If You Hate Maintaining a Budget, Track this One Number Monthly

As personal finance nerds, we are interested in where every dollar goes, what bucket it falls into and how that compares to the previous week, month, and year. That’s fairly rare and most people are not interested in tracking every dollar. Some people say, “I’m just not a math person” or “that’s just more detail than I care to know.” So if forced to come up with only one number to evaluate your financial progress, we would have to say without a doubt, it’s your net worth. Let’s define net worth and then let’s talk about why it’s the single most important financial measure to track.

What is your Financial Net Worth?

Your financial net worth is simply adding up all your financial assets (everything you own) and subtracting all of your financial debts (everything you owe).

Net Worth = Assets – Debts

Financial Assets can include real estate, securities (stocks, bonds, mutual funds), vehicles, checking, savings, cash or anything you can sell and turn into cash. Alternatively, your debts can include mortgages, credit card debt, personal loans, home equity loans, student loans, etc.

Let’s be clear about a few things, first, never confuse your financial net worth for self-worth. Regardless of whether you’re a millionaire or your net worth is negative, it says nothing about who you are as a human being. We live in a ‘more is always better’ culture, we glorify millionaires and condemn the poor, but that is not the goal of this measure. Your financial net worth is simply a number that applies to you individually or as a family to track and increase over time to assess how close you are to reaching your financial goals (i.e. financial independence).

Second, the majority of Americans have either zero or negative financial net worth, so if they sold everything they owned, they would either have nothing left over or would still owe money. Many young professionals fall into this bucket due in part to student loans. Building your savings and getting out of debt both increases your assets and reduces your debt, thereby increasing your net worth.

 Why is net worth the most important number to track?

Good question! Why not income? Expenses? Credit Score? The answer is simple, net worth is about the bigger picture. If this was a sports league, your income and expenses would be like the points scored per game (offense) and points allowed per game (defense) respectively. Your net worth would be your winning percentage for the season. If you really want to evaluate how well your team is doing for the season, you want to look at their wins and losses, not how many points they scored in an individual game. Also, teams that have the highest winning percentages during the season are the most likely to win the championship!

Net Worth is a simple formula and there are only two ways to increase it:

  • Increase assets
  • Reduce debt

Increasing Assets

Unfortunately, the majority of our expenses (after our essential expenses) are for items that decrease or depreciate in value. So when we buy a pair of shoes or a phone, if we were to sell it used a month later, we would receive much less in return than we paid for it. On the other hand, if used the same money to purchase stock ownership in the company that manufactured that shoe or phone, that stock could potentially increase or appreciate in value over time. When you hear phrases like ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ that is partially because wealthy people are more likely to purchase appreciating assets (e.g. businesses, securities) and the middle class and poor buy depreciating liabilities (i.e. debt – a.k.a. stuff that makes us look/feel rich, but actually make us poor). A depreciating liability, such as a car note, is a double loser because not only is the car rapidly declining in value, but it’s also financed from a bank, which means paying additional money in interest (increased cost & reducing value).

We have to change how we look at what we buy and whether showing off our expensive stuff is more important than actually growing our wealth. Recent studies have shown that 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, that includes high-income earners, so the people we compare ourselves to or try to impress are likely broke.

In order to put more wins in the asset column, the focus should be to free your income to purchase assets that appreciate in value. Building an emergency fund, increasing your 401k contributions, contributing to an IRA, are all ways to increase your assets in the near term.

Reducing Debt

The other end of increasing your net worth is reducing your debt. Everyone has different types and levels of debt, but the most advantageous position to be in financially is having no debt. There are entire industries that rely on people getting and staying in debt. Credit cards, auto manufacturers, mortgage lenders, banks are examples. In fact, the credit card industry calls people that pay their balance in full every month, deadbeats. They are deadbeats because the card companies aren’t making any money off them in finance charges. If you choose to use credit cards (not recommended), please be a deadbeat! Unfortunately, in our culture we have become accustomed to debt as a way of life. When we start to understand how much debt impacts our ability to reach our financial goals, we begin to make different choices. Keep in mind, our debt is someone else’s asset (i.e. banks, credit cards, auto companies, mortgage lenders), just like your loss is someone else’s win.  If you are a lender, the loan contract is an asset that appreciates. You lend someone $20K for a car purchase and you’re paid back $22K over 5 years.

In order to reduce losses in the debt column, the focus should be to free your income to pay off debt more quickly and avoid additional debt. Also, reduce the purchasing of items that depreciate in value. Tracking your spending for a month, using only cash for 60 days or selling possessions are all ways to increase income or reduce expenses in order to reduce debt.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that we cannot wear or drive wealth. In one camp, the majority of millionaires live well below their means, drive used cars, and live in modest homes (read: The Millionaire Next Door).  However, in the other camp, the majority of Americans live far above their means, live from paycheck to paycheck and finance their lifestyle with debt. There are free online financial aggregators such as mint.com that will allow you to centralize all your financial accounts and calculate your net worth automatically. Tracking your net worth monthly allows you to become more aware of not only which camp you’re in, but also allows you to know how close you are from moving from one to the other.

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