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Money Management

When your life is out of control, nothing seems to go right. You have the worst luck, and you can’t seem to get ahead with anything, whether a project, a goal, or even simple things like taking care of daily tasks.

Regaining control of your life is imperative. For your finances, you can do that by paying attention, changing your mindset, taking an inventory, tracking changes in your finances, budgeting, and seeking support from family, friends, and even strangers. This was one of the major premises behind Consumerism Commentary.

The same is true in all aspects of your life, especially those in which you’d like to see change or improvement.

Control comes through the practice of making better decisions, those decisions that take your future into consideration. Sure, if you’re struggling to survive, “the future” is a luxury. I understand that. But even small steps towards control can help you move forward towards having the freedom to consider more than just how your family will survive paycheck to paycheck. When the situation is controlling you, you feel helpless. But starting to control the small things in life will offer the confidence to, stamina for, and even luxury of making life better for your future.

Being in control can be a significant achievement. But the work isn’t over once you have control. I realized this while watching a baseball game. It was a subway series, with the New York Mets visiting the Bronx to play crosstown rivals the New York Yankees.

The commentator used the phrase “command and control” in discussing the talents of a pitcher. Every pitcher who makes it to the major league should be in control consistently. That means they should be able to throw fastballs for strikes and get other types of pitches in the strike zone on demand, whenever desired.

Brandon Katz describes in Bleacher Report, a baseball blog, what happens when pitchers do not have control: “Without control, basically all hell breaks loose for the guy on the mound. If you don’t have a good feel for your pitches, then it’s going to be a night of free base runners and a lot of runs due to unintentional walks and undoubtedly a multitude of pitches up in the zone.”

Command is another matter. Having command of the pitch is what separates the great players from the everyday. Katz describes pitching command thusly: “Pitchers with good command have the talent to place their pitches any where they want within the strike zone; they are able to throw not just strikes, but good strikes.”

This is also what happens when pitchers are in sync with their catchers. The two players determine for every pitch the speed, direction, pattern, and target, and a pitcher with perfect command hits that target every time. When the catcher wants a cutter to approach the strike zone from the the top outside corner but land in the catcher’s mitt low and inside, the pitcher with good command makes that happen. When the catcher wants a series of three fastballs starting low and ending high and outside, tricking the batter into swinging at a fastball out of the strike zone, good command is necessary for the plan to result in a strikeout.

Control is just the beginning. I’m in control of my finances. I know I’m spending only what I can afford to spend, less than I earn with enough to save for the future. I am like a major league pitcher. Just my presence in the major league means I’ve outshone hundreds or thousands of others on teams in Little League, high school, college, and the minor league.

But I’m not Matt Harvey (or whoever your favorite superstar pitcher might be). I do not have complete command of my financial performance. Not only do I rely on the stock market to take my net worth higher, but I haven’t determined how to invest in such a way that I can position myself the best for my future.

While many would be satisfied with a diversified portfolio of index stock and bond funds, when your needs involve a regular income, protection of your assets, tax efficiency, and growth for taking advantage of a variety of opportunities, things get more complicated. I can throw my strikes, but I’m still learning about the finer points of money management — the skills that will get me to the point where I can just show up on the mound and batters get nervous.

For example, I’m in the process of moving out of New Jersey. My portfolio until recently included as part of my bond portfolio the Vanguard index fund that’s exempt from New Jersey state income tax. The purpose of that was to keep my overall tax burden lower while being able to (relatively) count on some steady income. But if I’m not a resident of New Jersey and not paying New Jersey income taxes, the tax benefit of the investment is irrelevant to me. And quite possibly a waste of an investment opportunity.

And one might argue that the state of New Jersey is in such a bad condition that it was a bad investment in the first place.

But now I have the full investment previously in the New Jersey bond fund sitting in a sweep account earning a paltry (taxable) 0.01% interest. I need to come up with a plan to invest this amount soon, as opportunity cost — the cost of doing nothing compared to potential results — is a real thing and quite expensive. My initial thought is to stop worrying about tax efficiency, particularly considering I am not sure what my plans for residence will be beyond the fall of this year. A strong suggestion in continuing the income portion of my portfolio is to look at the Vanguard Intermediate Term Corporate Bond Index.

Clearly, the trickier pieces of my investment game — being able to paint the corners with my strikes — is not where it needs to be yet. My control is on point; my command requires some work before I’ll get my All-Star Game invitation.

Here’s what I need to do.

Dive deeper into investment research. Until now, it’s been enough to know that the stock market index generally returns 8% over long periods of time for those who buy and hold and don’t react to market news. It’s been enough to know that bond indexes can balance stock indexes and prevent some damage in market downturns without a major detrimental effect to overall returns.

I’m still not interested in investing a major portion of my portfolio in individual stocks, but if a unique investment opportunity comes my way, I will need to be able to evaluate the offer and make a decision that is as informed as possible. I have some business opportunities coming my way, and I’d hate to miss something important because I wasn’t able to analyze the situation effectively.

Talk to more people in similar situations. I’ve done a great job of helping people and teaching others what I know. I’m always available for friends who want business advice or would like to take their blogging to the next level.

Because I found myself paving the way and perhaps doing things that haven’t been done on a large scale before, and have been that way for about three decades, I haven’t done the best job of seeking out mentors when what I’ve wanted to learn has all ready been perfected by others. Whether it’s success in business management or investing, I need to spend some time talking to established experts in addition to mentoring others who see my successes as something similar to what they’d like to achieve.

Practice over and over. It’s great to avoid mistakes, but there’s often to better learning substitute than making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences. The mistakes I’ve made throughout my life — and I’ve made many both pertaining to and beyond my finances — have forced me to learn on my feet, adjust, and improve. I’ve made poor decisions regarding working with others, I’ve had to learn to live with hurt in personal relationships, and I’ve misjudged people. Mistakes like these have given me more insight.

As I make more investing decisions, I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes. More opportunities coming my way means more opportunities to fail. But the experience I gain when that does happen will be valuable — and as long as I don’t rely too much on the success of any particular decision, I should be able to whether failures and use the knowledge gained to my advantage later, increasing my command, not just control, of my finances.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons


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 attending college was a new hurdle for me.

I was nervous. But before long, I felt at home in my adopted-for-college state and adjusted to the new state of existence well. My financial situation left much to be desired, though, if I had even known that there was something to desire. I had had a bank account for a couple of years, and a few jobs here and there, but I didn’t have much of my own money. My college education was being funded by scholarships, grants, loans, and my parents. At the time, I had no assets to put towards my education, and I think my parents were more interested in seeing me spend my time focus on my studies than on pursuing a job.

As I’ve written recently, I did discover at college that I had a small entrepreneurial streak, but I never would have admitted that at the time. Earning some money here and there allowed me at least to come up with something to spend while I was an undergraduate.

It’s common to give new college advice that pertains to saving money. “Living like a college student,” when fully graduated adults take inspiration from their frugal years as a student, involves the ideas of eating cheap food (ramen noodles?), furnishing an apartment with inexpensive items (a cardboard box chair?), and taking on roommates to keep living costs down. This is all great ideas, and adopting this approach in college can lead to a money-saving philosophy that lasts until later in one’s career. And considering so many college graduates are unemployed, these are good habits to keep under one’s belt for as long as one can bear the restraint.

This is a one-dimensional approach. As a student living on campus, unless you have unlimited funding from your parents, you are probably frugal by default. So as a new college student, you might benefit from some ideas for giving yourself a financial advantage on the day you leave campus with your cap and gown.

1. Decide that you’re going to position yourself well for the future.

By deciding to make your finances a priority instead of an afterthought early during your college career, you have the opportunity to adjust to a new mindset. Envision the future you want to have, as hard as that might be when you’re just figuring out who you are and what’s important to you. Studies show that college freshmen like you are probably too young to know for sure who you are, who you want to be, and what’s important to you, but that isn’t really the case. These things change over time. Just thinking about long-term goals can put you in a better frame of mind for making good financial decisions, even if your goals change over the next decade.

When you picture your future, it makes it easier to see how the decisions you make can lead in the direction you want to go. And if you dedicate yourself to being smart about money, you have the potential to keep that in mind every day you have a choice pertaining to money.

2. Spend time with people who make good decisions.

As you determine what values are important to you, find people who share those values. Regardless of your course of study, you will have the opportunity to associate with other students. Choose your friends well. The idea is not to be strategic from a networking perspective. The value of a friendship is not what that friend could possibly do for you in the future. Do not be a user of people.

The more time you spend with people who share the same values as you, the more you will accentuate those positive qualities. If you are around people who are aware of their financial responsibilities, and maybe want to achieve financial independence some day, that approach to money will continue to influence how you make your own decisions.

3. Join campus organizations.

I was a member of a fraternity. I joined because the group was more like an honor society, and some of the best professionals in my field had been involved with the organization. I also started a collegiate branch of another professional organization at my university, and encouraged my fellow students to become members. Being a member of these organizations gave me instant connections with professionals outside of college, and even provided me opportunities I might not have received had I not shared those credentials.

Campus organizations give you the opportunity to be involved with something you’re passionate about while at the same time building important leadership skills. Even better than just joining an existing organization, start your own.

4. Make yourself valuable to staff.

When I was in my first years of college, there were very few people in the country who had the ability to build websites. I was one of these people. The university needed websites for its collegiate departments, and professors needed websites to share information about their research or their courses. I worked closely with professors to design their websites, and it helped me build deeper relationships with those I worked with.

Make yourself an expert in some kind of service that the college staff needs. You could turn this into an opportunity for income. And while most of the tips here focus on positioning yourself well for the world after college, nothing can help you more than leaving college with money in the bank.

5. Get involved beyond the campus.

One area for improvement during my time at college was my involvement outside of campus. I was not a local student, so I wasn’t too familiar with the community outside my college. Without a car, I couldn’t explore the area too often. I had to rely on my friends who live near campus and grew up in the state. As a result, I probably missed some opportunities because I didn’t focus on being present beyond my campus.

What I noticed is that my fellow students who were involved in their fields’ organizations outside of campus were always positioned well to find jobs in the community during breaks and after college. For example, as a student studying music, it wasn’t enough to play in as many university ensembles as possible. A musician who chooses to play in community ensembles, he or she would be exposed to a wider variety of people and possibly be positioned for success in that field after college.

And getting involves with national non-profits like Habitat for Humanity can further prepare you with attitudes and ethics that come in handy for succeeding in life and building wealth over the long-term.

6. Travel to locations different than where you grew up.

Nothing effects your view of the world more than actually viewing the world. When you live most of your life in one place, as many college freshmen have done, you aren’t often exposed to people who live significantly different than you. I wish I had done more traveling while in college, whether being involved with something like Semester at Sea, studying abroad, or traveling throughout the country.

Nothing gives you better perspective about your finances — and about the advantages you have — than seeing first-hand what it’s like to spend time in a variety of communities.

7. Focus on your studies, but foster any ideas you might have.

The college experience is about more than studying, writing research papers, taking exams, and making the honor roll. You want to do all of those things, and do them well, but you also want to take the years you have before major life responsibilities to explore. Spend time every day brainstorming about projects you can create that align with your passions. So many great stories start with projects that came out of an idea someone had in college.

While you have this cushion, use time to explore your hobbies or turn them into a business. Toss ideas off your friends. Put up a website, and see what sticks. It’s unlikely you’ll start the next Facebook, but give yourself a chance to follow your crazy ideas. They might lead to something amazing.

These above money ideas may not sound like money ideas at first. But they are all related to how you begin to live your life, and after college, how you to continue to reach for your goals. If you like some of these thoughts, Please share this with your favorite college students.


When I worked for a large corporation, I was around people who liked to operate their business responsibilities with a sense of urgency. Every little task was important, and they ran around the office like the company’s stock price depended on the speed at which they completed their tasks.

It’s not a terrible way to operate, but in reality, in the particular area of the company in which I worked, I felt it resulted in a lot of wasted energy. The company’s performance was completely unrelated to how quickly one would fast-walk from office to office. The tasks we performed, all internal to the company with no connection to the money-making business areas, were not critical. Much of the urgency was for show, and I wasn’t interested in playing that kind of game.

That’s probably why I never really fit in with the corporate world.

Real urgency, however, it was often prevents the important things from getting done. In business, constant interruptions, bad management, or disorganization all can create urgent matters, and when you address those urgent matters, you have to take time and effort away from important matters. For example, you may be working on next month’s financial report, a report that will be released to the public and has an impact to investors. You’re maintaining your concentration as much as possible on the numbers you need to analyze, when you receive a call from your boss who wants to analyze the company’s use of airline travel and needs information from one year’s worth of expense report, and he wants the details by the end of the day.

You break your concentration to focus on this urgent request although it is relatively unimportant compared to the financial report. And imagine you are often interrupted to deal with urgent requests like these, continually affecting your ability to work on the projects that are important in the long-term.

I’m not sure where I first saw this matrix, but it has come up in different areas of my working life. Projects, tasks, and goals can be plotted on a two dimensional plane where the two dimensions are urgency and importance. The same grid, and the need to take some time and think about your activities in relation to these two dimensions, comes in handy when dealing with life outside of work, including in personal finance.

Plotting your financial activities

Every household is faced with expenses that need to be paid on a monthly basis. You can even tie Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into this concept. You need shelter, food, and water. These are urgent needs, and they are important as well. The need to pay these bills falls in the “critical activities” quadrant.

If you can’t pay your rent, you could be evicted. If you can’t pay your mortgage, you bank could foreclose on your house. If you can’t buy food and water, you will die. These are critical. Look at the importance dimension as how something relates to your long-term goals. Obviously, you can’t reach your long term goals if you don’t have sustenance.

What happens when you find yourself dealing with a surprise hospital bill? This is an urgent matter, but when you aren’t covered by insurance, it creates an interruption in your life.

If your goal is to be a professional freelance photographer, you will have to deal with expenses pertaining to your business. Because photography expenses, which could involve the basic equipment you need, are tied directly to your goal, they rank high in importance, but lower in urgency than your basic survival needs. If you want to settle down with your partner and buy a house in a nice location, this would also rank relatively high in importance, and for the most part, low on urgency.

One thing people often forget is that an emergency fund needs to be ranked towards the top of both the importance and urgency scale.

Dealing with interruptions

On each dimension, there is more than just “high” and “low.” Every activity can be plotted anywhere on the spectrum. Here is a sample map based on on a quick evaluation on typical expenses a family might see. Your plot may be slightly different depending on your household’s expenses and how they may relate to your life goals and your needs, but as you can see, there is room for interpretation.

Expenses in the top right corner are your basic human needs, necessary to live and to be physically and mentally able to tackle your goals. The top left corner quadrant contains those expenses necessary to achieve your goals but that represent less immediate needs.

Those interruptions that affect your finances, often on a temporary basis and that have little to do with your personal and professional goals, are placed in the bottom right quadrant. These expenses are the reason development of an emergency fund is considered a critical activity; that will help you deal with urgent interruptions. The bottom left quadrant is reserved for anything remaining — expenses that are relatively meaningless towards your goals and have no critical need.

These are distractions — and there’s nothing wrong with having distractions. When you are in solid financial condition and have taken care of your critical activities, important goals, and interruptions, you can allow yourself to work with distractions.

Urgency trumps importance.

When a household has limited funds, as they might if the sole income-earner is working a minimum wage job, the importance dimension often becomes irrelevant. Living paycheck-to-paycheck or worse, a family may never see the left three-quarters of the map. There may be no money left of a weekly basis to tackle anything to the left transportation.

If you don’t have hospital bills or home repairs to contend with, that might be enough to survive, but if you do find yourself with unexpected expenses, you have to make choices between these bills and keeping the power on in your house and taking the chance of being evicted for not paying rent or losing your house for neglecting your mortgage.

Financial planners and others giving away free advice often suggest shaving some percentage of income off each paycheck to begin the establishment of an emergency fund, which can help deal with urgent expenses that have little bearing on long-term goals, but they often don’t realize that this can be nearly impossible — if not completely impossible — when dealing with threats to shelter, health, and safety, brought on by being unable to deal with the expenses in the upper right quadrant.

As an article on CNN Money recently pointed out, many people assume that families don’t save — that includes saving for an emergency fund, for retirement, and for education — because they lack self-control. The assumption is that they are more likely to pay for distractions than fund their important goals. While there are certainly some cases where distractions are valued above goals that manifest in the future, but that’s often because they have to remain focused on urgent expenses, and when they aren’t, immediate satisfaction relieves some of the stress of urgency.

For the most part, the article argues, scarcity of attention in the culprit. Planning for the future — dealing with the important but less urgent expenses — takes away your attention. Activities that are more important require more attention. If a household gets to the point where it is thinking beyond the most urgent expenses, the attention that remains may only be enough for less important activities.

What keeps you from focusing on the areas of life that are important but not urgent? Would you draw your urgency/importance map differently?


You can’t discuss financial systems without addressing the elephant in the room: the budget. As much as everyone hates the process of creating and adhering to a spending plan, the budget is simply the best money system for building wealth over the long term.

The underlying principle of a budget is the key to all financial improvement: spend less than you earn. On paper, it’s a simple concept based on arithmetic. If you want to have more wealth at the end of this month than you had at the end of last month, your outflows — all your spending — must remain less than your inflows — all your income.

A budget makes it easier to stick to this concept. After the system becomes ingrained, you don’t even have to think about it. Well, you can think less about your spending with the knowledge that as long as you stick to your budget, your wealth will continue to grow.

Designing a budget that fits and works

At the turn of the century, my financial situation was a disaster. When I finally hit my rock bottom — I lost a job, I lost my apartment, I lost my girlfriend — my situation shocked me into a reality check. I had been ignoring everything negative, living in some fantasy in which things I ignore would not exist. I was an adult — young, but an adult — and I knew what a budget was, but someone, and in this case my father, had to sit me down and figure out a budget.

We worked out the numbers on the back of an envelope or a piece of paper. I figured out how much I had to pay on my student loans each month — a bill I was ignoring. We determined my expenses precisely. Before long I got a new job and was on my way to living within that budget.

It was a quick and dirty budget, but perhaps because I understood the importance, especially at a critical financial time for me, I managed to shift my attitude towards my money management and stay within the budget.

Sometimes, budgets need to be quick and dirty like that. For me, the effectiveness comes from the fear of repeating a very difficult situation, not necessarily the budget system itself. Moving back in with my father, although he was gracious, was something I did not want to have to do again. I was motivated to stay on top of my finances.

Without fear’s strong motivation, the pressure to budget isn’t as strong. That’s where designing a good system comes in — you don’t have to rely on motivation as much as habitual behavior.

Base your budget on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Use the pyramid, with physiological needs like food, water, and shelter at the bottom, to prioritize your budget categories. Paying the rent and buying groceries comes first. Self-fulfillment, like hobbies, television, and the internet, comes last. If you have to reduce or eliminate a category from your budget, make sure it’s something from the top of the pyramid.

Use simple figures. Yes, you could use software like Quicken to monitor your budget. You can even use a system where you create email alerts to warn you when you’re getting close to your spending limit by linking your bank accounts to your financial applications. This can easily get overwhelming, and when you believe your can’t handle a system that’s too complicated, you won’t stick to it.

Rather than budgeting $200 for dining out each month, for example, limit yourself to four restaurant meals outside of the home. It’s easier to count the number of restaurant meals than to track the dollars you spend — but you should be tracking your expenses and income anyway.

Encourage flexibility. One reason people avoid budgets is because spending plans are seen as strict. Budgets don’t have to strict; in fact, they’re often more effective when they are flexible.

  • Spent less than budgeted in one category? Put the excess into an online savings account or allow yourself more room to spend in that category in the next month.
  • Need more in your budget for a one-time event? Borrow from a category in which you’ll underspend this month.
  • Consider budgeting in some categories on a yearly basis rather than a monthly basis. Some categories might benefit from a weekly or even daily budget.

Sticking to the budget.

The perfect plan can be fantastic on paper, but it’s worthless if you don’t stick to it. The beauty of a good system is that it shouldn’t require motivation every day. It should be a natural part of your life. Part of that is turning the budget into a habit, and part is incorporating the budget into your overall philosophy of life.

Review daily. After you put your kids to sleep or when you’re otherwise relaxing after dinner, collect your receipts from the day and have a little discussion with yourself or your partner about your finances. Try to notice anything out of the ordinary. I used to spend this time every day entering receipts into Quicken, downloading transaction from my bank, and making sure all the information was correct. For many years, this was just a habit, and I could figure out right away if I was in danger of exceeding my budget.

Don’t spend a lot of time, but do it every weekday for a month. Even if you don’t like routines, and there was a time I avoided routine in my personal life as much as possible, make it happen.

Don’t be scared to talk about it. I’ve found that saying something out loud, or perhaps publishing a web site about progress, makes something real. You don’t have to share the details to help your approach to budgeting manifest. Because the budget is a convenient excuse, you have a reason to casually mention your approach to money. If a friend wants you to spend money you can’t, you can tell this friend, “It’s not in my budget.”

Just those five words can make you feel empowered about your financial choices while at the same time making your budget more real. If you keep the fact that you are paying attention to your spending to yourself, there is less pressure to abide by the guidelines you set for yourself. When you acknowledge out loud you have a plan and you’re motivated to stick to it, a fear of embarrassment or public failure can help compel you, or at least encourage you, to continue to make good decisions.

Once your budget becomes a money system ingrained in your approach to managing your money, it will help you build wealth over the long term without having to consciously think about spending less than you earn every day.

How has a budget helped you build your wealth?


Who Needs a Budget?

by Luke Landes
Money Jar

There are a number of excuses for ignoring the concept of budgeting for one’s own personal finances. Budgeting has a poor reputation. It’s not fun, it’s time-consuming, it’s depressing. While budgeting can be one of the most important steps for beginning a journey towards financial independence, there’s a tendency to ignore this in favor of […]

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Damage Control: Taking an Unwarranted Vacation (From My Finances)

by Luke Landes
San Francisco

This week should have been a vacation. It has been, for the most part, but not entirely. While I’ve traveled occasionally over the past few years, and even chosen destinations meant for relaxation and time alone with loved ones, I haven’t had one of those fabled true vacations. My cell phone was still near by. […]

5 comments Read the full article →

Three Must-Have Money Talks for Kids – and How to Start Them

by Beth Kobliner
Money As You Grow

This is a guest article by personal finance expert, Beth Kobliner. Beth is a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability and the author of Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties. Drinking, smoking, bullying… talking about them with your kids is hard enough. But a new survey shows […]

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The Emergency Fund in 1939

by Luke Landes

In the Berkshire Hathaway 2010 Annual Report, Warren Buffett shared a letter from his grandfather to his uncle’s family in 1939, and the advice contained within the letter formed the basis of Berkshire Hathaway’s commitment to weathering any financial storm. I can’t say if the idea of an emergency fund was novel in 1939, but […]

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Take Control of Your Finances

by Luke Landes

This series explorers the concrete steps anyone can follow to take control of your finances. Many years ago, I felt like I was a victim of circumstances. Bad things, like job losses, apartment losses, and debt — even my girlfriend leaving me — were other people’s fault, a result of the world around me. I […]

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Unexpected Income: What Should You Do With a Windfall?

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer, who hosts a weekly internet show called the ¢entsible show. Unexpected income is a problem many people would love to have, but it happens more frequently than people realize. Whether it’s a $20 birthday check from your eighty-something grandmother or a raise, there are […]

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