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#12: Financial Independence: An (Actual) Idiot’s Guide
7th December, 2020
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that takes one for the team.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that simple step-by-steps often pave the road to hell.
I’m about to offend you. Badly.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but you – yes you – are a secret fan of Nigel Farage.
You may believe you’d be the last to follow in his infectiously hateful wake. You may believe you’d sooner hang yourself than hang onto his words. You may wonder what you could possibly want from something that looks like a conceited toad desperately hoping that if it croaks loudly enough no one will uncover the secret sadness beneath the bluster.
You still want what he is selling.
Or rather you believe you do.
And your bullshit beliefs and fearful grabbing at simplicity are failing your finances.
Like a typical toddler, while the grown-ups are trying to clean up one mess, Farage has dived into making another. Via a new daily newsletter and videos that if he weren’t famous would be a clear cry for help, Farage’s fanfare of falderal is now focused on financial advice.
It’s classic Nige. Brow furrowed in mock-confusion to conceal actual confusion, he works his way through the con-man’s playbook.
He frames the whole thing as a ‘fight’. For ‘financial independence’. To ‘take back control – of our money’. The baseless promises are a mix of nostalgia (gold) and disruption (bitcoin). He picks on real problems (like investment charges), links them to emotional fires, and scatter-guns the resultant ire towards a wall of scapegoats to see what sticks.
Weirdly, so far there are no tips for getting Russian sponsorship or Question Time to do your PR. I guess that will be part of the Premium service.
You may wonder why this matters; you’re surely above these tinpot tactics.
Not so fast. Our most costly mistakes are the ones we can’t see, and a blindfold stops you seeing, not the things seen. Despite the very idea probably making you feel as though you’ve been slimed by an albatross with gastrointestinal distress, what Farage is hissing is exactly what you believe you want to hear.
Before you tie yourself to a mast and stuff wax in your ears to avoid this snake-oil siren, do not be disheartened.
If you’ve paid attention to anything I’ve written, you’ll have a suspicion that when it comes to financial advice, what you believe you want is – assuming the aim is to turn your resources into whatever your version of a Good Life looks like – not what you really want. And, further, that ridding yourself of this belief, while annoyingly hard and even more annoyingly necessary, is absolutely possible. And nothing is more worthy of the effort.
While it would be easy to just the rip the piss out of the pathetic cries of a posh pinstriped political popinjay warning us against taking financial advice from posh pinstriped political popinjays, it wouldn’t be helpful.
People with mindsets not too different to your own will lap this up. Why? What’s Farage saying?
When you sign up for ‘Fortune & Freedom’ (please don’t – let me take this burden for you) you get sent: ‘How to take back control of your finances in 4 simple steps’, written, naturally, by a guy who’s going to be guilty of everything he accuses the ‘other side’ of.
In short, these are:
- 1.Understand your finances – I.e. List your assets and liabilities and income and expenditure.
- 2.Cut waste from your outgoings – I.e. Shop around, fly economy, and cancel unused subscriptions (interspersed, of course, with warnings about “lining the pockets of faceless insurance conglomerates”).
- 3.Make saving your top priority – I.e. Save an intentional specific amount at the start, not whatever random amount is left over at the end.
- 4.Invest to protect and build your assets – I.e. Channel your cash into something that, unlike cash, will likely stay ahead of inflation.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with any of this. You should do all of these things.
However, simple rules make better conclusions than starting points.
This is a problem. With Farage. With financial advice in general. And with what you believe you want.
As Burton Malkiel put it: ‘stupidity well packaged can sound like wisdom’. When it comes to wiring ourselves to live better lives, surface-level sensible is dangerously counter-productive: it looks like progress, but keeps us stuck, inert.
There’s a heck of a market for these simple steps. They appear in every list of ‘how to sort your finances’ ever published (and that keep getting published, despite the last lot clearly not working very well).
You want to ‘sort your finances’ (or rather to feel as though you have). You want not only simple, but so simple even Farage can get it right. And you’d quite like someone to just do it for you, so you can keep your eyes shut.
Sadly, this works about as well as those that pay for a personal trainer, not to make them more likely to do the work, but as an excuse not to, or that post a motivational meditation poster on Instagram as a substitute for paying attention to something other than Instagram. Paying for a product can be a kick-start, but it’s the process of paying attention that saves you just kicking yourself in circles.
Farage knows that when the world looks scary, you shut your eyes. The investment industry knows this too, which is why it makes as much effort to fuel your financial fears as Farage does to rile racists.
However, while you’re hiding from imaginary monsters, real ones will come and steal your stuff.
What matters is not the simplicity of the steps you take, but whether they take you where you want to go. A simple step taken blindly is worse than the same step taken with your eyes open.
You believe you want to wallow in impractical ignorance. Really you want to become practically wiser. As I explain here, ‘the goal of phronēsis – of practical wisdom – is not only how to choose a path to an end, but how to choose the end most consistent with the aim of living well overall.’
Let’s revisit Farage’s four simple steps. What might they look like through a wiser lens?
To know your finances as numbers rather than an expression of your centre of narrative gravity (your ‘self’) is not to know them in any meaningful way. The F&F article entrenches this idiocy in three ways:
a) By encouraging you to treat your finances as ‘secret’, to the extent of avoiding online tools to help create your lists.
c) By reinforcing the belief that the ‘solidity’ of your ‘place in the world’ is determined solely by what you have.
2. Cut waste from your outgoings. The F&F team are right to point out that ‘almost everyone could reduce their spending by hundreds of pounds a year – and in some cases by many thousands – without a noticeable difference to their standard of living’. But they’re wrong to focus on cutting waste.
No one believes they’re wasteful, at least not when they’re doing the wasting. So simply saying stop stops nothing. Telling people to ‘cut waste’ – whether it’s emptying a cupboard of crisps or a wardrobe of unworn clothes – doesn’t work. What’s worse, it’ll make you think it has, at least well enough for now. You’ll scratch ‘sort finances’ off your itch list, believe you’ve changed as a person, and stop yourself from paying the very attention the itch was suggesting you should.
Spending consciously will lead to spending less. The opposite is not true. It’s the consciousness, not the crap, that’s important.
3. Make saving your top priority. This is the best of the four. Sorting the saving first (and making it a habit) is often overlooked. They link savings to the consideration of lifestyle choices (e.g. do you live where you do because it really makes life better?). They even channel Kondo by linking physical to mental clutter. This is all good. It’s almost enough to forgive them for falling into the trap of ‘go for delayed gratification, not the instant kind’, talking about saving in terms of deprivation, and confusing living in the moment with hedonism [to be uploaded soon].
4. Invest to protect and build your assets – Amid a lot of pointless stuff about precious metals and property, the focus on stock-market investments as the default hedge against inflation is sane. The jump it sets you up to make from ‘yes that all sounds sensible’ to ‘this guy must be able to pick stocks’ is not. [We’ll cover investments in more detail soon; in the meantime, there’s Monevator.]
We ‘want’ the ‘just tell me what to do’ answer. (Eventually, I’ll upload my own philosophically and psychologically enhanced tactics to the book. But there’s a reason I’m not doing it yet.)
We ‘want’ to dispel doubts. We flee from fear.
This isn’t about constant cognitive vigilance.
It’s not about learning a ton of boring investment stuff.
It’s not even about being wise. That’s still to focus on an unobtainable destination.