From award-winning financial journalist Alison Griffiths—an empowering, motivating guide that demystifies personal finance and helps you take control of your money.
Do you toss your investment and banking statements in a box, unopened? Does the word “investment” make you frown? Are you afraid to look at your money during a recession? Are you worried that you’ll have to retire to the back seat of your car?
Alison Griffiths gives you easy, prescriptive advice on how to take charge of your money. Learn where to put your money so that it stays safe through market fluctuations. Figure out how bank and investment fees work, and decide for yourself if you’re getting enough value for your money.
Alison Griffiths is hugely insightful, frank, yet empathetic. If you’re going to take any financial advice, you should take it from her...
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This is book number 11 from team Cruise/Griffiths and the only one without your name, but your skills, voice, and incredible editing are everywhere
I am hugely indebted to hundreds of academics and industry experts who have provided information, research, and opinions not only for this book but throughout my years as a financial journalist and author. I couldn’t begin to thank them all, but I hope those of you I have called upon over the last twenty years know that I feel tremendous gratitude.
However, one must be singled out and that is Eric Kirzner. I first started working with Eric, who is a renowned economist and academic, way back in the late 1990s. Eric’s ideas are the foundation of the investing section of this book.
I also want to mention Barbara Stewart of Cumberland Private Wealth Management in Toronto. Her insight and information have made me a better financial writer as she has helped me connect the dots between emotion and money. She even got me going to yoga. I am also lucky to have had much input from Dan Hallett, Michael Hill, Michael Chow, and Janet Freedman, particularly in the early days.
I am grateful to my colleagues who cover personal finance and investing for magazines, newspapers, and the cyberworld. I’ve never asked a question or requested an old article or even asked for advice and been turned down. Those of us who work in this increasingly competitive world know how hard it is to carve your niche, stay in the forefront of the changing financial world, and maintain a public profile at the same time.
In no particular order—Rob Carrick, Jonathan Chevreau, Pat Foran, Patrick McKeough, Ellen Roseman, David Olive, MadhaviAcharya-Tom Yew, Ken Kivenko, Caroline Cakebread, Gordon Pape, Evelyn Jacks, Larry MacDonald, Bryan Borzykowski, Dan Bortolotti, Norm Rothery, Rudy Luuko, Krystal Yee, and Kelley Keehn, to name just a few; plus the many bloggers I have come to know in recent years who are all playing an important educational and journalistic role in the increasingly complex financial world.
My daughters, Claudia and Quinn, and son-in-law Jeff have been incredibly supportive and never complain when I use them as examples in my columns. I’m a lucky mom and grandmother.
My dear old dad has always been very interested in investing, and his experiences made me pay much more attention to how the industry treats seniors. Also, my sister Fiona is always so willing to lend an ear, attend seminars, and discuss content and case studies.
The production crew of Maxed Out, and most especially my amazing producer Anne Francis, taught me a lot about money in the television sphere during the years I hosted the show. It’s tough to turn debt into drama but they did it.
And speaking of debt, Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, a charity and national leader in debt and credit counseling, and her amazing staff have been an education to me of a different sort. Serving as a director has refined and expanded my financial knowledge.
I’ve had great readers over the years. Your questions and sometimes criticisms have forced me to stay on top of research and never take a statistic for granted.
Though I am somewhat tough on certain aspects of the financial services industry, the major banks, brokerages, and other firms that exist in the field are always eager to illuminate writers such as myself. Many are now doing excellent work to educate and increase Canadians’ financial literacy. Other firms such as Morningstar and Dalbar have unstintingly provided research and data for me.
Kevin Hanson, president of Simon & Schuster Canada, has been my champion for many years, and Alison Clarke has been an insightful sounding board for Count On Yourself. I’m sorry the writing has ended, if only for the loss of those wonderful lunches and conversations. Janice Weaver was a wonderful editor and masterful in a subject area new to her.
I am lucky to have actor Barry Flatman in my corner. He is the personification of enthusiasm and great ideas. Just a few words with him always brightens my day. Similarly, Martin Harbury has taught me that sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do in life and make the best of it. He is a fine producer and so much more. Also Jeanne Beker has provided such encouragement. I feel strong standing in her shadow.
And finally, my old friend and former agent David Colbert helped me through a very tough professional period while writing this book and saved me a big chunk of money in the process.
But in the end, it is one man who makes it all possible—David Cruise—my lifelong partner in every sense of the word. Thank you. Now please pour the wine.
Part 1 // Money: The Final Taboo................................ 1
1... Me and Money.......................................................................... 3
2... Friends, Sex, Money, and Wealth................................... 11
3... The F-Words.......................................................................... 19
Part 2 // Get Organized...................................................... 33
4... The KISS Principle............................................................... 35
5... Cleaning Your Financial Closet....................................... 46
6... Your Investment Inventory............................................ 61
Part 3 // Make a Plan........................................................... 73
7... Who Are You?........................................................................ 75
8... Pick Your Box........................................................................ 92
9... Spread Your Eggs.............................................................. 110
10... How Many Investment Eggs in Which Baskets?.. 122
11... Fry Those Fees................................................................... 135
Part 4 // Take Action........................................................ 145
12... Meet the Easy Chair.......................................................... 147
The financial books that fly off the shelves tend to have zingy titles that include seductive words like rich, independence, wealth, retire early, millionaire—things we all yearn for. I struggled unsuccessfully to find my own title for this book until one day I sat down for lunch with my publishers, Kevin Hanson and Alison Clarke. We began talking about how helpless—even stupid—so many of us feel when it comes to money and investing. We are bombarded by financial products and expert opinions and by an army of advisers and fund managers cajoling us to hand over our money—and leave it to those who know what they are doing. To make matters worse, every day seems to bring an economic event in a far-flung country, or even just across the border, threatening to break the nest eggs we have worked so hard to accumulate.
We’ve also become convinced that we can’t take care of (in other words, invest) our hard-earned savings. It is too complex, we’re told. There are minefields everywhere. If we take on the task, we risk losing everything. Even financial paragons who file their taxes early, live completely within their means, save regularly, and never miss a bill payment are reluctant to take control of the money they are setting aside for retirement. That’s a job for those with lots of initials behind their names, or so the reasoning goes.
But I believe—no, I know—that when it comes to your money, there’s no one better to count on than yourself. If people could develop this confidence, I said to my publishers at lunch that day, they would be stronger financially and, eventually, richer. Kevin and Alison looked at each other, then said in unison, “That’s the book title—Count On Yourself!”
My goal in Count On Yourself is to give you the confidence and tools to set up and monitor a simple, safe, and low-fee investment portfolio. Or if you prefer to use an adviser, the tools and knowledge in this book will allow you to ask the right questions, which in turn will help you keep your fees low and enable you to evaluate the person who is making money from your money.
Most people shy away from investing because they are intimidated by the numbers. Since this is a book about investing, it’s impossible to write it without using any numbers at all. But I’ve kept them to a minimum because, in the end, my style of investing is far less about numbers and far more about who you are as a person. It’s about developing a plan you can understand and follow. I’ve also tried to de-jargonize the world of money. All the bafflegab, acronyms, and complex terms only benefit an industry that profits from our confusion.
The first part of Count On Yourself explores our attitudes toward money and the obstacles that stop us from being our own financial boss. Once you kick aside those obstacles—most of which have been set in our path to keep us from managing our own money—you will find that my simple investing program is not only doable but also refreshingly comprehensible.
The second part of Count On Yourself takes you through a financial closet cleaning. But don’t worry—I won’t hector you about debt, chide you for over-consumption, or harangue you about cost-cutting. There are plenty of personal finance books that do just that. Instead, I’ll give you some straightforward steps to help you become organized and to get you comfortable with the idea of taking control of your investments. This stage is about simplification and learning how to pay attention financially. Like warm-up exercises before a workout, these organizational steps will prepare your financial muscles to face what scares us most—investing our precious dough.
The third part of Count On Yourself shows you how to evaluate your situation and needs, which is a critical element in creating an investment portfolio that works for you. Here you will discover the true essence of smart investing and learn the money-making secrets that the financial services industry doesn’t want you to know.
The final part of Count On Yourself walks you through a straightforward process (called passive investing) and introduces you to a group of low-fee, low-stress, and understandable sample portfolios. These will outperform most mutual fund portfolios and even provide better returns than many of the complex stock and bond portfolios developed by wealth managers for high-net-worth clients.
When you are finished Count On Yourself,you will be able to take control of your investing life with a plan that strips away the confusion and unnecessary complexity so endemic in the financial industry today. Best of all, your low-fee, comprehensible investment portfolio will only require a maximum of thirty minutes a month to maintain. Yes, it will be that simple.
Count on yourself for thirty minutes a month. Everyone else is making money from your money, so maybe it is time you turned the tables and made some money for yourself. I know you can do it, and I’m here to help.
Money: The Final Taboo
Me and Money
have been thinking about writing Count On Yourself for years—twenty of them, to be exact. The rough nugget of an idea has been a rock tumbling in a polisher, with the grit of life smoothing and refining it. The concept has been shaped by my exposure to the financial experiences of thousands of others, my conversations with experts and academics, and my own family’s financial triumphs and tragedies. Though at its heart this is a book about investments, it also contains a dash of memoir. I didn’t intend this, but when I realized that money is the one thing, besides breath itself, that accompanies everyone from cradle to grave, I knew a book on the subject should have as much to do with living and loving as it did with coins and bills.
Money is central to our lives, and not just because we may feel happier when we have more of it. How we earn, save, spend, and invest defines us and offers a unique window into our personalities. Money is also very personal and intimate, so much so that financial advisers sometimes assume the role of counsellor and therapist.
Occasionally people ask if I get bored writing about money and investments—surely dry subjects, they say. I’m always surprised. Through money, I get to pry into every aspect of the human experience: life, death, birth, inheritance, sex, retirement, and politics. Dull? Not on your life!
Back to those twenty years during which the idea for this book was incubating. If you take any two-decade period in most people’s lives, a lot happens. I’m no different. Our children grew up. Our younger daughter, Quinn, went off to study science at university, then took a hard left toward her true passion, cooking. (She is now months away from becoming a chef.) Her older sister, Claudia, met a tall, handsome stranger, Jeff, and produced a delightful son, Jack Gregory. David’s father, Jack, died; my mother, Patricia, died; four beloved pooches—Ben, Tip, Blue, and Toby—barked off to doggie heaven after long, happy lives; and two horses—a stillborn quarter horse filly, and Fogerty, a Tennessee walking horse—met their maker far too early. The horses and dogs were joined by a menagerie of rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, cats, and all manner of abandoned or injured critters.
We over-renovated one house, sensibly renovated another, and took a handful of vacations. One was inexpensive and completely perfect—a shabby rented RV ramble through southern California during one of the coldest, rainiest Decembers on record. (It’s amazing how much fun you can have crammed into an RV in the middle of the desert with two girls, a bunch of art supplies, and the wind and rain battering the tin can!) Another was expensive and also completely perfect—a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii for ten days of luxuriating in a sprawling thatched cottage. I spent my time on a black sand beach, playing with my kids and overindulging every night.
During the last twenty years, I’ve worn a lot of different hats—sometimes too many. No question, this writer’s life has been full to the bursting. With my long-time life and writing partner, David Cruise, I’ve written a novel, nine non-fiction books, and a television movie based on a book we wrote in 1991 called Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey. I’ve been a host on radio and television, including three seasons with Maxed Out, a financial makeover show. I once stepped into the shoes of the legendary Peter Gzowski to host CBC Radio’s Morningside—a dream come true, though nerve-racking at the same time. There have been newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV stories, and documentaries and columns numbering in the thousands on subjects ranging from fitness and pets to travel and business.
The Cruise–Griffiths Clan
The investing and personal finance side of my career took root after a life-changing event in the early 1990s. Our younger daughter contracted meningitis at the age of four in Victoria, BC, where we lived in a marvellous waterfront house that we expected would be the family home for the rest of our lives. The lethal bacteria took hold in the wake of a typical childhood cold. In less than a day, Quinn went from a happy, dancing kid to the brink of death. Meningitis destroyed her auditory nerves, frying them like a wick soaked with gasoline and set on fire. The conflagration was so fierce and the swelling in her brain so severe that in the corridor one night, I overheard her team of doctors debating whether we should be told she was going to die. The head pediatrician convinced them to wait until the morning.
After weeks in intensive care and more weeks in a children’s ward, Quinn beat back the disease and emerged into the sunlight having lost nearly half her body weight. She looked like a waif and barely seemed to grow for a year. Along with the auditory nerves, the balance centres in her middle ear were affected. One person helpfully told us of a little boy who’d had meningitis a few years earlier and still hadn’t recovered his balance. He ate his meals at the kitchen table tied to his chair with a hockey helmet on his head in case he keeled over.
While Quinn was recovering in hospital, David’s eighty-four-year-old father fell ill; he died the week after we brought our daughter home. We were shattered both emotionally and physically by it all. David developed a severe case of sciatica and couldn’t sit or stand without pain, Claudia became withdrawn and difficult, and I went days without sleeping. We lost a year of income because we had to delay one nearly finished book and lost the contract on another.
We abandoned our dream to write fiction as it became clear that caring for and educating a child who had suddenly lost all language was going to be nearly a full-time job. But we kept the family together and muddled through this incredibly tough period despite the personal and financial strain.
My personal quest to understand money—a quest that led me to write this book—is largely a result of that turn in our lives. I began to realize in the years after meningitis struck that life and money combine to resemble an ocean wave. So often we are carried along like incompetent surfers hoping to stay upright and praying that if we fall we will be washed safely up on shore.
Twice in my life I’ve been caught in rip currents, or undertows. Though I was a Canadian record–holding swimmer as a teenager, I was terrified both times. Water was my friend in the pool, but I didn’t understand this open-water beast that had me in its clutches; in my panic, I did all the wrong things. Money is just like that—it panics us and we make poor decisions.
I’ve spent much of my life near the ocean, and now, living in southwestern Ontario, the Great Lakes are not far. They often seem benign—they are fresh water after all, not the impenetrable, incomprehensible briny ocean depths—but I have heard of more deaths and accidents on lakes than I can recall in twenty years on the east coast and almost as many on the west. People continually underestimate how mighty landlocked water can be.
If you’ll forgive me stretching the analogy just a bit further, there is something we can learn about money from this. Like water, money has many incarnations: debt, income, savings, investments, insurance, bills, and expenses. When we ignore or underestimate the influence money has over us, we make ourselves vulnerable. And when we fail to pay attention to money because it seems either benign or beyond our control, we become further weakened.
With investing—the act of trying to turn one dollar into two—everything I have just written is intensified. Investing is the part of our financial lives we least understand. It’s the aspect of money we have the least control over. As a result, it’s the thing we are most likely to hand over to someone else. And once we abrogate control of our investing life, we are far less likely to ask the most basic questions about the financial products we buy—the very things that are supposed to support us during our retirement years.
My husband and I followed this same path just after Quinn became deaf. We received a modest inheritance from David’s father, and despite having backgrounds in economics, finance, and investigative journalism, we were easily convinced that investing was a job best left to others. And leave it to others we did—three others, in fact, before we finally learned our lesson.
Our first adviser was a smart guy who told us he believed in a conservative approach to money management. That fit our inclinations. He talked about bonds and safety. Perfect. What we didn’t realize was that he wasn’t intending to buy bonds, let them mature, and then buy some more—he actively traded bonds. When it comes to risk taking, bond traders are a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. Remember Michael Milken, the junk bond king? But we didn’t know—or more to the point, didn’t ask—what our adviser was doing. The bottom line looked better each month, and that was all we cared about . . . until the bond market tanked.
We weren’t about to make the same mistake with the second adviser, so we carefully quizzed him about his investment philosophy. He assured us it was conservative all the way. One day he suggested purchasing Royal Trustco preferred shares. They sounded good—no stock market gambling here, just steady dividend payments and a stock price that moved within a narrow range. I’ve always liked Canadian financial institutions—they’re safe and secure. Then Royal Trustco did a very un-Canadian thing and went belly up. What we didn’t know was that the adviser had put all of our available cash, $50,000, into that one stock. We didn’t lose everything, but more than $30,000 was gone. At the beginning, we never asked how much he intended to invest because, quite frankly, it never occurred to us that a trained adviser would put so many eggs into one basket.
Our next adviser was a very smart woman and a vice-president of a major international brokerage firm. She also professed a conservative approach and emphasized her diligence in researching companies. We decided on a stock portfolio of large companies leavened by, on her recommendation, a handful of mutual funds for niche areas such as health care.
The portfolio did moderately well overall, but the investment in the health care sector mutual fund was a real stinker. This time we asked questions. Our adviser told us not to worry because it was a good investment and would “come back.” When it didn’t, we fell back on our own skills as investigators and checked it out. Turns out it was one of the worst in its category, had been since the day it was born, and still is to this day. Not only that, but the fund paid among the highest sales commissions to advisers and their firms. When we demanded to know why it was in our portfolio, our adviser admitted that it was on the firm’s recommended list, which she was required to follow. Small wonder, considering the high commission! We dumped the fund and the adviser.
For me it was three strikes and you’re out with advisers. At that point I resolved to count on myself. But I have one advantage over most of you—I can usually convince someone else to pay me to find out things I want to know. So in 1997, David and I approached Ellen Roseman, then the business editor of the Toronto Star, and pitched a weekly column about investing. Soon after, we launched another weekly column, the “Portfolio Doctor,” in which we used experts to examine and rehabilitate readers’ investments.
Writing thousands of columns over the years—while at the same time brushing shoulders with professionals in the field—helped me to evolve an investment philosophy. And through that process, I concluded the following:
1. Most people can and should take charge of their own investments—although they may want to consult an adviser or use one for the actual mechanics.
2. Even a top adviser doesn’t care as much about your money as you do.
3. Simple is best when it comes to investing.
4. Much about the world of investing is simply a magic act.
About the latter: the financial services industry is masterful at directing our eyes away while the business of making profits for themselves takes place out of sight. Much of the complexity about investing is created. What can be—and should be—relatively simple is turned into something mysterious.
The truth is we can’t be in total control of every aspect of our lives. But we cannot afford to cede control of the money we are saving and investing for our futures—the stakes are too high, the consequences too grave.
Now, isn’t that annoying? Why should something as ephemeral as money have such power over us? There are so many more important aspects of life: people to love, jobs to do, kids to raise, and hobbies to pursue. Money doesn’t seem to belong in the same room. And yet here I am, pushing money through the door and saying, “Deal with it! You ignore it at your peril.”
It’s time to take back control of your money from the banks, advisers, brokers, wealth managers, and investment firms. It is long past time to stop throwing your money at mutual funds and other investment products you haven’t a clue about. And it is certainly time to stop paying a fortune (your fortune) to people who are doing things with your money that you don’t understand.
David Cruise and Alison Griffiths began writing together in 1983 and are the authors of seven bestselling books, including Fleecing the Lamb, Lords of the Line, Net Worth, On South Mountain, and The Great Adventure. Griffiths hosted the acclaimed financial television show “Maxed Out,” for three years and she writes the nationally syndicated columns, Alison on Money and Me and My Money. They have two daughters and divide their time between their small farms in southwestern Ontario and Brooksville, Florida. Please visit wildhorseanniestory.com
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