Janine Starks on financial illusions and the hazards of comparing yourself with your supposedly rich neighbour.

Janine Starks on financial illusions and the hazards of comparing yourself with your supposedly rich neighbour.

Money optics: a bit like the mythical happy marriage

By Janine Starks

From my mail bag: 

We’re in our mid thirties with one child and one income.  I’m due back off maternity leave shortly.  We’ve both lived overseas and came back to NZ about five years ago.  We bought a house and now have built a decent amount of equity in it. We’ve got money overseas still. Do we put everything we can on the mortgage, invest in property when it seems cheap, invest in shares or just sit tight?  It's hard to know where to start! Plus, if we're going to extend our family, should we be more conservative or does that mean missed opportunities - eek! We often feel that many of our peers are miles ahead of us financially, with investment properties and share portfolios because they just got on & did it years ago, and we want to "get in the game" too.  How do we get more proactive with our money?

We peer over the fence and the neighbour’s cabbages look fatter, their parsley bush plumper.  Inside, we assume their investment portfolio is being polished until its glistening.  Or in my case, we and the neighbours seem to be cultivating the most enormous tree-sized weeds on the spare plot next to us; healthily preventing any illusions.   

Peer groups are funny old things aren’t they? Life would be no fun if ‘comparing’ was banned.  But it should really be categorised as a class c drug – not particularly dangerous, but slightly hallucinogenic. 

“Envy shows people how miserable people feel and their constant paying attention to what others do or don’t shows just how bored they are.'' German philosopher Arthur Schoppenhaur. 

That’s because one person’s measure of success is entirely different to another.  A friend may have immense pride in their share investments and rave about their broker, as it gives them the feel-good factor.  The reality is the investment may be no larger than the balance of your emergency savings account.  The wealthy never discuss their net worth, so in reality the snippets of info we glean from the remainder of our peer group is usually distorted. 

Money a lot like marriage - a thinly veiled sham

Or there’s the rental property that turns out to be a dunger, with a mortgage that sucks the life out of their lifestyle.  Money can be a bit like marriages.  What is portrayed by other people on the outside is often not quite as glossy as what’s happening on the inside. 

What opportunities have you missed out on in the last few years?  You missed the global financial crisis, a tumultuous ride on the sharemarket, the collapse of the finance company industry locally and you didn’t buy a property at the peak of the market.  Buying a house in 2005 and child rearing through the crisis, makes you look like a couple of smart cookies. 

The first lesson in financial planning is that you ignore the actions of others.  They create noise which could influence you into taking risks which are not in your comfort zone.    

The key areas where you need to take some financial advice or make some decisions are:

1.    Your tax situation:  The words ‘money overseas’ alerts me to the fact that you could have offshore investments.  If these are in Foreign Investment Funds, a new-ish tax regime has been introduced in NZ and these could be taxable.  Check with an accountant that you are dealing with this correctly.

2.    Your Kiwisaver arrangements:  Do all three of you have Kiwisaver accounts?  Can you afford to make the maximum contributions?  These accounts are a fantastic first investment step for most New Zealanders. 

3.    Your mortgage.  While I can’t give you any personal advice about your situation, it’s standard practice to get rid of debt as a priority.  It just comes down to the mathematical fact that borrowers are clocking up interest at say 6-7 percent on their house, causing them to pay back two or three times its value.  The only way of earning more than that by investing is to take risk.  Even if you take risk, you can end up with a return which is less than your mortgage rate, so you’re effectively going backwards. 

4.    Family planning: it sounds like you’re heading back to work, but as you say a decision needs to be made on baby number two.  If you got into the property market on the basis of a second income plus rent paying off the new mortgage, a baby may throw the finances into turmoil.  It might pay to keep things financially simple, until you make a decision.

5.    Excess income: Work out exactly how much your excess income is.  Calculate it on one income, two incomes and one and a half incomes.  Do a detailed budget and allow for your lifestyle, treats and holidays.  Do your homework on the property market – prices, rents, maintenance costs and mortgage repayments.  Sit down with the results and really weigh up the repayments, rental down-time and add-on costs, to see if it gives you an acceptable long-term lifestyle.  It might be easily affordable, or the exercise might prove you’d be forced to work full time.  As a mum, you have to look at the non-financial costs.  Think about how it compares to a passive investment such as buying shares or investing in funds, from a time perspective.  Take advice from a financial planner.         


KiwiSaver a good bet

While we’ve talked about the importance of paying off debt as a priority to investing, Kiwisaver is generally an exception as it’s a small percentage, is habit forming, and given it’s a proper long-term investment, the performance has a better chance of matching mortgage rates. 

When considering if you’ll pay off more of your mortgage or invest in another area, there is a flipside to the standard thinking that debt reduction is best. 

Unfortunately a lot of people are so relieved they’re mortgage free, they just start spending, as if it’s ‘mission accomplished’. 

Mortgage free is not a license to spend

It takes an incredible amount of discipline to continue the same levels of cash into investment vehicles.  For this reason, some people choose to saddle themselves with a mortgage long-term and a long-term investment plan.  

While it might not make the best mathematical sense, it can create good habits for those who don’t trust their own levels of discipline. 

Email questionsto starkadvice@gmail.com, subject line: Financial Agony Aunt.  Anonymity is guaranteed.   

Janine Starks is Co-Managing Director of Liontamer Investments. Opinions in this column represent her personal views and are not made on behalf of Liontamer.  These opinions are general in nature and are not a recommendation, opinion or guidance to any individuals in relation to acquiring or disposing of a financial product.  Readers should not rely on these opinions and should always seek specific independent financial advice appropriate to their own 

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And my personal favourite.  Always save 10% of your income before you spend anything.  And anything means ANYTHING. Before mortgage payments, investments, food.  Anything!!

Excess income? Haven't heard of that one.

"Take advice from a financial planner".    

And pay for it.