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The Financial Order of Operations: 10 Great Money Choices for Every Stage of Life

The Financial Order of Operations: 10 Great Money Choices for Every Stage of Life

One of the reasons personal finance can feel so overwhelming—nay, defeating—is that there’s so much pressure to do everything at once. I think it’s why so many people feel lost and incompetent with money. I did too, until I discovered a financial order of operations.

Money decisions are always intimidating. Every financial decision you make compounds over time! That can be good, like when investments grow. But it’s also terrible, because financial mistakes can haunt you for years after you’ve made them. With so much pressure to get it right, every single time, and always on the first try, it’s no wonder people freeze up.

I wish someone had sat me down and compassionately explained that I didn’t have to do everything all at once. If you want to stay motivated and make meaningful progress on a goal, it’s so much better to focus on just one at a time. And just like in eighth grade math, there’s a right order of operations to everything, depending on what stage of life you’re in.

Today I’m going to take you through my financial order of operations. It’s a basic blueprint of ten steps most people could follow to transform their finances for the better.

In my opinion, it’s the best order in which to save, invest, and pay off debt. It also takes into consideration the incredible importance of maintaining motivation and keeping financial decisions centered exactly where they should be: around your personal goals, dreams, and emotional well-being.

Best of all, anyone can follow the first two steps! You don’t need to have money or a job to get started. Woo-hoo! Gates are open—send in the teenaged overachievers!

Obviously, everyone is different. Think of this journey as the Oregon Trail. We all start in the Independence, Missouri of total ineptitude, and we’re all trying to get to the gloriously fruitful Willamette Valley of financial independence. Some of us may choose to raft down the Columbia River Gorge, and others will take the Barlow Toll Road. That’s totally fine! This guide will help you make informed decisions, even if you don’t follow it exactly.

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Mountains of debt cannot be repaid just by packing lunches and cutting cable. Those are comforting bedtime stories we tell ourselves about capitalism.

The Real Story of How I Paid Off My Mortgage in 4 Years

As of fifteen minutes (and one very cold beer) ago, I officially own the beautiful house I’m sitting in right now.

My partner and I have been refreshing our mortgage account every few hours today, waiting for the final payment to process. (Weirdly, you have to WIRE the final payment. Seriously? After this years-long relationship of sending personal check after personal check, our mortgage lender refuses to trust us at the finish line? Fine, whatever…) Just before the close of the day, it happened.

Current principal balance: $0.00.

$0.00.

My mortgage is gone. I am done paying rent. If all things go according to plan, I will never ever pay rent again for as long as I live. Let’s talk about it!

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As Johnnie Cochran would say: if the interest rate's nil, don't pay that bill!

Ask the Bitches: “The Government Put My Student Loans in Forbearance. Can I Really Stop Paying—or Is This a Trap?”

So… I made a mistake.

Our Patreon donors have been so wise with choosing quality topics in the past. So this month, I invited our supporters to pitch article topics directly to us.

Sounds great, right? WRONG. This was a huge mistake because all of our supporters’ ideas are fucking great! Now I have no choice: I simply must write them all. When am I supposed to do my life’s most important work: incorrectly cutting the wood for my woodworking project, then driving to Lowe’s to buy more wood???

This is technically incorrect. Piggy is the Chip.

One question stood out as being particularly time-sensitive, so today I’m answering this question from Patreon Rachel, who we all know to be so glitteringly beautiful that she’s regularly mistaken for an ice sculpture of herself:

I’d love to know your thoughts on U.S. federal student loans currently being deferred with no interest. Is it smart to continue to make my regular payments? Or should I stop making payments and use that money to invest in other things?

– Patreon Donor Rachel

An excellent question! Today we’ll address the basics of student loan forbearance, including how it pertains to the CARES Act. (That’s the $2 trillion stimulus package we explained here.)

Luckily there’s a fairly definitive answer, which I am just barely capable of explaining in human speech. Let’s get into it!

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There are a number of reasons why this might be the killing blow you need to destroy your debt faster.

Kill Your Debt Faster with the Death by a Thousand Cuts Technique

Sometimes I take for granted that everyone knows basic tenets of finance. Like how the IRS will never ever call you, or how money depreciates due to inflation. Or even how Harriet Tubman should absolutely replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill.

But every once in a while one of our darling readers (who are the salt of the Earth, but like, fancy Himalayan pink sea salt with grains of dried truffles mixed in) will remind me why we need to focus on basic financial literacy. It is, after all, our sacred mission, bestowed upon us by the goddess of internet memes!

Thanks to a conversation I recently had with some of our young Zoomer/Zennial readers on the sosh’ meeds’, today I’m going to focus on a frighteningly simple tactic for paying off debt. For once it’s understood, it could save you metric buttloads of money on interest, help you pay off your debt faster, and bring about world peace.

You’re heckin’ welcome, world.

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We get many letters from 18 year olds like "I submitted 9 applications and no one will give me a credit card!" Here's the reason for that.

A Hand-Holding Guide to Getting Your First Credit Card

I got my first credit card at age eighteen. I was a high school senior, I’d just been accepted into college, and the world was my goddamn oyster (just slightly less like salty snot). The year was 2005… and getting that shiny little piece of plastic was just about as easy as putting out my hand and asking for it.

Times have changed. We now live in a post-2008 Recession world, and getting your first credit card has become markedly harder. This is probably why we constantly receive questions from eighteen-year-olds like “I’ve submitted nine applications and no one will give me a credit card. What do???”

The Ramseyan debt purists will say “Do without it, you fool!” But we believe a credit card can be an extremely useful weapon in your financial arsenal. Just look at what happened when Kitty and her boyfriend tried to rent an apartment together and couldn’t because he had no credit!

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Yeah, it's stupid to try to time the market.

Hurricane Debt Weakens to Tropical Storm Debt, but Experts Warn It’s Still Debt

It’s been over a year since the last time I gave an update on the state of my own debt. Since we’re always dispensing our opinions from our seat on the divine acropolis at the crest of Mount Olympus, we like to be transparent about our own situations. So let’s check in!

As we’ve chronicled, Piggy and I paid off our student loans ahead of time. And we don’t have credit card debt, unless it’s part of a nefarious-but-prudent scheme to harvest points. When talking about my financial sitch, I love to describe myself as “debt free, except for my mortgage!”

Which, when you think about it, is kinda weird? Like describing a milkshake as “dairy free, except for the milk!” The milk is not a small or trivial part of a milkshake. It is eponymous! It’s basically the point of the thing!

And the mortgage is a big debt. The average American family has $16,000 in credit card debt (yikes). An average student’s educational loan debt is $34,000 (double yikes). But the median home price blows both those numbers out of the water at $227,000.

For most people, a house is the most expensive thing they’ll ever buy, and the largest source of debt. It’s the milk in the milkshake.

And if you were about to jump to the comments to erroneously claim that ice cream is the point of a milkshake, hold ya fakkin’ hahses, khed. I live in New England. Our milkshakes do not have ice cream. If there’s ice cream in it, it’s called a frappe.

I can’t tell you why. I don’t make the rules, I just abide by them.

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Another recession is coming.

Ask the Bitches: How Do I Prepare for a Recession?

We’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about a hypothetical looming recession. The stock market has taken a bruising; bellwether companies are stumbling. Do such omens and portents mean that another recession on its way?

The good news is, we can answer this one very easily.

Yes. Another recession is coming.

We know this with 100% certainty.

How?

The same way we know with 100% certainty that Piggy and I will be dead within the next hundred years. It is in the nature of a living being to die, just as it is in the nature of economies to grow and contract. The sun rises; the sun falls. The tides go in; the tides go out. It’s just the way things are.

Sounds kinda shitty, right? It’s possible that, someday far in the future, someone will devise some new system that will smooth out or even eliminate these cycles. Maybe the nature of goods and services will change so fundamentally that economies will transform in ways we can’t even imagine. But that’s Phillip K. Dick stuff—innovations that live so far in a hypothetical future that they’re still science fiction. You should plan to endure these market cycles throughout your lifetime.

And yes, there are lots of things you can do to make yourself more prepared. Let’s go through them.

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Investing has the reputation of being mysterious and intimidating. It’s something for older, more worldly, bebuttsticked captains of industry, not lowly millennials trying to make their way in a hostile economy. But like the president's reputation as a deal maker, this characterization is a complete myth.

Investing Deathmatch: Paying off Debt vs. Investing in the Stock Market

LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLLLLLLLLE!

It’s time for another thrilling episode of Investing Deathmatch, in which two forms of investing enter the ring, and only one leaves victorious. Or, more accurately, we decide that investing is a far more complicated affair than wrestling and the outcome of the fight depends on a number of nuanced factors.

But I digress.

TO THE BLOOD SPORT!

This fight has a long and sordid history. We’ll be uncovering old wounds, dredging up arguments long held in stalemate. We’ll be discussing a topic about which every damn personal finance blogger on the Internet has a very firm opinion. And we’ll be demystifying an age-old enigma of financial independence.

Brawlers, take your corners.

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I've tried making debt visualizations to help me stay on track. I'm going to share two with you today, including one that is fucked up and embarrassing.

Share My Horror: The World’s Worst Debt Visualization

Some days I wake up ready to crush my debts. I am filled with fire and vinegar. (No, the vinegar does not put out the fire.) I double down on everything I do on that day—I spend less, work harder, and plan more.

Other days, I wake up feeling like Idgaf, Queen of the I Don’t Give a Fuck Tribe of Greater New England. On those days, I find myself wasting time with stuff that distracts me rather than enriches me. I play old video games I’ve already beaten three times before, and mewl at my partner to take me to Five Guys. On those days, it can feel like the sacrifices aren’t getting me anywhere.

What can I learn from this? Besides the fact that I suffer from intermittent depression, because I already knew that.

I have a sprinter’s attention span and marathon financial goals. My current financial goal will take at least nine years to achieve. Maintaining momentum and motivation over such a long period of time is really hard.

I’ve tried making visualizations to help me stay on track, and I’m going to share two with you today. Including an old one that is weirdly fucked up and embarrassing.

Embarrassing!!!

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The best way to pay off credit card debt

The Best Way To Pay off Credit Card Debt: From the Snowball To the Avalanche

The Harvard Business Review recently published a study on “the best strategy for paying off credit card debt.” Set aside for a moment the idea that you should try not to rack up credit card debt in the first place (shit happens, no judgment). This study benefits the millions of Americans who are literally $800 billion in collective credit card debt according to the Federal Reserve. So it’s a problem that needs a solution.

The researchers tested a couple of different methods for credit card debt reduction:

  1. Dispersing payments equally across every credit card each month.
  2. Concentrating as high a payment as possible on one account at a time.
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