“I Want to Create Passive Income, But I Don’t Know Where to Start” — Part II

This is Part II of the Passive Income for Beginners series. Start by reading Part I here.

How to create passive income

When I quit my 9-to-5 job, I had no concept of passive income.

Like most people, I conceptualized money in terms of time: “they pay $25 per hour” or “she makes $60,000 per year.” When I quit my job, I figured I’d live on savings for a few years and then return to the workforce.
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“I Want to Create Passive Income, But I Don’t Know Where to Start” — Part I

Imagine this:

You hop on a flight to Brazil or Costa Rica or Thailand. You spend a month reveling in the sand and surf. You taste new foods. You discover new music. You spot wildlife you’ve never imagined.

You don’t check email the entire time. Heck, you don’t even post photos to Facebook. You’re radically offline — like it’s 1972.
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Investing, Broken Down to its Ridiculously Simple Core

simple investing lessons
Myth: Wealth and freedom come exclusively from living below your means.

Fact: Frugality is the first step … not the last.

There’s a couple that I’ve known for more than a decade.

When we met, they were apartment-dwellers, and I don’t mean the New York City variety. Their dark and musty apartment existed in an area where land is plentiful and square footage is cheap, where the only reason you’d live in an apartment is because you have nothing to your name.

I’m not quite sure when their tables turned, or how long they toiled quietly behind-the-scenes building their family empire; I can’t pinpoint the year their net worth climbed into seven digits. Their newfound wealth isn’t the obvious flashy kind. They still drive modest cars and wear nameless brands, though admittedly they’ve upgraded into a large and lavish home.
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The Next Financial Challenge: 20 Contenders in a Fight to the Top

2015 Grow Your Dough investing competition

My hobbies include reading, hiking, and … wagering cold, hard cash on financial experiments for the sake of your amusement.

Last year I blindfolded myself, threw darts at a list of stocks, bought the first 10 that I hit, let them ride for a year and showed you the results.

This year I’m embarking on a ploy that’s a tad less crazy, but far more heated: I’m competing against 19 financial writers in a tournament to see who can rock the hottest investment gains.
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Why My 77% Savings Rate … Means Nothing

Why My 77% Savings Rate ... Means Nothing

Finance nerds have strange habits.

Here’s one of mine:

Once a year, I lock myself in a room with nothing but a laptop, spreadsheet, and boatloads of determination.

The mission: Decipher my savings rate.

Am I saving 30 percent of my income? 40 percent? 60 percent?

As longtime readers might recall, Will and I saved half of our income in 2012. We did it by following one simple rule: Pretend we’re a one-income couple. Live entirely on one partners’ salary, and invest 100 percent of the others’.

Since we earned roughly the same amount, we ended up investing about 50 percent of our income in 2012.

In 2013, we didn’t follow any strict rules about spending from one bank account or the other. But both of our earnings escalated, and I suspected this might translate into a turbocharged savings rate.

(After all, the best way to fast-track your savings is by earning more, and saving every dime of that extra income.)

I crunched the numbers, and made two shocking discoveries:

  • We have a 77% savings rate
  • That statistic is meaningless

Here’s why that factoid is crap – and how to find the metric that really matters.

Measure the Metric That Matters

I don’t want to wax philosophical – at least, not too much.

But before this conversation can continue, we need to discuss an important question: What are “savings?”

Is saving the absence of spending? Is it the money that’s left over at the end of the month?

— Or —

Is it cash that’s set aside for a specific goal?

If so — Does the timeline of that goal matter? Does it qualify as “savings” if the goal is five years away? Five months? Five days? What’s the cutoff?

Furthermore, does the content of the goal matter? Are certain goals, like retirement, more worthwhile? What about world travel – is this a worthy goal, or a frivolous expense?

You can see where the definition of “savings” gets hazy.

Here’s the crux of the problem:

“Savings” is money that you’re setting aside for the future. Which means that “savings” is deferred spending. When you save money, you’re saying: “I’ll spend this later.”

But spending later won’t get you closer to financial freedom. There’s a better metric that we can track — one that’s even more important than savings. (We’ll come back to that metric in a moment.)

But first:

Back to my meaningless savings rate.


This issue arose during a conversation with a friend who happens to work as a financial planner. We were chatting about income (yeah, I’m a fun conversationalist) and he asked how much I had saved in the past year.

I took out my laptop, showed him the spreadsheet … and drew a blank.

Because here’s what it says:

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Look at that second line-item: “Pay Cash for 2 Cars.”

Last year, Will and I both paid cash for our cars. I bought a 5-year-old Honda Civic; he bought a 7-year-old Acura.

So …

Is this “savings,” because we saved enough money to buy cars in cash? Or is this “spending,” because we spent the money on cars?

“It’s savings,” my financial planner friend remarked. “‘Spending’ is month-to-month.”

I contemplated that remark for a long time. I’m not sure if I agree — but then, it doesn’t matter.

Because within those reflections, I realized: We’re discussing the wrong metric. Savings won’t bring you financial freedom. Investing will.

That’s the metric we should track.

Savings Are Awesome … But Investing is the Real Mack Daddy

Savings are great. They help you pay for big-ticket items like cars, graduate school, medical bills, world travel and a wedding. But savings – alone – won’t help you achieve the nexus of all freedoms.

“Savings” is a feel-good word that means, “I’ll spend this money later.” While that’s great for buying big-ticket stuff, it won’t move the needle on creating your life’s freedom. It won’t help you reach the 4 Types of Retirement.

“Investing,” on the other hand, allows you to grow your assets and passive income. This creates freedom.

So …

If my mission is to track my progress towards Financial Freedom, I need to throw away my so-called savings rate, and focus on my investing rate.

I tightened those line-items into a more condensed version. Here’s the breakdown:

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Let’s attack this.

“Cash” represents money that will morph into refrigerators, washing machines and other junk that doesn’t command a return. Sure, these purchases are important — I need a fridge to keep my food cold — but it won’t move the needle.

Let’s throw it out.

Next, let’s look at the “Health Savings” line.

Prior to a few months ago, I would have thrown out that line for the same reason – this money will get spent on wisdom tooth extractions and blood tests. (Those are important expenses, for sure, but our mission is to track financial freedom.)

But then I read an awesome article from the Mad FIentist on How to Hack Your HSA. He advised leaving your money inside your HSA, so that it can continue to grow tax-deferred. Pay out-of-pocket for medical costs. Conceptualize the HSA an a “bonus” retirement account.

Brilliant idea. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.

So my total retirement investing rate is:


Next come the extra mortgage payments. I’m paying down my rental properties (so that they’ll produce even stronger passive income.) Extra principal payments comprised 14 percent of my income last year.

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What happens when we add these figures?

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Now we’re reading the metric that matters.

We’re focused on investing, not savings.

And that’s what moves the needle.

One TERRIBLE Piece of Financial Advice You Should Never, Ever Listen To

Have any money-related conversation and you’ll hear the following bad financial advice: “It worked for me.” It likely didn't work as well as you thought!

Bad Financial AdviceLaunch into any money-related conversation and you’ll inevitably hear the following bad financial advice:

“But it worked for me!”

Those insidious five little words have been used to justify all types of terrible ideas, from buying lottery tickets to over-leveraging your investments to investing every last dime into Apple stock.

Let’s try this one on for size:

Common Sense: “Even if you find an awesome investment, spread your risk by picking a few other investments, as well. Rental properties are awesome, but even if you could make 20 percent cap rates, you should still keep a solid chunk of money in stock market index funds.”

Retort: “But I put 150 percent of my savings in gold in the year 2007 and it totally worked for me. Put every dime in gold! Nothing else! Why bother diversifying when you get the best returns in this arena?!”

Common Sense: “Hold on, you invested 150 percent of your savings?”

Retort: “Yeah, I can take a cash advance from my credit card at 14.9 percent and invest it for 170 percent gold returns! I’d be stupid NOT to!”

Common Sense: “Uh, don’t you think that’s a bit risky?”

Retort: “Hey scardey-cat, if you’re so terrified of risk, why don’t you sew your money into a mattress and leave REAL investing for us tough guys?”

Uh-huh. Right.

Tip: When your opponent has to justify their investing strategy with ad hominem attacks, they’re grasping for straws.

Alright, that was an easy example. Afford Anything readers are an intelligent group. I don’t need to explain this example. You can see why it’s an insane argument.

But let’s look at a subtler example of the “it worked for me” phenomenon. Let’s check out an example in which the counter is uncommon sense.

“But I Sold my Home for $20,000 More Than I Paid!”

UnCommon Sense: “Don’t tie up a huge chunk of your net worth in your home. Your home is NOT an income-producing asset. It won’t stick cash in your pocket each month.

Your money should make money. So live in a cheap home while you deploy your cash into rental properties, stock index funds or other income-producing investments. Reinvest. Lather, rinse, repeat.

“Better yet, buy a small apartment building (like a duplex, triplex, 4-plex) as your first home. Live in one unit and rent out the others. If your neighborhood doesn’t have multi-units, live with roommates until you either have a baby or your mortgage is paid off.”

Retort: “But I sold my home for $20,000 more than I paid for it! So my house IS an investment! It worked for me!”

This is precisely the type of argument you’ll hear from someone who hasn’t crunched the numbers. The people who say it often conflate gross gains with net gains.

The average person doesn’t make very strong net gains on their home value, after adjusting for insurance, taxes, loan interest, repairs, maintenance, Realtor commissions and closing costs. If they’re lucky, most of their net gains can be explained as “inflation plus 2 percent.”

Most people would be better off living in tight quarters and putting the excess money into stocks.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Just ask the people who bought houses in Southern California in the 1970s. But this is the tail end of the bell curve. People have also made millions winning the lottery.

Furthermore, most of the people who happened to buy in 1970’s Southern California shot themselves in the foot by “trading up” continually until the market burst. Many people thought they were different, that they were the exception to the rule, but then they became scared that they’d be “priced out in five years.” So they bought a big home, then lost all their gains.

The best antidote to getting “priced out in five years” isn’t to pay an overinflated price today. It’s to create more wealth. Build your net worth at a rate that’s faster than housing growth. It’s not that tough.

Let’s try another example.

College is Good, Grad School is Better

UnCommon Sense: “You’re not a zombie. So don’t blindly repeat the mantra that college is good and graduate school is better.

“Do the friggin’ math.”

“If you want to be a neurologist, awesome. Take out a six-figure student loan to go to medical school, because you’ll have a rare, high-demand skill that will command you a $225,000+ income.

“But if you want to be a social worker earning $30,000 a year with a master’s degree, think twice before burying yourself with debt.”

Retort: “But I did it and it wasn’t so bad! My student loan payments are only $180 a month. That’s nothing. That’s less than my car payment! And I think the government will forgive my loan in 20 years, anyway.

Plus, I got this job that pays $42,000 a year, and there’s a chance I could get enough in bonuses to make as much as $50,000. There’s no way I could have gotten that without my master’s degree.”

Ouch. This is one of the most common “it worked for me” arguments that I hear. And what’s befuddling is that the underlying message is that it really didn’t work.

$180 per month for 20 years is $43,200. That’s a decent chunk of cash, but it’s not horrifying. People have lost more by buying a house at the wrong price.

What’s worse is the missed opportunity. $180 invested monthly over 20 years is $106,730. That’s a horrifying amount.

But that’s still not the worst part. The real sad news comes from other missed opportunities. Want to start your own business after a few years? Good luck! The rest of us can move into grandma’s basement, mow lawns on the weekends to pay for groceries, and spend the rest of the week building our own graphic design enterprise. Your extra $180 monthly loan payment means you’ll need to mow many more lawns.

“That’s true of a mortgage, too.”

Yes, but you can sell a house.

That’s not the only hang up. You’ll be far less inclined to change careers if you decide your current path isn’t fulfilling. What would you do – go back for a second master’s degree in a different field, racking up even more debt?

You’ll have a rougher time quitting your job to travel the globe. You’ll lose the flexibility to change jobs and take risks. You’ll probably delay buying your first rental property or maxing out your Roth IRA by a few years.

“It worked for me” isn’t always the best path. At best, it’s an isolated data point. At worst, it’s bad advice.

Myth: Only Rich People Invest

Do only rich people invest their money? Of course not. Being rich is not a prerequisite to investing. Rich is the result of investing.

Myth: Only rich people invest.
Fact: WTF?!?! Do people really think this??

Myth: Only Rich People Invest

The scary truth is that many people do. “Investing” conjures images of rich fat guys wearing Armani suits, sipping fine brandy and smoking cigars while they sit at the country club, deciding which stocks to buy and sell.

AA readers know better, of course, but you’re the special few. We surround ourselves — online and in person — with like-minded people committed to growing and preserving wealth.

But don’t get complacent — PLENTY of people in this world fall prey to the myth that “investing” is something old rich people do.

The media spoons-feeds us images of miserly rich people who casually buy companies and count their coins while scoffing at the “ordinary people” who work hard. What a bunch of baloney.

Being rich is the result of, not the prerequite to, investing.

If you’re not savvy enough to recognize that this depiction of investors is nothing more than a cartoonish stereotype, you’ll set yourself up for a lot of financial stress and heartache.

Fortunately, you read financial blogs and books. Then you act on what you read. That’s what sets you apart.

Being rich is not a prerequisite to investing. Rich is the result of investing.

I have to thank one of my AA readers for busting through this myth recently.

“I used to think I wasn’t rich enough to invest,” she told me, “until I began reading your blog.”

Dude. EVERYONE is rich enough to invest. Got $20 bucks? You can buy one single share of a Schwab or Vanguard exchange-traded fund. You can make the trade commission-free.

“But that’s just one share!”

It starts with one.