Train your way to Financial Fitness, by Shannon McLay
After several years in the corporate environment, Shannon realized she was not in good financial shape; despite a successful career, she had a “disastrous balance sheet”; she was “financially fat,” in her words.
She recognized she needed a financial adviser and decided to become the adviser she was looking for. She then joined a wealth management firm and started working for rich clients and “pro-bono” clients with more modest assets.
Serving her wide clientele, she realized the Financial Road Map she proposed was similar for all the clients. Despite their unique journeys, the ultimate goal was the same for everyone: achieve “financial fitness.” Based on her experiences, she wrote the book we will review and summarise.
In her opinion, financial fitness and physical fitness are key enablers of success in life. She points out how financial health facilitates physical health, while poor financial health can often be associated with high stress, high blood pressure, poor nutrition, etc.
However, most of us easily spend money on gym memberships, diets, organic food, or weight loss programs to achieve physical fitness while easily disregarding financial fitness!
For Shannon, financial fitness is a state where we are “capable of achieving our financial hopes and dreams, where we can live the life we want to live and feel comfortable doing it.” Because we have unique lives, our financial fitness is not the same for everyone.
As such, the first conversation we need to have is with ourselves, understand what we want, and then discover what can be done about it. Shannon strongly claims that “we can’t always have what we want”, meaning that we can’t spend on every desire. We need to choose and prioritize to secure a happy life.
THE FINANCIAL FITNESS LIST
The author suggests:
1) Make a list of:
- What is important in our life [life needs]
- Which activities do we absolutely want to do before the end of our life [life needs]
- What are everyday things we feel we need to be happy? [wants; nice to have]
2) Determine the value of each want and need: the final cost of our goals
3) Examine if those monetary figures and goals are currently attainable with our current financial outlook. This exercise allows us to prioritize how to allocate money and time to things we really value and helps us reach our goals while avoiding distractions. The book emphasizes the importance of having a list of goals to focus on and strategize toward them. A List is a Key Tool for living a Financially Fit Life. Again, once we are financially fit, achieving the goals on the list will become a reality.
3 TYPES OF FINANCIAL FITNESS
The book describes three financial programs based on three “financial fitness types”: fit, skinny, and fat. We are invited to assess ourselves, identify our specific fitness category, and implement the appropriate exercises. The three fitness categories are defined as follows:
- Financially fit people are savers. Savers understand the concept of living within their means.
- Financially, Skinny persons live paycheck to paycheck; they feel they cannot escape the rat race no matter what they do or earn.
- Financially Fat people typically overspend and under-save; they usually have a large amount of debt.
THE FIRST TYPE: “FINANCIALLY FIT”
People that fit into this category are already in good shape. Nevertheless, even if they may have achieved financial fitness, they need to make sure to maintain it!
People in this category might need to learn:
- How to spend a bit more
The author states that some heavy savers risk living a maigre and unfulfilling life because they excessively save and don’t allocate time and resources to important items and people in their life (the importance of looking at our own list!). It is important to remember that hard work can bring security and safety but can also release happiness. It is ok for financially fit people to spend some money on their passions without feeling guilt.
- How to use credit (credit cards, mortgages, home equity lines).
Cash or debit cards are acknowledged as a good method to avoid buying things we cannot afford. On the other hand, responsible use of credit holds some benefits:
- Some credit cards give rewards (% back, points, etc.). If we are still planning to make a specific purchase, the credit card could enable additional benefits.
- Responsible use of credit cards will improve our credit score (this is particularly the case in the US and in a few other countries that lend and adjust interest rates based on Credit Scores). It sounds like a Catch-22, but in some countries, the more credit we have and the more we use it (if we repay on time), the better loan deals we get.
- A credit card can still be useful in case of emergencies.
- How to Invest wisely
Concerning investments, the book suggests considering financial investments with a well-diversified portfolio that can accommodate short-term risks but can provide 6-8 per cent returns in the long term. A good example would be having three buckets of money:
- Cash: the money we need for daily life in the next 6-12 months. This money must stay in a bank account (liquid, not invested in risky or long-term products).
- “Moon money”: funds we need during retirement. This money must be invested with a long horizon and accommodate certain degrees of volatility and risky investments.
- “life” money: money saved for projects like buying a house, vacationing, etc. The author believes that financially fit people tend to keep this money idle in the bank; the book suggests making money work and earning some interest or growth in value.
Ultimately, the book suggests taking the necessary time to learn about investments by reading books, watching videos, taking classes, speaking with specialists, etc.
THE SECOND TYPE: “FINANCIALLY SKINNY”
If we fit into this category, we tend to live paycheck to paycheck. Our bank account does not have enough cash due to several challenges in our financial life. Such challenges require focusing on the details:
- Pulling out the fine-tooth comb: review our financial statements and comment on every spending. Be aware of automatic, recurrent, and casual expenditures, big or small (the latte factor).
- Categorizing our spending on needs, wants, and wastes and allocating expenditures in the correct category to prioritize our financial goals. This process helps assess which costs are worth it and which must be controlled or removed.
- Finding our problem areas: identify any spending behavior that needs to be corrected. Any craving for extra food or luxuries to mitigate a bad day? Any obsessive collection? Any tendency to buy stuff on the spot? The book suggests a few interesting tricks: buy only things we planned to buy in advance; postpone the purchase for a few days and see if the desire/need is still there.
- Creating a fit plan: after 3-4 months dedicated to the first three actions, it is time for a PLAN. The author is again BUDGETS; she feels budgets are like DIETS: few people like them and stick to them! She prefers to invest in a PLAN. The book suggests:
- Identify our monthly income.
- Set aside a fixed monthly percentage and store it in a savings account
- Subtract our taxes
- Subtract our needs categories
- Any money left can be used for “wants.”
- Commit to the plan. The author warns us: month after month, we will see improvements, we will have a financially healthier lifestyle, and we will become financially fit. The process will not stop there. We need ongoing effort to remain fit. At this stage, the author suggests starting the program for Financially fit people (discussed above).
THE THIRD TYPE: FINANCIALLY FAT
People with overeating problems are fat, and so are those with overspending problems. Financially fat people have a habit of spending significantly more than they are saving and sometimes more than they are making. In this category, there are also many high earners that, no matter their income, can still spend more than they save or earn. Shannon states that she was once part of this category before taking action. Spending more was temporarily making her happy. In the long run, she could feel stressed about it. She was financially fat for 13 years without perceiving she had a problem. Like many of her friends and acquaintances, she thought the solution was to make more money, which would have cured her problems. That is never the case!
STEP 1: acknowledgement
As usual, the sooner we take the first step and admit we have a problem, the sooner we can correct the situation. As such, the first step is to acknowledge we might be financially fat and that the specific actions to be taken are more demanding than those of the other two categories.
STEP 2: baby steps
The fitness regime of a financially fat person is longer. It requires daily baby steps. We need patience and determination.
STEP 3: diagnose major areas of concern
It is time to look at bank statements, payment categories, and consumption habits and see the major expenditures (the big picture). The author suggests writing a list of such big expenditures: “our enemies”.
STEP 4: Create fun strategies to fix these problems
Shannon realizes it is often necessary to think outside the box, minimize these problems, and find replacement activities and behaviors; sometimes, we resist because we don’t want to feel deprived of our expenditures and habits. She even suggests rewarding ourselves each time we adjust, minimize, or remove a bad habit and/or unsustainable expenditure. She warns us about friends or family that might tempt us with old spending habits. As such, taking the necessary steps to strengthen our new habits is important.
STEP 5: monitor the progress
We must check our progress once a week, monthly, and ultimately once a quarter. The first goal of financially fat people is to become financially skinny. After that, we can focus on the more detailed program of financially skinny people to become financially fit and ultimately perform the financially fit program to improve and maintain our financial health.
The author knows what she is talking about. She is a financial adviser; she has also lived first-hand the stress of a financially unsustainable life. In her words, she was “financially fat” (over-spender, over-indebted). She had to go through fitness workouts to become financially fit.
The book is an effective self-help manual that guides the reader in identifying his/her fitness type and provides a blueprint for taking action. We like the analogy of financial fitness and physical fitness. Like physical fitness, financial fitness is an active process. It requires action: no blame, no excuses.
If you like her take on personal finance as I do, I suggest buying her. You can easily get it on Amazon.
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