Dollars and sense: your guide to financial health in 2017
FIRE will strike everyone eventually.
When he says that, Scott Pape knows what he's talking about.
They were real flames that shook his life apart two years ago when a bushfire burnt his home and possessions to the ground.
Scott, a financial advisor known across Australia as The Barefoot Investor, lost his home in the 2014 Mickleham fires.
The bushfires destroyed rural areas near Melbourne over one February weekend that became Victoria's worst fires since Black Saturday.
As their house was burning down, Scott was off fighting the flames somewhere else as a Country Fire Authority volunteer in full knowledge his home was being destroyed. More than 30 properties burnt down.
Scott, his wife Liz and their then-infant son had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few nappies. A financial counsellor who gave Scott $500 told him it was time to let people help.
"We lost absolutely everything," he says.
"I had no (cash). I only had the clothes that were on my back."
The damage spread to every part of their farm.
A small bell Scott had gifted to Liz on their wedding day was about the only possession that survived. The tree they were married under was one of the few natural landmarks of their farm that didn't burn.
Most of their flock of sheep, which numbered more than a thousand, was killed and staff from the Department of Environment and Primary Industries shot the injured survivors. The image of their razed paddocks flashed across televisions in lounge rooms across the country thanks to the TV news helicopters that hovered over the property.
Barefoot Investor fans showed an outpouring of support for the couple, including one young boy who sent them his pocket money. Scott chose to send the money back.
"I remember my wife coming back from the post office with trolleys (of stuff)," he says.
Close to three years later, the land has almost recovered.
A new home now stands where their old farmhouse once was and there are two children instead of one running around in the grass around it.
The sheep are back, though there are less of them, and ryegrass is growing well in paddocks that were turned black by the fire. Scott spends his time on a John Deere tractor with his two boys and Betty, a sheep dog spending her retirement with the Pape family.
In the midst of this long recovery, Scott put his mind to the fire and other disasters like it: death, diagnoses, redundancies. He calls them financial fires in a new book written during the furious rebuilding process.
The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You'll Ever Need is a sequel of sorts to his first book, published in 2004, and it has a specific goal.
"What I wanted to do was write a book that would keep people safe... to write a book for my family, for my friends," Scott says.
"It was quite cathartic."
The concept of safe comes directly from the bushfires. More specifically, it comes from the feeling Scott had when they drove up to the stacks of rubble and smouldering ash that had once been his home, his family photos, his wife's wedding dress, his son's toys.
He felt okay.
It's not a feeling expected to be felt at the site of a scorched home, and it's the subject of a lengthy opening passage in the new book.
In the passage, Scott doesn't turn away from the worst moments of losing his house. He describes a heavy second inside the car when his wife began screaming and his son bawled with her.
"At that moment, when everything was falling apart, I looked in the rear-view mirror and said to myself the first thing that came to my mind: 'I've got this'," he writes in the book.
Speaking to ARM's Weekend magazine, Scott expands on that unexpected thought.
"It was just that I knew I had my finances sorted," he says.
The book is an effort to give other people the same feeling. He bills The Barefoot Investor as a common sense guide to money. You won't get rich from his advice, depending on how you define rich.
"If all you needed was money, then James Packer would be the happiest guy on the planet. But he's not," Scott says.
"If you can look after your finances... I think that's a worthy goal."
He compares the CFA's stay and defend rules to financial health. By the time disaster strikes, it's too late to figure out if you're ready or not.
Scott often uses the word confidence when he talks about money, and the attitude permeates his book.
"Everyone knows what they have to do...the same way everyone knows kind of what they have to do to lose weight," he says.
"It's about the behaviours we adopt.
"Small wins lead to big wins."
Since the book's release, he says readers have particularly responded to a retirement strategy he dubbed the Donald Bradman 100.
The strategy puts down the common idea that to retire, a person needs to have $1 million in their superannuation account.
Scott disagrees. He says the $1 million number intimidates plenty of working-class and lower-middle class people who know they'll probably never reach it.
"It makes them feel like a failure," he says.
"It makes them bury their head in the sand... and destroys their confidence."
Scott says his research during the writing of the book found only 1% of superannuation accounts have $1 million or more in them. Most Australians will retire with six figures instead of seven.
His strategy is practical. It calls for the family home to be paid off, at least $250,000 in super for couples and the willingness to keep working a day or two a week.
Scott says reader responses are often emotional. Emails from older men and women admit to tears at the idea of financial comfort in old age.
"It's the first time they've realised they're going to be okay," Scott says.
Tomorrow, plenty of Australians will be waking up to a promise to sort out their finances in 2017. It's consistently one of the most popular new year's resolutions in a country Scott says has the highest rate of household debt in the world.
The average debt per card holder across the country sat at $4304.07 as of December 20, according to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission's debt clock.
Card holders are paying an average $741.16 each year in interest.
"We are rolled-gold winners at putting things on our rolled-gold credit cards," Scott says.
So where does a financial health overhaul start? With the banks, according to Scott. He recommends finding an account without fees.
"That's how the banks make $27 billion a year," he says.
"If there was one thing I could get people to do, it would be to change bank accounts.
"It's just a reminder that you are in control and you do have a choice."
The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You'll Ever Need is out now.
Take control of your money
TOMORROW is a new year, and it will likely arrive with a few old resolutions for a lot of people.
We asked the Barefoot Investor Scott Pape a few questions to help you get in good financial shape in 2017.
What's a common mistake people make when setting their financial goals?
"They totally overestimate what they can achieve in one year but totally underestimate what they can do in 10 years," he says.
"What people miss is that you can totally move mountains in even six years.
"There is power in sticking to things."
What's better, paying off debt or saving money?
"This one is a little tricky. Overall though, the ability to save will set you up for financial safety," Scott says.
Scott recommends having a $2000 emergency account ready for "financial fires".
"The foundation of all wealth starts with being able to save," he says.
"A lot of people have never saved anything in their life."
What are the first steps to taking stock of personal financial health?
Scott's book centres on the concept of Barefoot date nights.
It calls for couples to put on their good gear and head out for dinner to talk specifically about money.
The book sets out an exact to-do list, but the thing to take away from it is setting aside a specific time to deal with money.
Scott says a good bottle of wine and a decent meal makes the money talk go down a little easier.
"Create a ritual around it," he says. "Once a month we have a date night."
How can people change their bad money habits?
A personal motivation is the key to changing poor spending habits, Scott says.
Change prompted by other people without some personal desire behind it isn't likely to stick around.
He also suggests seeking professional help or guidance rather than going it alone.
"I do think they need a guide," he says.
"You need to look at where you want to be."