- I received a great question via e-mail from a listener who heard last week's show. He heard me talking about America's abysmally low savings rate, and asked what someone in the lower-middle class could do if they're finding that they already live more or less paycheck-to-paycheck. It's a great question, and I'm afraid that people like me -- people who really believe in the capitalist system and who can sometimes get carried away by the wonderful things it does for us personally -- sometimes are too quick to overlook the ways in which that same capitalist system can be both very good and very challenging for others. From a practical angle, I'd answer the listener's question like this:
The one word you have to think about, night and day, is "surplus". All capitalism is built on surplus. Always look for something you have in surplus that others don't. Some people have a surplus of skills; doctors, for instance, have a great deal of specialized knowledge in an area which the rest of us want, so they provide their "surplus" knowledge to us, and we in turn pay them more per hour than we pay most other people. Some people have a surplus of time. Some have a surplus of creativity. It comes in many forms, and every one of us has something in surplus -- even if we don't have a lot of cash.
If you have a surplus of time, there are lots of legitimate ways to make money online. The very simplest is to go to the Amazon Mechanical Turk and find a task you can do for money, then do it. There are plenty of high-skill and low-skill tasks listed in that marketplace every day, some taking mere seconds, others taking minutes or hours. But there is always work to be done.
If you have a surplus of creativity, make something! You can sell things on Etsy, Goodsmiths, Deviant Art, eBay, or on your own. There are so many markets for people to sell their wares now that anyone with a real knack for making things should be profiting.
Learning is another way to "save", even if it doesn't immediately show up in your bank account. Learn a skill that others want. Between used bookstores, libraries, the Internet, and low-cost classes, there are many ways to find new earning potential.
If you can save even a little bit of money, learn how to accumulate it wisely. Some people are lucky and are born into money. Most aren't. And that means most people have to deliberately learn how to accumulate wealth, starting from scratch. And it's very frustrating early on, because the numbers are so small. For some people, saving $10 or $100 is a first step they've never taken before...and it can seem discouraging to start from a low base. But at the same time, when the numbers are small, the multiples are big...and that's how you have to look at them. If you start with $100 in savings and get to $200, you've doubled your savings. That's an achievement -- a big one -- even if the total dollar amount isn't huge. You have to learn how to save (and eventually invest) as wisely as possible...and reinforce your attitude by celebrating your hard work along the way.
- Gold isn't a safe haven. When people were going bonkers for the metal a couple of years ago, pushing the price up to great altitudes, a lot of people got caught up in the frenzy. But as it's been pointed out by enlightened investors like Warren Buffett, gold isn't a truly productive asset. That doesn't mean people can't make a profit from selling it at the right times, nor that the price won't go up -- over time, it probably will. But the point is that people who hoard gold are really just doing the equivalent of stuffing money under a mattress, which in a sense means they're holding productive potential out of the economy. Investing in businesses (as by buying stocks) puts other people to work, creates new and useful things, and moves the economy forward. Piling into gold is just speculation, and as the recent price decline has shown, it's not a very "safe" speculation, either.
- Do we get the lawmakers we pay for? They're talking about raising the pay for state lawmakers in Minnesota to something like $40,000 a year. In Iowa, they're paid $25,000 a year...which, really, isn't a professional salary for a job that requires full-time attention for almost half a year (and, by extension, keeps those legislators from working jobs that don't have the flexibility to let them take off half a year at a time). While some people would get squeamish at the idea of raising that pay rate, we need to be honest with ourselves: If there's a market for decision-making talent (which is what the legislature uses), then paying less than a market-clearing rate for that decision-making means that we should expect someone to be subsidizing the legislators. If it's a job that requires full-time effort from people with market-worthy value, then that subsidized legislature is going to have to take the form (in many case) of people who can be supported by large firms (that can afford to spare a paid employee for several months each year) or labor unions and interest groups. It's much harder for someone who is self-employed or works in a small firm or in other less-flexible settings to justify leaving their jobs for extended periods, particularly if their employers have little or no incentive to subsidize their lost pay. So when people get upset about the decision-making process in government, they need to ask themselves whether we're paying the full price for our decision-makers, or whether we're asking others to provide the implicit subsidy. (And, to be clear, there's a big difference between an implicit subsidy and something illicit like corruption and bribery. But it should not escape our attention that if we don't pay our legislators enough to reflect the makeup of the population at large, then we shouldn't expect them to make decisions reflective of the population at large, either. By the same line of reasoning, if going to Congress requires lots of personal financial sacrifice and a level of time commitment that prohibits working in any other occupation, then nobody should be surprised when the members of Congress have a median net worth of about $1 million.)
- How do we really teach kids the right money and investing habits? It's great to hear that a bunch of Iowa schools are trying to teach kids about investing in the stock market by having them form investment teams and allocate a hypothetical $100,000 windfall. But it's also pretty inescapable that you can't teach some of the deeper lessons that they really should learn about valuation and real investing (as opposed to speculation) in any program that only lasts for a single school year. Long-term investing happens on a time horizon (and thus a scorecard) that lasts multiple years at a time. So while some exposure to the stock market is undoubtedly better than nothing, it's hard to reinforce the best lessons without a multi-year commitment, and that's something schools can't do on their own. That's where parents have to come in...if only they themselves know the right lessons to pass along.
- Good luck, Greenland -- may you use your natural-resource bonanza well. A warmer climate has made it more attractive for companies to enter Greenland in the pursuit of mineral wealth that had remained a little too difficult to extract before. If they're wise -- not just smart, but wise -- Greenland's leaders will divert some of the profits into something durable. It's a tough call -- bonanza profits make people feel great, but there's a reason Dallas and Tulsa and other oil-boom towns went through a huge amount of pain in the 20th Century. They expanded with the boom but didn't set aside a reserve for the bust. Getting lawmakers to wisely set aside a small amount for the bust -- and getting them to use the profits in the meantime to build a quality infrastructure -- asks of them that they be enlightened and forward-thinking.