Unconventional Wisdom: 20 Money Strategies From A Wharton MBA
Note: nothing in this article or anywhere on personalfinanceguru.com is investment advice. The information contained herein is not intended to be investment advice, it’s for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional financial advice. Financial product information changes rapidly, we recommend checking the rates on third-party sites to confirm the most up-to-date information. The performance represented is historical; past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results and investors may not recover the full amount invested. We are not financial advisors and we recommend you consult with a financial professional before making any financial decisions. If you need professional financial advice, consult a licensed financial or tax advisor, which we are not.
When most people search “How To Manage Your Money”, the first page of information is filled with the same advice – budget, cut down on expenses, and build a good credit score. This information is fine for people who have never managed money before, but let’s be honest – it’s super basic.
But, for people who want to grow their cash and truly start building wealth, they need more than just a basic financial stability plan. Many of us already have the basics down, like a good budget and a great credit score, so what’s needed to start building to the next level?
Our 20-money strategies are unconventional because we aren’t giving out the typical surface-level advice. Instead, we will explain how to use the financial system to gain an advantage and expand wealth.
1. Focus on growing income, not cutting expenses
While cutting expenses will give people more money to play with in the short term, there is only so much to reduce. If we flip the script and focus on income instead, we quickly see that there’s unlimited potential for growth.
Technically income can grow to a point where money is no object. But, most people don’t need to be a billionaire to live a happy and fulfilling life. They only need enough money to live life in comfort. Counting change for a latte isn’t a lifestyle most people are interested in, so let’s consider the alternative.
Most people’s first priority income-increasing option is to climb their career ladder. This could mean applying for a higher position in a new company or appealing for a higher role in their current one. It also might mean spending money to get additional education or accreditations needed to get a bigger role.
Once cruising in a career, the next priority is to create a side hustle. A second stream of income will help build wealth faster and if grown enough, could ultimately become an escape from the 9-to-5 grind. Don’t believe anyone selling “passive income,” it will be incredibly hard work to build a second income. But it will be equally if not more rewarding.
There are opportunities for second income streams everywhere. Someone might become an online tutor for their profession, teach their language to students abroad virtually, or become a freelancer. The important thing is to consider something where they’re an expert or have an advantage, and figure out how to capitalize on that advantage. Ignore people who suggest “just follow your passion” and instead do something where you’re among the best.
Once income starts to grow, little expenses become trivial. You will no longer know how much your latte costs because the price is small in comparison to your finances.
2. Don’t bother with an emergency fund or savings account
Most online advice blogs will insist on an emergency fund. The idea is to create a pot of money to dip into should someone become desperate.
This potential emergency could be a medical issue, a crashed car, a leak in a house, or anything else unexpected. Although the idea seems great, the reality isn’t as impressive.
Most people will never “dip” into their emergency fund. In fact, during the coronavirus pandemic, the USA found a rise in household savings. In a time when people were not allowed to leave their homes to work, they didn’t use their savings to continue their standard of living, they instead dived into panic mode and tried to save more.
This unusual turn of events shows that many people have severe anxiety over money. Stressed that one day in the future they won’t be able to pay their bills, people continue to save even when they are right in the middle of an emergency.
Creating an emergency fund can fuel these anxieties, as most people will probably refuse to ever actually use the fund. But there is another way.
Most people won’t need a heavy savings account when the unexpected happens. Instead, they can ask for a payment plan, and use lines of credit, personal loans, family/friends, or credit cards to get their hands on money fast. Then they can liquidate investments as needed to pay down the money borrowed. It’s better to think of investments as the emergency fund – remember stock/equities transactions settle in just 3 days, so most are highly liquid and can be accessed easily.
The value of money hoarded in a savings account will diminish from rising inflation since most savings accounts don’t even pay the same rate as inflation. Don’t let money ever just be sitting idle and reducing its worth every day.
Instead, use the money to help increase wealth, and if something bad does happen, most people should have a lot of other ways to pay the costs over time.
3. Use an aggregator
Money management is becoming increasingly complex and disaggregated, even for regular people. For most people, they used to only have a few accounts, with a couple of financial institutions. Balancing a checkbook might have been the hardest task they had to engage in to keep track of it all.
That has all changed in recent years as the popularity of financial products has skyrocketed. A typical consumer might have to keep track of one or more checking accounts, savings accounts, retirement accounts, crypto accounts, loans, and several credit card accounts. That’s a lot to manage and keep updated. Using an Excel tracker is probably the best non-software-based bet. But the problem with that is it’s out of date just about as soon as it’s updated.
In this modern day and age, most people really need software-based systematic tracking to make sense of it all. Or they need to hire an accountant to do it for them, which at a certain level of income/wealth, almost everyone probably needs to do anyway.
Aggregators are essentially an easy, accurate, time-saving accounting method. They can be hired to implement this method, or most people can do it themselves. Aggregators are great since they put all of the income, assets, and liabilities data into one centralized viewpoint to be tracked constantly.
4. Ignore most mass-market personal finance advice
Most financial advice blogs and even financial advice books are aimed at mass production. They are designed to lure people in, by offering surface-level help. But we’re aiming to be much higher than average.
Advice from these outlets is often so simple that most people are aware of them already. For example, most say to “avoid living beyond your means” which is a ridiculously obvious statement.
Another typical trope goes on about how bad debt is. This is targeted at the masses who might actually be paying large amounts of interest on their credit card debt. In reality, debt is just a tool, and like any tool can be helpful if used carefully and appropriately, or can be destructive if used inappropriately.
Other blogs will offer bad advice which will stunt financial growth and cause money anxiety. For example, in the FIRE community, we often see a relentless focus on cutting costs, rather than growing income and/or wealth to a point where typical living costs become trivial.
Instead, don’t spend too much time overlearning and overanalyzing. Focus on only reading the best finance materials out there. For example, Ray Dalio is an American investor who founded the multi-billion dollar hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. It is probably the most successful hedge fund in the world and he regularly publishes articles on his current thinking and investing processes.
5. Enjoy the money now …
So much money advice is focused on getting to retirement.
Don’t forget that for most people, by the time they are able to stop working and retire, they will be quite a bit older.
Most people probably won’t have the same energy they once did and may not be as up for going on wild adventures.
So, remember, use money to maximize life now too. Don’t be stuck waiting for the “golden days,” which might not ever come.
Also consider that if you spurn the typical path and plan to always stay engaged in society through some type of income-producing work, you may be able to enjoy life more now, since you won’t need as huge a chunk of money to fund a retirement with no money coming in. (See tip #16 below for more on this).
6. … but target investing 50% of after-tax income
This may sound contradictory considering our previous point, but to become financially independent and maintain the current standard of living, investors need to invest much more aggressively than what most personal finance advice suggests.
Ideally, investors should save 50% of their post-tax income.
Let’s do a simple example to find out why.
Assume you’re a college graduate and start your career at 22 years old. You find a high-paying career like software developer or investment banker right out of the gate and are making $150K per year (yes we know this isn’t realistic for everyone, we’re just using easy round numbers to illustrate the point). For simplicity, we will assume you’re not too ambitious and want a good work/life balance and so you just make that $150K every year, continuously, in constant real dollars for your entire career.
Ok now, we’ll further assume the government taxes ⅓ of that income, so you’re left with $100K to spend on your current lifestyle and invest to retire and/or become financially independent. We will further assume that once retired/financially independent you’ll want to spend $100K per year indefinitely. Using the 4% rule we just multiply that by 25 to find that you need $2.5M to maintain a $100K/year indefinite annual spend.
Ok, so we need $2.5M to say we are “done” and retired. Let’s look at how long that takes using different investment rates, with the assumptions above and using an 8% over inflation annual rate of return:
10% after-tax investment rate: 40 years to achieve >$2.5M. Our person here will be 62!
25% after-tax investment rate: 29 years to achieve >$2.5M. Our person here will be 51
50% after-tax investment rate: 21 years to achieve >$2.5M. Our person here will be 43!
Now obviously this is a simplified, streamlined example. But it illustrates the point. Listen to the usual advice and only invest ~10% or so and you will be lucky to retire before 60. If you’re much more aggressive, you’ll be able to retire much, much younger when you still have a lot of energy to enjoy it.
Of course, an even better way to achieve the numbers above is to keep increasing income, at a rate faster than lifestyle increases. An even faster way to is to do something that generates a wealth-creation event. Think of something like starting a business or joining a startup. But of course, these are risky and far from guaranteed positive outcomes.
The best way to do this is through an automatic recurring investment plan. I’ve found it’s so much easier to simply automate the amount I want to invest, so I don’t get the decision fatigue of investing a high amount each month. This way it will come out of your paycheck – investing in your future without a second thought.
7. Debt can be a useful tool, but use cautiously
Like any tool, debts can cause harm. But if wielded with skill and prudence, it can also increase investment returns.
The best way to think about debt is as a magnifying glass on financial activities. If making productive choices, debt will increase the value of those choices. But it goes as far in the other direction too. Taking on too much debt has bankrupted many people and companies.
Ignore the personal finance gurus who preach that all debt is bad or evil. But use caution, as investors can go to zero (meaning bankrupt) with a bad loan.
I like to try to only use low to moderate amounts of debt, in amounts that I can repay if required.
Debt lets people do lots of things that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, like buy a house or buy a business.
Consider never making luxury purchases with debt in particular. In this area particularly, if you can’t afford to pay cash, you can’t afford it.
8. A primary residence is not an investment
The line that a house is the biggest investment most people make is repeated endlessly by so-called finance experts and advisors. We think it’s a bit more complicated and actually kind of a strange grey area.
On the one hand, as a mortgage is paid down a homeowner is building equity into an asset, and of course, that asset has value. And once that mortgage is fully paid off, the homeowner will have a place to live without a monthly payment, so they can use the cash they would have used for the mortgage payment for something else.
On the other hand, owning a house comes with a lot of implied liabilities. Of course, there’s the mortgage payment. But there are also property taxes, potentially HOA fees, and upkeep of all kinds (replacing a roof is not cheap!) These continue even after the principal mortgage is paid off too.
Now many people might be thinking, well, what if I make a smart choice and buy a house that goes up in value and I sell it for a profit? While that theoretically is great and does happen, the problem is that they still need a place to live. And if they’re selling in an upmarket, they will also have to turn right around and buy in an upmarket as well. And most people don’t like downsizing their lifestyle most of the time. So if they’re used to living in a $1M house, they will probably want to keep living in a $1M house. So, most people are unlikely to ever take that profit out of their principal residence.
9. Don’t use cars to show off wealth
Once most people achieve some level of wealth they are anxious to start showing it off. Of course, it’s natural to try to flaunt success a little bit. This is essentially what the whole luxury industry is built on.
One of the silliest ways we see people do this though it by buying luxury cars.
We don’t necessarily have a problem with buying luxury items. The problem here is that it’s both a large amount and mostly doesn’t even achieve its goal. Most of the time the people they’re trying to impress will never even see what vehicle they arrive in. Imagine going out to lunch with some friends you want to show off for. 99% of the time, they won’t even see or notice what car you took – or care! The same goes if you go to a club, a house party, or just about anywhere. The main people who will see you in your fancy car are the people you happen to stop next to at a light. Do you really care what those people think?
We go for comfort and safety instead and choose to make our luxury purchases on other items.
10. Consider an ‘unlimited budget’ for health-related expenses
Rather than splurging on luxury items, consider skipping your budget for anything related to your health.
These expenses could be sports classes, gym memberships, personal training, healthy food delivery series, or anything else which helps you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Don’t consider these activities as hobbies or luxuries, they are necessities to live a long and happy life.
Obviously, we’re not talking about going too crazy here spending-wise. But, this is an area where the price tag should be less of a concern and you should focus on doing whatever’s required to stay healthy and fit.
11. Skip most “status” credit cards
Most of the high-wealth or high-income people we know have at least one of these cards. They come with super high annual fees, like $500+, but claim to have a lot of perks to make that fee worth it.
There are a couple of major problems with these cards.
First, they often market the value of the perks based on first-year economics. Often this will include a credit for things like a TSA pre-check application. It looks like you get at least your money back in perks, if not more. But most of the time, several of those perks are only for that first year and don’t continue. After the first year’s perks fall off, you’re left paying several hundred dollars per year. Only to have a card with a fancier name.
Second, often the perks aren’t that great. Lounge access is often touted as a major benefit. But paying up for lounge access implies you want to spend even more time in airports! We prefer to cut it close as much as possible. We recently had a Fortune 500 CEO tell us that if you’re not missing a flight every once in a while, you’re not cutting your flight times close enough!
Additionally, lounge quality has plummeted in recent years. As they’ve given access to more and more people the lounges now often have long wait times and are packed. The food is often terrible despite their marketing of how fancy it is. We’d rather get to the airport right before our flight and skip the lounge. For unavoidable layovers, we’ll either pay for one-time lounge access or more often, settle in at the nicest restaurant in the terminal.
Status cards were once a sign of wealth, and they gave you real privacy and luxurious experiences. But now, anyone can get into these spaces by using the right credit card. This means the space and calming atmosphere are gone. It has turned into an easy money maker for the companies that use them, and a massive letdown to the customers.
12. Post-tax net income is all that matters
In business, people throw around lots of numbers to make themselves seem impressive. They do this when discussing their personal finances as well as business finances. But discussing things like gross revenue is a moot point if costs aren’t accounted for too.
It’s hilarious to us how often we see this done. We have endless examples of a friend or acquaintance bragging that their small business “made” $5M. Of course, they forget to mention that $5M was top-line revenue, and after costs and taxes, they only got $150K.
Once you see this hilarious inflation, it’s everywhere. So many people do it, from small-time business owners to Fortune 100 CEOs.
Of course, all that matters is take-home after all costs and taxes. The implication, though, is that most people need to spend more time on boring tax optimization than they’d like to.
13. Consider hiring a financial advisor
Personal finance advice tends to have a real axe to grind with financial advisors. Yes, there are bad actors in the space and yes even the good ones will be happy to manage money even for people who don’t need management. But there are also incredible financial advisors who help their clients a tremendous amount. There are also a couple of situations where financial advisors shine.
Most of the time Financial Advisors aren’t necessary except in two categories. The first category is about inability. If a person or a loved one finds managing finances difficult, an advisor can give specific guidance to that person. Or manage their money for them. The inability can come in a few forms. For example, if a loved one hits sell every time the market dips, an advisor might bring discipline to their investing implementation.
For example, an elderly parent may need a trusted family member to control their finances. An advisor can help both the elderly parent and trusted family member through the transition. They can also ensure that the trusted family member understands the financial obligations of the elderly parent is a part of.
The second category is around complex situations. This might apply to the total net worth. Or it might mean someone is in a particularly complicated situation, like owning a business in a country different from the one they live in. Net worths exceeding $10M tend to start needing professional advice.
Financial advisors create a layer of protection. Their job is to watch investments, find opportunities, and give expert opinions.
Many people don’t fit into either of these categories, but still, want a ‘done for you’ approach to investing. They might consider a robo-advisor instead. We like Wealthfront, Betterment, Personal Capital, and M1 Finance in this area.
14. Consider dollar-cost selling
Dollar-cost averaging is when a person invests the same amount of money on a regular schedule. The idea is that an investor continues to invest through volatility and ends up buying more shares when prices are low and fewer shares when prices are high, on average.
The dollar cost averaging method (DCA) keeps finances growing while avoiding emotional decision-making.
But when a large purchase is on the horizon, consider using the same concept, but in reverse.
Many people default to selling investments to finance a large purchase with a “big bang” sale, right beforehand. But this is risky and is a form of trying to time the market. They’re hoping that the value of their investments at least stays the same or rises as they approach the big purchase. But of course, the value could trend down as the purchase approaches too.
Consider instead dollar cost selling. Set a sale schedule ahead of the purchase and stick to it. Instead of selling the same number of shares, like in dollar cost buying, though, sell however much is needed to hit a total value target. This way the investor sells fewer shares to get the same amount of money. For example, with a $100K home renovation coming up, an investor might sell $20K worth of investments in each of the 5 months leading up to the contractor payout.
Dollar-cost selling avoids emotional attachments. This reduces volatility and lessens the chance of a massive loss toward the end. Due to reduced time in the market, this strategy could slightly reduce total investment portfolio return. But we like it for the reduced volatility and peace of mind.
15. Don’t pay off a mortgage early, until it can be paid off all at once
Most personal finance advice constantly encourages people to use extra money to make extra mortgage payments and pay down their principal faster. It seems logical, as the large payment will reduce either monthly costs or term time. However, this payment isn’t as beneficial as it appears.
First, it ignores strategy #8 above, that a primary residence isn’t really an investment.
Second, it’s putting capital to work in an asset that typically only returns 1-3% over inflation. Instead of putting it into other asset classes like stocks which typically return ~7% over inflation.
Third, if an investor’s financial situation deteriorates, they get underwater on their mortgage, and the house is foreclosed on, they could lose the value of those extra payments if the bank short-sells their house.
Instead of paying off part of a mortgage early, find an investment that has a reasonable chance of having an ROI greater than the mortgage rate.
16. Consider never actually retiring
Many people dream of retirement so they can stop working and finally relax. This can be a bad move both for your finances and for your health.
Even if you have enough money to support yourself indefinitely, studies have shown that retirement slows down the cognitive function of our brains, causing a rapid decline in mental ability. This is because we’re no longer challenging ourselves, and with nothing to keep our minds active they become lethargic, speeding up the natural decline.
Continuing work doesn’t mean staying in a highly stressful job or a laborious career. Instead, consider teaching your profession to others as a part-time tutor. Or if you end up more successful you might sit on a couple of corporate boards. Perhaps you can teach at a local college as an adjunct professor for a couple of days per week. This will keep your mind alert, and put a few extra dollars in your wallet.
It also keeps you engaged in society, instead of sitting on your couch! Be better than aspiring to sit on your couch all day!
17. Think about what you could do if you could talk to anyone
One cool thing I’ve learned in management consulting is that, for about ~$1K per hour, you can talk to just about anyone you need to.
There are large, very well-connected companies, called ‘expert networks’ that make it their business to put you in touch with just about anyone you need or want to talk to, as long as you’re willing to pay.
Note that I’m not talking about celebrities like movie stars or sports stars. I’m talking mostly talking about powerful business people and industry experts. They also rarely work on a specific name basis. Instead, you give the expert network a problem you’re trying to solve and the type of expert you think would help solve it. Then, the expert network goes out and finds the best people for you to talk to and lines up the conversations.
This can be incredibly powerful. I’ve used it to rapidly get up to speed on an industry in just a day or two when I needed to talk to a Fortune 500 CEO later in the week, for example. I’ve also used it to rapidly pressure test and iterate on potential business strategies with experts in the industry and in functional areas.
The quality of people these expert networks can connect you to is pretty impressive. Often they are C-suite executives with 20+ years of experience in what they are advising on.
You can use this tool to your own advantage too. I’ve been shocked by what people will tell me, even when it’s plainly obvious I’m working for one of their competitors. Remember to be upfront and practice good ethics, however.
18. Do the job no one else wants to
Oftentimes the ‘sexy’ jobs are the ones everyone wants to do, so they don’t have to pay much. Unsexy jobs and businesses can pay a shocking amount.
Instead of looking for the ‘coolest’ jobs, Big Tech is the current fashion, try looking by starting by thinking of what the worst job is.
As an easy example, I had a business law professor who managed the legal aspect of many entrepreneurs and small business owners. Through this, he got a lens into which business types really made a lot of money and which businesses sounded good on the surface, but were actually struggling.
One day a classmate asked him what was the most money for the least work he had ever seen a client make. Now, remember, this is a high-flying Ivy League university. I think most of us expected the professor to talk about some client who had started some sort of Tech company that took off. Nope, not even close. The answer was a hot dog cart! I kid you not!
This entrepreneur had figured out that contractors and tradesmen spend a ton of their time running to home improvement stores nearly every day. And they’re always on the go without a fixed schedule, so lunch and dinner can be easy to miss. So he bought a hot dog cart, hired someone to run it for an hourly wage, and negotiated with a local Home Depot to let him put the cart in their parking lot.
He was making $500K per year. For owning a hot dog cart.
So, think about the things or problems no one else wants to work on.
19. Small business ownership is often the path to wealth in America
Owning a small business is one of the most common paths to wealth in America. For example, my colleague, John here reports that when he worked at a Private Bank that only served clients with a $30M net worth or more, the vast majority earned or received their wealth through private small or medium businesses. Yes, there were a few large company executives, celebrities/athletes, and people who joined or started a startup rocket ship. But they were actually more the expectation than the rule.
Even if your small business doesn’t make you insanely wealthy, it might help you live a more comfortable life.
Consider they if you earn the same amount in a small business you own as you would in a career, you can sell that small business for multiples of your annual income at some point, effectively adding years of work to your career, without actually having to work them. But you can’t sell a career.
Small business ownership also affords a lot of tax optimization opportunities. Most small business owners are writing off things like their cars, portions of their house or rent payments, and more.
And, if you operate a small business as a side hustle in addition to your day job, it can provide income to bridge career gaps, and/or allow you to do things like take sabbaticals and really maximize your life.
20. Your personal finances should maximize your life, not minimize it
Avoid much of the ‘FIRE’ personal finance community, which focuses on minimization instead of maximization.
Most people in this community suggest retiring for hilariously small sums of money (I’ve seen as low as $400-500K) on the assumption that if you live like a scrooge, you can essentially exit from society as soon as possible.
But the minimalist lifestyle they suggest, where you can’t even enjoy a cup of coffee without feeling guilty for possibly ruining your future, is no way to go through life.
Instead, seek to use money and finance to maximize your life, so that a cup of coffee becomes such a trivial expense, you’re laughing at the FIRE nerds fretting over it.
Bonus – ditch big brand banks
Most consumers should consider if they really need the big brand banks.
It can be safe and comforting to use a name you’ve heard of and trust, especially when it comes to money.
But they often don’t have the best deals and terms.
Community banks and credit unions are owned and run by the members they serve. This means the community has a greater say over how the financial products they offer their members are priced and structured.
This could mean granting loans to lower-income households, providing better interest rates, or charging lower late payment fees.
Big brand banks, on the other hand, tend to have higher fees overall because they are answerable to their shareholders, not their customers. In credit unions, however the owners and the customers are one and the same.
We created this unconventional list because most money strategy articles are based on simple concepts – don’t spend more than you have, develop a good credit score, and save all of your money. Most people already understand these ideas. When searching for help or answers they don’t need to re-read the same methods they learned in high school.
Instead, people need ways to unlock their future and maximize the one life they’ve got.
That’s what we’re working on here at Personal Finance Guru.
At Personal Finance Guru, we want to help you maximize your lifestyle through personal finance. You can trust the integrity of our independent financial advice. Our opinions our own and have not been provided, reviewed, approved, or endorsed by any advertiser or financial product provider. To support and grow the site, however, we may receive compensation from the issuers of some products. Visuals and analysis courtesy of Portfolio Visualizer.
Editor & Author
Cathy Gresham is a finance whiz.
After earning her MBA from The Wharton School, she has worked in strategy at some of the world’s largest and most influential financial companies for 20+ years. Notably, she has worked for the biggest credit card issuers and networks and brings an insider’s perspective to how credit card products work behind the scenes.
Cathy is passionate about personal finance and investing, and loves helping people learn about these complex topics. Her wit and humor make learning about money fun, and she’s always happy to share her knowledge with others.
Cathy enjoys spending time with her family and friends when she’s not crunching numbers or developing investment strategies. She’s also an avid runner, and can often be found pounding the pavement on her morning jog.