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Art of Manliness Podcast #69: Be Your Own CFO with J.D. Roth

In this week’s podcast, I talk to J.D. Roth, founder of the personal finance blog, Get Rich Slowly [1], about his new ebook Be Your Own CFO [2] and online course, Money Tool Box [2]. If you’re looking for ways to improve your finances, you’re going to get a lot out of this episode.

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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara [9] for editing the podcast!

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. So we’ve talked about on the site that an important part of manhood or manliness across cultures, across time is being autonomous and independent. For modern western men big part of becoming autonomous and independent and freestanding is getting a hold of our finances, being on top of our finances. But if you are like most men today you probably don’t think much about your money except for checking your checking account balance every now and then. But if you really want to get ahead with financially you need to treat your personal finances much like a CFO or Chief Financial Officer of a business would.

At least that’s the argument that personal finance writer J.D. Roth makes in his new e-book “Be Your Own CFO”. So J.D. Roth he is a founder of a popular personal finance website called getrichslowly.org and he just came out with a new e-book called “Be Your Own CFO” along with a online personal finance course. In today’s podcast J.D. and I talk about what it means to be CFO of our own personal finances and how switching to that sort of mentality can help us immensely with getting ahead financially.

Great podcast, it’s cramped with just like really useful practical takeaway tips. So I think you are really going to enjoy it, so stay tuned. J.D. Roth welcome to the show.

J.D.: Thanks Brett, glad to be here.

Brett: Let’s talk a little about you for our listeners who aren’t familiar with you or your work. You call yourself the accidental personal finance expert. How did you accidentally become a personal finance expert?

J.D.: Well the bottom line is I sucked at money for a long time. I grew up in a household where my parents didn’t really know how to manage money. They were always broke, when they did have money through a windfall or whatever they’d just spend right through it. Their balances in the checkbooks were always zero. I went to college I developed poor personal finance habits myself and by the time I graduated I had the start of a credit card problem. And that just grew throughout the 1990s until by 2004 I’d over $35,000 in consumer debt which is less than some but a lot more than others and trust me $35,000 in consumer debt it feels like you’re chained, you are enslaved to your creditors.

So spurred by some friends I started reading everything I could about personal finance and then trying to put some of the stuff into practice. As I did this I started writing about what I was doing for the web. I started a blog called getrichslowly.org and I documented the things I was reading about, the things I was trying what worked, what didn’t, mistakes I made, the successes I had. For whatever reason “Get Rich Slowly” built an audience rather quickly. So I started the blog on April 15th 2006 and within a couple of years I’d built that audience so that had 100,000 subscribers and was making a lot of money from the website which naturally helped me get out of debt quicker than I thought I would. Eventually I was able to quit my day job. It was awesome.

Brett: Yeah, well I was one of your first readers like…

J.D.: Yeah that’s right.

Brett: That’s how we met and then you inspired me to start my first blog with a “Frugal Law Student”.

J.D.: “Frugal Law Student” I remember it, it was awesome.

Brett: Those were the days. I think the reason why it grew so quickly since like people resonated with your story. There are a lot of people who are in the same boat and at the time yeah there is all those personal finance books and things like that but it was always written by experts who probably never had to deal with having $35000 in consumer debt or overcoming that and you provided a narrative like hey, look this is what I am doing, it works. I’m an average guy, I was a screw with my money but now I’m not so much of a screw up anymore.

J.D.: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there Brett. I think that a lot of personal finance books at least say a decade or more ago were written by people who were on Wall Street or they were accountants or certified financial planners, people who had their act together and yes the information they were providing was correct but he it didn’t take into account a lot of real world stuff. It didn’t take into account psychology and emotions and relationships and all these things that make personal finance messy because as I think most people realize smart money management is more about mindset than its about math. It’s about mastering your emotions and mastering psychology and learning how to do things in complex relationships where you’re dealing with your friends and your family.

I think not just me but a lot of personal finance bloggers that were getting started in the mid 2000s they were telling their personal stories and you are right, this resonated with people. Also at the time behavioral finance, to field of behavioral finance was beginning to takeoff and that actually is a field where people write about how people handle money in their life instead of in ideal ways.

Brett: Very good, so you started the “Get Rich Slowly” and you were able to quit your day job, this helped you earn a very lucrative income, you were able to pay off your consumer debt and basically you went from J.D. the screw up to like J.D. I got my financial act together. Now you have come out with this new guide called “Be Your Own CFO” right.

J.D.: Right.

Brett: I think it is interesting, it’s such a great idea and a great concept because you talk about in the guide or e-book that when you worked at your day job you took care of your business finances likely meticulously. You took care of that because you didn’t want to get audited by the IRS. But then your personal finances were a wreck and I think a lot of people are like that. They will be very meticulous if they own a business with their business finances but their personal money they just don’t care. Why do you think people are like that? Why do think people would be so meticulously when it comes to business but not personal finance?

J.D.: I don’t actually know the reason. I think maybe people are forced to be meticulous with their business finances because of the IRS and because if they aren’t meticulous the business can’t survive. I think we all understand that in order to survive a business has to make a profit. Now profit is not necessarily the purpose of business, some people would argue that it is, but I have seen plenty of research that indicates profit is a byproduct of other objectives, of doing other objectives well. The great example is Apple Computer which their very explicit Steve Jobs was very vocal about the fact that their purpose was not to make a profit. Their purpose was to make great products and if they were able to do that then the profit would come. The profit is kind of like food and water for a business, is the way I look at it. We need food and water for our bodies. We don’t live to eat, that’s not our purpose right. But we need the food and water in order to survive. That’s the same thing with a business.

So I think people grasp that that a business needs a profit in order to continue being a business otherwise it goes out of business. But what people don’t realize is the same idea applies to your personal finance. If you have an objective, if you have a mission, if you have things you want to get done in order to accomplish those things, you have to have a profit. That’s the only way you are going to reach your objective and most people for example have an objective of retiring. In order to be able to retire and retirement is the same thing as financial independence, they are essentially the same thing. In order to achieve these goals you have to have a certain amount of money that can support you for the rest of your life however long your life would be or however long you think your life will be. So you got to earn a profit until you’ve accumulated enough money to sustain that goal.

Brett: When did it click for when you’re like hey, I can do what I do with my business finances to my personal finance. How did that connection happen for you?

J.D.: Well, it was kind of a gradual thing. When I finally decided to get out of debt and take control of my personal finances in 2004, it occurred to me that if I use some of these same skills that I had used to make my business successful then perhaps–, I wondered what would happen if I used them in my personal life. So I began applying them and the more I applied them, the more successful I was. It was a conscious thing, I was making a conscious decision and it’s kind of funny, I don’t want to go too much into this because it’s a deep rabbit hole but part of this was based on I’d set up a sort of “business”, we will put business in quotes in the game world of “War Craft” where I had bought and sold. I would buy things cheap at the auction and then resell them at higher prices and was basically doing arbitrage. That too serves as an inspiration, this fake business. I was like why am I not trying to do some of the stuff in the real life, why am I doing it in a computer game where it doesn’t matter at all, why not try to do some of this stuff in real life. So just over time the more I put these principles into practice the better results I had. So when it came time to write this particular guide, this guide is part of Chris GuillebeauUnconventional Guides” series.

I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with Chris but he writes a blog called the “Art of Nonconformity” and he found at a convention here in Portland Oregon called the “World Domination Summit”. He also has a series of online guides called the “Unconventional Guide” and like the “Unconventional Guide To Art And Money” from artists who want to make a profit or the “Unconventional Guide To Travel Hacking” and so on. He said, “J.D. why don’t you write me a guide, Unconventional Guide to Money”. When he asked me to do that I kicked him out a lot of different ideas, I’d three false starts as I told you before we started recording and it was only once I’d latched on to the idea, I thought you know I remember when I was trying to get out of debt and did that whole business thing. But what would happen if I’d like carried that metaphor even further and so I started writing the guide as “Be Your Own CFO” and it just clicked. It made so much sense.

I loved the way the metaphor worked and everytime–. I would then bring this metaphor to the people I was talking to about personal finance my friends and my family who were asking me questions and when I’d explain it to them, it’d be like like this light bulb went on in their head, they are like ah! I get it, dry ink for profit. Anyway that’s the long version of how this thing has developed.

Brett: So, Ok, let’s get talking about some of the things you talk about in the e-book because it’s really good. I mean just very practical but also relatable at the same time. You start off talking about the first thing you need to do is come up with a mission statement which for a lot people they’ll be like what is this doing in personal finance. What does my mission statement have to do with anything? What does that have to do with personal finances, I guess you kind of touched on that before with the Apple example, right?

J.D.: Right, well you know I think that–, I’d venture to say it that most people don’t really have a particular direction in their lives. They are very reactive, I’m not trying to condemn people for doing this because nobody tells us oh, you need to have direction. So people just kind of move aimlessly through life reacting to things and may be planning a little bit ahead. But as a result because they don’t have a destination in mind they just kind of wander.

On the other hand the people who do decide that they have a goal, whether that goal is to travel the world, to retire early, to buy a house, to send their children to college, whatever those goals are they help provide focus and direction to whatever it is you’re doing. So if you have a particular goal in the guide I call it a “mission statement” and I talk about how you can develop a mission statement and then sub goals that go along to support it, if you develop this mission it can keep you focused so that it is much easier to make choices with your money. If your goal–, for example one of my goals is to travel across the United States next year. I want to leave here, leave Portland buy a used travel trailer and travel across the United States for six months interviewing people as I ago. That goal keeps me focused. I know that I need to save money to purchase a used travel trailer and to support my travels as I’m no longer writing about money. I’m going to have to live off my savings and I don’t want to have tap my retirement savings. So this goal keeps me focused and it means when a friend calls me and says, J.D. you want to go out for a dinner tonight, I’m more likely to suggest something like well why don’t you come over here, I’ll grill up some hamburgers, it will be cheaper and then we can go for a walk. Because I know that that’s going to save me money, keep me fit, and it is going to be more aligned with what my personal goals are than going out to dinner and sitting around drinking and not doing anything.

Brett: Yeah, I know for me a few years ago my wife and I we were like in debt, pay down, we were just like pay off our debt, that was our goal. Every decision we made financially was just like what can we do to pay this debt off as fast as we can. It really helps because you know we were eating what Dave Ramsey says beans and rice, spaghetti and nachos everyday because it was cheap. But it paid off.

J.D.: Yeah and every once in a while you realize or you’ll make a decision and say you know right now I do want to go out to dinner with my friend. The example I’m thinking of is right now my girlfriend and I have both managed to put on a little bit of weight over the past year or two. So we’re in fitness mode, we are trying to do what we can to eat right and so on. That means we are consuming a lot less alcohol and so our default is because we know we want to lose weight we’re not drinking alcohol and we’re especially not drinking beer. On the other hand last night it was beautiful, beautiful sunny day here in Portland and we went out to dinner with some friends and we still know that our goal is to lose weight. We made this conscious choice, we decided intentionally we are going to drink and so she had a glass of wine and a cocktail and I had a beer and a glass of wine and so its not that you have to deprive yourself but when you have a mission it is much easier to make decisions and be conscious about how you are spending money.

Brett: Yeah, that’s great stuff. So you have a section I thought was really about finance reports rights. So every business has these different financial reports they produce out on a quarterly and yearly basis. You suggest some finance reports or metrics that you should keep track of in your personal finances. Is there one in particular that you think is like the most important, that people need to start thinking about more and might not be doing it right now?

J.D.: Yeah, I think the most important personal finance metric is what I call profit margin. Most people would know this as saving rate and your saving rate is basically the percentage of your income that you’re setting aside for future use whether that’s in savings account or retirement accounts or investment accounts or whatever. In general we are told by financial experts that you should set aside 10 percent of your income. The really ambitious financial experts will say 20 percent of your income, so they are suggesting a 10 percent saving rate or profit margin or at much a 20 percent. That’s what I recommended for a long time too, in my first book “Your Money – The Missing Manual” I’m all over the 20 percent thing but after talking a lot in the past year or two with people who have achieved financial independence at a young age, people who have basically retired early and by that I mean at 35 or 40 or 50 especially a fellow named Pete who writes a blog called mrmoneymustache.com.

Brett: It’s the coolest blog.

J.D.: Yeah, it’s awesome. He’s got passionate followers because of his advice. The advice is yeah this, 10 percent – 20 percent saving rate or profit margin that’s great but if you follow that advice you are going to be working at your jobs for 45 years because that’s how long it takes to save enough to retire. On the other hand if you bump that savings rate up to 30 percent you can retire much quicker. That’s my ex-wife, she saves 30 percent of her income, she’s going to retire at age 50. But Pete says if you bump it up to 50 percent you can retire by 40 or if you’re really, really industrious and bump that saving rate or profit margin up to 70 percent you can retire in about 10 years. You’ll have accumulated enough money to live off at your current spending rate for the rest of your life, if you keep your spending rate there.

At first I kind of blew that off like extreme thinking and it wasn’t really possible. But looking at the map no he is absolutely right. If a young person coming out of college man or woman says all right I am going to just do this, I’m going to buckle down and save 70 percent of my income no matter what in 10 years they can retire and fund their spending level. The amazing thing about that is when you retire, I think a lot of people think of retirement as just lounging around playing golf that kind of thing, but from what I’ve seen of the people who do achieve early retirement through this sort of extreme saving, they continue to make money. It is like me now I have accumulated enough money, I’m 45 years old, I have accumulated enough money that I could retire if I wanted to. But I continue to do other things like this be your own CFO guide which is part of the Get Rich Slowly yearlong course by the way. That produces income for me and it is just kind of a side light. I don’t need the income but I’m doing something that I enjoy and I think provides value and even though I am retired I must continue to generate income.

Bottom line, and I am very talkative today aren’t I? giving you these long–.

Brett: It’s great, I love it.

J.D.: The bottom line is the most important metric a person can look at in their personal financial life I think is what their profit margin is. And if your profit margin is small say 5 percent, do what you can to get it up to 10 or 20 percent. But if it’s already at 10 or 20 percent see what you can do to bump it to 30 or 50 percent.

Brett: So that may mean cutting back on expenses or trying to find ways to make more money.

J.D.: Yes, exactly. So my philosophy is the best way to do this isn’t really like clipping coupons although there’s nothing wrong with clicking coupons or other things that produce tiny benefits. But you want to see what you can do to produce big changes to your financial situation at once. This is much easier to do if you are just starting out, if you just graduated from college. If you can refrain from adopting the adult lifestyle when you graduate from college, get an adult income but don’t have adult spending levels you’re going to be so much better off. But if you already have an adult lifestyle there are a few changes you can make that produce big results. Unfortunately people are very, very resistant to these changes because they go against the way our culture operates, what we tend to value.

The big changes that I try to stress are number one is housing, cut back on your housing costs. The typical American households spent a third of its budget on housing and this is enormous and its much larger than it used to be in the past. I feel like if people would cut their housing costs back to say 20 percent or even 15 percent of their budget they could save huge, huge amounts of money.

Second source that people can cut back is transportation and most people actually could cut back on transportation today if they just made the resolution OK I’m going to find other ways to get around than drive my car. Again transportation is the second largest piece of most American households budgets. If people could find alternate routes or alternate means of getting around like taking the bus or biking or I’ve got a motorcycle which is much cheaper than driving a car, this cut would provide a huge impact to the bottom line.

The third big change that people can make is boosting their income and this could come through negotiating a pay raise, taking a second job, selling things, whatever it is, generating additional income is another great way to boost your profit margin.

Brett: Right so focus on those big ones.

J.D.: Exactly right.

Brett: Alright, you’ve a section about budgets. If you’re running a business, businesses have budgets, so if you’re going to be the CFO in your life you have a budget too. But the thing is lately you see a lot of talk in the personal finance sphere that budgets don’t work. Sort of like how diets don’t work, you need to make lifestyle changes instead of trying to go on a diet, you want a lifestyle change. How do you respond to that argument that budgets don’t work, so just kind of focus on general lifestyle changes in your finances?

J.D.: I think there is merit to the argument that lifestyle changes are most important because that’s true. However to say budgets don’t work is misguided, some budgets don’t work, the reason they don’t work is they can be very fussy, they get overly complicated, they try to track too much detail. I’m a huge advocate of what you might call budget frameworks which are broader budget that might have for example just three categories. I’d been a longtime advocate of a budget framework or budget if you prefer called “The Balanced Money formula” which was suggested by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi in their book “All You Are Worth”

But anyway the balance money formula suggests that you just have three budget categories. The first category is needs and your goal is to get your spending on needs to be below 50 percent of your take home pay. So that means needs include things like your basic housing, basic clothes, basic food and so on. You want those to be below 50 percent of your take home pay. You also want to save more than 20 percent of your income. Now again remember I said earlier that ideally you’d be saving 50 percent or more of for income because that’s going to get you to your goals much quicker but this is a good start 20 percent or more of your income. And that should leave you roughly 30 percent to spend on wants. Warren and Tyagi say that this balance money formula is a way to provide peace of mind and you are able to have everything you want and everything you need while saving for the future.

In I think by limiting it to just three categories it makes it a lot less fussy and it’s something that people can follow.

Brett: Yeah, my experience with budgeting has been like you sort of budget and then you are always just tinkering with it. You spend all your energy like trying to tinker with it, set everything out, every dollar has to have a place and then it just saps so much mental energy that you don’t have the willpower to actually follow it anymore.

J.D.: For me budget is kind of a road map, they take you in the direction you want to go and I don’t necessarily need a road map that shows me every little twist and turn. That’s just going to drive me nuts. What I want instead is just a general map that says yeah, stay on the freeway until you hit San Diego and then take this exit. I don’t need to know about all the other exits or how many lanes are in the freeway at this point and so on. I think a broader budget framework is best for most people.

Brett: Definitely, so you kind of hit on this a little bit. A lot of our listeners are in their twenties or maybe early thirties, just starting out in life. Any specific advice you have for them, you mentioned like don’t have adult lifestyle, don’t pay for that inflated lifestyle but anything else they can do that will have a huge payoff years down the road for them.

J.D.: You know Brett I would go back and point to having a mission statement and having goals because I think that being clear on what your purpose is and what’s important to you, knowing what’s important to you can keep you focused when your friends are doing things that might not be in your best interest. If I were to pay attention to how my friends spend money, I would buy a lot of cigars and a lot of booze. I’m not saying that I don’t drink and that I don’t smoke cigars but I let them do whatever the hell they’re going to do because they are following their priorities. I pay attention to my priorities and it took me a long time to get till there.

When you’re young it is very easy to be taken with the notion that you need to have these sorts of things that your friends have or that your parents had when you were growing up. But if you can resist the urge to compare yourself to others, to be seduced by the notion that you have to have what other people have or what the people on TV have, that’s even worse you are going to get so much further ahead than anybody else, any of your other peers as far as your personal finances are concerned and the key is becoming clear on what is important to you so that you’re able to make these choices wisely.

Brett: I think that nails it, it’s awesome, because I have noticed that there is a tendency for young people to be like I just want to keep my options open. Coming with a mission statement, a purpose seems sort of constraining. What they don’t realize is it can change, you are not stuck in it for the rest of your life. It changes as your life progress but you need to have something like at least one thing you’re focusing on that will give you some sort of direction in your life so you don’t go off to someplace you don’t want to be.

J.D.: Yeah, and I think it’s important to realize that there are opportunity costs associated with everything that we spend whether its time and money. When we choose to do one thing or choose to spend money on one thing, we are basically saying OK I’m choosing not to spend it on something else. So if you go out and you buy a new car for say $25000, you are choosing not to spend that $25,000 or $30,000 after financing on something else whether that something else is travel around the world or retirement or a new house or whatever. It may not be a conscious choice, you may not be consciously saying oh, I would rather have this car than to travel around the world for a year but it is effectively a decision that you’re making. You need to realize that these opportunity costs exist and they really have a huge impact on your future. I was really dumb with money when I was in my 20s spread. I got into huge, huge credit card debt and I made choices that once I got down the road 10 years later I was like what in the world was I thinking. I basically mortgaged my future for the sake of a few luxury items when I was younger.

Brett: Yeah, I think that’s solid advice. I mean something that we try to hit on this site a lot for young guys is like have mission, have a purpose, something right.

J.D.: Yeah.

Brett: Well, J.D. last question to wrap things up. Tell us a little bit more about this guide, it’s this “Be Your Own CFO” but it’s a part of a course as well.

J.D.: This was kind of fun for me, I’d never done anything like this. I thought it was going to be like a standard PDF e-book that people could download but Chris Guillebeau was like no, no let’s make this a part of a bigger project. So we created the “Be Your Own CFO” guide and it’s about 120 pages. It’s like the distillation of everything that I’ve learned reading or writing about personal financial the past 10 years. It’s got all my latest ideas because I’m constantly evolving; I’m constantly learning new things about personal finance. It’s got all the latest information that I’ve been able to accumulate. Chris said let’s add some more stuff and make it into a course. So we basically have a 52 week e-mail series where every week we send out a new e-mail about a personal finance topic. Some of the stuff is about how to handle psychology, how to handle relationships but is also some practical stuff too like how to set up an estate plan which sounds boring but everybody needs to do.

You do these podcasts but I’m kind of new to this kind of thing. I’m excited, it’d be fun to interview some of my friends in the personal finance world because I have a lot of contacts. I interviewed 18 different people and those interviews are available as part of the course. Then there is a whole lot of other stuff like a guide on how to negotiate your salary, a guide to setting up a ROTH-IRA which is a basic retirement account that everybody should have. It went from being just an e-book to this large comprehensive course and I’m really proud of it. I feel like it is the best work I’ve ever done.

Brett: That’s awesome, where can people find out more information about it?

J.D.: We set up a website at moneytoolbox.com, you can go there and learn more.

Brett: Awesome, well J.D. Roth it’s been a great conversation, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’ve been a big fan of your work since way back when so –, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

J.D.: Thank You.

Brett: Our guest today was J.D. Roth. J.D. is the founder of getrichslowly.org and he continues to write there today and he just released his new e-book/online money course called “Be Your Own CFO”. You can find that at moneytoolbox.com. You can sign up for it there.

Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Also holidays is coming up, check out our stores at store.artofmanliness.com where you got some new cool coffee mugs, really manly and hefty and cool looking, I’m really, I think they are cool. Check them out store.artofmanliness.com. Until next time stay manly.