The Architecture of Personal Finance: Choosing the Right Materials

Nearly three years ago, in the original Get Rich Slowly post, I compared smart personal finance to building a house. This is the first part in a series that will explore that analogy.

In his excellent Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, Gerald Weinberg describes a simple metaphor for the writing process. Writers, he says, gather fieldstones (ideas) and use them to construct walls or buildings (finished stories). But each stone is different, and so is each project. To produce something useful and lasting, the builder (author) must pick the appropriate stones for his situation.

The same is true with personal finance.

Preparing the foundation

I’ve recently completed the foundation for my financial “house”: I’ve eliminated my non-mortgage debt, reduced my spending, and increased my income. This didn’t happen all at once, and I didn’t do it using advice from just one source. I recognize now that I built my financial foundation by using Weinberg’s fieldstone method.

  • I used Dave Ramsey’s “debt snowball” technique to defeat my debt. (I had tried other methods, but failed.)
  • I took to heart lessons learned from Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette, and from other frugality advocates.
  • As much as Loral Langemeier’s books scare me, I confess that if I hadn’t read The Millionaire Maker, my financial foundation would be incomplete. She inspired me to boost my income.
  • From Your Money or Your Life, I learned about aligning “life energy” with my values and goals. This sounds like mysticism, but it’s not. It was a revolutionary way for me to view money.
  • David Bach helped me see the virtues of automating my personal finances.

It took a long time, but ultimately I constructed a solid foundation using fieldstones from a variety of sources, always looking for those that fit with my plan and my temperament. Once I realized that there was no single “right” way to achieve financial security, it gave me the freedom to look for those methods that were most applicable to my situation.

Blueprint for financial prosperity

Now that the foundation has been laid, it’s time for me to build the framework of my house. There’s a lot of work ahead. I have a blueprint for my financial future, and have plans for the first steps of the framing process. But there’s still much for me to learn. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to accomplish my goals, but I have faith that I can find the answers. At the moment, I’m building a framework that incorporates:

  • Elizabeth Warren’s “big picture” budgeting.
  • Regular investment in low-cost indexed mutual funds, as advocated by John Bogle, Burt Malkiel, and others.
  • Accumulation of a cash reserve, another component inspired by Dave Ramsey.
  • Some modest mortgage acceleration, as described by Charles Givens (and which I’ll share with you in a few weeks)

As I find more pieces that seem to fit with the plans for my financial house, I’ll add them to the blueprint and make them a part of the framework.

Choosing the right materials

If you read five different personal finance books, you’ll find five different methods to repay your debt and five different plans for retirement savings. How can you possibly determine which technique is best? There isn’t a best technique. The best method for debt repayment, or for retirement savings, is one that you will actually use. None of the others matter.

That’s not to say that every idea is equal. There’s no question that some methods make more mathematical sense than others. It’s smarter mathematically to invest your money rather than prepay your mortgage. It’s smarter mathematically to first repay your debt with the highest interest rate rather than starting with your lowest balance. But money isn’t just about math — psychology and emotions play large roles, too. Whether you choose to emphasize math or mind is up to you.

Some people will argue that if you don’t use Method X, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t listen to them. The only wrong choice is not to try. You know yourself better than anyone. If you’ve tried one method and failed, move on to something else. Select the best materials to construct your financial house. Always remember: Do what works for you.

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