Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Credit defined

We're all about the metaphors and similes here at Loonies And Sense. A few months back, I posted about another blog that had described easy credit as a bottomless cookie jar. Well, a recent post at Consumerism Commentary once again has me all revved up with a "new" way of thinking about credit.

Smithee's post on credit cards that already follow the rules laid out in the new Credit Cardholder's Bill Of Rights in the US discusses the practice of double-cycle billing:
Avoid double-cycle billing (imagine paying your rent for May based on how many days you lived there in May and April)
Maybe this is grounds for me to turn in my PF-blogging credentials, but the concept of credit as renting money really hit me when I read this. Interest is the rent that you pay for the use of the money, and heaven help you if you don't return the money in good condition when you're done with it.

This is an incredibly simple concept, and it strikes me how differently people tend to think about debt than about other items they might rent. Nobody would refer to a rented DVD, a rental car, or a rented apartment as their own property, but try to convince someone that the new car they just financed isn't strictly their own property, and you've got an uphill battle ahead of you.

This concept of renting money also underscores the difference between "good" and "bad" debt: just as we derive utility from the tangible things we rent, we can derive utility from the money we rent. With leveraged investing, it's possible (though by no means guaranteed) that you will earn enough money to pay the interest and repay the borrowed amount. Of course, we can also use this rented money to dig ourselves into a hole. If you spend the money on something that you are not able to convert back into money (i.e. depreciating assets, consumables, etc.), then you no longer have the money to return to the lender. Kind of like handing the keys of a rented apartment to a complete stranger: it makes it kind of tricky to get out of your lease.

It's hardly groundbreaking insight, but it's a new way for me to think of credit and debt, and I found it really interesting.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Two years of progress: How am I doing?

Although I only started the blog 23 months ago, I've been tracking my finances to the penny since April 30, 2007. That means that, as of today's recap of April 2009, I have two years of progress to report. Just as I posted charts of my various metrics when I had built up one year's history, I thought I would post a graphical review of my progress to date.

Net Worth

As before, the fluctuating curve in my Net Worth represents my actual monthly numbers, while the smooth line represents the best straight line approximation of my progress over time. As you can see, the straight line doesn't do too badly at fitting the curve; it's still a generally increasing trend, although for the first half of 2008 I appeared to be over-performing, and for the last several months I've been under-performing. This can be tied to the market performance during this period, but it's interesting that my most recent month falls right on the line.

Retirement Savings

A look at my Retirement Savings confirms that most of the "off-trend" variation in my net worth over the past year can be explained by swings in market performance. Although I've been contributing steadily to my RRSP accounts over the entire period, this chart shows just how volatile the market has been over the past twelve months. The late-2008 crash is particularly evident, as is the current rally that has been buoying my bottom line for the last two months. A straight line turns out to be a terrible approximation of my retirement savings.

Cash Savings

Cash savings fare better in adhering to a straight line, although some periodic events still throw the curve off the linear approximation. You can see the build-up in October and November, followed by an abrupt drop in December, due to that constant annual surprise, the Christmas shopping season. Although I've successfully navigated through two cash-only Christmases, the impact of the holiday season can still be seen in my cash balances. It's interesting to see how, after my Emergency Fund hit $1,000 in October 2007, my cash savings have never dropped below this value, and since I set my sights on $2,000 last year, this has become my new effective cash "floor".

Revolving Debt

In spite of (or perhaps because of) its status as my most important goal, Revolving Debt has the most boring chart of the bunch. It's almost a perfect straight line, improving by a consistent $20 or so each day over the past two years. It's thanks to this trend (and two very similar trends in my Student Loan and Mortgage repayments) that my net worth has increased so consistently despite substantial fluctuations in my retirement and cash savings. This serves as a terrific illustration of the importance of focusing on the factors you can control: if I can throw $20 a day at my debt, that will always improve my net worth, no matter what the markets are doing. It's a risk-free return on investment, and more than you'll get in any savings account or GIC.

The Last Twelve Months

Over the past year, the overall trends have been comparable to what I see in these two-year views: net worth increasing, and all debts steadily decreasing over time. However, when I look at my retirement and cash savings over the last twelve months, I see something different:

Both these charts show a negative trend over the last year, although the trend is very slight for cash savings. Now, this is not really cause for alarm, since both charts show me currently outperforming the trend, and the trend for my retirement savings is clearly driven by market performance. However, it does indicate that I should continue to keep an eye on my liquid savings. Spending too much on holiday shopping, or dipping into the Emergency Fund to cover some car repairs, could leave me in a bit of a tight spot if I'm not careful.

April update

Well, this is a bit late. We're almost a week into the month of May, and I still haven't posted my April numbers. I don't really have a good reason for the delay, aside from a full plate at work and enjoying the nice weather we've been having. At any rate, let's see how I did last month:
  • Reduced my revolving debt to $13,333.48 - This means that I am finally below 50% of the $27,610.74 that I started with two years ago. It also means that it's taken me twice as long as expected to pay off my revolving debt, but I've had two years of consistent, strong progress, and there's nothing wrong with that.

  • Grew my Emergency Fund to $1,780.85 - This progress is very slow and steady, but until the debt is gone, this fund is more of a "nice-to-have" cushion than a true Emergency Fund, so it can't be my priority at the moment. Still, I'll continue throwing $25 into it every two weeks, until I'm able to get more serious about building up a few months' expenses.

  • Grew our Wedding Fund to $2,643.23 - We should be in good shape for our wedding next summer, at the rate we're saving for it. Ms. Loonie has been building up her own wedding cache on the side, which is not reflected here, and we're pretty much neck-in-neck at the moment.

    NOTE: Since this money is earmarked to be spent on our wedding next year, any valid wedding expense that we pay for from this account will not reduce my progress on this goal. This may seem like funny accounting, but the real goal here is to pay cash for the wedding, so I don't plan to penalize myself for using these funds as intended.
Now, on to my month-end update:

Online Savings - $2,609.69
Self-Directed RSP - $37,831.13
Employer Group RSP - $11,304.00

Revolving Debt - $13,333.48
Student Loans - $20,349.56

Net Investable Assets: $18,061.78
Net Liquid Assets: ($31,073.35)

Once again, my RRSP was buoyed by the market rally this month; along with over $600 in contributions, this rally lifted my investment balance by $4,530.09. Liquid savings also rose, for a net increase of $5,138.56 in my investable assets, accompanied by a $1,581.23 drop in my non-mortgage debt, helped along by April being a three-pay month.

Overall, my net investable assets increased by $6,719.79, and my net liquid assets increased by $2,189.70. My NetworthIQ profile has also been updated (including loose cash, home, car and mortgage).

Not a bad month.