In the Interest of Transparency: My Personal Finances and Approach to Money
When I first started writing about personal finance, it’s safe to say that I didn’t really know what I was doing. That’s why I mostly took the approach of sharing what I was learning in regards to finance as well as sharing experiences I had already acquired. Additionally, I’ve often strived to give context for this advice as I’m keenly aware that not everything I say or suggest will apply to everyone’s situation. As important as this is to me, I realized I could actually do more.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed the book The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel — and it was awesome! While I loved the book overall, one part I thought was really interesting was at the end when the author disclosed some of his personal finance realities and beliefs. Similar to how Joshua Becker’s The More of Less inspired me to start decluttering my home, this section of Housel’s book (coupled with some of his other insights) inspired me to share a closer look at my personal finances, including how much I make, what I like to do with my disposable income, how I choose to invest, and what goals I’m currently working on. So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
How much we make
First, before I jump into what I do with my money, I should probably share how much I actually have. Between the two of us, my wife and I currently have a gross income of about $50,000 a year. However, since we’re both self-employed, our adjusted gross income (after business expenses) is significantly lower. As I’ve previously explained, this sum also goes a lot further in Springfield, Missouri — where we moved in 2015 because of this fact — than it did in Los Angeles. Thus, while we net what I think is a fairly modest amount, we’re able to make it count, allowing us to enjoy today while saving for tomorrow.
What we like to spend our money on
Travel (including business travel)
One of our favorite things to spend money on is travel. Luckily for us, we get to (or got to, pre-pandemic) do this a decent amount of time as part of our work. Of course, this typically means traveling to cities that have Disney Parks — but, every once in awhile, we do get to mix it up.
Even though we are technically “business travelers,” we do tend to keep things fairly frugal when we do go jetsetting. This includes choosing practicality over poshness. For example, if we’re going to end up in a suite, it’s because it has a kitchenette we can use instead of eating out and not because it’s fancier. In my view, while this balanced approach still allows us to be comfortable on our travels and do the things we want to do, cutting back on unnecessary expenses lets us embark on more trips overall.
When I look around at some of the most valuable possessions in our apartment, nearly all of them are pieces of tech. Specifically, this includes our various devices such as our desktop computer, laptops, phones, and newly-acquired iPad. Incidentally, all of these items also come from the same company: Apple.
Obviously Apple has a few different reputations depending on if you’re a fan of them or not. For us, while their machines are definitely pricier than some of their competitors, we’ve been happy with the longevity of these items. To be clear, while we value quality tech, we don’t tend to opt for the bleeding edge, latest and greatest. Instead, we might buy a model phone that’s a year or two older, a middle-of-the-line laptop, etc. Again, it’s really a balancing act for us — even if Apple does have a way of instilling tech-envy in fans every few months.
Dining, entertainment, and other experiences
Something I’ve discussed a few times before is that my wife and I maintain a tradition we call Together Tuesday. Typically, this involves going out to eat on Tuesday nights or occasionally doing other activities. Naturally, this has evolved some in recent months, but Tuesday remains our night to splurge on food we don’t have to cook. Even though none of these dinners cross the $50 mark (maybe a smidge over once a quarter or so), I still feel that this level of spending should be acknowledged since it’s one of the first categories that most experts recommend cutting back on.
Elsewhere, back when movie theatres we a thing, you could bet that we’d always be catching a screening of the latest Marvel film on opening night (and probably having dinner there too, since we do love Alamo Drafthouse Cinema). And then, of course, there are little one-off elements of entertainment or experiences, either at home or while we’re away that we allow ourselves to indulge in. I wish I could be more specific here, but it’s really a “you know it when you see it” kind of a thing for us in terms of deciding what’s worth our hard-earned cash.
Finally, from time to time, we do like to feel just a little bit fancy. This could mean buying a Coach bag at the outlet store, shelling out for an Amex Platinum card (which did return its value and then some, for the record), or buying a used Lexus when it was time to replace our old vehicle. As you can see, in all of these cases, there’s a fair bit of compromise but, all things considered, they are splurges that we enjoy even if they may not be the best use of our funds.
How we invest
Our Roth IRA
Currently, our main source of retirement savings is our Roth IRA. This one is actually in my wife’s name and is invested in a mutual fund via her long-time bank PNC. I’m excited to say that, for the past two years, we’ve managed to max out our contribution to this account. Additionally, after looking around the PNC site, it seems we can use funds in the IRA to purchase ETFs and other investments, so we may try to go that route since the fees on our mutual fund are higher. On that note, looking back, I might not have chosen the mutual fund option knowing what I know now — but it could definitely be worse. Meanwhile, I also have a traditional IRA of my own, but it just houses my 401(k) rollover for now.
Individual stocks (via apps)
Overall, I’d describe my investing style as fairly conservative and low maintenance. Because of this, I don’t own a ton of individual stocks. However, I do own a few (as in, like, three) shares of Disney as well as some fractional shares of Delta, Starbucks, American Express, and a handful of others I’ve purchased using Robinhood, SoFi Invest, Square Cash, and other platforms. In all, these positions amount to less than $1,000, but it’s fun to have this little investing outlet when most of my portfolio is, for lack of a better term, boring.
Index fund (in taxable account)
Finally, last year I opened what I called a “real brokerage account” (as opposed to those in the FinTech apps) with Vanguard. After setting aside $3,000, I was able to buy admiral shares of $VFIAX — their S&P 500 fund. Since then, I’ve added a couple hundred dollars here and there, but haven’t maintained the same frequency I intended. Nevertheless, I’m glad this account is there and I look forward to utilizing it more down the road.
Our current money goals
Increasing our investments
As I mentioned, I currently have a traditional IRA in my name that doesn’t get a lot of love. Because of this, having been able to max out our Roth IRA contributions two years running, the next logical step is to strive for the same with the other IRA. Meanwhile, that begs the question of what to do with the Vanguard taxable account. Personally, while I think that the IRA may be the better priority overall, part of me would rather focus on the Vanguard account just in case I need to access those funds. This gives a small idea of how my brain works when it comes to finance — and highlights the fact that I don’t know everything about money (in case that somehow wasn’t clear).
When we moved to Springfield five years ago, neither of us had ever even been to Missouri before. Yet, all these years later, I don’t regret the decision at all and I think we actually choose quite wisely. Heck, I think we even choose the perfect part of town to live in, down to the block. That said, our apartment wasn’t exactly the greatest when we moved in and the flaws of it have only grown more evident over time. The only problem is that there aren’t many other options in the area we love so much, save a new community where rent prices are quite a bit higher than where we are now.
In this matter, I’m really of two minds. On the one hand, paying just $640 for a two-bedroom apartment seems like a deal we should hold onto for as long as possible. After all, is it worth spending hundreds more per month for some newer features and fresher carpet? On the other hand, I feel like you should like where you live. Is it worth spending more if it means having more pride in our home and feeling like we can invite people over (eventually)? I honestly don’t know, but one thing’s for sure: I’d need to be making a bit more to justify the cost. Which brings me to money goal three…
To be clear, my wife and I are quite comfortable with our current lifestyle, including our income. At the same time, if we do want to move to a nicer place or perhaps even purchase a home someday, we will need to turn up that dial a bit. That’s why I’ve been working to grow my YouTube channel, in hopes that it can bring us a little extra revenue. Hopefully that can help a bit, but the truth is that I’d need more diversity in my income before I’d feel safe banking on that money. So what’s a man to do? I’ll let you know if/when I figure that out.
Personal finance is personal. That’s a saying I take to heart. This doesn’t mean that money should be a private matter — quite the opposite actually — but it does mean that there are few pieces of financial advice that will apply across the board. In acknowledgment of that, I hope this brief look at my money background, beliefs, and how my brain works can help you connect better with where I’m coming from when I do write about personal finance. On that note, thanks for reading!
Also published on Medium.