How to Think About Money

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How does one normally think about money? How should one think about money?

The answer to the first question, at least for me, has typically been what money can buy. For a lot of years, money bought me stuff.

 

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In grade school, money bought me football cards and candy. In high school, money paid for movies and first dates. There may have even been a second date one time, but that’s not important.

In college, money paid for tuition and beer. I also spent money on food, clothing, gas, rent, and more beer. The older you get, the more things there are to buy with your money. Furniture, televisions, stereos, gas grills, instant pots, electric bikes, curling shoes, you name it. You also need some shelter for yourself, your family, and all that stuff.

Eventually, though, you get to a point where you realize you’ve already bought all the things you need to live a happy, productive, and efficient life. In fact, if you’re like me or any of the millions of other non-minimalists out there, you’ve bought much more than you’re ever going to need.

When you reach that place in adulthood where you realize buying more stuff or purchasing replacement things for the perfectly acceptable things you already own is pointless, it’s time to reframe the way you think about money.

Fortunately, there’s a book for that.

 

How to Think About Money

 

After reading The White Coat Investor’s Review over a year ago, I knew this was a book I needed to read. I’ve enjoyed following author Jonathan Clements‘ work on The Humble Dollar, and he’s got a stellar resume, having written for The Wall Street Journal for more than two decades. It didn’t hurt that Dr. Dahle said it might be the best financial book he’s read in five years.

What attracted me to the book wasn’t the author’s experience and reputation, but rather his message. As I read that review, I kept nodding and nodding and thinking Yes, Yes, a hundred times Yes!

I reached out to Mr. Clements via Twitter (@ClementsMoney), told him how much I knew I would love the book, and how I’d be happy to write a review of my own, and he kindly sent me a personalized copy.

 

HowToThinkAboutMoney

 

That was a long time ago, and I later had the pleasure of meeting the generous man who sent me that book at our mutual friend Dr. Jim Dahle’s conference. I figured I had better deliver on the promise I made many moons ago and write that book review prior to meeting him. Hence, this post.

 

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How We Think About Money

 

How to Think About Money was one big helping of confirmation bias for a guy like me.

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Clearly, Mr. Clements and I think alike when it comes to money, and it could be because we’re reading the same reference material and believe in evidence-based money management, but I believe there’s more to it than that. There’s a certain mindset that some people embrace and others will soundly reject no matter what experience or research suggests.

The philosophies discussed in the book are fairly common on the pages of the blogs and books I read, but rather uncommon in day-to-day life for the average American and probably more rare for the typical physician. What sort of philosophies?

  • Live well below your means.
  • Save early and often, prioritizing retirement savings above all.
  • Spending on luxuries won’t lead to long-term happiness
  • Keep Investing simple. Passive income funds are your friend.
  • Purpose and accomplishment are fulfilling before and after retirement.
  • Psychology explains a lot of poor money management. Understanding our biases and weaknesses can lead to better decision making.
  • Freedom is one of the best things money can buy.

 

Highlights from How We Think About Money

 

There are more gems than I could possibly list in a book report, and they start before Mr. Clements get a turn. From retired neurologist Dr. William Bernstein’s foreword:

 

“On the surface, it all seems so obvious: We need money to buy the stuff that will make us happy. No, no, and no again. First and foremost, money buys time and autonomy. Secondarily, it buys experiences. Last, and least, it buys stuff, and more often than not, the stuff we buy makes us miserable.”

Amen.

 

Mr. Clements does a great job of highlighting the lessons gleaned from dozens of academic studies on money and happiness. Among the findings are that money doesn’t buy as much happiness as we would think, we overvalue objects and undervalue experiences, spending on others makes us happy, children don’t bring as much joy as we parents claim, and life satisfaction troughs in one’s forties.

I’m 42, and if this is as bad as life is  going to get, I consider myself very fortunate, not to mention happy.

 

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The hedonic treadmill gets appropriate treatment, the benefits of a short commute were featured (the morning and afternoon commutes were two of the three most stressful of 19 daily activities in one study), and the importance of connecting with family and friends were touted as good for both happiness and health.

On buying freedom:

 

“When I talk to college students, I don’t tell them to follow their dreams. Instead, I tell them to focus on making and saving money. I even suggest that they might deliberately opt for a less interesting but higher-paying job, so they can sock away serious sums of money.”

 

He goes on to say there will be time to pursue your passions, and you’ll be better equipped to do so without trepidation when you’re a bit older and more financially secure. Sound advice, I say.

 

Money Talk

 

Once again, investing is a topic on which we see eye to eye. He talks about the tyranny of investment fees, the benefits of delaying social security, and the beautiful simplicity of a three fund portfolio.

Referencing The Millionaire Next Door, he reiterates the fact that outward displays of wealth are better indicators of a person’s spending rather than their net worth. Many of the truly wealthy are practicing stealth wealth, blending in with their neighbors in an unassuming way.

The 4% rule isn’t ignored; although it’s not prominently featured, either. He does, much to my dismay, mention a different rule of thumb that states you’ll want about 80% of your pre-retirement income to live well in retirement.

While that math makes some sense for those with ordinary incomes and relatively low savings rates, I still find it frustrating and misleading when retirement needs are matched to pre-retirement income rather than pre-retirement spending, when the latter is the only one of the two that play a role in determining your needs.

The text does a good job reviewing what it means to own stocks and bonds, and what you can expect in returns from each. He also discusses ways to avoid losing your hard-earned money quickly by properly insuring yourself from potential catastrophes

 

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Where We Differ

 

When you’ve got so much common ground, it’s tough to come up with many points of contention, but since I write for a different crowd, namely high-income professionals with an interest in early financial independence, I was actually able to come up with a few.

Early retirement doesn’t come up a whole lot, but when it did, here’s what the author had to say:

“We might strive to buy a home in our 30s. In our 40s, our focus often switches to the kids’ college education. With those two goals behind us, we might be in our 50s– and it is too late, because 10 to 15 years simply isn’t enough time to accumulate the money needed for a comfortable retirement.”

Since we became financially independent within a decade on one income without knowing what FI was, I have to call shenanigans on that last line. My tweet on the subject:

 

holdmybeer

 

When the prospect of early retirement comes up another time, he says:

 

“Every so often, when I was at The Wall Street Journal, I would receive emails from readers, boasting about how they had managed to retire in their 40s. I would immediately write back, asking a single question, “Do you have children?” The answer was almost always “no.””

 

While I agree that children can make early retirement more difficult, they shouldn’t add more than a few years for someone with a great savings rate and high income, and the presence of children can be a great motivating factor to make you want to become financially independent before they’ve flown the coop.

 

Speaking of savings rates, Mr. Clements recommends keeping “fixed costs” at half of gross pay. Note that this does not include discretionary expenses like travel and other experiences, or even good beer.

Living mortgage-free, I’ve estimated our core (fixed) expenses to be about $40,000 a year and our discretionary expenses at about $30,000 a year. If I had an $80,000 salary, I’d be abiding by his rule of thumb, probably paying about $10,000 in taxes, and saving nothing for retirement.

If we take a more typical physician household income of $300,000 year (like the docs in the tale of 4 physicians), you’d have fixed expenses of $150,000, let’s say discretionary expenses conservatively equal to ours at $30,000 a year, and taxes of $100,000. You’re only saving $20,000 a year towards retirement, or less than 7% of gross income, which is not nearly enough.

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I think it makes more sense to base an appropriate savings or spending rate on after-tax pay. We can’t spend or save the portion that goes to Uncle Sam, so leave that piece out of the equation. I encourage those pursuing financial independence to strive to live on half their takehome pay, using the rest to pay down debt or invest.

 

Who Should Read How To Think About Money

 

You.

Your partner.

Your kids when they’re old enough.

I think the people that will benefit the most from this book include:

  • People just coming into money (starting a career)
  • Those who have been trying to buy happiness (it doesn’t work like that)
  • Someone who shows little interest in money (so they can learn why money matters)
  • A spendthrift who doesn’t see the problem in living paycheck to paycheck
  • Debt-ridden individuals struggling to stay afloat or get ahead

The book is loaded with knowledge nuggets that simply reaffirmed my beliefs, but may profoundly change the way others think about money.

He closes with a recap, offering twelve suggestions to get the most out of your money. I won’t spoil it for you or plagiarize by listing them all, but I’ll leave you with a portion of the final one.

 

“The goal isn’t to get rich. Rather, the goal is to have enough money to lead the life we want.”

 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

Would you like a copy of this book? Great! Pick one up here.

 

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How do you think about money? Is Jonathan Clements preaching to your choir? What’s your best tip on how to think about money?

 

76 thoughts on “How to Think About Money”

  1. This was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. Maybe it’s because I was a philosophy major and this was a philosophical stance on what money can and cannot do. Either way, it was a great read.

    Like you, I really enjoyed the talk on how money spent on experiences is much more likely to bring us joy than money spent on things. Additionally, I loved the talk on how we aren’t very good at figuring out what makes us happy. Studies have shown that. We also tend to be our own worst enemy and there is a lot of psychology that goes into getting out of our own way to allow us our financial success.

    Great review on a great book. I’d encourage anyone to read it. It is a really short, but worth while read.

    Reply
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  3. Solid post! My husband’s long commute gives me more stress and that’s my biggest annoyance with our current residence (we bought before he got the new job).

    I am a big fan of Bernstein and his advice. He wrote the first personal finance book I ever read. I wish more people knew about him as much as Dave Ramsey.

    Reply
    • And….
      No one pays you to be in your car.

      No credit from the boss, no family time. Only stress, podcasts, coffee and music.

      Reply
  4. Great post and well deserved accolades for Jonathan Clements. Money is a tangible philosophical and educational tool representing what we value as humans. How we save and spend represents how we live. One of the best things I ever bought was a family trip down the Grand Canyon with AZRA. Digital detox bliss with the focus squarely on nature and human interactions. I too look forward to meeting my mentors at the WCI Conference this weekend in my journey out of financial illiteracy as a mid career physician. Bravo Jonathan. Thank you for your generous post PoF.

    Reply
  5. Had never heard of this book before. Looks like a decent read of the basics, but sometimes it’s good to see another perspective on the same theories and tools for validation. Thanks for the review!

    Reply
  6. I have not read this book yet. I have read his Moneyguide and followed his columns in the WSJ personal finance section. I am hoping it is in the Swag Bag. I also follow his blog. He is a plain spoken author. It will be fun to hear him speak. I just want to say “shame on you WSJ” for discontinuing the PF section.

    Reply
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  8. I look forward to reading this! I’ve always said that I would rather take my kids on a vacation/adventure than to buy them things that in a few days they will no longer care about.

    Thanks for justifying my next vacation. ?

    Reply
  9. Excellent review of a future personal finance classic. (It’s too young to be considered a classic now.)

    I thought that the physician-centric comments were spot on. I had some similar thoughts as I read it. If there were one personal finance book that I could get my family to read, this would be it.

    Reply
  10. Thanks for the review. I agree completely that predicted retirement spending needs to be based on your actual spending, not your income. Also agree with your statement that 10-15 years can make for a comfortable retirement. My parents saved a tiny amount for retirement during my childhood, but they couldn’t do more than that. After my brother and I were out of the house they started saving in earnest and were able to retire comfortably about 15 years later, in their early 60s. It helped that they live in a relatively LCOL area, are naturally frugal, and my brother and I had full scholarships for college and graduate/medical school (although they couldn’t/wouldn’t have tried to pay for our higher education beyond a few thousand a year even if we hadn’t). His/your way of thinking about money seems similar to my own. I wonder how successful he is in persuading those who think about drastically differently about money.

    Reply
    • Goo for your parents, Ann. I wouldn’t want to give people the impression it’s too late to start making progress towards FI.

      I don’t know that the author and I disagree so much on that point, but the difference is that he’s writing for the masses, and I’m writing for professionals who are in the top 5% or better in terms of income. I think Mr. Clements would agree that early retirement can happen in your forties with kids after at 10-to-15 year career with a household income of $400,000 in a low cost of living area. It’s just not a common scenario.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  11. Seems like public high school education should have some type of class that has required reading material about money, taxes, debt, financing, and budgeting. Thanks PoF for your contribution spreading knowledge on these topics as well as other for fiscal health.

    Reply
    • I don’t know why we ignore personal finance. I had an entire year of macroeconomics in high school, but didn’t learn how credit cards work, what a mortgage is, or anything particularly useful related to money.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  12. I’ve read it a few times, mainly the first 2 parts as the later book is review on passive funds, fees, etc. I had already read a lot of the literature he cites, but he re-frames those papers in a financial light and it just makes the evidence based doc in me get so excited. That evidence base is what keeps me liking this book (along with millionaire next door).

    “On the surface, it all seems so obvious: We need money to buy the stuff that will make us happy. No, no, and no again. First and foremost, money buys time and autonomy. Secondarily, it buys experiences. Last, and least, it buys stuff, and more often than not, the stuff we buy makes us miserable.”

    Bernstein’s opening quote is spot on, and I agree with you that it takes some time, poorly spent money and mistakes to realize it for most of us. Woe to those who never realize it, they will forever be chasing their tails.

    Sorry we missed each other in Kauai, I was hoping to meet you and your family. However, with your travel bumping up from partial RE, I hope we have another chance. My partner is in Jamaica this week so I can’t make the WCI conference, but will try to get a copy of your talk.

    Reply
  13. If the goal of a good book review is to help the reader decide whether to buy the book, this review is a success. I’m buying! And the Bernstein forward is a nice bonus – his stuff is excellent.

    Thanks for the insights. A copy will also be sent to my 23 year old son – I’ve been trying to instill these values in him, but sometimes kids need to hear it from third parties before it sinks in. ?

    Reply
  14. I’m very much looking forward to reading How to Thinn About Money! We’re beginning residency this summer, so I fit perfectly into your list of those who should read this book. We have two kids now and will be a one income family. I’m a career changer and I’ve loved learning from you, PoF, and from WCI over the past few years. I agree that spouses and kids should get on board with the FIRE mindset, too, as it is very difficult to avoid all the tempting “stuff and fluff” that can come from cheap credit and products marketed to high income professionals. Lifestyle creep is real, and I’m hoping this book can be anotber tool we can use as a family to keep pushing toward our meaningful goal of financial freedom. Thank you!

    Reply
  15. I read this book after WCI reviewed it and really liked it. as you said, it’s a quick read and has many interesting and relevant points.

    Reply
  16. Time/autonomy>experiences>stuff

    Putting this in my pearls of wisdom notes! As a pharmacist I see many of my colleagues bound by the golden handcuffs and hating their careers. Many more would have the ability to take less crap if they were more financially responsible.

    Reply
  17. Money mainly buys optionality. In terms of children- hopefully they inspire you to work more efficiently. I worked twice as quickly so I could get home to my kids when they were young!! I found having children increased my productivity. It also forced me to focus on passive income so that I could be home with them. So maybe another way to look at having children.

    Reply
  18. Children don’t bring as much joy as we parents claim.

    Just glad he didn’t say GRANDCHILDREN. Even though my kids are still in high school and 1 in college, can’t stop thinking that soon enough, there will be some grandchildren in the mix. Not too soon though.

    Reply
  19. Sounds like a great book for my reading list. I always have mixed feelings when I read one of these books that confirms many of the lessons that I’ve learned with a few new perspectives. On the one hand, it is satisfying to know that you aren’t out to lunch and on the other there is a sense of “Ah crud, wish I’d read this years ago”. I guess there is value in learning the hard/slow way, but I do like short-cuts. Another benefit is that it is easy to pass a book on to family/friends who are more likely to listen to an articulate author than to me 😉

    I am not in the running for the free book – I just ordered it. I tried to do it via your site, but had to switch over to amazon.ca, so not sure how that will go through from your end. Cheers and thanks for the book recommendation. Hoping to have lots of reading time this month while RVing in Florida to thaw out.
    -LD

    Reply
  20. I have read his other books – got them from the library. It is important to learn framework that can guide as opposed to random tactics.
    PoF, with all the talk about curling shoes, I was pretty sure you were going to show up in the US Olympics Curling team, revealing your other incognito career – the grand reveal even before WCI conference.

    Reply
  21. I, too, always ask, “but do they have kids??” Lately, I’ve been thinking about our next 5-10 years. Both daughters will be graduating from high school and heading off to/finishing college. Our money will finally be ours!

    Reply
  22. Good post. I’ll have to pick up a copy. Personal finance is well…personal. There is a huge range of people’s life circumstance and what they value as important. Having kids can be a big hindrance to retirement planning – it just depends on how much you want to spend on them. Living in a HCOL area is a headwind as well. Some people simply cannot do geographic arbitrage.
    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  23. When we first started blogging, I wrote a post I was a little nervous about sharing. It was entitled, “Do What You Love (As Long As It Pays the Bills)”. It took me out of my comfort zone, because I wasn’t sure how people would feel about it. I was making a case that I didn’t think encouraging your children to “Do what you love” – at least when it came time for them to decide on a career – was solid advice. I was very happy, then, to see this:

    “When I talk to college students, I don’t tell them to follow their dreams. Instead, I tell them to focus on making and saving money. I even suggest that they might deliberately opt for a less interesting but higher-paying job, so they can sock away serious sums of money.”

    The book has been on my list for a while now, and I’m glad to see you enjoyed it. Great recap!

    Reply
  24. Just been starting to have these discussions with my teenage future heirs in hopes of making sure I don’t ruin their lives with a windfall. Great review!

    Reply
  25. Thanks for the review and looking forward to adding it on my bookshelf next to The Millionaire Next Door and believe or not Young Fabulous and Broke by Suze. Ha! How far I’ve come from my 20s.

    Reply
  26. “the benefits of a short commute”

    Yep , the last 18 years its been less than 10 minutes each way to a reserved parking spot. I’ve thought of bike commuting, but the roads aren’t friendly to bikes around here, plus I have to dress semi decently, no shower facilities, and the humidity in AL can be brutal even at 9 am.

    Reply
  27. Nice review – I have read the book twice and also bought copies for my young adult kids.
    Unfortunately, it’s not likely they’ll read it soon. Too busy with babies and work to sit and read a book!
    Too bad, because they are at the age when they really need to read this kind of stuff. Definitely wish I had someone enlighten me at a younger age – but better late than never.
    I’ll share with them some pearls from the book and hope it inspires them to read more.

    Reply
  28. Seems to me that Jonathan Clements writes (simply and clearly) to a general audience while PoF writes (also simply and clearly) to a much narrower audience.

    Excellent review by PoF of a foundational book that everyone who is interested in being financial literate should read.

    Reply
  29. Good detailed review. I enjoyed Mr. Clements columns on personal finance in the WSJ as they were of a contemplative nature. Unfortunately this particular book is not at my public library.

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  30. Appreciate the book reviews. Keep them coming. If anyone has a good book or resource on FIRE while living in a very HCOL, let me know. Perhaps better – a resource on how to think through the process of leaving a very HCOL area/ geographic arbitrage.

    Reply
  31. Excellent review PoF! I’ve been following Jonathan Clements on Twitter. I find his writings full of wisdom. I’ll add his book to my reading list. =)

    Reply
  32. Nice review PoF! I’ve ordered it and I am looking forward to reading it.

    “First and foremost, money buys time and autonomy”

    Totally agree with this statement. After reaching FI, I started selling locums to my partners last year and have been selling off even more shifts this year to “buy” more time to spend with my family.

    At first I doubted whether this was the right move (self-guilt), but now that I have had a taste of autonomy and freedom, it’s super addictive! However, I must say that the first step is a tough one, especially for a physician at my age (similar to you). My partners think I’m crazy.

    This coming August, I’ve sold off all my shifts so that I’ll have the entire month off for an extended family trip. The last time I had an entire month off was back in medical school……it’s kind of a weird feeling, but I am totally looking forward to it.

    By following your blog, I can definitely see myself following your path to part-time work soon. 🙂

    DN

    Reply
  33. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll put it on my reading list.
    I disagree about kids too. Early retirement is possible with kids, you just need to plan it out more.

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  34. Love the review! I’m convinced and look forward to reading the book. Sounds like he’s on the same page with those of us who believe in having a high savings rate and living below our means.

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  35. As a teacher, I make less than physicians. However, I love to read anything I can get my hands on because I never know what may link to my financial position. For example: the article which explained flexible spending accounts. It seems this book provides sound advice that will be interesting and applicable in many ways to a wide variety of readers. I look forward to reading it!

    Reply
  36. Great post! After multiple recommendations from similar FI sites like yours, I’ve had this in my Amazon cart for a while. Never hit the purchase button as I couldn’t commit and set aside time to read the book. Your post has just renewed my interests again! Thanks for the succinct review.

    Reply
  37. Thanks for the review, I will definitely put this book on my reading list.

    We have been good at saving and investing since starting work after med school, and our retirement accounts are now large enough for us to be FI. Until recently we had not given enough thought about what to do now that we are FI, and the default plan was that we would both just keep working indefinitely. Discovering your blog and other FIRE blogs has made me realize that now we have options. For that I owe you many thanks.

    Reply
  38. After never winning anything, I won The Simple Path to Wealth from 1500 Days last year. Guess its time to test my luck again and see if I can make it 2 money books in a row! Fingers crossed!!

    Reply
  39. I’m a DDS, my husband is an MD 1.5 years out of residency. He got this book for Xmas and we both read it.

    We are on track to be FI in the next 5 years or so. We’ve got the retirement savings figured out.

    Our biggest takeaway from the book? We need to be more generous in spending time and money people we care about.

    My husband had a light work week. So we flew my MIL out to spend a week with us and our kids.

    I’m renting an airbnb next week to hang out in Texas hill country with my sister and her baby.

    These extra expenses will minimally effect our FI timeline. But wow, it makes the journey much more enjoyable.

    Reply
    • That’s awesome, Marilyn — I think targeted “lifestyle inflation” that incorporates new, exciting experiences, particularly with friends and family, is money well spent, even if it delays your FI date by a year or three. With two high-income professionals working, you should be able to be reach FI in a very reasonable time frame. Live on half (or less), and you’ll be in great shape.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  40. Love the quote! “On the surface, it all seems so obvious: We need money to buy the stuff that will make us happy. No, no, and no again. First and foremost, money buys time and autonomy. Secondarily, it buys experiences. Last, and least, it buys stuff, and more often than not, the stuff we buy makes us miserable.” May have to give it a read. Thanks!

    Reply
  41. That is a great book that does not receive enough attention. I voted for it as #1 on RS Finance. It is a very practical way to manage money and your like. I think about happiness being a U shaped curve often.

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  42. I would expect his contention that you can’t accumulate the wealth to retire early is predicated on the assumption that you have median income and a set of spending habits that are incompatible with a 10-15 year FI savings pattern.

    Looks like a cool book. I’m also adding to the list. It’s always good to get back to basics more than you think you should. There’s a great anecdote for this about Jerry Rice doing high school agility drills every day in the NFL.

    Reply
  43. There are some interesting cut-off dates in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There may be some validity but I’ll take hold opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as properly

    Reply

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