Burn your mortgage: An interview with author Sean CooperMarch 2, 2017
By Sheryl Smolkin
If you think you can’t possibly afford to buy a home or that paying off your mortgage is a pipe dream, Burn Your Mortgage is the must-read book of the year. Today I’m pleased to be interviewing author Sean Cooper for savewithspp.com.
By day, Sean is a mild-mannered senior pension analyst at a global consulting firm. By night he is a prolific personal finance journalist, who has been featured in major publications, including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and MoneySense. He has also appeared on Global News, CBC, CP24 and CTV News Network.
Thanks for agreeing to chat with us today Sean.
My pleasure, Sheryl.
Q: As a 20 something, why did you decide to buy a house?
A: Well I guess a lot of people strive for home ownership. My parents were my biggest influence. We always owned a home growing up, so I thought that owning a home was kind of the path to financial freedom.
Q: How much did your home cost, and how much was your down payment?
A: I purchased my home in August 2012 for $425,000 dollars. My down payment was $170,000, leaving me with a mortgage of $255,000. I didn’t go out and spend the massive amount the bank approved me for. I could have spent over $500,000 dollars but I found a house with everything that I needed for $425,000 and because of that I was able to pay off my mortgage in three years.
Q: How on earth did you save a down payment of $170,000 dollars? How long did it take you to save it, and how many hours a week did you have to work to do so?
A: Yes, it was definitely a sizable down payment for one person. I pretty much started saving my down payment while I was in university. I was able to graduate debt free from university and while I was there, I was working as a financial journalist. I was also working at the MBA office, and employed part-time at a supermarket. When I got my full-time job I was saving probably 75%-80% of my paycheck. I wasn’t living at home rent free. I was actually paying my mother rent.
Q: Kudos for your determination and stamina. Do you think working three jobs is actually a practical option for most people, particularly if they have young families?
A: No. As I emphasize in the book, that’s how I paid off my mortgage as a financial journalist on top of working at my full time job. While for somebody like me who is single it makes sense, it’s probably not realistic if you have a spouse and children. But there are plenty of things you can do to save money.
Q: Many people again think they would never, never be able to save up enough for a down payment. Can you give a couple of hints or tips that you give readers in your book that will help them escalate their savings?
A: Definitely. First of all, you absolutely have to be realistic with your home buying expectations. You can’t expect to be able to buy the exact same house that you grew up in with three or four bedrooms and two stories. But you can at least get your foot in the door of the real estate market by perhaps buying a condo, or a town house, and building up equity, and hopefully moving up one day. Think about creative living arrangements. Rent a cheaper place than a downtown condo. Find a roommate.
Q: How can prospective home buyers use registered plans like their RRSP or TFSA to beef up their savings and get tax breaks?
A: If you are a first time home buyer, I definitely encourage you to use the home buyers plan. The government allows you to withdraw $25,000 dollars from your RRSP tax-free (it has to be repaid within 15 years). If you are buying with your spouse, that’s $50 000 dollars you can take out together. That’s a great way to get into the housing market. The caution I can offer is when you withdraw the money, make sure that you fill in the correct forms so you are not taxed on the withdrawal. If you’re not a first time home buyer, then I would definitely encourage you to use a Tax Free Savings Account, because it’s very flexible, and although you don’t get a tax refund, the balance in the plan accumulates tax-free.
Q: After shelter, which means mortgage and rent, food is a pretty expensive cost. How can people manage their food costs while still eating a healthy, varied diet?
A: I offer a few tips in my book. First of all, try to buy items like cereal and rice in bulk and on sale. Another tip I offer is to buy in season. I probably wouldn’t buy cherries during the winter because they would cost me a small fortune. Try to buy apples instead, and during the summer if you enjoy watermelon, definitely buy it then. Try to be smart with your spending, and that way you can cut back on your grocery bill considerably.
Q: I enjoyed the section in your book about love, money, and relationships. Can you share some hints about how couples can manage dating and wedding costs, to free up more money for their house?
A: People like to spend a fair amount on their weddings these days, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you just have to consider your financial future, and how that’s going to affect it. Also, when it comes to dating, make sure that you and your potential partner are financially compatible and have similar financial goals. For example, one might be a saver while the other is a spender. Sit down and make sure both of you are on the same page financially, and then find common financial goals, and work towards them.
Q: How can prospective home buyers determine how much they can actually afford?
A: If you are ready to start house hunting, I would definitely encourage you to get pre- approved for a mortgage. Basically, the bank will tell you how much money you can afford on a home. That way you don’t waste time looking at houses out of your price range. However, just because the bank says you can spend $800,000 doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend that much.
Also don’t forget you will have to pay for utilities, property taxes, and home insurance plus repairs and maintenance. Come up with a mock budget ahead of time, and see how that will affect your current lifestyle. I would say if over 50% of your month income is going towards housing, that’s too much.
Try to kind of balance home ownership with your other financial goals, whether they are saving towards retirement, or even going on a vacation. That way all of your money won’t be going towards your house, and you will actually be able to afford to have fun and save towards other goals as well.
Q: You’re living in the basement and you rented the first floor. Why did you decide to do that, instead of vice versa?
A: Well I’m just one person living on my own, and upstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I wouldn’t know what to do with all the space, so it made sense to live in the basement, because to be honest I lived in basement apartments for several years before that, so it wasn’t really much of an adjustment. I mean, personally I’d rather rent out the main floor than get a second or third job. It’s all about kind of maximizing all of the space that you have, and looking for extra ways to earn income.
Q: We rented the basement in our first house. Why did you decide to write the book?
A: When I paid off my mortgage, a lot of people reached out to me for home buying advice. In the media, there seems to be a lot of, I guess, negativity surrounding real estate and big cities.
I always hear that the average house costs over a million dollars in Toronto and Vancouver. It seems like for millennials home ownership is really out of reach. I wanted to write a book to really inspire them and show them that home ownership is still a realistic dream, and it is still achievable if you are willing to be smart about your finances.
Q: Congratulations Sean. It’s a great book. I’m sure people reading and listening to this podcast will want to run out and buy it. Where can they get a copy?
A: They can order a copy on Amazon. It will also be available in Chapters and other major book stores across Canada.
Well that’s very exciting. Good luck.
Thanks so much.
You can purchase Burn Your Mortgage by Sean Cooper on Amazon.
This is an edited transcript of a podcast interview conducted in February 2017.
Have a happy, healthy holiday seasonDecember 22, 2016
By Sheryl Smolkin
The December holiday season is much anticipated by all as a glimmer of light and warmth at the darkest, coldest time of the year. It can also be exhausting, mentally challenging and play havoc with healthy habits like exercising and eating properly you have so carefully cultivated throughout the year.
The first thing you can do to promote your family’s health in anticipation of all the mixing and mingling is to arrange for everyone to get a flu shot. The flu vaccine is free and offered to Saskatchewan residents who are six months and older.
For detailed information about flu clinic locations, dates and times:
For a list of pharmacies that offer the flu shot, check the Pharmacy Association of Saskatchewan website.
Also, driving can be particularly challenging in unpredictable Canadian weather. Stay safe by getting a tune-up and having your snow tires installed sooner, rather than later. Make sure all passenger seat belts are fastened and never, ever drink and drive. If you do plan to partake of alcoholic beverages, make sure you have a designated driver in your group, plus money or a credit card for a taxi.
With days and nights that are chock full of activities, it’s often almost impossible to fit in regular exercise. If you are visiting out-of town relatives and planning to stay in a hotel, before you book a room, check the website to see if the accommodations you are considering has a gym or swimming pool. Early in the day or after the kids are asleep, you and your partner can take turns using the facilities.
In the event that you are bunking in with friends or family, check the holiday hours at local gyms and invest in a guest pass. Then if all else fails, be as active as possible. Explore the neighbourhood by walking your own or your host’s dog several times a day. After the first snowfall, ski, skate, make a snow fort or toboggan with your kids.
In addition, do whatever else it takes to minimize stress. For example:
- Don’t be afraid to say no or cancel if one more events during Christmas week will put you over the edge.
- Suggest that family members pick names so you have to shop for fewer gifts and can put more thought into each item you buy.
- Shop online, particularly if you are sending gifts to people out of town. Companies like Amazon and Chapters deliver and for a few extra dollars they will wrap your present and enclose a card.
- Try to maintain a normal bedtime routine for young children to minimize meltdowns. Make sure they have lots of opportunities for active play with children of similar ages.
- Let it go. Your brother-in-law may tell the same stories on every holiday and your mother-in-law may constantly question your parenting skills. But if you take a deep breath and remember it will all be over soon for another year, you may be able to avoid a serious family rift that takes a much longer time to heal.
Last but not least, think about what you eat. No I don’t mean you should completely forgo shortbread, chocolate, pie or eggnog. Try to taste, instead of finishing everything put in front of you. Eat one butter tart instead of two. Start with veggies and dip when you first arrive at a party to take the edge off your hunger. Pass up seconds on turkey and stuffing, Drink soda instead of high calorie pop or punch.
Besides, someone once told me there are no calories if you didn’t make or order the food and if you break a cookie in half all the calories will leak out. And even if I got it wrong, January is right around the corner. It’s a much better month to start a diet or a brand new fitness program. After all, fitness clubs depend on “resolutionists” like me to stay in business!
Michael Drak on Victory Lap RetirementNovember 24, 2016
By Sheryl Smolkin
Today I’m interviewing Michael Drak for savewithspp.com. He is an author, blogger and speaker based in Toronto and co-author of Victory Lap Retirement with Financial Independence Hub CFO Jonathan Chevreau. Thank you for joining me today, Michael.
Thank you Sheryl.
Q: First of all tell me, what made you decide to write this book?
A: The stress at work was affecting my health, and I was reminded of this each morning as I took my blood pressure pill. I began to look into the possibility of retiring and got my hands on every retirement book that I could. I found out that most of them were just filled with numbers and rules of thumb about how much money I would need in order to retire. None of them really told me anything about what I might actually do in retirement. I think Victory Lap Retirement fills that gap.
Q: What exactly does the phrase “victory lap retirement” mean to you? How does it differ from full stop retirement?
A: To me victory lap retirement means freedom. It’s freedom to do what I want to do when I want to do it. In contrast, full stop retirement means pulling back — disengaging, sitting on the sidelines and becoming a spectator. It wouldn’t work for me at this point in my life because I still have a lot of game left in me.
Q: Is victory lap retirement essentially a synonym for an encore career or an encore job?
A: No, not really, because victory lap retirement is all about lifestyle design. The goal is to maximize the quality of your remaining years by creating a low stress, fulfilling lifestyle based on your own unique needs and values. An encore career is really work either paid or unpaid. But it can be an important component of the victory lap lifestyle. Part of my own victory lap contains a component of paid work, which I view as my fun money to fund new experiences for me and my family.
Q: Your coauthor Jonathan Chevreau coined the expression “findependence,” which is a mash up of the word “financial” and “independence.” Why is findependence the cornerstone and prerequisite to victory lap retirement?
A: Having financial freedom is what allows you work and live on your own terms. In other words, you can do what you want to do with your time and energy, not what someone else on whom you are financially dependent says you have to do. In short, “findependence” equals personal freedom and freedom is what life is all about in the end.
Q: How can people calculate how much they’ll need to be findependent and then reach that objective?
A: Findependence is best described on a cash flow basis. This is the way I was trained to think as a banker. It’s the point where your basic non-discretionary living expenses are covered by your passive non-work income. This is the amount of annual cash flow you need to keep a roof over your head, put food on the table and pay for the basic necessities such as heating, electricity, property taxes, etcetera.. Any additional non-discretionary expenses will be covered by the active work income that you generate during your victory lap, which we view as your fun money.
Q: As you’ve noted already, the decision to retire is not simply a financial one. In your book you counsel readers to beware of “sudden retirement syndrome.” What do you mean by this expression, and how can prospective retirees avoid it?
A: I really believe that they should put a label on retirement just like they do on cigarette packaging. Something like “Retirement could be dangerous for your health. Retire at your own risk.” Sudden retirement syndrome (not actually a medical condition) is a very dangerous thing. It’s the shock of withdrawal that occurs when a person suddenly ends their career. Not everyone goes through it, but I went through it, my father suffered from it, and I had a good friend die because of it. Most people, unfortunately can’t relate to what you’re going through. They really can’t understand why you’re unhappy, especially when you don’t have to go to work anymore.
In my mind, it’s important to have a retirement mentor in your corner to help get you through this period to ensure that you do not do some dumb things like I did. I really believe that investment advisors should expand their offerings to include this service instead of just focusing on the investment piece. In my opinion, assuming you can just fall into retirement and everything will be okay is a disaster waiting to happen.
Q: How far in advance should victor lappers plan their exit from their current jobs or careers?
A: I’m teaching my kids that they should start aiming financial independence as soon as they start working. Victory lap planning is best done probably a few years before achieving financial independence. It’s always important to have an escape plan in place in case of emergency because these days with layoffs and mergers, you really never know what may happen. It really helps to know where you want to go in life and how you plan on getting there.
Q: How important is a social network to a successful victory lap?
A: To maximize happiness in retirement a lot of people are talking and writing books about it these days. Everyone says it’s really important to socialize with family and friends and continuing to work gives you an opportunity to surround yourself with fun, interesting people. Some people, for whatever reason tend to isolate themselves in retirement. They turn sour about life and that’s when bad things usually start to happen for them. Your social network will also provide emotional support and guidance as you work your way into your victory lap.
Q: The three stages of retirement have been described as go go, go slow, and no go. In that context, how long do you think your victory lap might last?
A: I love those descriptions of the stages and I totally agree with them. If things go according to my plan my victory lap will last into the go slow stage. This will be when I’m no longer capable of doing everything that I used to and it’s probably at this point that I would consider moving into a retirement home and letting others take care of me.
Q: Have you ever regretted your decision to leave the corporate world and embark on this new journey?
A: The only thing I really regret is that I didn’t learn about the concept of financial independence earlier in life. I really don’t understand why they don’t teach financial independence in school, and why the financial services industry doesn’t talk about it is puzzling. If I had known about financial independence I would have reached findependence that much earlier andhave left my high stress corporate job much sooner than I did. Life now is so much better on this side of the fence. It’s unbelievable.
Q: If readers are considering embarking on a victory lap retirement but are afraid to cut the ties to their former life, what advice do you have for them?
A: I acknowledge, it’s hard to leave a well paying job late in your career. The key is, if you don’t like your job, it might be better health-wise and also result in increased happiness if you make the change. I came to that conclusion for myself after reading Ernie Zelinski’s book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. If on the other hand, you like what you’re doing, why would you ever retire? People have to get over the fear of taking a calculated risk and making a change for the better.
That’s great. Thank you very much for chatting with me today, Michael.
My pleasure, Sheryl.
Michael Drak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Victory Lap Retirement is now available for orders online. It can also be purchased for Kindle or Kobo. The paperback edition is available in bookstores, and from either Amazon or Chapters.
This is an edited transcript of a telephone interview conducted in October 2016.
BOOK REVIEW: EASE Manage overwhelm in times of “Crazy Busy”October 30, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
Most of the books reviewed this year on savewithspp.com have been about personal financial planning and retirement. However, it’s hard to hold down a job and save for retirement if you are always overwhelmed and crazy busy both at work and at home.
Does that sound familiar? Then Eileen Chadnick’s new book “Ease” may help you find the balance you need to break the cycle.
Chadnick is a leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto with more than 20 years of experience in diverse careers including coaching, public relations, fitness and writing. Her articles regularly appear in the Globe and Mail.
Are times of “crazy busy” the new normal? Chadnick says the season of “rush” is now year-round. Demands of work and life continue to accelerate to unprecedented levels. In Ease, she offers a toolkit to manage “overwhelm” in our daily lives.
Here are some of the tools for organizing your life Chadnick explores in detail.
- Get it out of your head: Write it down
Making lists seems pretty basic to me because that’s how I’m wired. But lists covering short and longer term personal and work objectives can certainly help you stay focused.
- Get a grip on your schedule
Don’t schedule two activities back to back in different parts of the city. Build in more responsible time margins. And schedule “white space” — time for yourself — into your agenda.
- Prioritize and triage
Use priorities to establish boundaries but maintain appropriate flexibility. Having clear priorities will act as a compass for how to spend your limited time and give you a reassuring map when there is too much to do.
- Manage distractions
Ah yes. Facebook, surfing the web and email are notorious distractions. But non-urgent interruptions by colleagues and family members can also throw you off course. Identify distractions, manage the expectations of others and create systems for handling email.
- Reign in the multitasking
Being able to multitask is generally viewed as a positive attribute. But if you spend your entire day juggling tasks with little time to focus, you will likely use much more energy and feel more depleted than if you utilize the same amount of hours focusing on serial tasks.
- Learn to say no
Learn to manage your reflexive “yes” habit and how to appropriately say no when it counts. Acknowledge the request. Share your reasons for declining. And where possible make another offer that is more doable. For example, “While I can’t participate in that project I’d be prepared to attend a preliminary brainstorming session so others can run with some of my ideas.”
- Managing the paradox of choice at the buffet of life
Be aware of and take responsibility for the work and life choices you make. Just because you love to golf doesn’t mean you have to play two or three times a week and beat yourself up when you can’t. Take one course a semester instead of two. It may take longer to get your degree but you’ll have time to do other things.
- Tame your inner critics
Do you have an inner voice constantly telling you that the job will never get done or you will never be able to manage? It often comes out when you are tired or can’t sleep. Know your triggers. Become masterful at self-observation so that you can recognize those inner-critic moments and transition to your resourceful, reasonable self.
- Climb your mountain one step at a time
Step back from any project or task and break it down into pieces. Then attempt one step at a time. Remember — small steps add up to a solid journey.
- Clear the cache
Experts say that sometimes the best way to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem is to walk away from it for some period of time. Taking breaks from an issue can trigger a switch that increases mental function, creativity and productivity. Take a walk, go to the gym or bake a cake. While you unplug and shift gears answers will come to you.
I particularly like the chapter on the importance of positive thinking. In one of my early jobs I had a hard time adjusting to the company culture and initially blamed my unhappiness on other co-workers. Shortly after when I decided to stop complaining and take a more positive, constructive approach, my work and my relationships became a lot more manageable.
Much of Chadnick’s advice is common sense and you have probably heard most of it before. However, taken together and with explanations grounded in neuroscience, her ideas form a powerful roadmap for getting your life in order. She is available for private coaching, to speak to book clubs via Skype and to present at conferences.
She can be reached at email@example.com. You can also check out her website. Ease can be purchased from Chapters/Indigo online for $12.24. In addition, it is available as an ebook for your Kobo or Kindle.
BOOK REVIEW: THE FOUR HOUR WORK WEEKOctober 2, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
The 4-hour work week was originally published in 2007 and an expanded and updated edition was released in 2009. But I just heard about this #1 New York Times bestseller recently and became curious enough about the author’s philosophy to order a review copy.
Ferriss coins the term “New Rich (NR)” which means people who abandon the “deferred life” plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present, using time and mobility – the currency of the NR. He also says his journey from a grossly overworked and severely underpaid worker to a member of the NR is at once stranger than fiction and simple to duplicate.
His methodology is structured as a 4-step DEAL:
Step 1: D is for definition
To join the NR movement Ferriss says you need to learn a new lexicon and challenge the status quo. For example:
- Negotiate a remote work schedule based on productivity that allows you to achieve 90% of the results in 10% of the time, thus freeing up time for sports and family travel.
- As a business owner, eliminate the least profitable clients and projects, outsource as many functions as possible and travel the world while working remotely.
- Set up a website business to sell a product with virtually no overhead that takes about two hours a week of your time to maintain.
These arrangements seem far-fetched for the average individual, particularly if you work in a lab, construction site or on a farm where you have to be physically present to do your job. Nevertheless there are lots of interesting anecdotes and examples of how many people have successfully applied these principles.
Step 2: E is for elimination
Ferris advocates getting rid of needless busy work to become more effective and more efficient. Adapting the Pareto 60/20 proposition, he says look at your job and your life through the lens of two questions:
- What 20% of your sources are causing 80% of your problems and unhappiness?
- What 20% of your sources are resulting in 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness?
For example, he advises freeing up time by “cultivating selective ignorance,” i.e. don’t watch the news and eliminate reading newspapers. I must confess he lost me on this one because I’m a journalist and a news junkie.
But I do buy into his chapter on avoiding interruptions and the art of refusal. Since I’ve retired from the corporate world I’ve managed to almost totally eliminate useless meetings. And checking email only twice a day coupled with a suitable email auto response to “train” your co-workers and clients seems like a laudable (if unattainable in my case) objective.
Step 3: A is for automation
This fascinating (but politically sensitive) chapter explains how not only large companies can outsource and offshore business processes and mundane personal tasks. AJ Jacobs, an editor-at-large at Esquire magazine explains how he outsourced many necessary but non-productive tasks.
He hired the company Brickwork in Bangalore, India that offers “remote executive assistants” to research articles. He also retained Your Man in India to pay his bills, make vacation reservations, renegotiate his cell phone plan and make online purchases.
I’m not sure I can justify the cost of outsourcing as many tasks as Jacobs does but every month when I have to enter data and balance my company bank account, the concept is really tempting.
However, I do outsource transcribing digital interviews by uploading them to the website transcribeteam.com. Less than 24 hours later the transcripts appear in my mailbox at a charge of U.S. $1/minute.
Step 4: L is for Liberation
Once you have eliminated needless busy work and automated or outsourced as many of your job functions as possible, this chapter explains how you can negotiate a remote working arrangement that will allow you to travel and work from anywhere in the world.
Again, the primary premise is that your current job (or any future business) truly doesn’t require you to be physically on the job. Ferriss says:
- First of all, ensure you are a valued employee by performing well and taking advantage of as much in-house training as possible.
- Next, call in sick for a couple of days but work from home to show how productive you can be.
- Finally, make the business case for working at home at least a few days a week.
Then he says you can propose a revocable trial period and eventually ask to increase your remote working arrangement to the full week.
Will this work? Maybe in some cases, but face-to-face interactions with team members can create valuable synergy. And many employees don’t want to be away from the action and opportunities for promotion.
According to Ferriss, the top 13 mistakes the NR make are:
- Losing sight of dreams and falling into work for work’s sake.
- Micromanaging and emailing to fill time.
- Handling problems outsourcers or co-workers can handle.
- Helping outsourcers with the same problem more than once or with non-crisis problems.
- Chasing more customers, particularly poor prospects when you already have a good customer base.
- Not having a dedicated work space for sleeping, living or relaxing.
- Answering email that won’t enhance their business and can be handled by an auto-reply message.
- Not performing an 80/20 analysis every two to four weeks for their business and personal life.
- Striving for perfection rather than great or good enough.
- Blowing minutia and small problems out of proportion as an excuse to work
- Making issues that are not time sensitive urgent to justify work.
- Viewing one product, job or project as the be-all or end all of their existence.
- Ignoring the social rewards of life.
It’s easy to dismiss this book as a fantasy because most of us don’t have the vision, or the nerve or the self-discipline to try and apply the principles Ferris espouses. We can only dream of crafting an entrepreneurial lifestyle working four hours a week where big cheques still routinely appear in our bank accounts.
But there are lots of interesting anecdotes and great ideas in this book that anyone can put to good use. I plan to read it again carefully on my own time and make a “To Do” list of strategies I can implement.
My goal? Work less and earn more until I am really ready for full retirement!
You can buy both used and new copies of The Four Hour Work Week on Amazon. The hard cover edition is $16.89.
BOOK REVIEW: More money for beer and textbooksSeptember 4, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
“More Money for Beer and Textbooks” by Kyle Prevost and Justin Bouchard is 200 easy-to-read and digest pages of down-to-earth advice about how to finance a post-secondary education without going into massive debt. And the authors do not advocate living an austere party-free existence.
Both are in their mid-twenties and graduated from the University of Manitoba. Kyle is a high school teacher and Justin is the Dean of Residence at St. John’s College on the University of Manitoba Campus. They also blog at myuniversitymoney.com and youngandthrifty.ca.
They recognize how difficult it is to get a high school or university student to sit down and read a book that won’t be on a final exam — particularly a personal finance book!
That’s why instead of counselling extreme frugality, they look at post-secondary education from the perspective of two guys who wish they knew then, what they know now. They figure they would each be at least $5,000 richer if they had taken their own advice.
They start off by comparing the cost of four years of school living away from home (about $80,000) to living at home (about $34,000). They also run the numbers for a two year college degree ($30,000 vs. $11,000). Nevertheless, they conclude that higher education is and will continue to be an excellent investment in an information-based economy.
When evaluating whether going away to school is a worthwhile investment, they weigh the pros and cons of on and off campus living for students.
One interesting living option proposed is for parents with more than one child attending the same school to consider buying a house with additional bedrooms for renters to help defray the mortgage costs. Prohibitive housing costs in cities like Vancouver or Toronto may make this idea impractical, but it could be a workable solution in smaller college towns.
For kids or their parents who think Canada and provincial student loans are the answer, the comprehensive section on applying and qualifying for student loans and paying them back is an eye opener.
The application process is so complex, the book gives a checklist of 16 types of information to have available before even beginning to complete the online form. And depending on parental income, it is assumed that the Bank of Mom & Dad will make a major contribution to school costs.
Repayment of student loans doesn’t start until six months after the end of university, but interest starts accruing at the end of the final semester. Former students can opt for a variable interest rate of prime plus 2.5% or a fixed interest rate of prime plus 5%. A bankruptcy will not wipe the slate clean but a Repayment Assistance Plan is available in limited circumstances.
The chapter on scholarships and bursaries reveals the surprising fact that every year in Canada about $7-million in free money earmarked for post-secondary education goes unclaimed. There are lots of great suggestions about where to find scholarships and12 scholarship tips anyone can use.
For example, the authors say don’t just Google “scholarships” and apply for the top three like everyone else. The people who really succeed in the realm of scholarships are those who apply EVERYWHERE.
Too much trouble?
Most scholarship applications are similar and once a student has applied to several, he/she can cut and paste the rest with a little creative tweaking. And if the application process is really complicated, the odds are the applicant won’t have much competition.
There are also lots of good illustrations of how scholarship applicants can market themselves. For example, a former McDonald’s employee can emphasize the positive by describing the experience as “building practical business and communications skills in an entry-level position while learning how to contribute positively to building a team atmosphere.”
Providing references with a summary of activities and attributes they may not be fully aware of is another great suggestion that could result in detailed and glowing letters of support for scholarship applications.
Trying to keep costs down while still having a good time?
Kyle and Justin suggest students drink at home instead of in a bar to improve their “booze-to-dollar” ratio. They can also score free soft drinks and save money each time they offer to be the designated driver. For those with the space and inclination, they even suggest making homemade beer or wine can as another way to minimize cash spent on alcohol!
Other chapters deal with summer jobs, student tax returns, credit cards, budgeting basics and the importance of choosing an “in demand” career.
As both educators and recent graduates, the authors are able to strike the right balance between a breezy presentation and delivering lots of useful information. This book can be the catalyst for important discussions between parents and their college-bound offspring.
More Money for Beer and Textbooks can be purchased for $14.40 online at Chapters.
BOOK REVIEW: THE REAL RETIREMENT Why you could be better off than you thinkAugust 7, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
The Real Retirement by Morneau Shepell Chief Actuary Fred Vettese and Bill Morneau, Executive Chairman of Morneau Shepell was released and extensively reviewed by the media in 2013.
However, I decided to circle back to this book over a year later because it is much more optimistic than many of the personal finance books I have reviewed since January.
Most financial writers seem to be trying to guilt readers into forgoing consumption during their working lives in order to accumulate sufficient RRSP savings to generate 70% of pre-retirement income.
In contrast, Vettese and Morneau present well-reasoned arguments to illustrate that income replacement of 50% or even less post-retirement will result in a “neutral retirement income” (NRIT), i.e. similar patterns of consumption for retirees.
Initially, they note that there are three phases of retirement:
Phase 1: From retirement age to the mid or late 70s or even later if you are healthy you are most likely to travel to exotic locations and pursue expensive hobbies. Therefore your income requirements will be highest in this phase.
Phase 2: In the second phase of retirement you may have diminished physical or mental capabilities. If so, you will travel less and cut back on strenuous activities. Therefore you will spend less money.
Phase 3: In the last years of your life you may be more physically or mentally impaired. You may need to be in a nursing home, or if you are wealthy enough, in an upscale retirement home with nursing care.
As a result, planning to spend more in the first decade of retirement will not necessarily mean that you will run out of money before you run out of time.
I thought it was particularly interesting that when considering available resources that can generate retirement income for Canadians, unlike many other personal financial writers, the authors also factor in the value of “Pillar 4 assets” including real estate, business equity and non-registered savings.
They use the following population breakdown in their calculations:
|Income Quartile||Average total income (couple)|
The bottom quartile is dropped out because it is assumed that government benefits such as CPP, OAS and the GIS will provide better than average income replacement.
For the most part, Quartile 5 is also excluded since a couple with an income of over $200,000 has typically saved in RRSPs and has other Pillar 4 assets that can augment retirement ravings.
Vettese presents an example of a couple in Quartile 3 with $78,000 in annual income at age 65 and assumes they saved 6.5% annually in an RRSP from age 30 until retirement, Once their RRSP balance is converted to a RRIF at age 65, including government benefits they will have an income after retirement of $48,600/year.
Although retirement income for this couple is just 62% of their pre-retirement income, they no longer make RRSP and CPP contributions; have EI deductions and other employment costs; and pay a mortgage or child-raising costs. Their income taxes are also much lower.
The net result is that they have $14,000 more in disposable income to spend post-retirement! Although each family’s financial situation differs, the authors conclude that an NRIT which equalizes consumption before and after retirement generally only requires about 50% of pre-retirement income.
A calculations using a couple in Quartile 4 ($116,000 before retirement) reveals that the NRIT is just 44%. Furthermore, they can achieve their NRIT with 35 years of RRSP contributions equal to 3.5% of household income. And in general the higher the income level, the lower the NRIT.
This book is an interesting read because it presents a different perspective on the perennial questions, “How much will I need in retirement?” and “How much do I have to save to accumulate the amount I will require?”
While Vettese and Morneau suggest the answers to these questions may be “less than you think,” it doesn’t mean you don’t have to save at all. And all of the scenarios assume you retire free of mortgage and other debt. They also presume a drop in employment expenses and taxes payable that may not apply in your situation.
But if you thought the only thing you have to look forward to is Freedom 75, reading this book will cheer you up. Retiring at age 65 may in fact be a perfectly reasonable objective and you might even be able to afford a nice annual vacation or two while you are still well enough to travel.
The Real Retirement can be purchased online from Chapters for $15.64.
BOOK REVIEW: HOW NOT TO MOVE BACK IN WITH YOUR PARENTSJuly 10, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
The same day I was planning to review “How not to move back in with your parents: The young person’s guide to financial empowerment,” the author and Globe and Mail personal finance columnist Rob Carrick wrote a column revealing how difficult it is for students to get summer jobs to pay for their education and quantifying the cost of post-secondary study.
He cited the Yconic/Abacus Data Survey of Canadian Millennials, conducted for The Globe and Mail earlier this year of 1,538 young people aged 15 to 33. The study found that just over one-third of young people worked more than 30 hours per week at their last summer job. Another 23 per cent worked less than 30 hours at the same job, while the rest were either working multiple part-time jobs, looking for work or taking summer classes.
According to the survey, earnings from summer jobs and other savings totalled less than $2,500 for 46 per cent of students prior to starting college or university, while another 23 per cent had $2,500 to $5,000. However, a year of undergraduate education away at school including tuition, books and living expenses can easily cost $20,000 or more.
That’s why the information in Carrick’s latest book is so valuable. Every new parent should get a copy when they leave the hospital with their precious bundle of joy and beginning at a young age children should be taught the basic principles of financial literacy outlined in the book.
The first chapter discusses sources of funding for college or university and the basics of Registered Educational Savings Plans (RESPs). It is important that new parents understand that the combination of government grants and compounding mean that by opening an account in their child’s first year, saving for a college education becomes almost painless.
He also zeroes in on avoiding the debt trap and the perennial student dilemma: go to school at home or go away to school? He suggests that if the out-of-town program is going to make the student more successful or give him/her the edge in building a career, the additional cost can more easily be justified.
Successive chapters deal with banking, saving, budgeting and the pros and cons of buying a car. Later in the book he looks to the future and covers off the financial implications of buying a home; weddings and kids; and, insurance and wills.
Every chapter has a useful hot list. Examples are:
- Tips for saving money in your student years
- Expert tips on building a solid credit rating
- Five rookie financial mistakes to avoid
- Ten things you need to know about your company pension plan
- Top mortgage tips for first-time buyers
- Top reasons not to buy mortgage life insurance from your bank
Regardless of how well parents and their offspring plan and save, Carrick recognizes that kids may need to move home for some period of time when they are out of work or looking for a job. In fact he did so himself after he finished university.
In those circumstances, parents will have to make “boomerang decisions” like:
- Whether they should charge room and board
- Whether to provide some day-to-day spending cash
- Whether to push their child to take any job you can get.
But kids also need their part by acting like adults, making non-financial contributions and keeping parents updated on their job search. Recognizing that parents may have useful contacts and advice can also help to avoid friction.
The principles of good money management for students and parents Carrick discusses are not new. However, they are introduced and packaged in a way that makes sense for both cohorts.
It’s well worth the couple of hours it will take you to read the book and a good reference you can dip into from time to time in the future when your family is at an age and stage where specific information will apply.
The book can be purchased for $16.57 online at Chapters.
Book Review: MANAGING ALONEApril 17, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
Making a will and getting our financial affairs in order is something we all know is important, but many of us never get around to it. Younger people in particular often feel they are invincible and that it is too soon to think about death and dying.
But people die as a result of illness or accidents at all ages. And where they have not done the necessary planning, spouses left behind may not have the money or information they need to pay the mortgage, support their children and move on with their lives.
“Managing Alone” is a self-published book by Manulife Certified Financial Planners Jennifer Black and Janet Baccarani (co-owners of Dedicated Financial Solutions). The authors use 10 fact scenarios to help both young and old widows and widowers in different situations coping on their own without the help and support of their partners.
The book is short (119 pages) and easy to read. The stories are based on actual situations encountered by Black and Baccarini while advising clients. Each chapter focuses on two or three critical financial issues for the widow or widower profiled. Only a few of the many topics covered are how to:
- Locate and access your deceased spouse’s assets.
- Claim government benefits available to widows/widowers and their children.
- Deal with final expenses and your spouse’s final tax return.
- Establish your own credit and financial identity and why this is important.
- Obtain the right insurance coverage at the lowest possible cost.
- Manage if your spouse did not leave a will.
- Get family affaris affairs in order when death of one spouse is imminent.
A story that should resonate with younger readers is about Kayla and Jacob, a couple in their 20s with three young children. When Jacob drowned on a fishing trip without a will, Kayla had no idea how to manage the family finances. To compound matters, all of Jacob’s bank accounts were frozen. The bank also refused to pay on the mortgage insurance policy because he had traces of alcohol in his blood at the time of death and was engaged in “a dangerous activity.”
This chapter discussed in detail how Kayla met with a financial planner who advised her to use the proceeds of Jacob’s small insurance policy to cover expenses until she could get a job. He also helped her to develop cash flow projections and cut back on expenses so she could get by without selling the house.
Several years later she remarried and her new husband adopted the children. As part of their financial planning, the couple opened joint bank accounts; switched the ownershp of Kayla’s house to joint ownership; made beneficiary designations on company pension and insurance plans; purchased life and disability insurance with named beneficiaries; and drafted wills and powers of attorney.
Another interesting scenario features Walter and Anna, a financially well-off couple in their 60s. Anna died suddenly of bacterial meningitis. Eventually Walter felt ready to meet a new companion again, but his family was concerned that unscrupulous potential partners may try to take advantage of a grieving spouse. Working with his lawyer, accountant and financial planner in consultation with his children, Walter set up a trust to protect the estate. This section clearly explains the different kinds of trusts and how to set them up. He also updated his will and powers of attorney.
At the end of every chapter, there is a work sheet where you can fill in points to think about that may apply to you and questions to ask your advisor.
In addition to the book, the authors have established the website widowed.ca, a free online resource for widows, widowers and their loved ones, providing an easy way to locate a wide variety of information and services needed after the loss of a cherished companion.
You can find articles, event notices, Q&As, discussion forums and links to government websites on this frequently updated and valuable resource.
I highly recommend this book for couples, the recently widowed and their family members. The website covers an added continuum of valuable information and networking opportunies. Information on purchasing a print or electronic copy of the book can be found here. The ebook for Kobo can also be purchased from Chapters/Indigo for $10.99.
Book Review: How to Eat an ElephantJanuary 16, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to finally get serious about your family finances, How to Eat an Elephant by financial planner Frank Wiginton is a book you may want to take a look at.
For many years when Wiginton’s clients have approached him to make a financial plan he has asked them to bring in a series of documents. Clients often said that the amount of work they had to do and the quantity of information they needed to pull together was overwhelming.
To help them overcome this fear and stress, he began breaking down the required information into smaller, much more manageable bite-sized pieces – i.e., “small bites of the elephant.”
This was the genesis of the “twelve step program” in his book covering topics ranging from goal setting, debt management, and insurance to retirement savings, estate and tax planning. Wiginton suggests that by using this guide and doing about four hours a month of “homework” readers can develop a realistic financial roadmap.
Each chapter includes a breezy discussion of the topic, “Frank thoughts” from the author and anecdotes about how using these techniques have benefitted certain individuals. At the end of each brief chapter summary you are directed to easy-to-use web tools that help you to collect the information and use the strategies described in the previous section.
I particularly like that Chapter 1 asks readers to “blue sky,” prioritize and price a list of 50 things they want to do right now. Then by identifying the major things that must happen to accomplish each goal, reviewing the list regularly and sharing goals with others they have a better chance of making their goals a reality.
Chapter 2 teaches you how to create a net worth statement and by Chapter Three, Wiginton finally deals with the dreaded “b” word – budgeting. That’s where he gets into “needs vs. wants” and ways to break “the spending habit.” Ideas like using cash only, saving 10% and re-negotiating mortgages and telecommunications bills are not new, but seeing them in one comprehensive list is helpful.
When it comes to retirement planning, Wiginton says the first step is to determine what you want to do in retirement and what it will cost. Then he presents various retirement savings options and the tax implications of each one.
Wiginton notes that you may actually need less money than you think to retire because:
- You will pay lower taxes when you no longer are employed.
- For many people, expenses are lower once the mortgage is paid off and the kids have left home.
- People tend to spend less with age.
For example, when people are 60 to 70 years old they tend to be a lot more active than when they are 70 to 80 and the trend grows more pronounced with age.
As a result, in calculating what clients need, he usually reduces the amount of spending required by 15 or 20% around age 75 and by another 15 to 20% at age 85. However, he says that increasing costs of long-term care for seniors do have to be factored into the equation.
This is an engaging and clearly written book that runs to 274 pages of smallish print. There are no quick fixes but if you are prepared to work through it “one bite at a time,” by the end you will have a much better understanding of your finances and a plan that will help you achieve your personal financial goals.
The book is available in paperback or for Kobo and can be ordered for about $16.00 from the Chapters/Indigo website.