Every so often, a book comes along and I find the time to read it.
A harmonic convergence, if you will. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to read (and review) a book that I think you’ll dig: “This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order”, by New York Times columnist and author, John Schwartz.
To start with, I consider this effort a true companion piece to the classic, “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy.” But not in the way you’d expect. See, Schwartz is an excellent writer. He’s had a long career working at blue-chip pubs including Newsweek, Washington Post, and currently, as a correspondent for the New York Times.
As such, his book is a much more engaging financial memoir of sorts. Filled with entertaining anecdotes and forehead-slapping moments, Schwartz walks us through a life of fairly modest means, leading up to a fairly fruitful retirement in-store. But make no mistake. This is no Mr. Money Mustache story…
A Book for the Traditional Careerist
Schwartz’s experience, filled with highs and lows, resonates with what you and I might consider the classic “American Dream.” Not the dream of FIRE (Financial Independence with Early Retirement) involves saving 50-70% of your income to retire early. Rather, this is what happens when you set aside maybe 15-20% and avoid extravagance, over a long and steady career.
Schwartz and his wife Jeanne have achieved what “Millionaire” says you’ll achieve when you follow tried and true guidelines:
- By and large, spend (and live) below your means
- Invest early and consistently in your employer-sponsored retirement plan (set and forget)
- Insure thoughtfully (healthcare and term life) and get a living will
You Are Allowed to Love Your Job
This was the kicker for me. Here’s a guy who loves his job. Wow! Count me among the envious. Schwartz is a journalist, and he lovingly weaves his career path throughout the 200-plus pages of financial hijinks.
Now, it’s not all roses. As Schwartz reminds us, the media establishment of old went through massive upheaval in the 2000s, as alternative sources (fake news?) brought disruption to a decades-established industry. Surviving that landscape as a journalist took talent and resilience. Fortunately, Schwartz brought good chops to the game and has survived.
Heck, if I could do it all over again, I would’ve applied myself a bit more at journalism camp during my freshman year of high school. One classmate ended up writing for the Boston Globe, while another still does a column for Sports Illustrated. Would I want to work until my 60s, or beyond as a journalist?
Tough to say. But there’s zero evidence that Schwartz is reluctant to roll out of bed every day, like so many of us corporate types yearning to be rid of the cubicle.
Whether you plan to retire early or continue to work up to the traditional retirement age, there are strong bits of wisdom Schwartz offers:
- When it comes to your work-sponsored 401K plan, be mindful of the administrative fees. Read the fine print. Anything approaching 1% or more can put a serious crimp in your future savings.
- Frugality is crucial. Money saved is more valuable than money earned. Get a Costco membership, but don’t go nuts (unless the nuts are macadamia and you don’t let them spoil.)
- Avoid individual stocks. Join the Bogle Bus and ride Index Funds to Wealthville (That’s a Cubertism, not a Schwartzism)
- Avoid financial advisors like the plague. One of the more entertaining chapters describes Schwartz’s interviews with a variety of financial planners and services. They all seem to contradict each other, and (surprise) want to take massive dumps on index funds. If you need a pro’s help, limit yourself to fee-only advisors.
“I’ll be hearing f-ing Christmas bells before I’m out of here”
Poor John Schwartz. The guy never stood a chance. The header above was a nice, salty reply from a derelict tenant when threatened with eviction. I love his chapter on houses for several reasons. Schwartz has some royally epic fails to share with his readers. New York City is a jungle for small-time landlords, like our sage author Schwartz once was.
You may come away from this book with the idea that renting out property is a recipe for misery. Don’t fret, people. As I’ve written before, there are myriad ways to protect yourself and be a superstar successful landlord. The main lessons I took from Schwartz were 1.) don’t rent property in NYC unless you’re a commercial outfit with highly absorbent legal underpants. and 2.) don’t rent property in NYC. Period.
Sacrifice Is Part of One’s Financial Life
I respect Schwartz a great deal. The guy takes his lumps. When times are really tough, and he’s carrying two mortgages because his NYC Apartment From Hell won’t sell, he survives on fries and gravy for lunch. Every day. There’s a serious brush with bankruptcy. Schwartz goes into detail about how his family seriously weighed this option at a financially low point in their journey.
The story about their wise choice in a single-family home illustrates how we all can grow and learn from past mistakes. With the NYC “AFH” behind them, the Schwartz’s found a fixer-upper that they managed to, over time, turn into a highly valuable property. A major contributor to Schwartz’s net worth wound up to be property equity – something that wasn’t remotely in the picture when the bankruptcy was in the mix.
Analytical geek that I am, I enjoyed reading about the Venn diagram Schwartz used in selecting a house: Commute, Schools, and Affordability. We all can relate to these priorities, no? The author figures a manageable commute to be less than 45 minutes. That’s nowhere near outrageous, but I get flustered at 30.
Some families concede hour-and-a-half commutes to live near “good” schools. In doing so, they may not realize how that extra time away from their kids is more impactful to their development than whether a school is an “A school” or “B school.” Don’t get me started…
Healthcare and Raising Kids Ain’t Easy
There’s a lot of humor and heart in this book. Schwartz is on the progressive side of the equation. When his wife Jeanne goes through a medical emergency, the author is clear about the importance of good health insurance.
Author John Schwartz underscores the argument for improving Obamacare, rather than dismantling it. If nothing else, health emergencies are the most devastating to one’s financial health. We can all agree that in this country, we have the resources to provide healthcare insurance to EVERYONE. NOW.
Schwartz cites the USDA figure for raising a kid: $233,610. The eye-popping reality is that children ain’t cheap. In his chapter, “The Kids”, Schwartz does a fine job of interspersing anecdotes from raising his own three children in a part of the country notorious for high child-rearing costs. Whew, especially after reading about luxury summer camps, I’m glad we’re living large in the Midwest.
I appreciate how the author is dedicated to paying for his kids’ college tuition, out-of-state to boot. We’ve pretty much planted the flag in our household on covering half of our twins’ in-state college costs. They’ll likely get another year from their grandparents, leaving the rest to their ability to get scholarships, and occasionally WORK.
Schwartz’s kids owe him a debt of gratitude. Instead of being saddled with debt out of school, his brood can start their career lives with a clean slate. That put a major dent in the author’s retirement kitty, but our hero is a dedicated journalist. And who knows how long he’ll keep at it? If he’s like his father, he could be penning columns into his 90s…?
Get Inspired by This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order
Those of us die-hard early retiree wannabes will appreciate the pitfalls and nuggets of wisdom from Schwartz’s misadventures. I found this book to be a true page-turner. It never bogs down into extraneous details. The use of personal anecdotes and non-preachy style makes the book very accessible.
FIRE bloggers might read this volume and think, “Hey, I knew all of this stuff already, and I’m cranked up to 11 on my money dial!” And that’s fine. But we all start somewhere.
This is a book for those who perhaps don’t know where to start. You want to be a millionaire next door, but need an example to follow. You know, someone with relatable trials and tribulations?
If nothing else, this book reminds many of us that a job can be a good thing. John Schwartz made a rewarding path for himself in journalism that has worked well, and without the Ivy-League pedigree that many in his field fall back on. Give this one a read, and place it alongside the Millionaire Next Door on your bookshelf. The “how-to” meets “Exhibit A.”
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Accidental FIRE says
Great review. Even if us FIRE bloggers have everything dialed in and on hyper-drive (or are FI like me), we can still learn from individual stories. There’s always a fresh perspective or nuanced take on things from a real story that’s told well. That’s why people are so interesting!
Accident Man! Glad to have you, sir. This is indeed some very fresh perspective, even if John is taking a more traditional route to retirement.
A book about personal finance from someone who has a writing style? Sounds interesting, will give it a check. To be honest I tried to read the Millionaire Next Door but was not able to finish it. After a while, it seemed all the same and already spoilered previously. But who knows, you can find inspiration anywhere. I don’t really like horror books (because they scare the sh*t out of me, movies are nowhere to your own imagination) so never read anything from Stephen King. Then once “On writing” came to my radar I was not able to put it down. He is a master of the craft and you can learn a lot about passion, mindset and hard will from that book. Honestly, I did not expect that when started to read. Thanks for sharing.
HCF my man! Yes indeed. This one is a page turner despite its subject matter of personal finance. (Kudos, John!)
MND got pretty dry by comparison. But both books are worth the space on your shelf.
On Writing is a fine little read that inspired me many years ago to consider writing my own novel. Got 40 pages into it only to find I was already bored by my own tale! Ha!
will definitely find that book. I like reading, but have not read too many money related books. Since this one came with a recommendation, I will try.
About commute – I live about 22 minutes away from work. On a Sunday. However, it is about an hour every weekday. Right now, I work from home thrice a week just because of this.
I could move closer – to a school district that is not as good with the same cost homes, or to a better one if I want to buy a home that is about a million dollars. I chose neither. I changed countries for my job, I am not going to change houses every time I change jobs. Or in this case, because they decided to get a different building.
Hi Busy Mom! You won’t be sorry. It’s a finely written piece that uses entertaining anecdotes to support the themes. Nothing preachy here.
Good call on working from home – so long as you don’t miss the personal interactions the office can provide. And the visibility that bosses look for with respect to promotions, etc.
And yes, stay put! Don’t let the Jones’s never-ending quest for the perfect house and school district sabotage your future!
Bernz JP says
So true regarding sacrifices that sometimes we had to make to reach our goal/s. I had to sacrifice working a few years for a company that I never like from the very first day I started. I kept on working but somehow had to change my mindset about the company because I was raising a family. I knew that sacrifices are temporary and use that to inspire me to strive more so I can quit one day and I did.
Feel the BERNZ!!! Good man for sticking it out and processing that experience as a valuable sacrifice. Now free from the ball and chain, you have the freedom to pursue many things, like read this fine book by Mr. Schwartz! 🙂
John Schwartz says
Thanks very much! What a terrific review. It’s great to see somebody really get what I was trying to do with the book…
You’re welcome! And Mission Accomplished with the book! (“Mission Accomplished” in a certifiable, John Glenn sort of way; not in a flip, irresponsible presidential use of the phrase…)
John Schwartz says
Tread Lightly, Retire Early says
Okay, this book is going on my list! In the minority of FIRE bloggers because I enjoy my job, I can see the reasoning behind slow and steady and the enjoyment of a long career. And unfortunately, Seattle is going the route of NYC when it comes to rentals, unfortunately.
Rock on! This just might a useful read for your situation. I appreciate how John covers many different angles. So much of what’s out there is up to us to just sort of figure it out as we go. Our public education (and private?) is seemingly letting us all down with the lack of personal finance basic education.
Jane Baskett says
John Schwartz, indeed, is an excellent writer and is a nice guy, to boot. I can’t wait to read his book, especially after this detailed and entertaining review.
A nice guy too??? John is the MAN! You’ll definitely appreciate the book. Appreciate the compliments, Jane.
John Schwartz says
Jane Baskett says
John, I enjoyed your terrific “Texpat” piece on The Texas Standard today. You are EVERYWHERE!
One of my favorite lines from the book: “Because, Texas.”
Shoot – That’d be reason enough for me to hold drilling rights (and boots with spurs!)
Great Review of the book. Even though some of the things in the book you say might be more known knowledge, I feel like you have done a good job presenting some of the other nuggets you might find. I will for sure put this on my neverending list of books that I want to read. Maybe I will wait for the next cold spell/snowstorm as I am worried any day we will get more snow :-D.
Thanks Eric! Agree – in as much as the audience for Financial Independence has a lot of these things down-pat. But we’re still less than 5% of the population-sadly! So John’s book will be a very accessible entry point – then we hit them over the head with Mr. Money Mustache. ?