My financial philosophy: The core tenets of Get Rich Slowly

As I resume writing at Get Rich Slowly, one of my goals is to share a unified theory of money. This is a big change from when I started the site in April 2006.

You see, 11-1/2 years ago, I didn't have a coherent financial philosophy. Not even close. Because of this, I was deep in debt and struggling to make ends meet on an average American income. I was lost in the woods. The only thing I knew was that all of the books I read seemed to say the same thing: “There's no reliable way to get rich quickly; however, there's a time-tested path to get rich slowly.” That's why I started this website.

Back then, I was fishing around for anything that would work. I'd try any tip or technique that sounded plausible — and even some that didn't. Here are a few examples:

  • If I saw something free, I took it home. Free is a very good price, right? Well, not always. As Get Rich Slowly readers helped me to see, a free thing isn't really free if you don't need it. It takes up space, which costs money. It also occupies some of your brainwidth. Eventually I realized that free doesn't always mean free.
  • My early forays into the stock market were less investing than they were speculation. Twice I lost my annual Roth IRA contribution because I pumped it all into a stock that was down. I just thought I was unlucky until I learned (and truly understood) the virtues of investing in index funds. (Note that although I practice indexing myself, I'm not dogmatic about it.)
  • I heeded the common advice to buy in bulk. When Kris and I were married — we're still friends, by the way — we had a cellar and pantry filled with Stuff that we'd purchased. We had so much Stuff that I couldn't even keep track of it all! Naturally, some of that Stuff went to waste. Other things never got used because we never really needed them in the first place. Buying in bulk to save money doesn't actually save you money unless you use the things you buy. This is obvious, I know, but I'm not the only one who has struggled with buying too much in order to “save”.

Over the years, as I read and wrote more about money, I began to see other patterns similar to “get rich slowly”. Gradually, I adopted a series of rules (or “tenets”) that I believed could help me — and others — live a more prosperous life. I developed a rough financial philosophy, one that became more streamlined as the years went by.

The Fundamental Tenets of Get Rich Slowly

Although my tenets have shifted slightly over the past decade, they're still remarkably close to what they were when I first published them on this blog back in 2008 and 2009.

Here are the current core tenets of my financial philosophy (with links to my Money Boss website):

  • You are the boss of you. Your circumstances might not be your fault, but they're your responsibility. Sure, you're a part of the overall economy, subject to both lucky and unlucky breaks, but ultimately you are in charge. Your motto must be, “The buck stops here!” Don't blame anyone or anything else for your financial situation, and don't expect somebody else to rescue you. Your financial fate rests in your hands.
  • Nobody cares more about your money than you do. The advice that others give you is almost always in their best interest, which may or may not be the same as your best interest. Don't do what others tell you just because they hold a position of authority or seem to have a persuasive argument. Do your own research, get advice from a variety of sources, and in the end, make your own decisions based on your own goals and values.
  • It's always best to be proactive. In life, there are often default options. If you don't consciously and deliberately choose something different, you get the default. When this happens, your life shapes you instead of you shaping your life. Most people go through their entire lives in default mode. They accept what life hands them without question. They're reactive. A money boss questions the default choices. Sometimes she accepts them; other times, she proactively seeks better alternatives. (As a bonus, being proactive helps you prepare better for both emergencies and opportunities.)
  • The road to wealth is paved with goals. Without financial goals, you have no direction. If you have no direction, it's easy to spend money on things you'll regret later. But if you're saving for a house, your daughter's college education, or a trip to Europe, your goal will keep you focused, making it easier to spend on what's important and ignore the things that aren't. This is why I constantly preach the power of purpose.
  • Profit is power. To build wealth, you spend less than you earn. This is the basic law of money. Basic but important. Successful personal finance is all about building positive cash flow. By decreasing your spending while increasing your income, you can get out of debt and build wealth.
  • Saving must be a priority. Most financial gurus recommend saving 10% or 20% of your income. That's great, but if you really want to make an impact, aim to save 50% or 70% of your income. If you have to start small, start small. Even $25 a month is good. As you earn more and develop better habits, save as much as possible. The more you set aside, the quicker your wealth snowball will grow.
  • Small amounts matter. Frugality is an important part of personal finance. Your everyday habits have a huge impact on your financial success. Thrift helps you build good habits, and makes a real difference over time. Plus, there are tons of opportunities to flex your frugal muscles. And, more and more, I'm learning that there's virtue in efficiency. It really is better to enjoy financial independence on $24,000 per year than to do so at $48,000 per year. (More on this in the future.) The bottom line? Frugality buys freedom.
  • Large amounts matter more. It's good to clip coupons and to save money on groceries, but it's even better to save on the big stuff like buying a car or a house. By making smart choices on big-ticket items, you can save thousands of dollars at once. Practice thrift, but always be looking for Big Wins. Big Wins are the quickest way to wealth.
  • You are 100% responsible for your income. How much you earn directly reflects what the market believes you're worth. Your income is based on the demand for your knowledge and skills, the quality and quantity of your work, and how well you market yourself to potential employers or customers. To earn more, you must be worth more. That might mean learning more, working more, working better — or all three.
  • Slow and steady wins the race. The most successful folks are those who work longest and hardest at things they love to do. So try to find ways to make frugality fun, and recognize that you're in this for the long haul. You're making a lifestyle change, not looking for a quick fix. Be patient and gritty, and you will persevere.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good. Too many people never get started putting their finances in order because they don't know that the “best” first step is. Don't worry about getting things exactly right — just choose a good option and do something to get started.
  • Action is the cornerstone of success. It's easy to put things off, but the sooner you start moving toward your goals, the easier they'll be to reach. It's better to start with small steps today than to wait for that someday when you'll be able to make great strides. Get moving. Trust that you'll pick up momentum in the future.
  • Failure is okay. Everyone makes mistakes — even billionaires like Warren Buffett. Don't let one slip-up drag you down. One key difference between those who succeed and those who don't is the ability to recover from a setback and keep marching toward a goal. Use failures to learn what not to do next time.
  • There's no single “right” way to achieve financial success. Each of us is different. We have different goals, personalities, and experiences. We each need to find the tools and techniques that are effective for our own situations. There's no one right way to save, invest, pay off debt, or buy a house — and don't believe anyone who tells you there is. Do what works for you. (Note, however, that there are wrong ways to do these things — steer clear of obvious bad choices.)
  • Smart money management is more about mindset than it is about math. Financial success comes when you master the mental game of money. It's not about understanding the numbers. The math of personal finance is simple: Spend less than you earn and invest the difference. We all get it. Instead, it's controlling your habits and emotions that's difficult. Use barriers and pre-commitment to automatically do the right thing.
  • You can have anything you want — but you can't have everything you want. Being smart with money isn't about giving up your plasma TV or your daily latte. It's about setting priorities and managing expectations, about choosing to spend only on the things that matter to you while cutting costs on the things that don't. Everything's a trade-off. Decide the level of comfort that's right for you. There's no right or wrong. You just have to be willing to pay the price for the lifestyle you choose.
  • Financial balance lets you enjoy tomorrow and today. You don't have to choose between spending today and saving for tomorrow. You can do both. Strive for moderation in all things: Pursue your goals, but don't forget frugality; be frugal, but don't forget your goals. From my experience, both spendthrifts and misers tend to be unhappy.
  • It's more important to be happy than it is to be rich. Don't be obsessed with money — it won't buy you happiness. Financial success should be a side effect of a happy, productive life — not a primary aim. Sure, money will give you more options in life, but true wealth is about something more. True wealth is about relationships, good health, and ongoing self-improvement. Everything else is a lower priority.

Please note that these are not fixed in stone. My financial philosophy has evolved with time, and will continue to evolve as I learn and experience more with money.

Also, these are my rules and guidelines for building wealth. As you begin to manage your money more mindfully, you'll develop your own financial tenets. Your experience may or may not match mine. Your tenets might be similar — but there might be some differences too.

The Biggest Change to My Financial Philosophy

There's been one huge change to my financial philosophy over the past 11-1/2 years.

When I started this site, I firmly believed what I wrote at the start of this article: “There's no reliable way to get rich quickly; however, there's a time-tested path to get rich slowly.” Today, I realize I was wrong. There is a reliable way to get rich quickly — or at least moderately quickly. But it's not easy.

Since I sold Get Rich Slowly, I've discovered the financial independence movement. (This is commonly called the FIRE — or FI/RE — movement. These letters stand for Financial Independence/Retire Early.) Financial independence (and early retirement) are all about achieving a high saving rate — through a combination of frugal living and high income — so that you're able to quit work in years instead of decades. A great intro to the topic is Mr. Money Mustache's article about the shockingly simple math behind early retirement.

Here's the basic idea: The higher your saving rate, the sooner you can retire. If you save ten percent, as is commonly recommended by financial advisers and personal-finance books, it'll take you roughly 50 years to stockpile enough to quit your job. If you save twenty percent, as recommended by aggressive advisers and money bloggers, it'll take you about 35 years to accumulate enough to leave work. But if you can, say, save half your income, you can retire in less than 20 years.

This isn't a scam. It's math. It's truth.

Discovering this “secret” (which isn't really a secret, obviously) changed my entire financial philosophy. Sure, it's great to get rich slowly — but you can do better.

The Bottom Line

Now, five years after becoming an advocate for the “shockingly simple math”, I've moderated a bit. I've returned to center.

I still believe that early retirement via a high saving rate is a fantastic goal for many people. If you're one of those who wants to quit the rat race as soon as possible, you should absolutely do what you can to live on less while earning a high salary.

At the same time, I recognize that not everyone is eager to retire early. Some people like their jobs. My ex-wife Kris, for instance, loves her work and has no desire to rush to retirement. She's saved enough that she'll be done soon anyhow, but she's happy to continue doing what she's doing for the next few years.

Plus, there are people who like their luxuries. They like driving a nice car, and if that means sacrificing a few years of retirement, so be it. They enjoy living in a nice neighborhood or taking fancy vacations or spending big bucks on their cable television package. For them, these expenses align with their values, but early retirement isn't as appealing.

When I first learned about early retirement, I looked on people like this with disdain. Sad but true. After thinking about this for a few years, though, I've come to realize that it's not fair of me to judge the choices others make — as long as these choices are deliberate and aligned with their value system. (But if people are spending out of habit or because that's what their friends do, or if their spending isn't congruent with their life purpose, well then I'm here to help!)

The bottom line is that my goal is to help you no matter what your goals are and no matter where you are on the road to financial freedom. I understand that people are imperfect. We're not machines who can automatically make optimal choices. (Hell, I'm not even sure there are optimal choices in most circumstances.) I've made plenty of money mistakes in my own life, so I'm not about to judge you for your missteps.

And that's what I want to do here at Get Rich Slowly.

If your goal is to achieve early retirement, I want to give you the info you need to achieve that aim. If your goal is to have a happy home in suburbia, I want to help you do that too. If your goal is to drop out of society so that you can travel the world with only a backpack of possessions, I'll do what I can to teach you how to make that dream come true.

One last thing: As always, I believe personal finance is personal. I believe our choices are shaped by who we are and what we believe. I intend for Get Rich Slowly to be a place for everyone to come together and exchange ideas, regardless of belief. In the past, I kept things as free from politics and religion as possible. I'll continue to do that — with an exception here and there. Get Rich Slowly isn't blue or red. It's purple. (Well, it's green actually…)

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