Talking to Derek Foster
July 5, 2012
Hi, my name is Sheryl Smolkin. I’m a lawyer and a journalist. Today I’m pleased to be continuing the Saskatchewan Pension Plan’s series of financial expert interviews, talking to Derek Foster author of six books including The Idiot Millionaire.
After spending his 20s backpacking across Europe, Australia and Asia, Derek left the rat race at age 34 when his investment strategy made him a millionaire. Today we are going to talk about his latest book, The Worried Boomer.
Q1. Derek, you retired six years ago at age 34 and started a new career as a financial writer and motivational speaker. Was this all part of the plan? Did you ever imagine you would be so successful?
There was no a plan at all. The only thing I did was to begin investing religiously just before I started university. I put away $200 a month and it kept growing and growing. But as far as writing a book, once I retired I thought it was an interesting story so I wrote a book and it became a national best seller. I thought this was kind of great so I wrote a few more books.
Q2. Because you are your own boss, you have more time to spend with your family and do things you enjoy. How much time do you spend writing and speaking in a typical week or month?
It really varies depending on the season. I find I do a lot of my writing in the fall after summer vacation is over and the kids are back at school. But if I was to average it out, I would say probably around ten hours a week.
Q3. Everyone I talk to is worried that they will run out of money before they run out of time. How did you figure out how much money you had to save in order to retire at such a young age?
I think a lot of people put the cart before the horse. In other words, if you ask people how much money they need to retire, many will respond “oh you need a million dollars or two million dollars.”
But if you ask “how much money do you need to live on now?” they’ll generally say $50,000 a year or $100,000 a year. The interesting thing is that they tell me the annual income they need to live right now, but for retirement they fixate on this big lump sum of money.
I think you need an annual income when you retire. So essentially all you have to do is build up an annual income stream and once it equals what your expenses are going to be, you can stop working.
Q4. You have five children. You own a four bedroom, four bathroom house in Ottawa and your family has taken trips almost every year since you have retired on less than $40,000/year. How can you afford this lifestyle? What don’t you do?
I think the main thing I don’t do is that I don’t work. It’s going to sound kind of strange, but working is the most expensive way to make money in Canada. When you’re working at a regular job, you pay Canada Pension, you pay employment insurance, you also pay income tax at the top marginal rate. And those are just the direct costs of working.
There are a whole slew of indirect costs of working. You might need to pay for a wardrobe, union dues, commuting costs, parking costs or child care expenses if you’re at that stage in life. So I basically realized that working was too expensive and I couldn’t afford it so I stopped working.
That was a big part of it, and the other thing too is that I’m not really a “stuff” guy. I don’t find I buy a lot of gadgets. For example I’ve never owned a cell phone. In my twenties I spent a year travelling around Australia and New Zealand. I had the time of my life and all my worldly possessions were contained in one backpack. So I think that’s another part of it as well.
Q5. How would you respond to people who say that they are already living so close to the line that there is nothing left over for savings?
I think sometimes people look at saving enough money for retirement as if they have to achieve the whole thing all at once. Make it simple. Start with $2 a day. Take a toonie every day from your change and throw it into a jar. At the end of the month you’ll have sixty bucks. Keep doing that month after month. If you started when you were twenty and stopped at the traditional retirement age of sixty five, you’d end up with something like $628 000 just by saving toonies which is a pretty good start. If you up that to $5 a-day you’ll have one and a half million dollars which is very good start. So start small.
Q6. You invested in the stock market to make your million, yet so many people over the same period lost almost everything. What’s your secret? How do you pick stocks?
I am not really that smart a guy so what I did is I tried to copy other people. The absolute best investor in the world is a guy by the name of Warren Buffet, and I read a lot of what he had to say about investing and copied him.
And the approach, which is really quite simple, is invest in only companies that are easy enough for a six year old to illustrate with a crayon. You want companies that sell the same boring product year after boring year. An example would be Colgate toothpaste. I mean if I invest in Colgate toothpaste all I have to rely on is that you’re going to keep brushing your teeth, and I think that’s a fairly safe bet.
Now if you look at the company they’ve paid uninterrupted dividends since 1895 so basically for 117 years, anybody who has ever owned Colgate stock has received their dividends. Which is great, so focus on those kinds of companies. Forget the casino approach where you’re looking for the next hot thing. I mean ten years ago a lot of people chased Nortel and that didn’t work out very well. Again, keep it simple.
Q7. The Worried Boomer is a primer on various types of financial instruments in which people can invest their retirement savings for retirement, but you also devote a chapter to the Saskatchewan Pension Plan. What do you think are the advantages of saving in the SPP instead of in an RRSP?
There are a couple different advantages. The first one is it’s very easy. I enjoy sitting down and reading annual reports and considering where to invest, but surprisingly some people don’t enjoy that. But the SPP allows them to just make a contribution and forget about it. It’s basically a set and forget kind of plan, which is good for a lot of people.
The second factor that I really like is that the costs are really low. If you invest in traditional mutual funds you’ll pay much higher fees than you will with the SPP. The differences can be huge. We’re talking tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars difference just by saving on the fees.
And the third factor is that it has a very good long-term track record. I think returns have averaged around 8% over the last 25 years which is really, really good. Also in the 2008 stock market downturn the SPP fund it went down much, much less than the overall markets did.
Q.10 Do you think your savings will last for the rest of your life or do you anticipate having to going back to work for someone else some day?
No I don’t anticipate having to go back to work because I rely on dividends. Let’s suppose my money is a seed and I’ve planted a tree with it. Now the traditional investor lets his tree grow for a few years and then he wants to chop it down for fire wood and make a big gain. I am not doing that.
What I’ve done is I’ve planted a tree that’s bearing fruit every year. Every year I harvest the fruit. The next year I do it again. That’s essentially what I’m doing with the dividends. The money just keeps re-appearing every year. It’s almost like I have a little printing press downstairs, down in my basement where I’m able to print new money every year as I need it. So no I don’t really anticipate ever really running out of money.
Thanks Derek. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m sure listeners will be inspired by your story and look forward to hearing more about you and your family’s financial adventures in the years to come. The worried Boomer and Derek’s other five books can be purchased from his website at www.stopworking.ca.Derek Foster, financial planning, Retirement Income, Save Often