Smarten up with The Smart Debt Coach – Interview with Talbot Stevens

Part of the joy that comes with running this blog is the opportunity to meet and share personal finance and investing perspectives with folks I wouldn’t have normally gotten to know.  Like my previous interview with my friend Andrew Hallam, Talbot Stevens is one of those individuals.

I got a chance to connect with Talbot recently, he sent me his new book The Smart Debt Coach to read and he was kind enough to send another copy to giveaway to readers on my site.  You’ll have a chance to win The Smart Debt Coach later in this post.  First up, a quick bio:

Bio:

  • Name: Talbot Stevens
  • Age: 50, and getting younger every year
  • Family status: Married
  • Background: Financial educator and author. See bio in The Smart Debt Coach.
  • Website/Twitter: TalbotStevens.com, @TalbotStevens
  • Books: Financial Freedom Without Sacrifice, Dispelling the Myths of Borrowing to Invest, The Smart Debt Coach
  • Mission: to help people learn, teach, and build wealth and security, like the rich do.

Thanks for this Talbot, good to finally chat with you.

It’s great to connect with you as well, and discuss some ideas to increase wealth and security.

I know you have a new book out entitled The Smart Debt Coach (and we’ll get to it soon) but I’d like to know how you got started or interested in investing. 

After graduating from 19 years of formal education, including degrees in engineering and computer science, I discovered that I was financially illiterate. This was very disappointing, and made me angry. In a world where we make literally dozens of financial decisions every month, some involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, we weren’t taught even the basics about being more effective with money. So I started reading over a hundred books about personal finance and learned that, even a few ideas — acted on when one was young, would literally be worth millions of dollars more at retirement. Then, as we moved into our first house with our first baby, I told my wife that I would quit my job as an engineer, and take a year to self publish a book to become a self-employed financial educator. Here’s some great marital advice for your subscribers: don’t do that! Fortunately, my first book, Financial Freedom Without Sacrifice, did very well and we celebrated our 30th anniversary last May.

Congrats on the book anniversary.

I spend a lot of time on My Own Advisor sharing my saving and investing approach to financial freedom.  We’re far from perfect, so I think we could be smarter with our money.  What advice would you give to people wanting to do just that, get smarter, save more money?

The easiest way to get smarter about money is to use when I call the “shortcut to success in any area.” If you want to become wealthier faster, study those who are already financially successful. Model their attitudes, strategies, and behaviours. In the old days, that meant learning from books. These days with the Internet, it is even easier by learning from bloggers like you, who provide valuable ideas for free.

My second point is to realize that the key to financial success is not what you know, but what you do. It’s behavioural. Although I am one of those weirdos who likes the black-and-white world of math, I’ve learned that behaviour trumps logic nine and a half times out of 10. To succeed in finances, it is much more important to be focused and disciplined, than it is to be knowledgeable and intelligent.

I also spend time on the site writing about debt, I’m not a fan of it and want to get out of it!  What’s your take on debt?  Is there really good debt and bad debt?

Yes, debt is a very controversial topic, especially borrowing to invest. But the truth is that there is such a thing as bad debt in good debt, or as I prefer to call it, investment debt. Borrowing at expensive non-deductible interest rates to buy things that decrease in value 20 to 50% per year, clearly should be avoided and/or paid off as quickly as possible. But the wealthy borrow in a different way. They borrow at lower interest rates, where the interest expense is generally tax-deductible, to buy businesses and properties that generally increase in value in the long term. This magnifies returns, and if done responsibly, generally increases long-term wealth. Smart Debt is when you borrow to invest using responsible strategies, responsible amounts, and responsible timing. Some Smart Debt strategies actually have a negative risk and would benefit everyone, regardless of risk tolerance.

So, I’m assuming folks can (and should) do some things to save more and kill debt.  Now with the new money saved what should they consider investing in?  Why would you recommend that?

After paying off expensive debts, charging more than mortgage rates for example, most Canadians should focus on saving using RRSPs. Those in the lower tax bracket are generally better off using TFSAs. As for what types of investments to hold inside of these tax shelters, I think that most are going to need more equities than they think. This is particularly true in today’s near-zero interest rate environment.

You might have read about my ‘hybrid’ approach to investing listed here and here.  What’s your take on my strategy?

Your hybrid approach of owning a few dividend paying stocks and low-cost ETFs is very sound. Dividend investing has historically been very effective and sometimes outperforms the market. I use this approach as well. And while you claim that this is a simple investment strategy is boring, I suggest that that is a positive, and helps most people start, and stick to the plan.

Back to The Smart Debt Coach.  What’s your elevator-speech for this book and why folks should take a look?

My book, The Smart Debt Coach, helps Canadians learn effective ways to reduce bad debt, free up cash flow to invest, and improve investment returns like the rich do. It addresses the full spectrum of debt, from bad to good and Smart Debt. It is full of practical strategies to accelerate wealth and security, but also focuses on the more important wealth-building attitudes and mindset that is key for anyone who wants to become wealthier. All external results start internally – in the mind. And financial success is no different. Like my first book, The Smart Debt Coach is guaranteed to benefit readers. If someone isn’t confident that the ideas can help them benefit at least $1,000, they can return the book to me for a full refund, no questions asked.

That sounds like a good deal, full refund!

Last question before the book giveaway.  If you had some advice to Canadians, saving for their financial future (or killing debt as part of their future), what would that be?

My final advice is that if you want to increase your wealth and security faster, like the rich do, you can, if you think and act like those who are already financially successful. Clarify your highest financial priorities, and discover a big enough WHY to make them happen.

Great point to end on, thanks Talbot. 

I want to thank Talbot for this interview, taking time on My Own Advisor to share some saving and investing tenants, and provide a copy of his new book The Smart Debt Coach to giveaway to one lucky reader. You can check out Talbot’s site here. Good luck to all entrants!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Update:  Sans Souci, a local financial-services group of companies continues to support financial literacy in Canada.  They hosted their first ever “Worry-free Wealth” seminar in Vaughan, Ontario that included Talbot Stevens as the keynote speaker.  Check out the next “Worry-free Wealth” seminar on May 14, 2016 at the Mississauga Convention Centre.

My name is Mark Seed and I'm the founder, editor and owner of My Own Advisor. As my own DIY financial advisor, we're inching closer to our ultimate goal - owning a 7-figure investment portfolio for semi-retirement. We're almost there! Subscribe and join the journey. Learn how I'm getting there and how you can get there too!

24 Responses to "Smarten up with The Smart Debt Coach – Interview with Talbot Stevens"

  1. For those deeply in debt, spending $25, $35 of more on a book won’t solve their problems. Borrow it from the library.

    Free advice: Try to recognize why one is in debt or how you got there, cut back on spending, pay off high interest debt, and change their life style. One can consolidate debts and lower payments, as long as they use the saving to pay off the current debt, not continue with the same life style and go further into debt.

    Reply
    1. “One can consolidate debts and lower payments, as long as they use the saving to pay off the current debt, not continue with the same life style and go further into debt.”

      Good point of course! I know for us, the mortgage is a huge PITA (pain in the a$$). The sooner we are debt free, the better. Then life really begins!

      Reply
  2. Stevens is sending mixed messages.

    He says to be focused and disciplined…but on the wrong things: “If you want to become wealthier faster, study those who are already financially successful. Model their attitudes, strategies, and behaviours.”

    I brought this up regarding the Tiger21 group; the wealthy will always employ different strategies and behaviours than the non-wealthy, simply because the have wealth. The millionaire members in Tiger21 invest mostly in real estate and private equity, two assets in which the non-wealthy can not and/or should not invest.

    Which brings up another point, the wealthy have many more options available to them than the non-wealthy. Think of all the sweet deals Buffett got simply because he had the money and the (political) influence. The non-wealthy are confined (e.g. the bank tells you what rate you will pay, not the other way around).

    As well, it’s…misleading (not the correct word) to base one’s future “strategies, and behaviours” on i) the strategies and behaviours of a different financial and economic environment (e.g. Kiyosaki) and ii) the already-wealthy; what were the strategies and behaviours during the non-wealthy, wealth building era?
    (You’ll notice I don’t include “attitude” because “the key to financial success is not what you know, but what you do…behaviour trumps logic nine and a half times out of 10.”)

    It’s also a classic presentation of survivourship bias. You’d learn heaps more discovering what the losers did, but it’s more fun to focus on the winners, right? Then comes the “stock picking” element — after which wealthy persons are you going to model your habits? Trump? King of Sweden? Milken? Soros? Madoff? Gates? Jay-Z?

    99% of us will never be in the wealthy category, as Munger said (paraphrasing), find out what you don’t want, don’t do it, and you’ll end up with what you want. By simple macro observervation, it is very difficult to model success (most attempts in the Universe do not succeed), but exceptionally easy to gather and discard failure.

    Bottom line: It’s true, there are two sets of rules, one for them, one for us; the non-wealthy should NOT model the wealthy.
    The non-wealthy should focus on a handful of fundamental wealth building principles, but would do even better to focus on taming/altering their sketchy money management behaviours. Unfortunately, yet another personal finance book won’t help with that last point.

    Reply
    1. Appreciate the comments. Yes, the multi-millionaires within Tiger21 have access to investments the layperson does not and will not have.

      I believe however that behaviours when it comes to money management are key. There is no value in having a good strategy (i.e., indexing for an example) if someone cannot execute on it.

      We see this all the time in business don’t we? People love to flock to the sexy project and in doing so, constantly forget it’s the basics (infrastructure, basic planning skills) that are important. It’s painful to see in the business world but unfortunately true – people don’t have the discipline to perform basic management activities and yet they feel compelled to reach for the stars.

      There are two sets of rules, indeed….but you can get wealthy eventually with a high savings rate, avoiding debt long-term, and investing modestly and leaving things well enough alone for a few decades.

      I would agree though most non-wealthy folks should not copy wealth models blindly.

      Reply
  3. “…you can get wealthy eventually with a high savings rate, avoiding debt long-term, and investing modestly and leaving things well enough alone for a few decades.”

    But this is not how the wealthy invest and it’s not even how the wealthy built their wealth. Most wealthy people got to be so via a very high income and/or business ownership, a fractional minority became wealthy through investing alone.

    Stevens puts forth that “the wealthy borrow in a different way” — lower rates, purchasing businesses, tax breaks, etc. — thus admitting the wealthy have different access than the non-wealthy, thus the point is basically moot. Debt is gained and employed differently for the wealthy than the non-wealthy.

    He also claims of the non-wealthy, “most are going to need more equities than they think.” But the wealthy are not over-loaded on public equities (e.g. Tiger21’s aggregate portfolio contains ~25% public equity). Stevens says to emulate the strategies of the wealthy but then turns around and says the non-wealthy will require strategies the wealthy do not utilize.

    Stevens says he was disappointed and angry at being educated but financially illiterate and at having never been taught even the basics of personal finance. I guess I too hold the right to be dissaponted and angry at the continual lack of people who publish under the guise of financial literacy but don’t quite get it right.

    There’s over 90,000 “personal finance” books available on Amazon.ca. I’ve read exactly zero of them (and don’t plan to start), thus can’t say with any degree of certainty, but it seems like a lot of regurgitation of the same old incorrect and ineffective information. How do I know? The masses still aren’t wealthy. We can blame the students all day long, but at some point, if the routine has a continual high failure rate, perhaps we need to examine the teachers and material as well.

    I applaud Stevens for wanting to educate and enlighten the public to more prosperity, but merely adding to the already 90,000 dB noise is not a solution.

    Reply
    1. The more I read these books, the more I find themes. Personal finance and investing can be distilled down to a cue card in some cases.

      The masses are not wealthy not because there are simply poor students IMO, although that is part of the issue. The infrastructure for the students is rigged against them – debt is easy, cheap, and there are few incentives (or consequences) if it’s not paid back. Debt is used for mostly material things, not for mainly investment reasons – houses excluded since they should be appreciating assets over time although there is never any guarantee.

      That is a big issue.

      Reply
      1. SST,

        I have read some of your comments, and to be honest, I would be interested in becoming a reader if you ever decide to start your own site.

        I do not agree with everything you have said overall ( in general, not talking about this post), but I do enjoy your skepticism. It is better to be safe than sorry in that department, so good to hold your horses.

        DGI

        Reply
  4. Found a pdf of the book and it was Painful to read (at least for me). Book is written as discussions between various people and getting to each point is dragged out. This book does not deal with people in debt, but tries to show people how to use debt to reduce taxes and improve their investment returns. Actual investments are not discussed.

    For example: “That’s where the ‘Gross Up’ strategy comes in. It’s the second ‘can’t-lose’ good-debt concept,” Bruce answered.
    “Joe temporarily borrows the difference between the after-tax amount available to invest and the equivalent before-tax RRSP amount. So he needs to borrow $2,000 to gross up his $3,000 to invest to the equivalent $5,000 RRSP contribution.
    “A few weeks after filing his tax return, Joe will get a refund for 40 percent of his $5,000 RRSP contribution.
    The $2,000 refund is enough to completely, and almost immediately pay off his temporary ‘Gross Up’ loan. The few dollars paid in interest allow Joe to get $5,000 in his RRSP – the full equivalent amount – instead of $3,000. That’s 67 percent more fuel in his retirement vehicle.
    So $1 to invest equates to much more in an RRSP –25 to 85 percent more depending on your tax bracket.
    I swear I saw a light go on over Kim’s head.

    Reply
    1. I was also a bit surprised the book didn’t deal with more debt management strategies. Instead, it focused on optimizing your RRSP, which is also a good thing, and other things. I think it the end, this book does help people more. Are there better books on personal finance and investing? Yes. But there are some good messages in the book the average investor can learn from.

      I feel every book has some form of “learning” with it, even if you conclude there are approaches you don’t want to take! 🙂 For example, Talbot talks about debt investment strategies quite a bit in the book. I’m not a fan of those until my mortgage is nearly paid off. I don’t need the headaches. That was a learning moment for me.

      Reply
  5. Just a couple more points:

    1) Stevens’ carrot to sell his books is the exact same as what the financial insiders use to hook clients — the greed to be rich (e.g. “You’re richer than you think!”). Look, 99% of the population will NEVER be wealthy in the classic marketing sense of having $1 million, so what he’s doing is using a very rare occurrence which has a very emotional connotation in order to hook buyers; I’ll coin the term ‘populist fraud’. (Is ‘fairytale’ more agreeable?) We’d all be better off reading books on behavioural finance rather than personal finance…and there’s only 2,400 of them available on Amazon. Seem to me you’d be a much better investor if you read 2,400 BF books vs. 90,000 PF books.

    2) Dovetailing with the first point, we can exclude 50% (at least) off the population from ever emulating the wealthy simply because they will never have enough income to build substantial wealth. This leaves a generous 50%, of which we can probably discount half due to the lack of self-awareness required to seek change in behaviour. Thus we are left with Stevens’ book — using a tiny minority of the population to draw in a simply minority of the population. Not only that, but referring to my previous comments, his extended time in the classroom shows, as he seems to prefer theory over operational functionality. He states “behaviour trumps logic nine and a half times out of 10”, that doesn’t mean discard logic across the board.

    3) Stevens says “if you want to become wealthier faster, study those who are already financially successful. Model their attitudes, strategies, and behaviours.” Buffett, a wealthy guy and professional investor, says know-nothing investors should stay the course with index funds and ETFs. But if we do as Stevens suggests, model the financially successful, that would put us in the know-something box, thus allowing us to eschew index funds and ETFs. However, the reams of research and data show the vast majority of know-something investors and even know-a-lot financial professionals fail to beat the returns of those index funds and ETFs. Thus, this book is pushing the reader into a losing proposition under the guise of winning the game of Capitalism. Lastly, focusing on “attitudes, strategies, and behaviours” neglects to address all other factors influencing financial success such as skill, talent, luck, genetics, socio-economics, et al.

    Give me Gail Vaz-Oxlade any day.

    Reply
    1. Ha, well, I know I’m not richer than I think 🙂 Yes, we would be better off reading behavioural books – the same can be said for any facet of life. Agree?

      SST, are you also saying most PF books would serve just the tiny minority for the same reasons?

      Regarding Stevens’ comments: “if you want to become wealthier faster, study those who are already financially successful. Model their attitudes, strategies, and behaviours” – there is some truth to that. They tend not to trade – so they do stay the course for the most part. The instruments they use however we have already acknowledged is different and the small time investor cannot be and will never be a Buffett, Soros, etc.

      Reply
  6. I’m skeptical of anyone who writes a book about “helping” others. From dieting to financial and everything in between. I think most people will recognize the motivation.

    Reply
    1. “These days with the Internet, it is even easier by learning from bloggers like you, who provide valuable ideas for FREE.”

      We need to BUY his book why???

      Reply
    2. Motivations comes in all forms – right Lloyd? Maybe the personal finance and investing world is clouded the most, because money is such an emotional subject for people. I have no problem with people writing and selling books to “help” others and make money in the process. It is the buyer (for anything) that must always beware.

      Reply
  7. Yes, ALL the published PF books (good, bad, and ugly) will be of use to the minority, those who have both the ways and means, financially and mentally. All others would be better off improving their area of lack — having and/or doing — before wasting time reading a PF book. Perhaps you should stun the industry and print off a few thousand of those simple PF cue cards for free distribution.

    Addition support comes from the fact his book is about RRSPs. Considering these accounts are beneficial to those earning ~$50,000 or more a year, and the median individual income of Canadians is ~$32,000…that eliminates at least half of readers. About 30% of Canadians earn enough for RRSPs to be of material benefit. As in my earlier comments, probably half of those can be erased due to lack of ways; thus Stevens’ book is good for maybe 10% of the income earning population — a minority. But im guessing it won’t be that 10% who buys this book.

    In closing, Stevens uses tag lines like this to hype the content of his book: “…commonsense strategies for cautious investors to outperform the market, earn guaranteed returns of 25% or more”, making it seem like he has a secret formula for attaining amazing market-beating returns — a sure fire way to hook the desperate, greedy, and unlearned crowd. It’s highly deceitful, not a trait a true educator embodies. But seeing as how his books are self-published, which speaks volumes (ha ha), Stevens is now first and foremost a salesman, not an educator.
    Buyer beware.

    Reply
    1. SST, what are your favorite PF books, if any? Let me know! Curious….

      Totally agree with the RRSP, it’s a “rich man’s account”. I’ve written about this for years. Only a small percentage of Canadians can afford to max out these accounts. I am very fortunate to be one of them but my max. criteria is easier than some, I have a small DB pension waiting for me in another 13 years with penalties starting at age 55.

      I did like many of Stevens these though SST, although I know it’s bread-and-butter for you:
      -one of the best investments you can make…is any knowledge that should increase your future wealth.
      -making financial decisions and plans is about making trade-offs.
      -the key to success when investing is not investment performance, it’s investor performance.
      -use automatic (savings plans) to get things done, whenever possible.

      Surely you agree with a few of those?

      BTW – can you write me an email when you can…I would be interested to see if you wanted to write something.

      Cheers,
      Mark

      Reply
  8. I will definitely check this book out! –from the library of course. I like to get the whole story before judging someone’s teaching. It seems like he has the right idea about debt for the most part. Hadn’t heard of this book until this interview and I try to read (or listen to) every finance book I hear about to get different takes on the subject. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. I liked a number of Talbot’s themes, which are not new mind you, but they were good themes all the same:
      -What is automatic gets done
      -Big improvements come from small changes over time
      -Take responsibility for where your money is going
      -To increase your wealth, you need to an owner (not the one taking the loan).

      I hope you enjoy it!
      Mark

      Reply
  9. “SST, what are your favorite PF books, if any? Let me know! Curious….”

    “There’s over 90,000 “personal finance” books available on Amazon.ca. I’ve read exactly zero of them (and don’t plan to start)…”

    😉

    But…I was serious about you “publishing” your recipie card rules. It’s a great concept for a couple of reasons: very portable, size dictates conciseness/simplicity, and perhaps most importantly, they would be an accessible and practicle tool. Remember using flashcards in school to learn math or a foreign language etc.? Slogging through a PF book MIGHT work, but flash cards actually train and engrain your brain on both a physiological and psychological level. If you don’t do it, I will!
    On second thought, DON’T do it, I will!

    I’ll give you an e-shout this weekend.

    Reply

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