It’s more predictable than the lame-ass jokes I make to start out every blog post. At least I don’t default all of my jokes to end with exclamation points so you can all tell when I’m joking!
Whoops. Oh well, no way to change that.
I’m talking about the reaction when somebody’s too good to believe it’s true story gets posted by a major media outlet.
Sean Cooper’s story about repaying his entire mortgage in three years is the biggest one in recent memory. While Cooper’s story hopped from CBC to the Globe and Mail to God knows where, so-called “online haters” were following closely behind, calling Cooper a loser for delaying consumption, living in a basement apartment, and going without the other luxuries most of us enjoy on a daily basis.
The story repeats itself over and over again. A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto Star profiled Anthony Molinaro, a 20-year old student who made $50,000 per year working a full-time job while also attending university. In an era where seemingly everybody graduates with a boatload of student loan debt, Molinaro plans to emerge from university in a couple of years with $80,000 in cash money, baby.
Related: How complaining about student loan debt is meaningless
The Star’s Facebook page was filled with all sorts of angry commenters. These haters pointed out that Molinaro is lucky that he can live at home during all of this, in a nice middle class home. He doesn’t have to worry about anything but sleeping, eating, going to work, and studying. This makes him incredibly privileged.
Personally, I have no problem with a person taking advantage of the advantages provided to you. If your parents want to give you an interest free loan to pay off student loans as an example, you’d be 19 different kinds of stupid to not accept that. As long as you take that advantage and run with it, I have no problem with using it.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re also pretty well off financially, at least compared to the average Facebook user or CBC.ca commenter. I’m also willing to bet you have the same sort of attitude about Cooper, Molinaro, or anyone like them as I do.
Good for them.
Sure, we can argue the semantics of each plan. When I wrote about Cooper’s pay off the mortgage at all costs strategy, I pointed out that interest rates are so low it’s pretty easy to make the argument that he would end up richer if that cash was put into investments.
But the point is as long as someone like him can maintain a reasonable savings rate from here on out, he’s likely to end up just fine. And hey, he can sit back, relax, and rub one out about how the four walls surrounding him are his, dammit.
So the question remains: why do people hate successful people so much? Well, like anything worth explaining, it’s a little complicated. But I’ll give it a shot.
Not just jealousy
When Cooper was asked about his online haters, he gave a simple answer.
They’re all jealous.
I’m the first to admit the simple answer is at least partially correct. People are jealous of those who are more successful than they are. This feeling is only human nature.
But at the same time, there’s far more to it than that. Articles about Warren Buffett are everywhere, and they’re not filled with hate-filled comments about how it was so much easier to make money investing back in the 1960s. I write a lot of articles about billionaire investors for Motley Fool Canada (follow me, yo!) and I can tell you that people LURVE billionaires.
Okay, so if it’s not jealousy, then why do these kinds of articles hit home with online haters?
Here’s my theory. First, let’s look at this from the perspective of an average Joe. He picks up the newspaper or heads to the newspaper’s website, looking for, well, the news. And right smack dab on the front of the business section is a story about some other Joe Schmoe who got ahead simply by working hard, saying his prayers, and taking his financial vitamins.
Newspapers do this because they know these stories sell. They create controversy which is fantastic for clicks. Personal finance bloggers and other general money nerds pick up on the story and help spread it. And finally, they’re timeless. A story featuring a successful regular guy can be saved for a slow news day, and then you can riff on it during another slow news day.
The average reader realizes none of this. All he sees is a regular guy on the screen with a smug smile, all but taunting him. Look at me. I’m richer than you.
This feeling goes far deeper than jealousy. Readers know enough about the newspaper business to have a rough idea how the process works. Guys like Sean Cooper and Anthony Molinaro aren’t there because some dogged biographer begged to feature them. They’re in that story because they want to be. I don’t care what you tell me, there’s a certain amount of “look at me” with every single one of these stories.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Without context, what does this picture tell you?
Photo courtesy: CBC
Don’t just scroll past this. Take a minute to really look at the picture.
Here we have a man in a tuxedo with a smug smile of satisfaction, surrounded by his friends, burning his mortgage papers. Not only is he (perceivably, anyway) happier than the average person reading the story, the media specifically points out how happy he is. He’s burning his mortgage, while the average reader is probably still struggling with any number of debts.
After I’ve said all this, you can imagine my frustration with people who just can’t get why the Coopers and Molinaros of the world get hate. It’s about perception, which is often more important than reality.
What this has to do with white guys
What? Aw jeez guys, Nelson’s crazy. STOP ACTING CRAZY.
Really, I promise this will all tie together by the end.
Throughout most of the last 500 years, it’s been good to be a white male. For a while, only they were allowed to own property. They controlled much (if not all) of the world’s wealth. They showed up in North America and not only rounded up the inhabitants, but killed most of them either directly or by giving them smallpox-infested blankets.
“What? We didn’t know!”
“Nice try, jerks.”
Depending on your perspective, you might even go further. Most European wars–including WWI and WWII–can be traced back to a few angry white guys. The Forbes 400 is dominated by white males. There’s ample evidence of minorities being treated badly in the United States, Canada, and other rich nations.
And so, a somewhat predictable backlash has occurred. People of color, women, and other folks who feel marginalized have started fighting for what they feel is their rightful slice of the pie. They want power, influence, and money just as much as everyone else.
There’s one problem with this movement. It pretty much consistently craps on what it considers to be a big problem–white males. Which is all fine and good, except it omits one pretty important detail.
Most white men are struggling.
We only have to look at the economic statistics if you doubt what’s happening. Debt levels are at record highs. Houses are crazy expensive across the country with Toronto and Vancouver fully embracing insane valuation mode. Good jobs for uneducated folks are few and far between. You can’t even make money working oil anymore.
For every Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Jim Pattison in the world, there are millions of guys like my unemployed friend or my acquaintance that works cutting meat at a grocery store.
This has happened before, of course. History is filled with economic slowdowns and periods of tepid growth. The difference between back then and now is white males had other avenues. Men’s groups were very much a thing.
Men looking to commiserate with other men could join the Elks (in Canada, anyway), Freemasons, or one of many men’s only groups at golf courses, curling clubs, and so on. Hell, sitting around the barber shop used to be a thing.
Not only do these clubs not exist in 2016, but ones that get started are actively criticized by feminists, college students, recent grads, and other people who feel men gathering is some sort of indirect threat.
So men are forced to commiserate in different ways. They might become interested in the Men’s Rights movement. They might vote for candidates and parties (*coughHarperandTrumpcough*) who are openly anti-immigrant, hoping that slowing down population growth will allow them to get a bigger piece of the pie. Or they might do nothing, choosing to reluctantly embrace today’s new reality.
Or they might see a guy burning his mortgage papers and get pissed off. So they let out a little frustration and leave an angry internet comment or two. They become the much maligned online haters.
We live in a world where arguing online is filled with four-letter words and insults. Go to Reddit if you don’t believe me. We also live in a world where folks with different opinions than ours are chastised for not only disagreeing with us, but for being pretty much the worst people in the history of the planet simply because they agree with us on important issues.
We all know people who actually get mad at people who don’t hold the same political beliefs as they do. Hell, I know people (not just one, but several) who legitimately believe Donald Trump will lead us to a nuclear war.
We’re more divided than ever, in other words.
We live in a world that’s becoming more angry and less equal every day. People like me and (probably) you are somewhat isolated from this phenomenon, since we tend to be doing pretty well and probably spend our time with people who are equally secure. We have to stop acting surprised that the people who are being left behind have the audacity to be upset by their lack of success.
I used white guys as an example, but this isn’t just limited to them. We live in a world where just about every group is marginalized by some other group. If we learned to get along and emphasize with those without as much money as us, a nicer world would be the result.
Those of you that have been around the ol’ FU Machine for a few years now might label me as a bit of a cynical bastard. After all, I’ve crapped on your dreams to buy a house, invest solely in stocks that pay dividends, retire early, and told you that, no, that hot chick doesn’t like you. Look, I don’t care if she actually told you she does and stuck her tongue down your throat. She’s just being a tease. Trust me, I know.
It’s not that I’m really cynical. I like to think of myself as more realistic. Look at it this way. There are approximately 5,000 publicly traded stocks in North America, and I own fewer than 20 of them. There’s probably a case to be made for owning 4,000 of those stocks. I just think the case for owning the stocks I do is better than owning something random. In other words, I’m betting on my specific horse, not the field.
I still think the world of private investments is better than that of passive stocks. Most people simply refuse to buy businesses, which brings down valuations for those of us willing to take the plunge. Even things like blogs sell for very reasonable multiples, partly because when you buy something like that you’re really just buying yourself a little extra work.
Basically, it boils down to this. Every opportunity has pros and cons. Passive investments tend to have high valuations. Starting your own business from scratch is risky but potentially very lucrative. And buying a business from someone means you’ve condemned yourself into a world of active management without a clear-cut plan to scale a business upwards.
When you focus solely on the downside of an opportunity, it becomes really easy to dismiss it out of hand. This leads to inaction, which is perhaps one of the worst things you can do to your money.
Opportunity costs are real
I know too many value investors who are too content to let capital sit on the sidelines for years, waiting for the right opportunity.
Some of these guys are convinced the market has been overvalued since at least 2013, and that we’re just a few months away from a 2009-style crash.
And hell, these guys are downright reasonable compared to precious metal nuts. These guys have 50% of their portfolio in stupid stuff like silver coins or gold bars, convinced the world is going to go to hell. Only then will they be kings, exchanging their precious metals in exchange for the loveliest of bodies. FINALLY, GOLD NUTS WILL GET THEIR DUE.
Sure, gold or silver might go up, but that stuff will never pay you a dividend or anything like that. Precious metals have barely beaten inflation over time.
Besides, the problem with looking at the world in that way is you miss out on a lot of opportunity.
I’m the first to admit I think the Canadian stock market looks expensive and the U.S. might be even worse. But countries like Russia, Brazil, and others are downright cheap. There’s opportunity in the developing world today.
It’s the same thing with real estate. I invested in the sector back in the early 2000s, earning great returns on my cash. And then everyone else noticed the space, so I left. These days I still invest in real estate, but through private mortgages and through undervalued REITs.
I’m still finding ways to invest in things, just not via the ways everyone else is.
As long as you keep your eyes open, there will always be opportunities. I’m 95% invested right now, with my 5% cash position mostly as a cash buffer to pay for any big expenses. You should be too.
There’s a term I heard the other day describing this phenomenon that I really like. It’s called having an optimism bias.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the reason why most billionaires became rich is because they have a built-in optimism bias. There’s more to it than that, obviously (hard work and intelligence help), but having the ability to continually put money to work even when things might not look so good is an underrated skill.
I’m not saying you need to run out and buy everything all of the time. That’s silly. You can be selective and still have a healthy optimism bias. It’s not hard for a retail investor to avoid 99% of the market and still end up with a good diversified portfolio. Hell, you can even make the decision to avoid the stock market altogether and invest in private businesses or lending money to your cousin’s real estate business.
The key is to selectively identify opportunities and put your money to work in them. Having a good optimism bias doesn’t mean you invest in everything or even that you’re 100% fully invested. What it does mean is that you’re not afraid to put money to work in opportunities you find attractive.
Master the fear of losing money and you’ll be ahead of your peers. That’s the key. And remember, if the world goes to hell and you lose all your money, you’ll at least have plenty of sympathy.
The world of personal finance is an odd one to outside observers.
I know it’s tough, but picture yourself as someone who doesn’t give two craps about the world of money. You’ve been transformed from someone who actually loses sleep if you don’t save 30% of your income to someone who regularly makes it rain with $20s at the club.
We all hate the new you, by the way. You better change back immediately.
Whew, that was a rough six seconds, huh?
Nobody wants to be that friend who doesn’t care about money. What will he do about retirement? What will he do when he loses his job? What will he do if his car breaks down? OMG YOU GUYS HE’LL NEVER EXPERIENCE THE SEXUAL THRILL OF GETTING DIVIDEND CHEQUES.
That poor bastard.
How can anyone live a life where they don’t have a safety net? Don’t these people know that something will inevitably go wrong? Don’t they know that you have a one in four chance of being disabled in your life? How do they live knowing they’re only two weeks of non-work away from a disaster?
We all know the answer to this, of course. They’re aware these risks exist. They either choose to downplay them or ignore them completely. If they really get into financial straits, they’ll just throw up their hands and default on debts. Easy come, easy go.
A different way of looking at things
From our perspective, this way of life seems pretty normal. We think a lot about money because we like it. We like having it, we like saving it, and we even like spending it–responsibly, of course. We like the freedom of making money outside of our day jobs and collecting dividends. And ultimately, I’d say most of us lust for the freedom financial independence provides.
To get to that ultimate goal, the average personal finance blogger does some stuff no sane person would ever do. In fact, I’d probably come out and argue pretty strongly that most of the activities we do aren’t healthy at all.
Be honest. How many of the following things have you done or currently do?
- Check your bank/investment balance more than once a day?
- Intentionally missed out on fun activities because they would take away from your savings goals?
- Ate bad food for the sole purpose of saving money?
- Became emotional because of mild swings in the stock market?
- Got mad because of the lack of savings habits from your parents/friends/other finance bloggers
- Read hours and hours of money saving tips that are just the same old tips recycled for the 9th time?
There’s more, but you get the picture.
Let me put this next part in bold because it’s important.
People with a healthy relationship with money don’t check balances several times a day or get emotional because of normal swings in the market. These are the behaviors of people with a deeply unhealthy relationship with their cash.
Think about your average debt blogger. They go from an orgy in spending to complete celibacy, vowing to not only never spend a nickel on non-essentials again, but to do so while channeling 100% of their disposable income back towards paying off that debt. Sacrifices will be made, and they’re more than happy to make them and finally get their lives back in order.
In short, this person swings from one type of obsession to another. But they’re not doing anything about the root causes of what causes the obsession in the first place. They’re just moving along from shiny object to shiny object, but this time writing a blog about the process.
Is it any wonder these people don’t have a great success rate?
Debt bloggers aren’t the only ones who suffer from this. When Sean Cooper paid off his mortgage in three years, people mocked him for working 80+ hours a week and eating Kraft Dinner while the rest of his peers went out and had fun. Cooper had the last laugh, proclaiming it was all worth it when he finally paid off his house.
What Cooper and the rest of the people who support his decision missed were the very legitimate arguments against his strategy. Investing in the market would likely have given him higher returns over time. Renting out the top floor of his house ensured he had an investment that was cash flow positive.
But most importantly, they all missed the all-important fact that people with psychological issues surrounding money are the ones that “need” a mortgage gone in a short amount of time. Normal people don’t need that boost. Normal people recognize a mortgage is a debt that takes a while to pay off, and plan their lives accordingly.
In several interviews Cooper mentioned his mother’s financial troubles as a source of inspiration. Isn’t it possible that he overcompensated for these issues?
Another example? Don’t mind if I do
There are essentially two types of finance blogs. One is directed towards the reader, while the other becomes a sort of diary for the person writing. In the latter, we’re treated to thousands of words every week, outlining everything from the personal finance blogger’s budget to their plans to buy property three to five years from now.
How much of a down payment do I need?
What size of house should I buy?
Should I buy now in case I get priced out of the market forever?
How can I pick the best Realtor?
And so on.
You’ll notice a key letter is bolded in all of those questions. These blogs are unabashedly all about the proprietor and their future plans; their hopes and dreams; and their financial journey.
When we look at these types of sites as a sort of personal diary, they don’t seem so bad. After all, diaries have existed as long as paper has been around.
When we look at these blogs from another perspective, a different story starts to emerge. What kind of person spends many hours a week thinking about financial goals that won’t happen for years? Who feels the need to explain the tiniest minutiae of their financial lives to an awaiting audience? And perhaps most importantly, why do any of us care?
And ultimately, somebody with a healthy relationship with money doesn’t spend hours and hours preparing for a financial decision that’s years away.
We’re all guilty of this
I’m hardly one to talk. There are more than 1,100 posts in my archives, some of which aren’t entirely dick jokes and scantily clad ladies. And although I’ve made an active effort to avoid talking about my own personal life most of the time, plenty of these articles have been posted over the years.
And when going over my list above, I’ve been guilty of just about all of those money-related sins. When my stocks go down, it sucks. I try to get over it pretty quickly, but it still affects me.
We collectively spend thousands and thousands of hours obsessing with our finances. Our friends and acquaintances don’t, yet they still seem to do okay. Sure, they might have to scramble a few times in their lives, but a full 99.8% of the time they survive just fine.
I’m not suggesting we all turn into these people. What I am suggesting is that once we get all the heavy lifting started and on a path to financial independence, perhaps it’s fine to take our minds away from the subject of money sometimes. In other words, stop sweating the details so much. It’s the first step for all of us to improve our own relationship with money, which, in this world, isn’t healthy.
Ah, it’s the frugal vs. cheap debate.
Frankly, I think the whole exercise is stupid with a side dish of dumb. Arguing about whether you’re frugal or cheap is kind of like arguing whether you like cheeseburgers or hamburger sandwiches with cheese better. They’re the same damn sandwich. Likewise, frugal and cheap people share a lot of the same characteristics.
The big difference between the two, I’m told, is that frugal people are willing to spend money on things that are worth it, while cheap people don’t even spend on the necessities. As an example, a frugal person is willing to spend on a nice meal out, while the cheapskate will barely shell out for value menu items at McDonald’s, content to eat grilled cheese sandwiches in his basement apartment in the dark.
Hey, fat cat, electric bulbs cost pennies each hour to use. What do you think I am, some sort of baller?
Essentially, frugal people will spend money on stuff they value, while cheap people don’t spend money on anything. So if you’re driving around in a Mustang (LADIES! PLEASE HAVE SEX WITH ME!) while eating boring beans and rice for every meal, you’re probably a frugal guy who’s going to get scurvy if he doesn’t mix in a damn orange every once in a while.
I find this difference to be spotty at best. Every person prioritizes certain things over others, it doesn’t matter if you’re Trent Hamm cheap or you’re a rapper making it rain $20s at the club. Even people like Warren Buffett with unlimited amounts of money still prioritize.
While I think this whole frugal vs. cheap argument is dumb, I’ll admit getting upset about it is 14 different kinds of useless. Time spent arguing about the meaning of frugal could be spent on any number of actual useful things, including showing your grandma how to use the computer or listening to your kid butcher Chopsticks at a piano recital.
There is, however, one reason why I think the frugal vs. cheap debate matters. Do you want to know what it is? OOOH I’M SUCH A TEASE.
Price ≠ Value
Teasing and fancy symbolizin’ in back-to-back sentences. I spoil you guys.
The perfect way to point out that price and value are two very different things is my MacBook Pro.
A little over three years ago, I was in the market for a new laptop. I asked a bunch of fellow bloggers and various homeless guys just for fun, and most told me the same thing. Go with a Mac. Yes, it would cost more day one, but it would come with a better user experience without suffering the same sharp drop-off in performance that afflicts PCs after a year or two.
So I paid $1,200 for a laptop even though comparable PC-branded machines sold for about $600. Hey, I was making the frugal choice.
Three years later I now truly realize just how wrong I was. It barely had enough computing power to be a good machine back in 2013. By the time 2016 rolled around it can barely handle having more than a few programs and a half dozen tabs open at once. And those aren’t even porn tabs.
I’ve already had to replace one power cord (at a cost of $99.99), and the second one is damn close to shredding into 159 pieces.
And finally, certain keys on the keyboard stop working at random points. When I troubleshoot this issue online, the solution suggested is take the machine back to Apple because the electrical circuits behind the keyboard are starting to crap out.
One of these days the connection will be lost foever and I’ll have to connect an external keyboard if I want to do complex things like compose an email or go on Twitter. That’s just friggin’ outstanding.
What I neglected to realize when I was buying this laptop was exactly what I was looking for. Macs are heavy on looking good and offering a more user-friendly experience. I care very little about certain Mac efficiencies and even less about impressing some random hipster in a Starbucks in Omaha.
I didn’t need what a Mac offered. All I needed was a machine I could use to write, go online, and so on. I’m no graphic designer and I couldn’t care less what brand is on the outside of my machine. Hell, I’d sell advertising space if I could convince anyone to pay for it.
Like a lot of people, I made the mistake of assuming the more expensive machine would be the better value. It hasn’t been the case. Yeah, my MacBook is going to last longer than the Gateway $349 laptop I bought before it, but not long enough to justify the $851 price difference. I might get a year longer, tops.
The bigger picture
Companies know we automatically equate higher priced things as being the better value, and so they price things accordingly. Apple gets this better than almost anyone. There’s a reason why it’s the world’s largest company.
The relationship between price and value isn’t as simple as you think. Even if you cook often, the difference between a $20 pot and a $400 one probably isn’t enough to justify the difference in price. If you can get 99% of the experience the $400 one offers for $50, wouldn’t you be smarter to buy the $50 one?
Besides, people aren’t smart enough to consistently make the best buying decisions. We let salespeople talk us into things. We’ll often make up our minds before we even go into a store or go onto Amazon. Opinions from friends we know are morons hold weight, for some reason.
And even if we make the wrong choice, we talk ourselves into believing we made the right one. How do you even know the $200 pot was worth it? You don’t have any basis for comparison.
The point of all this? Making the so-called “frugal” choice is a hell of a lot more complicated than just buying a more expensive item and declaring yourself done with the exercise. I’d be willing to bet that people who go the cheap route are happy more than the frugal people are willing to admit. And they end up with more cash in their wallets.
Since y’all are reading this here personal finance blog, I can deduce from SCIENCE! that you’re more likely to have the kind of disposable income needed to take a trip. And not just a trip down to the local 7-11 for a slurpee and smokes, either. An international trip.
(Aside: My favorite thing ever are Canada/U.S. border towns that claim they have international airports. Yeah, I’m real impressed by your one non-stop flight per week to Lethbridge, Great Falls. Way to keep your only TSA agent employed)
Some of you take this whole trip thing another step further, choosing to work in a different country. I
sort of worked illegally squatted in my (then) girlfriend’s apartment while she was making bank in Korea. Sure, it only had one room and I’ve stayed in hotel rooms bigger, but it was FREE, baby. That’s my favorite word. Well, at least next to cheeseburgers.
When we were there, Vanessa would periodically transfer money back to her Canadian bank account. We would get around this somewhat by taking both my and her spending money out of her Korean bank account, but that still left her with ample cash that had to eventually end up back in Canada.
She ended up taking the easy way out and paying for a wire transfer from her Korean bank to her Canadian one. But there were a few problems with that. It cost a fortune, with the amount going up or down depending on many factors, including the mood of whatever teller she dealt with. The money would take days to end up in Canada, And trying to tell Koreans not used to dealing with foreigners what she wanted to do proved difficult. Does anyone know Korean for “wire transfer”? It’s probably too late now anyway.
There are other solutions, primarily using a third party foreign exchange company. What you do is wire the money to the intermediary, who converts it to the currency you want. They then take the money and transfer it to your domestic bank account.
There are plenty of reasons to do it this way. These transfer companies take smaller fees to do the transaction than banks, especially if you’re dealing with larger amounts of currency. And they take less on the foreign exchange spread. A difference of 1% isn’t much when you’re talking about dollars. It really adds up when you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.
Related: exchange Canadian bucks for U.S. Dollars cheaply using Norbert’s Gambit.
There’s also the speed issue. Vanessa had to wait up to a week for her transfers to get from South Korea to Canada, and that was from developed banking system to developed banking system. Imagine if she were sending money from some backwards country like America. Or Belgium.
These FX companies will transfer the money much quicker, with the cash generally ending up in your account between 24 and 48 hours after you send the money out. Much quicker than the traditional system.
Look at it this way. A bank views sending money to Canada as a way to really make bank (tee hee I’m punny) on fees. They get a fee to either send or receive the cash, as well as taking the spread in exchanging currencies. A money transfer company only transfers money. They’ve built systems that ensure the customer pays less and they can still make money on the transaction.
Capitalism is the best, y’all.
There are a million options out there for someone looking to transfer cash. You can use Western Union, Paypal, wire transfers, or a money transfer company. Each has pros and cons, but when looking at it from a pure cost perspective, it’s hard to beat some of these money transfer companies.