A father's advice to his daughters about debt, saving and investing may just be the best financial literacy lesson you'll read this year.
November is Financial Literacy Month, and that means a deluge of tips from banks, consumer groups and financial industry professional groups and regulators. But a note that Chris Brown of Winnipeg recently sent to me beats them all as a source of advice on money.
Mr. Brown is a 62-year-old former university lecturer (astronomy and data management). Recently, he created a smart money manifesto for his two daughters and sent a copy to me by e-mail. "My wife and I are happily retired in part thanks to you and your years of advice," he said. "There's nothing new to you in the advice below that I am passing on to my 30-something kids. I'm just sending it so you know how helpful you've been."
Thanks for that, Mr. Brown. Your basics of personal finance and investing are so good they demand to be shared with other readers. Here are Brown's Rules, in a slightly edited form:
1. Spread the pain of saving and pleasure of spending over your whole life.
Don't save so much now that you're eating Kraft Dinner every night, and don't spend so much now that you're eating Kraft Dinner every night when you're 75. Care for yourself equally at all ages.
2. Get out of debt and stay out of debt.
The only good debt is one where the value of what you bought increases more each year than the interest rate you're paying. For most people, the only thing that does that is a house or property. Every other kind of debt gives your hard earned money to the bank or credit card company.
3. Come up with a realistic cost of retirement.
Estimate how much it would cost for you to live a simple but enjoyable retirement today (forget the world cruises), then estimate how much inflation will increase that number in 35 years. That's your target. Remember that your mortgage will be paid off, but health-care costs will be higher.
4. Leave your home out of your retirement income plan.
You have to live somewhere all your life. I have watched a number of people sell their big homes and move into something smaller. In the end, most of them got very little cash out of the deal for one reason or another. There are too many places for it to leak away. Choose a house that is just the right size for your family and resist getting something bigger. It just costs more to operate and maintain. Do not be house rich and cash poor.
5. Hire an investment planner who does not sell any investment products of any kind.
These people charge by the hour. That's their only income, so they have to provide value for money the first time and every time you meet with them. Anyone who also sells a product can't help but be biased. It's just human nature.
6. Don't plan for inheritance, lottery winnings or other windfalls to fund your retirement.
It's wonderful if they come to pass, but for most people they do not. You can't bank on them.
Have at least three to four different investment types, so that if one chokes, the others will carry you through. Stocks, bonds, private property other than your home, and long-term bank savings are a good mix to consider.
8. Plan to be in your investments for 50 years or more.
Your kids can inherit what you don't use.
9. Don't try to time investment ups and downs when buying and selling.
That's gambling. Buy a little bit every month, or every three months. Over 50 years all the ups and downs will average out.
10. Don't assume everything will work out on its own.
It won't. Retirement planning takes clear vision and steady effort year after year. You will have to give up some of life's pleasures today in order to have them later. Don't gamble with your future. Kraft Dinner is only fun once in a while.
11. Don't gamble with individual stocks. Buy whole stock markets.
Stocks are an important part of every investment plan. Over the years they go up not just with productivity but also with inflation so they protect you against that. The main problem with stocks is that people buy just a few different companies they like. Unless you have had many years of financial training, that's pure gambling.
Buy whole stock markets. For example, buy a low cost mutual fund or exchange-traded fund that tracks the entire stock market. These are called index funds and they track indexes with hundreds of stocks.
12. Don't worry if markets crash.
Never panic sell – that is a guaranteed way to lose money. Markets always go up again. It just takes some time. Sometimes, if I have a little cash lying around, I buy a little extra when the market crashes.
What's your advice?
We'll round up the best answers and publish them online as part of our Financial Literacy Month coverage.