The Total Money Makeover: Build Wealth Like Crazy

This is the eleventh of twelve parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, where this book on debt reduction is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the twelfth chapter, finishing on page 218. The final entry, covering the thirteenth chapter, will appear on Saturday.

ttmmA financial recovery plan reminds me of a well-thought-out video game. The first levels are fairly easy – get a $1,000 emergency fund, build the snowball, and so on. The middle levels get harder – saving big for retirement and college. The final level is very hard – getting completely debt free.

So now we’ve beat the game. The princess is no longer in another castle.

But where do we go next? Anywhere you want.

Three Good Uses for Money
On page 204, Dave argues that there are really only three:

After years of studying, teaching, and even preaching on this subject across America, I can find only three good uses for money. Money is good for FUN. Money is good to INVEST. And money is good to GIVE. Most anything else you find to do with it doesn’t represent good mental and spiritual health on your part.

I agree for the most part with what’s being said here. Pretty much everything worthwhile that one could do with money revolves around fun, investing, or giving – or some combination thereof.

I spent some time asking myself what sorts of things I would do if money were no object. I’d probably give a serious crack at writing a great novel. I’d move out in the country somewhere with a lot of trees and a pasture. I’d probably spend two or three months a year living in another country. I’d consider homeschooling, but not without a lot of research.

In short, I’d do a lot of things that are just extensions of my values. I wouldn’t really become a different person even if I had limitless money.

When Dave says that things you would find to do that aren’t fun, investing, or giving would constitute poor mental or spiritual health, I think what he’s getting at is that some of the spending choices made by people who suddenly have plenty of money go away from the core values that get them there. Stick with what’s really important to you, and you’ll be fine.

On page 207:

The grown-up inside us likes the INVESTING of money because that is part of what makes you wealthy. Also, the growing dollars are a way of keeping score in our Total Money Makeover game.

I like the idea of keeping score, because I think it’s important no matter where you are in your financial turnaround. I’ve kept careful track of my family’s net worth since 2006 on a monthly basis (I even did it weekly for a while) and I found that watching the progress of it is incredibly motivating.

It’s pretty simple. Each month, I calculate my net worth, adding up all of my debts compared to all of my assets (my assets are the balances of my investment accounts and the tax assessed value of my home, nothing else) and see where I stand compared to previous months. Almost every month, my net worth goes up – it only takes a hit when I do something major, like buying a car.

This is a good sign. Your overall balance of assets and debts should improve every single month unless there is a very big, very significant purchase in the way.

Keeping score is a huge psychological motivator, no matter what you’re doing. Personal finance is no different.

Simple Investing
Many people get obsessed with perfect portfolios and the like – I admit that I find it personally interesting, too. But is it necessary? On page 208:

You can choose to be a little more sophisticated, but until you have over $10 million, I would keep your investing pretty simple. You can clutter your life with a bunch of unnecessary stress by getting into extremely complex investments. I use simple mutual funds and debt-free real estate as my investment mix – very clean, simple investments with some basic tax advantages.

In other words, if you own less than $10 million in investments and things are so complicated you’re using a financial planner, it’s time to simplify. Unless you have a huge bankroll, the advantages of getting too complex are eaten up completely by the complexity itself.

I agree with this, with one caveat: if you actually enjoy managing your investments yourself, by all means, jump into the deep end of the pool. To put it frankly, I enjoy it to a certain extent, but I’m nowhere near as interested in it as I am in other areas of my life. Investments are a tool to get me to where I want to be, in my eyes.

If things are so complicated that you need a financial planner and you’re not exorbitantly rich, you’re paying that planner for a service you don’t really need. You’re far better off learning a little bit about investing and taking care of it yourself using the countless services out there. Don’t pay a salesman to be the middle man – it’s not that hard.

The “Pinnacle Point”
Dave gets really into the concept of the “pinnacle point,” going on about it for several pages. I’ll pick out a money quote, on page 211:

It is hard to describe reaching the “Pinnacle Point” without some emotion. This Baby Step takes us to the point at which your money works harder than you do, the “Pinnacle Point.” It is the instant in time where focused gazelle intensity has reached critical mass, and your money takes on a life of its own.

I’ve had inklings of this feeling here and there. I noticed it most strongly during the handful of months just before we moved from the apartment to our home, when I had very little debt at all and the vast majority of my income was going straight into savings for it. It was amazing watching the savings grow at that rate. I was living my life happily and the money was just racking up.

Over the last two years, with my job change (resulting in a loss of income but an increase in personal happiness), the stock market downturn, and our home mortgage, I’ve lost some of that sense of the “pinnacle point” – and I miss it. I want back there pretty badly at times and I’m currently evaluating my income and other choices to figure out how exactly to get myself back there as efficiently as possible without sacrificing what we have.

I don’t think there is a strict dollar amount that matches up with the “pinnacle point” – it varies a lot between people and situations. I think it happens when you don’t have any debt, have a real, adult income, and aren’t spending most of it – the savings just rolls along.

One of the big things I look forward to in the future is more giving. I have some plans for charitable giving and a lot of volunteer work once I reach that “pinnacle point” and I know that my family is safe and my children are protected from whatever may happen to me.

Dave gives several impassioned examples of the personal power of giving, but one sentence on page 215 sums it up:

The givers often report having more fun than the receivers.

The ability to do something that makes a positive change in someone else’s life is incredible. I’ve been able to see that in things I’ve done already in my life, and every time I’ve perhaps received more joy from it than the person receiving the gift.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try it sometime. Help out someone who really needs it in a pinch. If you hear about someone who is really in trouble, give them $100, no questions asked, and see how they react. Spend a day working for a volunteer project. The impact on you is amazing.

Sure, there are some people out there who don’t see any value in this. Personally, I think I’ll avoid such people.

Do Something
I think there is some danger of becoming a miser if you watch every penny for too long. As Dave says on page 217:

Someone who never has fun with money misses the point. Someone who never invests money will never have any. Someone who never gives is a monkey with his hand in a bottle.

In other words, if you have a lot of money and your bases are all covered, do something with it. If you’re not, what is the point?

I know of a person who lives in what I would describe as shocking poverty. This person lives in a trailer on the verge of falling apart, rarely does anything outside of the home, eats an awful lot of bologna and cheese, and counts every single penny. This person is bitter and unhappy most of the time, wondering why others have fun when this person does not.

That person I mention has over a million dollars in the bank.

What’s the point of having that money if you don’t enjoy your life? Sure, there’s no reason to just throw money out the window, but making your life miserable in exchange for a few more dollars in the bank – particularly when your bases are covered – isn’t a good trade at all.

Do you have any other thoughts on this chapter of The Total Money Makeover? Please share them in the comments – and feel free to respond to any of my impressions as well. After all, a good book club is all about discussion!

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the thirteenth chapter – Live Like No One Else.

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