Mar 14: How To Adult Money walks you through the entire universe of personal finance

March 14, 2024

For many of us, running our household money can be a “learn as you go” stumble, as we find out that not paying off credit cards, or spending more than we earn all the time, are bad things.

Victoria Botvinnik’s How To Adult Money offers up insightful information on every phase of the complex world of personal finance. It’s like having a friendly accountant coaching you through.

On credit cards, she writes that “credit cards are a great thing to have if you know how to use them without being used and abused by them.” She warns that credit spending “hurts a lot less… than (to) hand over hard-earned cash,” and that making only the minimum payment each month means “you’re not really paying down the debt much, if at all.”

We should have two credit cards, not a bunch, she adds.

On pension plans at work (such as defined benefit or defined contribution plans), Botvinnik makes the point that if there is an employer match to your pension contributions, it’s definitely worth joining up. “The employer match happens when your employer helps contribute to your retirement. It’s generally done in the following way: you promise to contribute a certain percentage of your salary to this plan and your employer will match it up to a point. This is fantastic and you should take advantage of it as soon as you’re allowed to.”

Looking at accommodation, she raises the interesting point that renting is not always “throwing money away” as some contend. She backs that up with a chart, showing that buying a condo for $350,000 is not necessarily better than renting it for $1,800, because renters don’t pay a down payment, mortgage interest (possibly for up to 30 years), property taxes, legal fees and home inspections (this cost is incurred when you buy and when you sell), maintenance, and condo fees. Renters just pay rent and renter’s insurance.

“In this scenario, as long as the rent was under $2,350, renting is the better option,” she concludes. She says you need to think about whether you plan to stay in your current job and current community for a long time, or not, before buying. If you think you’ll be there for at least 10 years, she says buying can make sense.

She takes a look at the “whys” of debt, which when the book was written, worked out to $1.67 of debt for every dollar Canadians earn.

We go into debt, she explains, for necessities, such as “somewhere to live, a car to get you places, and potentially schooling to get a job.” Fine. But, she notes, there are other causes of debt, such as “eating out and going on expensive vacations” we can’t afford. “Some of these actions may be small but add up over time, like buying lunch every day.”

Getting married or having kids can “create higher than normal expenses for a year or so, which many households handle with debt.” Finally, “legal issues” like not paying taxes or parking tickets “can turn into a real issue if you don’t pay attention or accidentally make a mistake,” she warns.

To get out of debt requires a plan. You can use the “snowball technique,” paying minimum payments on all debts and adding extra to the lowest one. When that’s gone, apply more extra to the next lowest one.

Alternatively, you can target debt with the highest interest first, the “Avalanche technique.” Pick one, and develop a plan, a “timeline for becoming debt free using current budgeted savings per month.”

In a chapter on the 10 per cent rule (spend 90 per cent of what you earn and save the rest), she notes that the “rule of thumb” amount might not be enough for lower income earners, and may be too much for higher-income earners. “If you’re planning to retire on an income similar to the one you have right now, you’ll likely need to save more than 10 per cent. If you’re happy to retire on less than your current income, you’ll need to save less than 10 per cent.”

No matter what your retirement savings number is, the earlier you start, the better, she writes.

The book is filled to the rafters with great information. There’s a section on how to set up a budget, which looks at the “envelope system,” where you put cash aside to cover specific expenses, or the 50/30/20 system, where 50 per cent of your budget is for necessities, 20 per cent is for debt repayment/savings, and “no more than 30 per cent of the cash you take home should be spent on non-essential lifestyle items like eating out, shopping, etc.”

The very detailed investment section helps you determine your appetite for risk, and gives a detailed look at all the various savings vehicles (registered retirement savings plans or RRSPs, TFSAs, non-registered accounts) and investment types (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more).

Do you want to be an active investor – picking your own investments? Or passive – someone who buys index-related investments? The book fully explains the pros and cons of each approach.

There’s a summary section near the end of the book, titled Six Months To Being Awesome With Money, that puts it all together for you.

This is a great book, highly recommended, and fully Canadian, that would make a great addition to your financial planning library.

If you don’t have a retirement savings program at work, the Saskatchewan Pension Plan may be the plan for you. Any Canadian with unused RRSP room can join, and you decide how much to contribute – less when you are facing tight times, more when times are better. SPP will invest your contributions in a pooled fund, professionally managed at a low cost. When it’s time to retire, you can collect monthly lifetime SPP annuity payment, or move to our Variable Benefit option, where you decide how much to take out, and when!

Check out SPP today!

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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