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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Managing Editor

Matt joined SMI in 2012. He leads SMI’s content strategy — managing the company’s monthly editorial calendar, writing many of the articles, sourcing content from outside the company, and either writing or overseeing much of what appears on our website. He also represents SMI in various radio guest appearances.

Prior to joining SMI, Matt was an independent biblical money management writer and speaker. He is the author of four personal finance books that were published by NavPress, including Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples and The Grad’s Guide to Money (written for high school seniors and college freshmen). He does some outside speaking as well at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats throughout the country. Matt has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990 when he began serving in the Good $ense ministry at Willowcreek Community Church.

Matt earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University and a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from DePaul University, where he wrote a thesis about the history and influence of our consumer culture.

Matt and his wife Jude have three children at home. 

Most Recent Articles

Money Roundup: Biden Tax Plan Takes Shape, The Narrative Behind the Numbers, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Room for Improvement — Marriage & Money in America

In many marriages, money is a perennial trouble spot. Of course, irreconcilable financial differences are a frequently cited cause of divorce, but even among couples that stay together, staying on the same financial page can be a challenge.

A recent Fidelity survey shed some helpful light on the topic, pointing to several aspects of their financial lives that all couples would be wise to evaluate.

Overall good grades, with some areas of concern

Generally speaking, the more than 1,700 couples surveyed by Fidelity gave the state of their financial lives high marks. Some 71% said they communicate about financial matters very well and 61% said they talk about finances at least once a month.

Still, there were areas of concern. One in five couples said money is their greatest relationship challenge, with younger couples more likely to indicate that than older couples. More than two in five married individuals said they argue about money with their spouse at least occasionally. Again, younger respondents were more likely to say that than older respondents.

For some couples, day-to-day money management is a festering issue that goes unaddressed. Some 24% of respondents said they are “often frustrated at their partner’s money habits but let it go for the sake of keeping the peace.”

Among the most common areas of disagreement between spouses, many were related to retirement or investing:

  • 51% disagree about how much savings is needed to retire
  • 48% disagree about the age when they plan to retire
  • 40% disagree about how much risk they’re comfortable taking with their investments
  • 34% disagree on whether they are savers or spenders
  • 34% disagree on their family’s next big savings goal

While 77% of respondents expect to live comfortably in retirement, 52% said they don’t know how much they need to have saved to maintain their current lifestyle in their later years.

And, while 71% said they feel “excellent” or “very good” about their financial health, just half said they make financial decisions jointly with their spouse.

Some expressed concern about what would happen to their spouse financially if they passed away first — 35% of men and 22% of women.

Solutions

Many of these concerns might be addressed simply by talking about money more often, some by using a tool, such as an online budget, that fosters more financial transparency and better communication, and some by using a planning tool, such as MoneyGuide.

There’s also an excellent Bible study from Compass—Finances God’s Way called Set Your House in Order that does a nice job of helping couples make sure one spouse will be financially prepared for the death of the other.

What practical steps have you taken to get and stay on the same financial page as your spouse?

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Roundup: Delta Takes a Toll, One of the Most Complicated Things We Do, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Graduate-Level Lessons in Debt

In several recent articles, we’ve been looking at how well prospective college students and their parents understand the cost of college and the implications of student loans. The broad conclusion? Too many such students and parents know too little about these important matters. And that isn’t just true of bachelor’s degree programs. It’s true of master’s degree programs as well.

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted numerous examples of master’s degree programs at elite universities that are leaving graduates saddled with enormous debt loads and credentials for careers that typically pay relatively little. Some examples include:

  • Columbia University film program: median debt of $181,000, median income two years after graduation of less than $30,000
     
  • Northwestern University speech-language pathology program: median debt of $148,000, median income two years later of $60,000
     
  • University of Southern California marriage and family counseling program: median debt of $124,000, median income two years later of $50,000
     
  • New York University publishing program: median debt of $116,000, median income two years later of $42,000

An article on the same topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education singled out arts-related masters programs, calling them a “financial catastrophe for students.” Whether visual and performing arts, fine and studio arts, or drama and theatre, the article noted: “Taking on loads of debt to train for a profession that is commonly modified by the word ‘starving' is a terrible idea.”

While there are limits on how much undergrads can borrow from the federal government, there are no such limits for grad school students, making master’s degrees “a gold mine” for universities, according to the Journal. For borrowers, many of whom clearly have not thought about the disconnect between the price they’re paying and their prospective earnings, such loans, with interest rates as high as 7.9%, can become a living nightmare. One borrower told the Journal of his “2 a.m. panic attacks.”

A common rule of thumb used by student-loan counselors is to not borrow more than a new grad’s likely first-year salary. By that standard, the Journal found that 38% of those graduating with a master’s degree from prestigious universities failed. But would even that amount fit in a budget for one who is committed to giving generously and saving and investing adequately?

Both articles noted that it’s ultimately you and me who will pay for many of these master’s degrees. Many newly minted holders of expensive degrees in fields that usually don’t pay well enroll in income-based repayment plans. Such plans forgive the loans after borrowers make 10 or 20 years of small or sometimes no monthly payments.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy to borrow so much, and perhaps more should be done to help prospective borrowers make good choices. What solutions do you see?

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Taking a One-Portfolio Approach to Your Investments

Mobile devices, online messaging, video calls, email — all these technologies promised to save us time. Instead, they’ve raised our expectations about how much we can get done each day! Perhaps we should heed the words of Leonardo da Vinci, who reportedly said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

SMI can’t simplify all of your life, of course. But if you have a complicated array of investment accounts, we can help you organize them into a single, simplified portfolio.

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The Heart of the Matter

The new seventh edition of The Sound Mind Investing Handbook is hot off the press and now available. And while everything we say about it is true — it does teach investing essentials in a clear, compelling way — the most valuable part of the book, in my opinion, has nothing to do with that.

In the first five sections of the book, SMI founder Austin Pryor does a terrific job of simplifying complex topics — such as how exchange-traded funds differ from traditional mutual funds, why rising interest rates make the value of bonds decline, how to create a “personal pension,” and how momentum (the metric that guides SMI’s main strategies) works. All of these topics are crucial for investors to understand.

Still, I always recommend people skip ahead and begin the book by reading section six: “Investing That Glorifies God.” There, you will find financial content unlike anything you’ve read before. Whenever someone asks me what it means to invest from a biblical perspective, or how Christian investing differs from secular investing, I point them to section six of The Sound Mind Investing Handbook.

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The Risks of Using Dividend Stocks as an Alternative to Bonds

The most significant driver of the financial markets over the past 13 years has been the relentless effort of the Federal Reserve and other global central banks to push down interest rates. These near-zero short-term rates have had profound ramifications. Prices of other assets (such as stocks) have risen as investors have moved out of traditional safe havens into riskier investments searching for better returns.

Retirees have arguably been the group hardest hit by this extended near-zero interest-rate policy. Traditional savings products (such as money-market funds and bank CDs) yield very little, eliminating one traditional safe haven. Bonds performed well as interest rates declined (bond prices rise as yields fall), but with rates now at rock-bottom levels (and potentially poised to rise), future bond prospects are very much in question.

In their search for alternative sources of current income, some retirees have turned to dividend-paying stocks. For the most part, this has worked out well. Stocks have risen dramatically since 2009, interrupted occasionally by brief corrections along the way.

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Save Money Just By Asking

Everyone has heard the advice, It doesn’t hurt to ask.” My experience has been far better than that. Time and time again, I’ve seen that it often pays to ask. Just by asking, I’ve gotten fees waived, subscription prices lowered, price hikes canceled, and even costly vehicle repairs more than reimbursed by the manufacturer.

Avoid the dreaded price hike

Anytime I’m notified that one of our monthly bills is about to go up, I get on the phone with customer service and say something like this: I’m a long-time customer and just received notice about an upcoming price hike. Is there anything you can do to help me out?”

I don’t complain. I don’t act entitled. I just make a polite, open request. Nine times out of 10, it pays off.

I did this recently with our home security alarm company. In response to my request, they not only didn’t increase the price (as their letter said they would), they decreased our monthly monitoring cost. I’ve done this with our cable company, our cell phone provider, and a newspaper we subscribe to electronically.

That last one is always the toughest, but they always relent — eventually. I make note of when our subscription is set to expire, look for their email detailing what is usually a significant price hike, and get on the phone. The last time, it took about 20 minutes. They tried everything. They told me about their great content, explained how little it costs if you break it down to a daily price, offered to change my plan to weekends only.

I never got mad, I just stayed with it. I kept emphasizing that I’ve been a long-time customer and said there must be a better price they could offer. Finally, there was.

Just say something

I never try to be manipulative about what I ask for, but I do make requests somewhat regularly. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask for anything, you just have to speak up if you’re dissatisfied with a product or service.

That’s what happened with a recent car rental. The car smelled like smoke. I noticed it when I was driving away from the rental office, but it had already taken some time to get the car and I needed to get going, so I decided to put up with it. Still, it bothered me.

When I returned the car, I politely said, I just want you to know, I was a little disappointed with the car. It smelled like smoke, which gave me a headache.” On the spot, the person checking the car in cut my rental fee in half.

Some requests are crazier than others

One of our sons bought a soccer ball from a major sporting goods retailer a while back. After using it for about six weeks, the ball developed a slow leak. Since it had been so long since he bought it and he no longer had the receipt, I thought there was a less than 50% chance that they would exchange it.

I actually felt hesitant about making this request but at my son’s encouragement decided to give it a try. (Our kids have heard me say “You never know what you can get unless you ask” so often that it’s become something of a mantra around our house.)

I chose a time of day when I thought the store wouldn’t be busy — around 2:30 on a weekday afternoon. Holding the well-used, dirty ball, I approached the cashier with a smile on my face and said, I have a crazy question. We bought this ball here a while back and don’t have the receipt anymore, but it has a slow leak and I was wondering if there’s anything you can do for me.”

Since we’re members of their frequent shopper program, the cashier was able to verify that we had bought the ball at that store. She called the manager over and I basically said the same thing again. I was very polite, very friendly, and he ended up letting me exchange it for a new ball.  

I walked out thinking, it’s amazing what you can get if you just ask.

When ‘no’ means ‘maybe’

For most of the 16 years that we owned our 2004 Toyota Sienna, it was great — very reliable, with no costly maintenance or repair surprises. But then, at about year 14, the driver’s-side door started making the sound you might imagine it would make if it were dying. Every time we opened it, there was a horrible screeching sound followed by a pop. It was irritating and embarrassing.

A Toyota body shop estimator said it was unlikely the door could be repaired. It would probably have to be replaced — to the tune of $3,000!

I tend to ask lots of questions, and in the midst of a conversation about how the door could suddenly stop working properly, the estimator gave me a critical piece of information. Their shop had seen other ‘04 Siennas with the same problem, and in some cases Toyota covered the cost of a new door or a repair.

So I called Toyota’s U.S. headquarters and explained the problem. Sure enough, the person I spoke with said the company had received other complaints about the issue and had even extended the warranty by a couple of years to cover the cost of repairs. However, the warranty on our van had expired long ago. He said I was out of luck.

I could have let it go at that, but I didn’t. I wasn’t rude or impatient. I just calmly said that since they acknowledged it was a manufacturing issue, wouldn’t it still make sense for Toyota to help fix the problem?

He said he’d see what he could do. A couple of days later, he called back to say the company had agreed to give me a credit worth $750 that could be used for future maintenance and repairs. By then, the body shop had told me the door could be repaired for $500, so I told the customer service person I’d be very happy with a $500 credit. He thanked me for that information but said they’d keep it at $750. Wow.

Give it a try

Do you tend to speak up — to make requests? Why or why not? What good deals have you gotten just by asking?

If it’s uncomfortable for you to ask for things, start small. Ask for a sample at the ice cream parlor or deli counter. Ask for a better table at a restaurant. Ask a neighbor if you could borrow a ladder. As you get more comfortable with it, ask for more. When you’re notified about a price hike, call customer service, tell them you’ve been a loyal customer and would like to stay with them, and then ask if there’s something they can do about the upcoming rate increase. Always be prepared for a no,” but I think you’ll be surprised at how often the answer is, yes.”

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Rational Irrationality and Other Points to Ponder

Timelessness doesn’t trend on Twitter

“The real danger is that investors will gamble away their future in the misguided belief that profits earned over a lifetime of disciplined investing can be achieved overnight. The smarter path is as boring as it is obvious: Invest in a diversified portfolio...and try to remember that money doesn’t fly, it crawls.”

– Bloomberg opinion columnist and financial analyst Nir Kaisser, in an 8/9/21 article about the timeless wisdom of diversification and his concern that it is being cast aside by many of today’s investors eager to build wealth quickly. Read more at
bloom.bg/3jcxY4m.

When ‘overvalued’ may not mean ‘overdue for a crash’

“I’m not trying to say stocks are cheap. I’m not even trying to say they’re not expensive. With interest rates so low and the market at all-time highs, I would almost be more worried if the stock market wasn’t expensive. But there are good reasons for the overvaluation in the U.S. stock market right now. This doesn’t mean returns have to stay high but it also doesn’t guarantee a second-coming of the dot-com crash is inevitable. Context matters.”

– Ben Carlson, in an 8/10/21 post on his blog,
A Wealth of Common Sense. He argued that current valuations may be justified. Read more at bit.ly/384vvlR.

Neither poverty nor riches

“Those who pray for no more than they can handle will find joy and comfort in even modest achievements, for they will know and trust that God has given them what is for their best and withheld from them what would be to their harm…. For to pray, ‘God, give me only as much success as I can handle’ is to accept the challenge to become ready to handle more.”

– Tim Challies, in an 8/16/21 blog post about the difficulty many Christians have remaining humble and faithful as they grow in worldly success. Read more at
bit.ly/3BczV71.

Rational irrationality

“The oversimplified behavioral finance 1.0 narrative is being used as a weapon to bludgeon us as investors into believing that we’re just a giant animated blob of cognitive stupidity, that we only act on impulse or emotion, and that emotion is inherently bad. The second generation of behavioral finance doesn’t necessarily negate the brilliance of the first — it just frees it from the either/or trap.”

– Money manager and financial writer Tim Mauer, in an 8/22/21 Forbes piece about “behavioral finance 2.0,” which does away with the harsh distinctions that our financial decisions are either completely rational or completely irrational. Read more at bit.ly/3kr5uTB.

An apple a day

“‘Be more patient’ in investing is the ‘sleep 8 hours’ of health. It sounds too simple to take seriously but will probably make a bigger difference than anything else you do.”

– Morgan Housel, in an 8/25/21 post titled “Rules, Truths, and Beliefs” on the Collaborative Fund blog. From the same piece: “Average returns sustained for an above-average period of time leads to extraordinary returns.” To read more go to bit.ly/3jlX1BK.

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Money Roundup: In Praise of Timeless Financial Truths, A License to Spend, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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