by that much.

With that perspective, it makes sense for hotels to encourage customers to tip. The staff will get a much better deal than the hotel could possibly offer. The only drawback is the potential downstream effect; more reliance on tips in the future might prevent hotels from raising wages competitively.

I’ll be keeping this in mind when I head to Louisiana this week for a conference and stay at the New Orleans Marriott.

Do you tip your housekeeping staff when you stay in a hotel?

{ 17 comments }

Reader Question: Where Is My Cash Now?

by Luke Landes
Piggy Bank via Flickr

A reader asks where I keep my savings and whether I’m still a customer of Capital One 360.

7 comments Read the full article →

Why Most Millennials Don’t Have Credit Cards

by Luke Landes
Credit Card Statement

According to a new survey, 63 percent of Millennials own no credit cards. For this poll, the Millennial generation is defined as those in the United States aged 18 to 29. The survey, put together by BankRate, attempts to get to the root cause for the lack of penetration of credit cards among this younger demographic, ... Continue reading this article…

2 comments Read the full article →

7 Essential Money Ideas for College Freshmen

by Luke Landes
College Tips

It was a long time ago, but I remember my first few weeks of college. Twenty years ago last month, I left my home state of New Jersey to live on campus at a neighboring state and to pursue my education degree. I had been away from home before for extended periods of time, but ... Continue reading this article…

0 comments Read the full article →

The Root Cause of Your Financial Problems and the Source of Your Success

by Luke Landes
Success

Any person is a product of his or her environment to a significant extent. And because so much of our personality is formed when we are under the age of ten, there’s something to be said for the benefits of being a child within a family situation that has a positive approach to money management ... Continue reading this article…

2 comments Read the full article →

Naked With Cash: Betsey S, July 2014

by Luke Landes
BetseyJul2014i

Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs). For more information, read this introduction. This year, we have four ... Continue reading this article…

3 comments Read the full article →

Naked With Cash: Laura and Leon, July 2014

by Luke Landes
Laura and Leon - Naked With Cash

Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs). For more information, read this introduction. This year, we have four ... Continue reading this article…

3 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 52712345···50100150···Last »