The Seven Stages of Financial Independence

Financial Independence (F.I.) in Malaysia

There are a lot of misconceptions about financial independence and early retirement here in Malaysia. People think you have a high income if you’re able to retire early. No doubt, having a high income helps, but the crucial part of the whole F.I. equation is our ability to save and invest.

Financial independence is achieved in stages, even after you’ve retired, you still have to work at it to keep your money flowing in. It’s a lifelong process.

The Road to Financial Independence

Stage 1 – Dependence / Reliance 

We all begin here at this first stage. We start off being reliant on financial support from our families. They provide us with our daily necessities for the initial years of our lives. We commence to chip away at this dependence when we earn our first income.

Some of us may get a head start by having part time jobs while still in school. Some may have gotten lucrative scholarships which gives an allowance. All of these help us break free from our reliance and dependence on financial support eventually.

Stage 2 –  Dependence (Continued)

After we are finally financially independent from our parents, guess what? We are still at the Dependence / Reliance stage. Moving out and living on your own doesn’t automatically make you independent. You are now in fact, heavily dependent and indebted to our various financial institutions.

The majority of us after ‘gaining independence’ from our families would have taken out a huge loan to buy their first home. You’re still in this stage if you spend more than you earn (if you’re digging deeper into debt). Basically, if you’re not earning a “profit”, you are dependent on somebody else. You are not financially independent.

After you start earning a profit — and again, this means you’re earning more than you’re spending — you FINALLY make your way down the path to financial freedom.

Stage 3 – Solvency 

Stages of Financial Independence Solvency

Solvency is the ability to meet your financial commitments. You reach this stage when you no longer rely on anyone for financial support. When you have savings at the end of every month, you’re at this stage. This is where you’re no longer accumulating debt. You might still have loads of loan payments, but you’re not accumulating anymore debt.

As a Certified Financial Planner, I’ve found that to get a person to go from the Dependence stage to Solvency is one of the toughest. It is not only taxing physically but also mentally exhaustive for someone to overcome Stages 1 and 2. But once a person finally find themselves with a surplus at the end of the month, they will have the confidence to sail through the next 4 stages.

Remember, it varies from person to person how long it takes for us to reach stage 3. Some people reach this stage in their teens. Some never reach it.

Stage 4 – Stability / Resilience

Stages of Financial Independence DEBT

You achieve stability after you’ve repaid your bad debts (ie. credit cards), established some emergency savings, and continue to increase your savings.  You’ll feel an immense weight lift off your shoulders the moment you make the final payment to your debts. Trust me, it is a great feeling.

It is important to have your ‘rainy day’ fund built up to prevent yourself from falling back to stage 3 due to unforeseen circumstances. The usual recommendation is to save up to 6 months of your salary as your buffer. But if you’re feeling more risk averse, there is no harm in going up to 1 -2 years.

Now you’ve built a buffer of savings to protect you from unfortunate events, you’re ready to put the extra funds to work by investing.

Stage 5 – Security

You reach the Security stage when your investment income can cover your BASIC needs. At this stage of financial independence, you have the ability to live and work as you choose. You have enough saved that you could quit your job at a moment’s notice without hesitation. I am still striving to reach this stage of financial independence. I estimate my basic needs as a young adult in Malaysia to be about RM1,500 per month. With the dividends from my portfolio – the Freedom Fund, I’m almost there.

Based on how much you have saved and invested, you could live a meager existence for the rest of your life without worrying about money. Even if you never worked again, you could afford shelter, basic food, daily essentials, and medical care.

Stages of Financial Independence Time > Money

Starting from Stage 5 on the road to financial freedom, your concerns are no longer just about survival. Money is no longer a safety net. It is now a tool to help you thrive and build the life you want. People who reach this stage will truly understand that money is just a tool. You will learn the value of your time. Instead of spending 8 hours a day for your monthly salary, you start to think about using money to free up your time for yourself and your family. Knowing what gives you meaning and purpose is a vital part of financial freedom and I believe it should be the starting point on this journey.

Stage 6 – Independence

Financial Independence

This is the Financial Independence we should all aim and strive for where your INVESTMENT income can support your current standard of living. At stage 5, you are merely able to cover your basic needs. At this stage, you can finally declare true financial independence. The money you have saved and invested would allow you to live like you do today until the day you die… and then some more.

It is the ultimate goal and dream of mine to reach this stage as I’m sure it is for many of you. All the savings and investments I’m doing has been to eventually be able to reach this stage. Financial independence varies from each person. For some of you, FI is achieved at RM12,000 per annum. Some will only be satisfied with RM24,000 per annum. For me, the sweet spot is RM36,000 per annum. Decide on your number now and start working your ass off towards it.

Stage 7 – Abundance

Financial Independence

In the final stage of financial freedom, you have more than enough. Your passive income will not only fund your lifestyle forever, you can even turn it up a notch or two. Now is the time to indulge in the luxuries in life and enjoy the fruits of your long tedious labour.

Here’s the bottom line: The more money you save, the more freedom you have, and the more risks you can take. As your financial independence increases, you chip away at the wall of worry. You’re able to make financial decisions pro-actively rather than re-actively.

End.

There are tonnes of resources out there on Financial Independence each with their different stages. I’ve sifted through them all throughout the years and tried my best to compile them to best fit Malaysians.

The regular readers here are likely to be professionals (or at least semi-pros) of the personal-finance world. We should take the time out to help others out of the financial binds they find themselves in. I think it’s in our best interest — in the best interest of everyone, really — to get more people into the ‘game’ of Financial Independence.

The more Malaysians we can get on the road to financial freedom, the better off we all will be. I hope I’m able to start cultivating the Financial Independence mindset here at Dividend Magic.

Investing is Simple – Get Started!

You want Financial Freedom? Save, Invest and Start Early.

There are countless ways to getting rich here in Malaysia. For the average and majority of Malaysians, I urge you all not to get caught up in the many get-rich-quick shortcuts out there. Instead, opt for the long winding but proven path of hard work, savings and consistent diligent investing.

The crucial and key thing is to get started and get started early . It’s best to save and begin investing at an early age. You should even start saving and investing on behalf of your kids the moment they’re born to give them an edge in this dog eat dog world. And trust me, saving as little as RM100 a month for your children the day they’re born will help them start off with about RM50K in their accounts on their 18th birthday. If I had RM50K to start with, I’m sure my portfolio would be much much bigger now. Start early!

Yes, saving money isn’t fun. Investing in boring index funds and the stock market for the long term isn’t sexy. And yes, it takes years, decades even, to build wealth this way. But trust me, it’ll all be well worth your while when you realize you have enough passive income to sustain your lifestyle.

One advantage I had was learning about the importance of investing at an early age. I was fascinated with the concept of passive income during my university days and started learning how to value stocks. I read tons of books on investments and decided at an early age to embrace frugality and diligent investment. I devoured and poured through books on investing and personal finance. Every day I checked the share prices of stocks I was watching in the newspaper. I loved it!

Investing isn’t just for the Rich

Because I’ve been asked this a thousand times over, I’d like to emphasize – Investing is simple and you can start with ANY amount. The crucial part is just to GET STARTED!

I’m 28 this year with a portfolio (my Freedom Fund) of RM300,000 in stocks. I started out with just over RM10K saved up from my university days. Too many people around me have put off their finances because they claim not to know a thing about investing. The most important step for you to take is to get started. Save up, pick a stock you can understand and invest in it. It doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars or only RM1,000. Just get started.

Dividend Magic - Investing is not for the rich

Investing Analogy

Here’s an analogy on investing I love.

Let’s say you are a farmer, you buy a little baby calf for RM2,000. It eats a lot of grass and over time grows into this big, beautiful, strong cow that’s now worth RM10,000. On a nice Sunday morning, you walk your cow down to the farmer’s market in town, and you sell it for RM10,000. Boom, a RM8,000 profit (and you didn’t even have to pay for the grass). This is your capital gain. Now, the period before you sold off your cow, your cow produced milk which you consume and sold off to your neighbors. This is your dividends.

  1. Your cow – Stocks (Asset)
  2. Your milk – Dividends (Cash flow)

Investing is really that simple, and you can start with any amount of money.

Now, lets take it to another level. You could’ve kept that RM2,000 you had at the beginning in your savings account. Over 20 years based on the 3% interest rate banks are paying now, your RM2,000 is now worth RM3,612.22.

OR, you can invest RM2,000 in the stock market. The KLSE index rose from 838 to close at 1813 on 29th November 2013 from 4 years ago for a total gain of 116%. On average, the compounded annual growth (CAGR) each year is 11%. Historically the markets around the world earn about 10% per annum, so here’s how much RM2,000 might be worth over 20 years, compounded at 10% per annum – RM13,455.00. (Note, this is the simplest illustration and example I could come up with, of course, many other factors come into play when one invests.)

Now compare investing to saving. Which one of these looks like the option to build wealth? Right, investing.

Mutual Funds and their Damned Fees

You’ve probably heard of investments like mutual funds, target date funds, or index funds. You might even own some of them. All of these funds have fees (also called the expense ratio), and if you’re smart you can save money on them.

Dividend Magic - Mutual Fund & Unit Trust Fees

Mutual funds are the worst (especially in Malaysia) because they rarely beat the market and usually have the highest fees, the average in Malaysia is a whopping 3%, I’ve seen some as high as 5%. These might all seem like insignificant numbers, so why does it even matter? It matters. Here, I’ll do some calculations to show you.

Let’s say you invest RM10,000 and earn 7% over 50 years.

0.0% fee: RM10,000 grows to RM294,570
1.0% fee: RM10,000 grows to RM184,202, and you lose RM110,369 in fees
2.0% fee: RM10,000 grows to RM114,674, and you lose RM179,896 in fees
3.0% fee: RM10,000 grows to RM71,066.83, and you lose RM223,503 in fees

I cannot emphasize how fees can kill your investments. I hope the above illustration will get through to my fellow investors out there. With a 2% fee, you’re essentially losing more than 50% of your investment to fees alone. What’s even worse is that the above example assumes you’re earning a 7% return p.a., what if you’re losing money? The funds still collect the fees from you! Isn’t that outrageous?

By investing in your own portfolio of shares, it means more money for you, less for the fund houses. Also to note are low cost Index Funds from companies like Vanguard that serve to mimic the market. The day that they come to Malaysia is the day I’ll dump most if not all of my savings into them.

(I understand some of you may be mutual fund agents and investors here so if you disagree, please do provide me your reasons for it. Don’t just send me hate messages and emails.)

Hacking inflation

Dividend Magic - Inflation

People love to get really worked up about inflation. Here’s what I think about it.

The best savings accounts earn about 1-3%. These accounts are great to stash money for an emergency, or to save a down payment for a house. The best Fixed Deposits (which you can only get if you deposit about RM10,000 and above for a few years) usually earn just less than 4%.

With Malaysia’s official inflation rate averaging roughly 3% (we all know it is much higher, I reckon its close to 4.5%), keeping money in a savings account or FD are both bad for building wealth because they don’t even keep up with inflation.

However, I always recommend keeping roughly 6 months of your take home pay in FDs as your emergency fund. The rest should be invested.

Going from RM0 to RM1,000,000

I want to show you something. Assume you’re 25 right now, and by age 50 you want RM1 million. To accomplish this goal, assisted by a conservative 7% return p.a., you need to save and invest just RM1,235.24 a month. Think about what happens when you increase this amount as you progress in your career. RM1 million isn’t a far fetched dream, it’s actually very much attainable and we should in fact aim higher.

The key takeaway from all this? If you really want to build wealth, you need to start investing right now. The longer you put it off the harder it becomes. And for you people whose time is not on your side, you should start investing too, it is never too late. More importantly instill this lesson in your children and future generations.

GET STARTED!

If you find the above makes sense and you’re ready to start investing, I suggest taking a look at – A Guide to Stock Investment in Malaysia

If you’re interested in the stocks I invest in, you may find a full list of them in my portfolio – The Freedom Fund.

Again, be sure to read up and understand the company you’re planning to invest in. Keep it simple and consistent, and invest for the long term. Remember, start early and start now.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” 

I’ll see you in 30 years.

Dividend Magic - Invest - "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."