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This is a guest post from J.D. Roth, who founded the Get Rich Slowly blog and currently writes at More Than Money. J.D. recently launched a year-long "Get Rich Slowly" course, which is based on the idea that you’d have greater financial success if you managed your money as if you were running a business. I’ve previously written about approaching your finances like a business.

I’m convinced that more people would achieve financial success if they managed their home economy as if they were running a small business. We all know that a company needs to earn a profit to survive, but few understand that the same principle applies to our personal lives.

To build personal wealth, you must spend less than you earn. When you do, you’re earning a “profit” and building wealth. But if you spend more than you earn, you’re losing money and in danger of falling into debt. The greater the gap between your earning and spending, the faster your net worth grows (or shrinks).

The key is to boost the profitability of your personal economy by spending less and earning more.

But not every path to profit is equal. Some opportunities are unappealing because they take either a lot of time or a lot of effort -– or both. Other options are a low priority because they have only a small impact on your bottom line. The best paths to profit – in business or personal life – are those that provide some combination of low difficulty and high reward.

There are four types of things you can do to reduce your expenses or boost your income.

  • Pyrrhic victories are activities that take a lot of time or effort without yielding an equivalent payoff. In business, these might include sweeping the parking lot or leasing a large office space. On a personal level, these are things like making your own laundry detergent or raising money by collecting old newspapers door-to-door.
  • Ongoing projects also require a lot of time or effort, but they provide huge payoffs when they’re finished. Last year, for instance, I organized and sold my collection of comic books. That project took over 100 hours of tedious work, but paid off with a $25,000 windfall. Similar projects might include moving to a cheaper home in a cheaper city or returning to school to earn a degree.
  • Daily victories are the bread-and-butter of personal finance. They’re easy (or quick) actions that yield small rewards, such as working overtime, clipping coupons, or making use of the public library. Because there are so many small, simple ways to boost your personal profit, these are the things most commonly covered in books and blogs and magazines. These daily victories are great—but it takes a long time for them to affect your bottom line.
  • Big wins are the Holy Grail. They’re the easy (or quick) things you can do to supercharge your saving rate. These include negotiating your salary (which takes minutes, but can pay off for decades to come) and reducing your transportation costs (which you can do in a matter of days).

You can improve profits by doing things in all four categories, but it’s important to keep each action in its place.

You should only pursue Pyrrhic victories when you’re unable to do any of the tasks in the other three categories. It’s foolish to try to get out of debt by making your own laundry detergent while you still have a huge mortgage. That’s like Microsoft trying to boost profit by spending less on pencils instead of selling more copies of Windows.

And what are the best ways to achieve these big wins? Well, it’s doing the things that most other people are unwilling to do:

  • Down-size your home. Housing is the biggest expense for most Americans, and by a wide margin. The typical household spends $1408 on housing each month, or about a third of its budget. Drop that by 10%, and you’ll save $150 per month. Drop it by 30% and you’ll save more than $5000 per year!
  • Drive less. Transportation is the second-largest expense for the average family. You can save big by biking or walking, using public transportation, or swapping your current car for a less-expensive used model with good gas mileage.
  • Earn more. You can cut costs only so much, but your earning potential is theoretically unlimited. If you really want to boost your personal profit, make more money. Go back to school, become a landlord, sell your stuff, take a second job. Of course, as an entrepreneur, you’re already working hard to increase your income.

The biggest barrier between the average person and financial success isn’t ability. It’s psychology. Big wins require effort and sacrifice, which can be tough to stomach. But the sooner you see that these choices aren’t extreme measures but the best way to achieve your financial dreams, the quicker you’ll get out of debt or reach financial independence. The small stuff forms a great basis for behavioral change, but it’s doing the big things that will make you rich.

This is a modified excerpt from "Be Your Own CFO", the 120-page guide included with the year-long "Get Rich Slowly" course. The guide includes tips for boosting revenue and cutting costs so that you can maximize profit in order to achieve your dreams, whether those are to retire early, send your kids to college, or travel the world. Want to know more? Buy it now.

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More than seven years ago, I encouraged readers to forget about the Latte Factor. The Latte Factor — a registered trademark — is the core marketing message from personal finance guru and author David Bach. The concept uses a daily morning latte as a metaphor for all small, habitually repeated expenses, that add up to a lot of money over time. A lot of that money could better serve us by being placed in savings or investing than being spent through an unnecessary habit.

The Latte Factor and its bigger meaning have drawn much criticism. Not all financial experts are interested in encouraging those with advanced financial goals to pay too much attention to small changes. I, for one, have raised my concerns with the relevance of focusing on the Latte Factor for long-term wealth building. David Bach appeared on the Consumerism Commentary Podcast to discuss this financial advice, and he addressed some of my criticisms.

From the discussion with David Bach, from discussions with other financial experts, and through internal reflection, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Latte Factor, at least, not as much as other critics think is wrong. Most criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the goals of the approach.

Here are some of those common criticisms, including some of mine, and how the concept behind the Latte Factor still holds up to scrutiny.

1. It’s more worthwhile to spend time earning more income than it is to spend time saving money.

I completely agree with the above statement. Given the sentiment, building your ability to earn more money over the course of your lifetime greatly overshadows the benefits of saving $5 a day. There are good reasons why gurus, particularly entrepreneurial-focused self-proclaimed experts, encourage focusing on income rather than frugality through modified spending habits.

  • “Big wins” generate a strong impact on your ability to become financially independent.
  • Cutting back your expenses has a finite limit — when you reach the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs expressed in budgets. Earning more income is theoretically infinite.
  • Focusing on building income instead of saving more money has benefits in life other than just increasing your bank account balance.

These are all good reasons for focusing on building income. I think everyone should work on building income if they can. But if you’re concerned that the Latte Factor was born in the “self-help movement” and relies on telling people what they want to hear to encourage action and motivate people to change their lives presumably for the better, the “you can earn more money, and so do I!” approach is even more rooted in those empty, aphoristic motivation techniques that sell millions of books.

The big assumption among those who say, “It’s easy. Ignore the Latte Factor and spend your time earning more money!” is that everyone listening to such advice is a middle-class American: gainfully employed, probably in a nine-to-five office job, a little dissatisfied with work and life, and having extra capacity for turning a hobby or passion into a side job and perhaps even a career.

I want to see one of these gurus walk up to a single mom, working two daily jobs to support a couple of children, juggling school and day care, and tell her, “Turn your passion into an income! Get another job! Work harder!” It’s just not going to happen. Some people can’t make changes to their lives as easily as those who write the books. Getting a better job requires education, education requires time, and time is hard to come by if you’re having difficulty raising your family as it is. The appropriate response to our motivational guru with this particlar gall is, “Fuck you.” (Pardon the French.)

Now, bad circumstances can’t always be an excuse for refusing to put in more effort to increase income. Sometimes being better at a current job is enough to make a little bit of an impact. Small changes in behavior can increase the chances. And some people are just lazy — if they are able to increase their motivation, they could see they have more opportunities than they initially imagined.

There is certainly a good proportion of people who can afford the time and energy to build their income through a better job. And those who can should. But that doesn’t make the Latte Factor irrelevant. You can spend your time and effort earning more money at the same time you analyze your spending and figure out where you can eliminate excess.

The Latte Factor is only one piece of the wealth building puzzle. No one is restricted to either saving money or earning more. The good thing is that once your spending habit is identified, it doesn’t take much effort at all, and still has significant benefits in the long run.

2. Frugal people have already eliminated their daily extras.

This was one of my questions to David Bach. Many frugal individuals and households have already eliminated their daily latte. They’ve already analyzed their spending and cut out what they could. Where does the Latte Factor leave them?

It’s going to be difficult to take someone who isn’t predisposed to a frugal lifestyle and encourage them to successfully adopt frugal strategies. People do change their philosophical beliefs, though not many, and a good number of those who do are frugal only out of necessity, for a short period of time. The loss of a job certainly increases the need to change one’s approach to saving money, but a job loss should only be a temporary situation.

To contrast, changing your approach to money through the Latte Factor has to be a lifelong commitment in order to realize the benefits that are strongly touted, like the purported nest-egg increase of a million dollars over the course of several decades. So if there is a good chance most individuals not predisposed towards frugality will ignore the advice anyway, and a good chance that individuals already considering themselves frugal have already applied the Latte Factor to their lives, why spend so much time and effort discussing the concept?

The Latte Factor is about more than fewer less coffee-related drinks. It’s about eliminating automatic habits and making decisions about money something that happens in the part of the brain that handles conscious decision-making. The philosophy encourages people to think about the consequences of their actions.

This is not only good for saving money, but it’s a positive approach that helps people earn more money, too.

In addition, unless you’ve reduced your life to the bare necessities of food, water, and shelter (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as referenced above), there’s more you can do to save money. It’s just a question of how far you’re willing to go to adjust your lifestyle in exchange for long-term savings. Some changes, and perhaps the compromises you make in your happiness, may not be worth the savings, but that’s a decision you can make only once you’re able to fully evaluate the situation.

The Latte Factor encourages people to switch from automatic mode to conscious mode when dealing with financial situations. It doesn’t matter if that philosophy is put into effect through refusing expensive coffees, avoiding the fast food restaurant for lunch each day, cooking meals instead of eating in the office cafeteria, or quitting smoking.

Of all the criticisms of the Latte Factor I think go too far and miss the point of using a philosophical adjustment to change behavior and improve finances, these are just two. I will share three more tomorrow that focus on the happiness derived from daily habits, the “most people fail” criticism, and the erosive effect of inflation that helps overstate the financial benefit of saving about $5 a day.

Photo: Flickr

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Once again, I’m finding myself nearing the end of my one-year lease with the need to make a decision about my living situation. I moved to my current apartment in the summer of 2007, at a time when I had been more comfortable living off some of the income from my business. Until that point, I remained fiscally conservative with my extra income, putting as much into savings as possible, not believing earning an income from primarily blogging would be sustainable in the long run.

Accepting the fact that I had a growing income, I allowed myself to move into a bigger apartment in a nicer neighborhood. That was seven years ago. And around this time these past few years, I’ve repeatedly considered whether it’s time for me to buy a house, leaving the world of renting behind.

The popular belief seems to be renting is throwing money away, but I couldn’t disagree more. Renters’ expenses for living are much lower than those of homeowners. The expenses of living in a house, and maintaining the structure and the land, add up and make this proposition very expensive. A house may increase in value over time, but rarely enough over the long-term to beat inflation, and in order to realize any of those gains, owners must sell and downsize.

I can’t even decide where I want to live, so buying a house that I might end up leaving soon isn’t a good decision. I could find myself in another predicament relatively soon — whether to try to sell a recently-purchased home or try my hand as a landlord, potentially from a distance. This doesn’t seem to be the type of lifestyle I would want, not to mention I haven’t yet had the need to develop some of the skills that would enable me to take care of problems around a house.

There is an urge for me to leave. I would like to have more space, not less. I like my neighbors but I’d probably like them more if we weren’t living so close. The reasons to opt for a house rather than an apartment seem to be related to lifestyle, not to the potential of a financial advantage (which is dubious, anyway). So my next course of option may be renting a single-family house.

But there are ways to make owning a house pay. Forgetting for a moment that I don’t know where in the country — or the world — I want to settle down for an extended period of time, owning a house that provides an income might be a good solution for me. The reality is that I could purchase a two-family house or a house with an apartment with cash, though I may still borrow money if the situation is right. I could rent out the apartment, and the rent would cover the taxes (and potentially part of the mortgage payment if I borrow).

I live in New Jersey, and property taxes are high throughout most of the more desirable portions of the state, and those costs reduce the appeal of owning a single-family house that doesn’t generate an income.

A recent article in the New York Times warns against buying the most expensive house you can afford. Doing so involves taking on much more risk. The loss of an income you rely on can drive someone down the path towards foreclosure. An unexpected job loss can occur at any time, regardless of the national level of unemployment.

Yet, there seems to be some situations that warrant buying if not the biggest house you could absolutely afford, something at the top end of your budget. If you meet these conditions, you may be able to make stretching your budget work from a financial perspective. This is the only way it could be smart to extend your reach rather than buying the least amount of house in which you could see yourself comfortable.

  • Even after buying the house, you’ll have assets. You’re not putting all of your wealth into the house.
  • You have a clear plan for using your own home to generate income that, if combined with a conservative percentage of other income, covers mortgages, taxes, insurance, and other expenses.
  • You get a great deal.

That last point is important. And real estate agents are tricky — they want to close as many deals as possible, so they will often convince a buyer a deal is great when it’s not. I like the way Warren Buffett invests in companies. He has a brand, so an investment from Warren Buffett may be worth more than the same investment from, for example, a hedge fund. So companies will cut Warren Buffett a deal. He doesn’t just go out and buy stock in a company like we smaller investors do.

When Bank of America was on the ropes, the company gave Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway a $1.5 billion discount on preferred shares. In addition, when Buffett decides to divest, he’ll receive a 5% premium on the value of his investment. These sweetheart deals are key to building wealth through investing at a quicker rate than buying and holding broad market index funds for more than three or more decades.

Getting a great deal doesn’t have to mean buying a fixer-upper. There are a lot of motivated sellers who are willing to negotiate, particularly if you have clout, like Warren Buffett. You won’t have that kind of clout, but having cash seems to go a long way in gaining negotiation strength for the buyer.

This is all good in theory, but in order to apply it to my specific situation, I still have questions I need to answer. I could give myself more time by renewing my lease and paying an extra free for the freedom to “break” it with notice, but that is the same thing I’ve done for the past several years. I’d like to see a change this year. Here are my questions:

  • Do I want to stay in New Jersey? New Jersey has a bad reputation, but the area where I live is nice, and there are other fantastic places in New Jersey to live. But it is expensive. House prices are high and taxes are high. I have friends and some family nearby. People who live elsewhere can get much more property for the same amount of money, and my income is the same regardless where I live. My money could go farther where the cost of living is lower.
  • If I don’t stay in New Jersey, where would I live? I have family in California — Los Angeles and San Diego — making those locations a choice that makes sense. But California is also expensive. My girlfriend lives in Phoenix and will need to stay there for at least another year, but I haven’t been convinced yet that Phoenix is the best location for me.
  • Am I willing to do what it takes to be at least some kind of landlord? My friends who are or have been landlords mostly dislike that particular choice, but I do have other friends who are able to manage properties part-time. I think a house in which I’d live that has an associated apartment might not be too difficult, and I’m in the position to be able to afford help when it comes to maintenance, but what if I decide to move fairly soon?
  • Would I be better suited to renting a single-family home? That would give me more flexibility and less responsibility, while possibly expanding my lifestyle a little bit.

There’s a lot for me to consider before I need to give my currently landlord my notice at the end of April. I don’t like the fact that indecision and inertia has kept me in the same place for several years more than I would have originally expected. What do you think you would do in my situation?

Photo: Flickr

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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.

Laura and Leon earn more than $124,000 a year together. Currently, their goal is to tackle their student debt. Right now they don’t have children, but they are considering starting a family soon. They max out contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts and are actively trying to change their financial habits so that they are ready for a possible family and for retirement. (Read last month’s update.)

After reading Laura and Leon’s comments, you can read commentary from Roger Wohlner, CFP. Roger Wohlner appears courtesy of The Chicago Financial Planner.

Read the full article →

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Naked With Cash: Jake and Allie, February 2014

by Luke Landes
Jake and Allie - Naked With Cash - Feb 2014

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…

10 comments Read the full article →

Overtime Pay for More Workers

by Luke Landes
Would you like fries with that?

Wages for the working class tie directly to the performance of the overall economy. When the largest group of consumers feels they have money to spend, they will do so. This spending may be to the detriment of their own quest for financial independence, but it also allows businesses to thrive. It’s always been the ... Continue reading this article…

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How Much is the Obamacare Penalty?

by Luke Landes
Take up thy stethoscope and walk

The Affordable Care Act requires most American citizens to have health insurance or health care starting in 2014. Many of those required to have health insurance will owe additional tax if they are not enrolled in a plan. It’s no surprise that many citizens are not happy about being told by the government that they ... Continue reading this article…

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Can You Sue Your Parents for College Tuition?

by Luke Landes
Crying baby

This story has all the makings of something viral. It fits right in with our fascination with people doing things that normal Americans wouldn’t even consider doing. We gawk at reality television shows and follow the stories about their stars, like the recent news about the couple from the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” show ... Continue reading this article…

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