Joel Larsgaard is the co-host of the “How To Money” podcast. Despite its relatively nascent 3 and 1/2 year lifespan, the show has already hit the 20 million download mark. As a podcaster myself I can personally attest to how impressive that is. Joel and his co-host Matt are just plain fun to listen to. They each drink one beer while teaching folks about debt payoff, DIY investing, and crucial money tricks.
In other words, they know when to finance and when to fun. I recently sat down with Joel to find out how he creates a balance between the two.
Joel and Matt have been friends for over a decade, originally meeting at the WSB radio station when both were working for legendary radio host and podcaster Clark Howard. It was there, as Howard’s producer, that Joel spent 15 years watching a master of his craft. “To get to work for a guy with that much knowledge . . . He just cares about people and helping them with their money. And so, to get to be a part of that and help him in that endeavor firsthand was the best learning experience I could think of.”
Joel’s fascination with money stems partly from the troubles his family had when he was growing up. “Working with Clark, it was like this positive spin on something that I’d always had so much trepidation about. And so, I started a blog for a while because I wanted to get my own money thoughts out there and figure out what is it that I think about money and how people should think about it and spend it and save it.”
Specifically, Joel wants to change the perception that personal finance has to be boring. That’s one of the reasons he drinks a beer during each episode. “There is this belief in the personal finance community or at least the way people perceive the personal finance community, that personal finance has to be boring. And that it has to be incredibly restrictive. And so we say, no, no, no.”
He believes there are certain indulgences people ought to be allowing themselves. One might frown upon him spending $25 on a craft beer but he is absolutely comfortable with that purchase. “There are certain things you should pick and choose in your life that are that important. You should still be investing inside of your 401(k) or your Roth IRA but you should also be prioritizing some of the things that you love in the here and now or. . . what’s the point of it all?
I couldn’t agree more and that’s why my new book What the Happiest Retirees Know: 10 Habits for a Healthy, Secure, and Joyful Life makes the case that as long as you’re pound-wise you can be penny-foolish.
Joel says the stuffy constraints of the industry originate in part from the common tendency of experts to misrepresent the purpose of creating a budget. “I think budgets are there to help you accomplish some of those bigger goals. It’s actually there to make sure that you’re able to do those things that you most want to do.” In other words, he wants you to see your budget as a yes document rather than a no document.
Joel’s money maturation didn’t happen overnight. Money used to spark fear because it caused so many family problems in his youth. “My parents declared bankruptcy when I was like 12 years old. And so, money arguments and money problems were like a fact of life. It was kind of the norm.”
It wasn’t until he went to work for Clark Howard that his negative association turned around. “If you use it well, if you’re smart about it, it unlocks this amazing potential. The ways that you can live your life that you never thought possible.”
I wanted to know some of those ways he plans and sets himself up for the right balance of finance and fun, and he was nice enough to elaborate.
The number one question he’s been getting lately is, “What do I do with my money if I want to buy a house in 2-4 years?” It’s that, as he puts it, medium-term savings, that have enough grey area to be treacherous.
10 years ago this type of situation was Financial Planning 101 because savings accounts were paying 3% or 4% interest. That plus the peace of mind of having access to the funds was a win-win. Nowadays, those numbers have dropped to 0.3%, which essentially makes them holding patterns rather than runways for takeoff. And with the markets consistently rising, people agonize over missing out on the growth. Even so, Joel says, if you do want to buy a house in 2 years, you can’t risk much of it.
One alternative, he says, is to earn 3.5% in I Bonds. “That’s at least a way to get paid a reasonable rate of return and combat inflation. But for the most part, you’re kind of stuck with the boring options.”
Another way to balance the good life with reality is in real estate. Joel loves the idea that folks are now more free to live where they want in this post COVID world of Zoom meetings. “If you’re going to hold onto it for a long period of time, it’s not an unreasonable thing to take out a 30-year mortgage and pay a little more than you were hoping to. I think for folks that have been patient, finding a property is going to get a little bit easier in these coming months, and hopefully, prices will soften, too.”
All that said, Joel wants to cure people of the notion that homeownership is an absolute must. “I own a home myself. But I think it’s oversold to people. The transaction costs involved in buying and selling are incredibly high. And in many cases, too, rents can be cheaper in lots of cities than buying, and then you can invest more of your income. I want people to think about homeownership differently, too. Not just homeownership good, renting bad, renting throwing away money. That’s way too simple of a dynamic. It’s just not true.”
Despite the buzz around this trend, Joel feels it’s a fraught space and it makes him nervous to see it become an option for people to buy them inside of retirement accounts. “For our listeners, I tell them that they shouldn’t.” He feels it’s too unproven and unpredictable. “I can tell you where I believe the S&P will be in 10 years and be accurate within a certain range. But with Bitcoin, I have no. . . it’s like shooting an arrow behind my head at a target. I’m not going to hit anywhere close to the center.”
He believes that, at most, folks should put 5% of their overall investments into crypto.
Threading the YOLO Needle
Whether it be Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, or Millennials, Joel does see some generational differences in the attitudes and behavior involved in personal finance. Having lived through the lack of opportunity and job security brought about by the Great Recession, a lot of the younger folks have adopted the YOLO mentality. An acronym for You Only Live Once, Joel thinks YOLO can be used for good or bad. “You do only live once. And so the idea of working in a job that you hate for the next 35 or 40 years for a pension—that’s gone away in a lot of ways and I think that’s good.”
But the flip side of the YOLO coin, he says, is people making the mistake of spending their earnings rather than saving and investing for future retirement happiness. “There’s a good middle ground when it comes to YOLO,” he says. “And people are missing on both sides oftentimes.”
I deal with this topic a lot in financial planning and on my Podcast: Retire Sooner. A lot of my older clients ended up working at a job they didn’t love and then eventually hit a wall and wanted to get out immediately. What Joel seems to be saying is that a better balance would be to downshift and veer toward a more entrepreneurial lifestyle.
But what if you’re in your career stride, what’s the best YOLO-to-not-YOLO ratio? “I think saving 15%, at least, of what you make is really important,” Joel says. “It seems like the traditional advice is to save 10% and I think that doesn’t quite cut it if you want the flexibility that I think is important in life.”
Peace Out Money
Sometimes the basics are still the best and Joel says what allows folks to have the flexibility to not be stuck at a job is to save more. He and Matt dub this “Peace Out Money” referring to the “Peace Out” colloquialism common among millennials that essentially means “I’m out of here!”
“Having that peace out money,” he says, “gives you the ability to then say ‘I can leave anytime I want to because I have some runway to be able to pay the bills for 6 months or 9 months.’”
When the job love goes down make sure the savings go up—get some peace out money. Great advice.
It’s Your Life
Joels thinks “one of the biggest mistakes that people make with money is comparing how they should be spending with how other people around them are spending.” In other words, if your neighbor has a new BMW, you feel like you probably should, too. Or if your cousin takes his family on vacation 3 times per year, you feel compelled to do the same.
“Really, it’s that comparison game that leads us to a lot of the mistakes that we make. And it leads us also to unfulfilled lives. We haven’t done the hard work to figure out what is it that I want my life to look like? I think we have to be willing to march to our own drummer both financially and lifestyle-wise. And I think when we are, we’re going to be more secure when it comes to our money. And we’re going to be living lives that are more on our terms.”
Joel has created a great balance in his life. He knows that balance looks different for everybody. “But for me,” he says, “I’ve tried to find a way where I could do what I want to do with my time when it comes to work. I’ve been really fortunate in that, too. We (his wife and kids) were on vacation for 2 weeks. It was the first time I’ve ever done 2 weeks back to back and it was great. And I was kind of like I’m ready to get back and record some podcasts. I enjoy the material. I enjoy creating audio.”
He doesn’t have a specific age in mind for retirement because why stop doing something you like doing? But that’s not stopping him from balancing his fun with financial preparation, just in case. “I want to get to the point where I am completely financially free. It allows you to make more decisions that you want to make, not based on what you have to do to be able to generate another paycheck.”
I learned a lot from Joel Larsgaard. My only regret is that I wasn’t drinking a beer while doing it.
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