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Personal Finance


There may be only about six stories in personal finance, but those stories seem to endure the passing of time. Good storytellers can breathe new life into the same old financial advice, and great communicators can introduce world-weary concepts to those who might need to hear them for the first time.

While looking for information about a town in upstate New York, I came across a gazetteer written in 1871 for Saratoga County. It’s a booklet, digitized for aiding online research, containing a business directory of several towns within that county. Like a telephone directory, the book contains names and addresses of residents, although unlike a telephone directory, there are no phone numbers.

The book is more than just a directory, though. The gazetteer offers historical accounts of the towns covered as well as general information a household in 1871 might need, such as a guide to the decimal system of measures, “recipes” for home remedies for common ailments, and of course, advertisements. (See one such advertisement, for pills “to prevent female irregularities,” reproduced here.)

What I found particularly interesting was a section titled, “How to Succeed in Business.” Several pages in the book are dedicated to help readers make good decisions with their labors, their interpersonal relationships, and the management of their money. There’s nothing particularly special about this. Financial self-help guides and business advice have been published for longer than this country has been in existence, but I enjoyed this discovery and thought it would be worth sharing.

Here are some excerpts, first on being an upright citizen in business.

What will my readers give to know how to get rich? Now, I will not vouch that following rules will enable every person who may read them to acquire wealth; but this I will answer for, that if ever a man does grow rich by honest means, and retains his wealth for any length of time, he must practice upon the principles laid down in the following essay. The remarks are not original with me, but I strongly commend them to the attention of every young man, at least as affording the true secret of success in attaining wealth…

Foremost in the list of requisites are honesty and strict integrity in every transaction of life. Let a man have the reputation of being fair and upright in his dealings, and he will possess the confidence of all who know him. Without these qualities every other merit will prove unavailing… In a word, it is almost impossible for a dishonest man to acquire wealth by a regular process of business, because he is shunned as a depredator upon society…

While most of the advice and observations in the few pages are still true seven score and two years hence, I am struck at how this last statement would probably be perceived as naive today. Today’s corporate environment seems to encourage taking advantage of customers to the extent allowable by law, and in many cases, crossing that line and avoiding meaningful punishment. Corporate executive take home astronomical salaries in comparison to those of their workers, and when those same companies have been found to contribute to the systemic failure of their industries or the economy at large, very few are held accountable. In short, today, dishonesty is acceptable in business as long as your lobbyists are successful.

The next excerpt relates to blind trust.

Next, let us consider the advantages of a cautious circumspection in our intercourse with the world. Slowness of belief and a proper distrust are essential to success. The credulous and confiding are ever the dupes of knaves and impostors. Ask those who have lost their property how it happened, and you will find in most cases that it has been owing to misplaced confidence. One has lost by endorsing, another by crediting, another by false representations; all of which a little more distrust would have prevented. In the affairs of this world men are not saved by faith, but by the want of it…

Before trusting a man, before putting it in his power to cause you a loss, possess yourself of every available information relative to him. Learn his history, his habits, inclinations and propensities; his reputation for honor, industry, frugality and punctuality; his prospects, resources, supports, advantages and disadvantages; his intentions and motives of action; who are his friends and enemies, and what are his good or bad qualities. You may learn a man’s good qualities and advantages from his friends — his bad qualities and disadvantages from his enemies. Make due allowance for exaggeration in both…

This was a lesson that took me some time to learn. I’ve always considered my trust in others a virtue; I suppose it is, except in business. Had I taken this advice to heart, I’d probably be in a better position today.

The author of this passage in the gazetteer also shares his opinions about a man’s relationship with money.

The art of money-saving is an important part of the art of money-getting. Without frugality no one can become rich; with it, few would be poor. Those who consume as fast as they produce, are on the road to ruin. As most of the poverty we meet with grows out of idleness and extravagance, so most large fortunes have been the result of habitual industry and frugality. The practice of economy is as necessary in the expenditure of time as of money. They say “if we take care of the pence the pounds will take care of themselves.” So, if we take care of the minutes, the days will take care of themselves.

The acquisition of wealth demands as much self-denial, and as many sacrifices of present gratification, as the practice of virtue itself. Vice and poverty proceed, in some degree, from the same sources, namely — the disposition to sacrifice the future to the present; the inability to forego a small present pleasure for great future advantages. Men fail of fortune in this world, as they fail of happiness in the world to come, simply because they are unwilling to deny themselves momentary enjoyments for the sake of permanent future happiness…

Every large city is full of persons, who, in order to support the appearance of wealth, constantly live beyond their income, and make up the deficiency by contracting debts which are never paid. Others, there are, the mere drones of society, who pass their days in idleness, and subsist by pirating on the hives of the industrious. Many who run a short-lived career of splendid beggary, could be persuaded to adopt a system of rigid economy for a few years, might pass the remainder of their days in affluence. But no! They must keep up appearances, they must live like other folks…

Frugality didn’t just form as a result of the recent recession, but it sure seems that way sometimes. But for everyone who adopts a frugal approach to their life, there are many others who prefer to live in such a way they appear to be wealthy. From this passage, I would assume 1871 saw a prevalence of the “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude just like today. Although the development and promotion of credit cards accelerated consumer debt during the twentieth century, it seems like citizens of this country in the nineteenth century had to contend with debt as well.

Finally, some advice about investing:

Stick to the business in which you are regularly employed. Let speculators make thousands in a year or a day; mind your own regular trade, never turning from it to the right or to the left. If you are a merchant, a professional man, or a mechanic, never by lots or stocks, unless you have surplus money which you wish to invest. Your own business you understand as well as other men; but other people’s business you do not understand. Let your business be some one which is useful to the community. All such occupations possess the elements of profit in themselves.

These two points from the above are important:

  • Don’t invest in businesses you don’t understand. Stock pickers often look at stocks not as businesses but as collectibles to trade. I’ve purchased shares of companies without really knowing much about the companies’ management. I felt that cloud computing and distributed hosting would grow, so I purchased shares of a company that did that. I thought that Microsoft had a pervasive business, so I purchased stocks in that company. I predicted Toyota had room for growth when the company hit some snags, so I bought when the price dipped. But I only invested as much as I’d be willing to lose in return for the potential of gains.
  • Some work has inherent value. If you are involved with a business that produces something for the benefit of the community or society at large, you are adding something positive to the world. In return, your compensation may not be spectacular, but if you can make a living and save for the future, you’ll likely feel better about your life than if you’re involved in an occupation that takes something away from the world.

Read the entire “How to Succeed in Business” passage from the Gazetteer and business directory of Saratoga County, N.Y. and Queensbury, Warren County, for 1871, as well as a section on “Cash and Credit,” compiled and published by Hamilton Child.

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Earlier today, Naked With Cash participant Anonymous S offered his latest financial update. He noted in June how after moving into a new apartment, he increased his credit card spending to pay for new household furnishings. He’s been calling this spending an “investment.” Our Certified Financial Planner, Roger Wohlner, offered the same feedback I would have given: calling expenditures “investments” can set a dangerous precedent and affects the way you view your finances.

The words you choose when describing yourself or your actions communicate how you think of yourself or your actions. For example, someone who refers to a problem as a habit rather than addiction when it is in fact an addition could be masking the severity of a problem.

There’s nothing wrong with what Anonymous S did last month. He spent more than he had on hand to furnish his apartment, accepting the cost of interest in return for furnishing the apartment immediately instead of waiting over the course of the next few months. Through his actions, he also indicated he was not willing to satisfy with inferior furnishings that he might have been able to find for less money.

As long as you weigh the consequences of using credit cards to supplement your income and using them isn’t part of an unhealthy pattern, I see little problem in taking advantage of the credit afforded to you. Others may see this differently, and might criticize the use of credit cards in any situation, or in any situation that doesn’t involve being able to pay off the balance in full each month. I’m more of a realist, and I can accept that although credit cards come with a cost, it’s a cost that can be avoided or taken into account. I can also accept that different households have different needs and priorities, and that households in healthy financial situations can handle the occasional interest charge if the trade-off is simplifying life for a short period of time.

It’s not the use of a credit card that worries me in this case, it’s the use of the word investment. Any particular word can have more than one meaning, and dictionaries don’t do a good job of describing the subtle differences between the inferences or senses of a word. To a financial planner, the word investment might have a specific meaning that is tied to a trade of money for some sort of asset that is expected to increase in value, with the idea that some day, that asset can be divested or liquidated, and the investor can walk away with more money than he or she started with. And the word investment might also imply there is some level of risk involved.

But when used by non-professionals, a broader definition might apply. An investment could be anything purchased of value or the process of purchasing anything of value. This is so broad that practically anything can be considered an investment. When I was working at a non-profit organization in my early twenties, I needed to earn extra money using whatever time I had left to myself after 80-hour weeks plus long commutes. I “invested” in a new computer to replace the one I had for nearly five years. In those intermediate five years, the World Wide Web had become mainstream and I needed a new machine to keep up with the latest technological needs for web development. I had no money, but I considered the new computer an investment in my future.

When it comes to building human capital, education is a large part of increasing the worth of your abilities, from specific job-related skills to cognitive flexibility, to yourself and to others. I consider the expense of a college degree as an investment because of the increase in lifetime earning potential that college graduates have over those without degrees. It’s an investment that’s expected to pay off in some form over the course of one’s life, even though recent economic troubles like unemployment make that difficult to see in immediate terms.

I can see how Anonymous S feels vindicated in calling household expenses investments. I know I’d probably be in a similar situation when I decide to buy a house. I wouldn’t want to leave the house empty for too long, and the furniture I could move from my apartment might do only a partial job in furnishing the house, and that’s even if I wanted to keep the same furnishings. With a new house, I’d want to quickly set my living space up to be exactly what I’ve pictured, and if I were unable to save up for the furniture in advance in addition to all the other expenses that come with purchasing a house, I would consider credit cards a valid option if I knew I’d be able to afford the expenses over a short period of time. I would only use credit cards if I didn’t think I wouldn’t be able to control my spending.

But I’d probably stop short of calling the purchases investments. I can see how spending $5,000 plus interest today might decrease my need to spend $5,000 in three months, but unless what I plan to buy is some sort of collectible item that has the possibility of increasing in value, it wouldn’t be an investment to me. And to call an expense an investment might do nothing more than to make me feel better about parting with the money. Personally, I have no need to fool myself into thinking something potentially harmful — spending more than I’ve saved — is potentially positive. For those that do try to present purchases to the world as investments might be setting themselves up for ignoring other negative aspects of their financial condition, and I believe that’s why Roger Wohlner, the CFP who comments each month on the financial progress of Naked With Cash participant Anonymous S, is not fond of the terminology choice.

You can use word choice to affect how you think about your situation. This can turn something that should be negative into a positive feeling or vice versa. Word choice can save you or it can prevent you from achieving your goals. In politics, this process is called “spin.” In marketing, the process is called “marketing.” In some cases, when word choice is used to intentionally deceive others, it’s called “lying.”

When you say that buying a new 72-inch television when your 42-inch will do and you don’t have the money is “investing in your happiness,” it’s just a way of hiding the fact you know it’s a bad financial decision.

Have you ever lied to yourself about the quality of your financial decisions by changing the words you use to describe that decision?

Photo: Flickr

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Prior to starting Consumerism Commentary, I didn’t talk about money. I’d encountered money problems with friends and families, and dealt with the problems as they came, but except for a conversation later on with my father once I was starting to improve my financial situation, it just wasn’t a topic for general discussion.

People don’t like talking about money. It’s seen as a private topic, and it can make people feel uncomfortable.

Because money is something easily measured, it draws comparisons. A few years ago, as more people began to post their net worth online, anonymously or otherwise, the process began to draw comparisons. Whose net worth increased the most this month? Which blogger is the latest to destroy his or her remaining debt? Among friends offline, comparisons like these can be hurtful, so people try to hide or mask their financial condition.

Even among friends, people also avoid money discussions because they’re concerned about their own lack of knowledge. Human nature prevents people from being the only person in a crowd not to understand something. Overall, money management has simple concepts, but how they play out can often be complicated. It’s better, when protecting one’s ego, to avoid discussions where one might not be the smartest guy in the room.

Despite the social stigma, in the right circumstances, talking frankly about finances has its benefits, whether it’s about a budget to be shared within a couple considering cohabitation, salary competition between similar employees, or tools and concepts for investing for the future.

1. Information is power.You are a better negotiator when you have more facts. That’s why many employers try to forbid workers from discussing compensation. If compensation were transparent, there’s a chance that an employee who accepted a salary offer below what the company would be willing to pay would demand a raise. It could create bad feelings in the workforce, and negativity gets in the way of efficiency and teamwork — two virtues important to an employer.

2. Honesty about money can spotlight compatibility problems. If you’re considering sharing a household with a partner, you’re merging the responsibilities from two people into one family of sorts — whether you’re married or not. If you do end up sharing bank accounts then you must be aware of your partner’s attitude towards money.

Different money philosophies don’t necessarily mean two people are incompatible. Savers can function well with spenders and vice versa if they don’t lie to each other and don’t hide anything substantial from each other. Money discussions for couples should be part of a larger ongoing conversation about goals, dreams, paths, and the choices they make together.

3. Discussion leads to new ideas. With more openness among friends, you could learn about opportunities, techniques, or options for improving your own financial condition. For example, if you’re looking for a new job, don’t stay silent. Your friends and colleagues can be good resources. They might be able to introduce you to someone who might be able to better suit your career desires.

By talking honestly about your investments, without trying to brag, you might find that there are opportunities to save money. If you explain your price-consciousness by describing a savings goal, you might learn of a method of increasing your savings at a faster pace.

4. Personal stories motivate. I can write about my former problems with debt in an effort to encourage others to not make the same mistakes. But if you don’t know me, the story would not have as much power as the story of a close friend. When you are willing to share your thoughts about money, other people will be encouraged to share theirs as well. If you are honest about your obstacles, you will find that those you talk to open up as well.

Hearing about personal struggles, whether wrestling with debt, dealing with a difficult employer, or handling unexpected expenses, has several benefits.

  • You can learn from others’ mistakes, and the mistakes of those closest to you emotionally are more relevant and more effective in changing behavior than those from a book or a blog.
  • You can provide emotional support for your friend or relative. By providing emotional support when it is needed, you become stronger yourself.
  • If you are doomed to repeat your friend’s mistakes, at least you know that your friend is likely to reciprocate the support you provided in the midst of their difficult situation.

You can use others’ experiences as motivation to help you make the best choices and move forward towards your goals. It’s not just negative experiences that provide motivation. Positive stories do as well. Hearing about how your friend navigated a difficult real estate market, how your cousin quit his job to follow his dream of being a successful professional musician, or how a colleague left his employer to form his own business can give you the push you need to take action.

Has there ever been a situation where talking about money enabled you to improve your own financial situation? Are there any situations in which it would be a bad idea to discuss your finances?

An upcoming article will discuss tips for starting a conversation about money. What are your suggestions for introducing the topic among friends and family without being offensive?

Photo: Flickr

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I spent about half of the day today taking care of some of the financial responsibilities I have been putting off. It feels good to check to-do items off my list, especially if they have been sitting there for some time, and I’ve been either procrastinating or filling my day with other priorities.

One of my goals has been to retitle and reopen bank accounts and investments under my revocable living trust. I established a trust earlier this year to keep my assets under a banner that makes it easy to deal with if something were to happen to me. Although I intend to live well into the next century, it’s unlikely my plan will play out as I hope. This is a process I started months ago, and now I can consider the process complete.

My first visit was to the local Wells Fargo branch, where the customer service representative tried hard to assist, but wasn’t quite familiar with the process. She was new to the branch, but had worked for the bank and its predecessors for more than twenty years. Her former branch is located in an area of the state populated mostly by retirees, so she probably should have been familiar with the process for assigning new accounts to a trust.

Unfortunately, Wells Fargo requires a complicated process for dealing with trusts. I needed to open a new account — giving up the account number I’ve had since 1989 — and transfer money from the old personal account to the new trust account. With the establishment of a new account, I was put through the typical sales pitches, and I had to make a choice between accounts, all with different requirements to avoid a bottomless pit of fees.

My personal account, grandfathered with terms from when my account was owned by Wachovia, will remain open, at least for the next month or two. The account is linked to several automatic payment services, so I want to be sure my deposits and withdrawals are associated with the new account number.

At Wells Fargo, the customer service represented confirmed, after various consultations with other individuals at the branch and over the phone, that business bank accounts could not be opened under the trust. This was my expectation, so I wasn’t surprised.

After my ninety-minute adventure, I moved down the street to the local Chase branch. At Chase, I didn’t need to open a new account. The “private banking specialist,” after consultation with the bank’s legal department, approved the request to retitle my personal account under the trust. She was required to fax my paperwork to a central office, but other than that, the process was quick.

The Chase representative was also able to provide a signature guarantee, a required protection for the forms I needed to submit to Vanguard to move my non-retirement investments to new accounts established within my living trust. I had completed the forms several months ago, but it took a visit to the bank, where an employee with the ability to provide a signature guarantee happened to be available, for me to complete the process.

Later, at home, I checked my retirement accounts at Vanguard, Fidelity, and TIAA-CREF. Retirement accounts cannot be placed within a trust, but the beneficiaries can be set as the trust. This is incredibly convenient, especially with several retirement accounts. If I ever decide to change my beneficiaries, and if I have children or get married, chances are I will, I can change instructions just by amending my trust documentation — one change rather than changes at each brokerage. All three brokerages allowed me to modify my beneficiaries online.

TIAA-CREF still requires me to send one form through the mail. For some reason, my investments at TIAA-CREF are structured into two different departments. When I first established my retirement account there, I did so because I had little money to contribute and the brokerage had a much lower minimum deposit amount than Vanguard. When I opened the account, they created as a “Retirement Investment.” That makes sense, I thought.

When I decided to invest in different mutual funds at TIAA-CREF, somehow these new accounts were opened up in what they call the “mutual fund side” of TIAA-CREF. When I first invested, I thought I invested in a mutual fund! I did — one of TIAA-CREF’s index mutual funds — but it’s contained in some kind of retirement account wrapper, and it seems unnecessary to me. It doesn’t appear to be an annuity; I can withdraw funds from the account at any time without any consequence other than the 10% penalty tax for early withdrawals.

For this account, I was able to change my beneficiary to the trust using the website, but for the accounts I opened later, designated as “Directly Held Mutual Funds,” TIAA-CREF requires me to print out and send a form through the mail.

With all my deposit and investment accounts now owned by my revocable living trust and with the trust designated as beneficiary of my retirement accounts, I am more confident that if the worst were to happen, dealing with my assets won’t be too much of a hassle. And until then, as situations in my life change, I can easily make changes to my continuation plan reflecting those life changes. Revocable living trusts sound complicated, and most people assume you have to be wealthy for them to be worthwhile, but everyone benefits. They save stress and money (in court fees for probate) at a time when family could face high levels of pressure.

Photo: Flickr

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The Psychology Behind Financial Wellness

by Guest Author
The psychology behind financial wellness

As far as I’ve come with my ability to manage my own finances, I often fall back into the comfort of unmanaged chaos. The comfort comes from the lack of work and the lack of worry, which often win the day over meticulous planning and consideration. I’m cushioned at the moment; I know that I ... Continue reading this article…

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Moving Assets Into a Revocable Living Trust

by Luke Landes
Pennies

To prepare for the idea that someday I may no longer be alive, but also as a matter of general organization, I have created a revocable living trust. The primary benefit of this type of trust is to avoid a hassle for those who may be dealing with my estate after I die. No, I ... Continue reading this article…

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Take the Time to Meet With an Estate Planner

by Luke Landes
Last Will and Testament

After putting this aspect of my finances off for the duration of my entire adult life, I finally found a recommendation for an attorney who focuses on estate planning, and we had our initial meeting earlier today. A few months ago, I had some concerns that my tax accountant, who had done a good job ... Continue reading this article…

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You Can’t Control Everything About Your Money

by Luke Landes
Hurricane

Choices play the biggest factor in success in life, financial success or otherwise. It took me a long time to come to that conclusion, but once I started accepting the facts that I could choose how I spend my time, I could choose how hard I work, and I could choose how to react to ... Continue reading this article…

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What Is Your Biggest Financial Concern Today?

by Luke Landes
Fiscal cliff

I am preparing for a possible media appearance on a program broadcast across the world. I’ve been reading a number of news stories as well as comments from readers in order to get a sense of what Americans are concerned about today. One of the biggest issues seems to be the so-called fiscal cliff. I’ve ... Continue reading this article…

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Someone Will Take Care of Me: Toxic Financial Attitudes

by Luke Landes
Old family

Eleven years ago, I left a job at a small company. My boss, the head of the company, agreed to call the break-up mutual, but I was leaving the organization without any prospects for a new job. I spent the next few months looking for a teaching job that matched my interests and my degree, ... Continue reading this article…

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Albert Einstein’s Philosophies For Growing Wealth

by Luke Landes
Albert Einstein

Although blogs and newspapers alike have oft posthumously placed a familiar quotation pertaining to compound interest — it being the most powerful force in the universe or man’s greatest invention — in the mouth of Albert Einstein, there is no evidence he ever said such a thing. He might have; the sentiment matches what seems ... Continue reading this article…

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I’ll Worry About It Later: Toxic Financial Attitudes

by Luke Landes
Tortoise

At various times throughout my life including the present, I’ve been guilty of having attitudes that could be damaging to my hopes for financial independence. I am generally a laid-back person, and my lack of what can be called “urgency” has certainly damaged my corporate ladder-climbing options. Although I’m fine with that, and I have ... Continue reading this article…

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Stop Paying For Services You Don’t Use

by Luke Landes

Earlier this month, I described a reader’s situation. She discovered she had been paying a fee for a credit life insurance product offered by her bank. The policy was no longer active, but that didn’t stop the bank from taking her money. I took the opportunity to dissect the product itself to discover whether it ... Continue reading this article…

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Sadness Inhibits Progress Towards Financial Freedom

by Luke Landes
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Visiting my family this week and through Thanksgiving, I’ve been helping my mother rearrange old photographs, scan some for our online family tree, and place many into albums that will protect them for the future. One of her favorite observations about me is, “You were such a happy baby.” My personality hasn’t changed much. I ... Continue reading this article…

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5 Fundamental Financial Skills You Can Practice

by Luke Landes
Trumpet

An interesting article in Fortune explored how employees can practice basic career skills like professional musicians and athletes use their non-performance time or non-competitive time to practice. This struck a chord with me due to my background with music. I studied music education in college with the intent of being a high school teacher, and ... Continue reading this article…

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Financial Voyeurism: Sharing Your Finances to Improve Your Life

by Luke Landes
Net worth balance sheet, December 2011

There’s something weird about what I’ve done here at Consumerism Commentary. Although I no longer share all the details on a regular basis, when I started this website in 2003, its purpose was to track my financial progress, to discover and share thoughts about building financial freedom, and to grow my own knowledge about money ... Continue reading this article…

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Joe Biden’s Net Worth vs. Yours: Bad Comparison

by Luke Landes
Joe Biden

Recently, J. Money from Budgets Are Sexy pointed out that you may have a higher net worth than Joe Biden, the Vice President. Biden’s net worth is about $215,000, lower than one might expect for a person in his position, and that’s due to his debt load. I could name a few financial oversharers who ... Continue reading this article…

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It’s Time to Create a Will

by Luke Landes
Coins

I’m almost ashamed to admit this: I don’t have a will. I’m not happy about that, and it’s a situation I’ll change within the next few weeks. After being surrounded by so many intelligent people at the Financial Blogger Conference this weekend (please read my review), my lack of attention to this important facet of ... Continue reading this article…

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Achieving Financial Independence

by Luke Landes

Today is the first full day of the Financial Blogger Conference, an annual gathering of bloggers who write about personal finance, investing, and other related topics. This is the second year of the conference’s existence, and hundreds of bloggers, writers, and representative from financial service companies are here at the hotel in Denver. The conference ... Continue reading this article…

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Automation Moderation: Don’t Let The Machines Control Your Money!

by Luke Landes
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Over the course of thousands of years, the character of money has gone through various metamorphoses. Bartering was the chief method members of a society acquired their individual needs until they developed shortcuts. Since that first shortcut, societies haven’t stopped creating more shortcuts, further separating the method of acquiring something from those things that are ... Continue reading this article…

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