Selective Financial Perception

When I was a kid I really loved visiting the Granby Zoo, but I always hated going into the Simian Pavilion, because the smell was awful. You walked in there and the smell was wretched but after a while you got used to it, and in my mind that meant the smell had gone away. If I’d look closely I would have seen from the looks on the faces of folks entering the smell was still there, I had just learned to live with it.

When I grew up I learned in Psycho 101 about the idea of Selective Perception, where you just decide to ignore something even though it has not actually gone away. An excellent example when I became a parent I thing I gagged the first time I changed one of my daughter’s diapers, but after a while explosive diarrhea didn’t even bother me (i.e. all the way up her back).

Before I bought my first house, I was petrified at how much money a Mortgage was, and how was I ever going to deal with this massive debt? These days, I just look at it, shrug my shoulders and wonder when I became so callous about that large a sum of money? When I was a kid $10 is like $1000 is to me now.

All that debt just piles up doesn't it?

All that debt just piles up doesn’t it?

All of this to say that part of the problem with Debt is we start getting Selective Perception with a great deal of debt.

  • I’ve already spoken about House Mortgage, but that is a monstrous number (hopefully the largest debt you ever carry). Hopefully you didn’t make yourself House Poor.
  • Car Loans are the same thing, paying off a car loan should be a high priority (if you borrowed to buy the vehicle), as the asset is losing value every day, but you get used to it. What’s that you say? You only lease cars? So you just keep paying for cars, every month, and it’s just another thing that you end up forgetting about?
  • Credit Card debt I suspect is the same thing. The first month you are upset that you didn’t have enough money to pay it off, but eventually, you just become resigned that you must pay this, and you don’t think about it any more, and just make the monthly payments.

Just because you can’t smell the Zoo of your debts, doesn’t mean you are not still standing in the middle of the Simian House. Did I miss any other debts that just disappear into your consciousness?

 

 

 

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Debt Won’t Just Disappear

I have had a few folks take exception to my statements in Questions with an Answer: Get Out of Debt, in that they question whether it is more important to incur some debt to build wealth, than worry about growing debt, and if I could figure out how you type a Bronx cheer, I would, but I will simply say bunk!

The exact exchange was:

My response was simply, I would rather owe nothing. Savings of all kind can drop in value very quickly (depending on how it is being held), but debt will never magically decrease in value (and severity) without you doing something about it.

You may own a house worth $400,000 right now, and you have a mortgage that is for $125,000, however, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the house could (in a very short period of time) be worth less than what you owe on it, then where are you? I have rarely (if ever) heard the opposite where suddenly your mortgage was forgiven and you owed nothing on your house, but your “Wealth” is mercurial.

The ephemeral nature of wealth is sometimes lost on folks, if I own $1,000,000 worth of BCM Enterprises Stocks (as options, which don’t vest for another 6 months) and I owe $160,000 on my mortgage,  my Net Worth is?

Anybody?

- $160,000

Correct! Stock options are worthless until  you see the money from the transaction in your bank account. I had over 10,000 shares of Nortel in options and 1 bright day they were finally worth $300, and then they were worth nothing again (as an obtuse example).

How about if I own a $1.5 Million home in a lovely section of the Beaches in Toronto, and I owe $400,000 on the mortgage, how much am I worth?

Anybody?

- $400,000

Correct Again! OK, that one is going to cause some comments, but, having things that you think are worth something is a wonderful thing, but until somebody pays for it, it is worthless. More likely than not my beautiful cottage in the Beaches (no I don’t live there) will sell for more than $1.5M if I tried to sell it, but maybe not.

One more: I have a Pension that is going to pay me 60% of my salary when I retire, I have $200,000 in my RRSP but I still owe $95,000 on my home, and I have $10,000 worth of other debt (bad gambling debts, let’s say), what is my Net Worth now?

Some might say: $95,000 at least because you have all that lovely RRSP money and that juicy pension, but do I?

If I cash my RRSP in, I am going to get SLAUGHTERED on taxes, and say this heavenly Bull Market we are in goes Bear very quickly, what am I worth? My Net worth would be closer to $0, and then you can figure out what you can valuate your pension however you like (but remember you have to live long enough to enjoy that as well).

All of this to say, that Wealth is Ephemeral, and can disappear like a Fart in the Wind, but DEBT is like an abscessing tooth, until you remove it, it will hurt and it will not go away until you do something about it!

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Questions with the answer, “Get out of Debt”

Let’s make life simple for my return from vacation, and get back to basics, so let’s kind of head towards Jeopardy’s model, and here is the answer that you need to ask a question for:

Get out of Debt

Debt

Working Through Debt Problems

How hard could that be, let’s see how many interesting questions that could have that simple response:

  1. My wife feels that while our relationship is good, she wants us to be much closer, what should I do?
    Get out of debt, that way you don’t argue about money any more, and you can concentrate on the important things in life.
  2. I feel worried all the time, and I have a hard time sleeping these days, how could I fix that?
    Get out of debt, you will then have 1 less thing to worry about. This is the simplest thing in your life to start fixing, so get at it
  3. I never have any money in my wallet, and I am living from pay cheque to pay cheque, which has caused me to be impotent, what should I do?
    Get out of debt, seriously if your money worries are giving you issues with your love life, you really should get the hell out of debt.
  4. I am staying at my in-laws and they are driving me insane because they keep asking me when we are going to move out and have our own place, is there anything I can do?
    Get out of debt, you are living with your in-laws, ’nuff said! Oh and definitely move out if your in-laws live in Debt, Ontario.

Just had to get that one off my chest. Were there any questions that I might have missed?

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Consolidation Loans Jump Starting Things ?

I have had a few folks talk to me about whether they should be looking at consolidation loans to try to get their debt problems under control, and as a rule, I don’t like the idea, but for some folks the concept may work. Consolidation loans usually consist of adding higher interest rate debts (i.e. credit card debt, etc.,) onto your mortgage or some low(er) paying credit structure that you now use.

This financial tool can be useful in that you end up having a lower interest rate on your debts, however, there is a very large danger with consolidation loans, which I will discuss after this helpful car tip.

I found a very interesting diagram on Pinterest that I now offer for your reading pleasure:

How to Jump Start your car (in the correct order)

As I mentioned a consolidation loan may jump-start your financial life in that you have a lower payment level for your overall debt, however, just like jump starting a car there are dangers. Some of the dangers of jump starting your car are:

  1. If you connect the wires backwards (pos on donor to neg on dead), you will fry your electrical systems (at the least),  your on board computer and you may cause the batteries to explode.
  2. If in step (4)  you connect to the negative pole on the dead car (as many people do), the battery may explode as well (one reason for that is you cause a spark over a battery that may be leaking fumes).
  3. This isn’t a danger, but if you simply jump-start your battery and don’t figure out why your battery went flat it could mean something more severe with your car.

Point number (3) on my list is important because it is similar for consolidation loans, which is why are you using a consolidation loan? If you are jumping your car, there is something wrong somewhere, similarly if you are using a consolidation loan, something is wrong financially in your life.

What do I mean by something wrong in your financial life? It is possible that if you don’t change your lifestyle you will end up needing another consolidation loan (sooner than you think) and that can start a death spiral of debt that will not end well.You must find the root cause as to why you needed the consolidation loan, and deal with that part of your life, or you are doomed to have to “consolidate” again later.

Just like jumper cables, the consolidation loan can be a useful financial tool, but you must use it very carefully, you don’t want your finances blowing up (like your car battery) or end up frying your financial life.

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An interesting question, given how large the student loan debt a lot of kids have once they graduate. The real question is will a bank loan you enough for your house if you have $40,000 in student debt? My guess is they might, and they might even want you to combine all that lovely debt into 1 interest grinding place (with a very long payback period).

This is not very cheap

This is not very cheap and can leave a lot of debt at the end of it.

Typically a student loan can last up to 115 months (but can be extended or changed depending on  your circumstance) so adding that to your mortgage might seem like a good idea, as your mortgage will be for 25 years, so you have longer to pay all this down, but that is a mistake.

Here are a couple of reasons why I think this is a mistake:

  1. Your student loan interest payments get a 15% credit on your taxes, you forego that if you consolidate that into your mortgage. May not seem like much but it can add up, wonder if you could transfer your house onto your student loan (that is sarcasm folks, I am not advising you to do this).
  2. You can renegotiate your student loans if there are problems paying it back and have the period extended and other options, once this is lost in your Mortgage you don’t have this opportunity.
  3. I have a real “hate on” for “consolidation” of debt into your mortgage. The same reason I don’t like the idea of “expanding” your mortgage initially so you can buy new appliances (and thus you are amortizing your refrigerator over 25 years), adding any other debt to your mortgage make me financially nauseated.

The sad thing about this is that Students are graduating in Canada with a large enough debt load (these days) that they need to consider adding this debt to their mortgage.

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Who Cares About Debt I Only Pay 2% on my Mortgage

That was the gist of a comment left on my post Let’s Define Debt Free (which you might have seen yesterday on my Twitter Feed).

Interesting point of view that I don’t agree with for a lot of reasons, but mostly because rates are not going to stay this low for that much longer, but even with that aside, I have never been a big fan of borrowing money to make money.

I lived through the dog days of the 90’s in the High Tech World, where our CEO attempted to rationalize how for every dollar that Nortel borrowed they made $3 back, it never really made a lot of sense to me at the time, and at the end of it, maybe I was correct in my assumption that this didn’t make any sense. I realize that most businesses do have to borrow to get on their feet, but to continuously borrow without paying off debt has always seemed rather fool-hardy to me.

Yes, I could have made a crass comment about how one "poke" from debt could deflate this balloon

Yes, I could have made a crass comment about how one “poke” from debt could deflate this balloon

Getting back to the statement of why should I pay off debt when I can make more money investing, depending on what you are investing in, how long do you think the gravy train will last? If you have a Mortgage at 4% that you are simply paying down as needed, but you are investing that extra money in the Market currently, you most likely are ahead of the game (i.e. making more than 4% back on investments), but are you sure that is going to last, and are you taking your profits?

This is my other concern, I had many colleagues and friends who were “on paper” millionaires, but never took their profits (and jumped to the wrong conclusions). Many folks did one of the following:

  • Never took out their profits, and they kept thinking that the bubble would keep growing (it didn’t).
  • Borrowed against perceived profits, using their stock as collateral for loans to either buy oversized houses or extravagant vacations, those loans were called when those stocks went bust.
  • Fiddled while Rome burned (i.e. didn’t get out because they kept thinking things would get better) (yes I was very guilty of that too).
  • Sold, took their profits, but then invested in even riskier stocks (remember Pets Inc., or Groceries to the Door?). Some of those risky stocks burned through cash and then just shuttered the windows.

These are some of the reasons I am paranoid about Debt (yes I said paranoid) and feel it is a much better “investment” to pay it down, than invest in anything else.

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We Don’t Seem to Dread Debt

That is the hypothesis I can reach from a very interesting study published in the Harvard Business Review “Anticipating Pain is Worse Than Feeling It” ¹. The conclusion of the study (which you have to pay to read, my apologies) is that the instinct to “Get it Over With” overrides our ability to wait patiently for something (specifically in the case of physical pain).

Is it Safe

Many Dread the Dentist, but evidently not Debt
Photo from Marathon Man Courtesy Paramount Pictures

As the study is about physical pain and how we deal with it, the example (I am interested in) put forward in the piece was:

“… People would rather get a level 6 shock now instead of waiting five minutes for a level 4 shock…”

The article did not profess that these findings could be transferred from physical pain to mental stress, but given I am a simple country financial blogger, let’s make that leap, specifically in the area of mental anguish that carrying long-term debt causes (i.e. all future statements here are conjecture on my part).

If we had a feeling of dread about Debt and what it will do to us financially in the future, one point of view would suggest that if we did we’d want to “Get it Over With” (i.e. get rid of  Debt early, or pay it off) to lower anxiety later on, but that is painfully obvious that this is not the case with Debt, since we keep seeing debt loads build and build, and in fact the opposite seems to be true (i.e. we seem to want to take long-term pain over short term pain).

The other point I suggest is that the purveyors of Debt (i.e. banks, credit cards, etc.,) may be doing too good a job mitigating the Dread that Debt should bring you, by masking your future problems, or by making it seem simple to pay off each debt (without thinking about the big picture of debt), and thus you don’t think there is a bad thing in the future, so this model doesn’t apply to debt. If this is the case they are doing an excellent job of mitigating and masking that long-term pain.

Why doesn’t Debt cause us Dread?


¹ – Harvard Business Review Volume 92 no.3

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Personal Finance: Lent Begins Today

As part of Lent, I am reflecting on my previous writings a little more, and this little chestnut was from 5 years ago, however, I have done some judicious editing  as well.

Mardi Gras was on Tuesday, so that means that Lent begins today and this is a perfect opportunity for folks to start something new with their Personal Finances (and their spiritual life, if they wish as well). Easter is a time for new beginnings or restarting something you need to resume, however, most people view Lent as a time to “find something to give up”. That is one way of viewing your Lenten journey, but another way is to look for something to Enrich your life for the 40 days of Lent (leading up to Good Friday and Easter).

Financial Lenten Journey

What areas of your personal finances could use either Enrichment or Better still a sacrifice that might help your financial well being? There are some very simple ones that I think about every year (and have done a few of them):

  • The Latte withdrawal penance. Cut out buying coffee for the 40 days of Lent and put that money aside, to either save, give to charity or pay down your debt. Keep track of this and see how much money you might be saving here, it’s worthwhile finding out where this discretionary money is going.
  • Read 4 Personal Finance books over the 40 days to enrich your understanding of your personal finances or your investing adventures. Building up your expertise over Lent is a good thing.
  • Brown bag it for 40 days, give up buying lunch at work, and bring your lunch instead. Another way to find out where your discretionary spending is going.
  • Take the bus to work for Lent. Leave the car at home, buy a bus pass and take the Bus to work. Yes gas is cheaper right now, but not driving might have other benefits for you (less stress, more exercise, etc.,).
  • Live on cash for 40 days and get rid of your credit cards. Freeze them in your freezer, lock them in your safety deposit box, or cut them up, but live on CASH only (no debit either) and see if you can do it, does it change your spending habits?

Think about these or suggest others, I am open to suggestions myself.

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