Book review: The Index Card, by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack

The Index Card. Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated. Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack. Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.

Genesis

The authors converged their experiences from  journalism (Helaine Olen) and academia (Harold Pollack) into the worthy effort of demystifying the world of personal finance for everyone’s benefit. Author Pollack began the process by devising an index card of rules for recovering from financial hardship and staying solvent. Author Olen’s experience with the Personal Finance Industry validated Pollack’s scheme. Together, they explain the index card to readers of this valuable book.

Rules from the Index Card

  1. Strive to save 10-20% of your income.
  2. Pay your credit card balance in full every month.
  3. Max out your 401(k) and other tax-advantaged savings accounts.
  4. Never buy or sell individual stocks.
  5. Buy inexpensive, well-diversified indexed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.
  6. Make your financial advisor commit to the fiduciary standard.
  7. Buy a home when you are financially ready.
  8. Insurance- make sure you’re protected.
  9. Do what you can to support the social safety net.
  10. Remember the Index Card

Highlights

Rule #1. The household budget is essential for living comfortably. Be sure to save 10-20% of your income for future needs. The most important savings account is an emergency fund; every household should save 3 months of income in an accessible savings account to use for emergency expenses. —An emergency expense is both immediate and necessary; something bad has happened.—

Rule #2. Unpaid debt has top priority in your budget. Credit card debt is a preventable financial illness that must be corrected. Other forms of debt must also be managed within the framework of a budget.  Unfortunately, there may be unpreventable causes of overwhelming debt such as health care bills and other catestrophic events. Overwhelming debt may require seeking legal advice to file for bankruptcy; don’t feel ashamed.

Rule #3. The second most important savings account is your retirement fund and/or educational savings account. Start while you’re young to take advantage of the compound interest (a.k.a. compounding returns) from investments in either account. DON’T REJECT employer-sponsored retirement savings plans and DO participate in them to the full extent. You can also open personal retirement savings accounts. Facilitate your savings plan by making direct deposits into the retirement and educational savings accounts.

Rule #4. The media’s ‘toxic’ message is that playing stocks is easy and fun. But no matter how much research you do, buying stocks is still a matter of speculation. Stocks are a pay-to-play business where only the broker can always win. Forego the dream of a big win by investing in a small selection of index funds.

Rule #5. Index funds are designed to automatically match the performance of a selected stock- or bond market index. Index funds are true buy-and-hold investments. Most exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and a few mutual funds are index funds. They charge lower management fees than the actively managed mutual funds. Actively managed funds charge higher fees in order to pay for the research needed to outperform the stock or bond market. Few actively managed funds succeed in their effort to beat the market on a sustained basis. Annual management fees for index funds (~0.12%) are lower that for actively managed funds (~0.89%). The average household loses $155,000 in potential investment gains due to the unnecessary fees of actively managed mutual funds.

Rule #6. Most financial advisors are salespeople who chase a profit at your expense. They are not your friend. However, you still have to pay for good advice from a fiduciary advisor. A fiduciary advisor is responible for acting in your best interest, hopefully providing the best advice at lowest cost. The fiduciary advisor is usually a certified financial planner (CFP), registered investment advisor (RIA), fee-only advisor, or robo-advisor who is a proven fiduciary. It’s important to seek a fee-only advisor who is paid by you and only you. The advisor may charge a percentage of your assets under management, a flat fee, or an hourly fee.

Rule #7. Spend no more than 30% of your budget on housing. There are risks and advantages to either renting or buying a home. The authors discuss both.

Rule #8. Insurance is complicated but necessary. Don’t be exploited by salespeople. The 6 Golden Rules of Insurance are:

  1. buy term life insurance
  2. buy high-deductible property insurance
  3. buy a health care plan that pays your provider
  4. buy umbrella insurance that is twice your net worth
  5. avoid complicated annuities
  6. keep an emergency fund

Rule #9. We can’t protect ourselves from everything; sometimes we need a little help. The government is our insurance-backer of last resort. 96% of us have used government financial support to improve our financial situation. Isn’t it our fiduciary duty to Society to support the best government insurance programs?

Conclusions

I concur with the authors’ advice. The strength of their advice is supported by pages of references at the end of the book. Read and re-read their book.

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