Creating genuine passive income is the holy grail of personal finance. Not all passive income is created equal mind you. Some streams take much more initial effort to start, such as saving enough to buy your first rental property. But once you start it’s very difficult not to gain momentum.
Everything passive first takes active energy. The time to put in the effort is when we are young and not ravaged by disease or burdened by family obligations.
I remember being able to snowboard from 9am until 4pm every day for a year. Now, I’m lucky to last from 11am until 2pm without wanting to go to the hot tub and drink a bucket full of beer!
If we can appreciate how lucky we are when we are young, we’ll be able to maximize our vitality and live financially freer when we are older.
With sustainable passive income you can do the following:
* Retire early and travel the world.
* Start a business in a field you are passionate about.
* Find a job that pays less, but is more interesting.
* Stay at home to take care of your family without having to worry about money.
* Volunteer for causes you truly care about.
* Be a big brother or big sister.
* Spend more time with your parents.
* Sit in a coffee shop on a 80 degree day in Paris for hours on a Wednesday afternoon.
* Write the next great novel on the balcony of a cruise in the Mediterranean.
* Eat tapas and drink sangria until 1am on a Monday evening.
* Potentially live longer due to much less stress.
* Experience perfect endless summers over and over again.
There is so much you can do once you generate enough passive income to pay for all your living expenses. I highly encourage everyone to at least try. This post will provide you the framework for passive income success.
The Passive Income Framework
1) Save Like Nobody Owes You Anything. Passive income starts with savings. Without a healthy amount of savings, nothing works. Your overall “Money Strength” will be an F- if you do not build a financial nut. In our current low interest rate environment, you must save even more than before. It’s important to also realize that the savings I am referring to is after-tax savings.
You need to save money after contributing to your 401k and IRAs since you can’t touch pre-tax retirement accounts without a penalty until 59.5. Ideally everyone should max out their pre-tax retirement funds first, but if you don’t have enough funds and want to retire earlier then a decision to have more accessible post tax money will still work.
What I did: Saved 50-75% of my after tax, after 401K contribution every year for 13 years because I knew I could not last in finance for more than 20 years. Now I am saving 100% of my passive income as I try and bootstrap my online businesses.
2) Find Out What You Are Good At. Everybody is good at something, be it investing, playing an instrument, playing a sport, communications, writing, art, dance and so forth. You should also list several things that interest you most.
If you can combine your interest plus expertise, you should be able to monetize your skills. A tennis player can teach tennis for $65 an hour. A writer can pen her first novel. A finance buff can invest in stocks. A singer can record his first song. The more interests and skills you have, the higher chance you can create something that can provide passive income down the road.
What I’m doing: I love to write and invest. Combine these two interests with my ability to get things done equates to multiple investment types and this personal finance site that generates revenue.
3) Create A Plan. Mark Spitz once said, “If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.” You must create a system where you are saving X amount of money every month, investing Y amount every month, and working on Z project until completion. Things will be slow going at first, but once you save a little bit of money you will start to build momentum. Eventually you will find synergies between your work, your hobbies, and your skills which will translate into viable income streams.
What I’m doing: I use this site to write out goals like 1) Generating $200,000 a year working 4 hours a day or less, 2) Trying to make winning investments, and 3) Keeping track of my passive income streams with free financial tools. My site and the community helps keep me accountable for progress. It’s important I do what I say, otherwise, what the hell is the point? You should consider starting a site or at least a private journal. Write out your specific goals, tell several close friends and stick to the plan.
4) Treat Passive Income Like A Game. The only real way to begin your multiple passive income journey is when you are making active income. The initial funding has to come from somewhere. Hence, treat passive income as a game that has various levels. If you fail to achieve one level, it’s not the end of the world since you still have active income and can restart.
Further, a game is meant to be played with integrity. Using shortcuts (non passive income streams), someone else’s income as a supplement (spouse), or one-offs (capital gains) does not count. The primary purpose of any game is to bring enjoyment to the player and beat the boss.
What I’m doing: I view passive income as funny money to keep myself sane during this long journey. The dollars created are just points one can accumulate. I’ve made passive income goals for each passive income type and check in at least once a year like I am now to make sure I’m on track. Passive income is also carefully managed to minimize tax liability. When you can build a buffer for a buffer, you are then free to take more risks.
5) Determine What Income Level Will Make You Happy. Think back to when you made little to no income as a student. Now think back to the days when you just got started in your career. Were you happy then? Now go over every single year you got a raise or made more money doing something else. How did your happiness change at all, if any? Everybody has a different level of income that will bring maximum happiness due to different desires, needs, and living arrangements. It’s up to you to find out your optimum income level.
What I did: I first identified my favorite places in the world to live: San Francisco, Honolulu, Paris, Amsterdam, New York City, and Lake Tahoe. I then looked up the median rent and housing prices for each city. Then I factored in private education costs for two kids to be conservative given I may not have two kids and public schools are often good enough.
After calculating all vital costs, I then did a self-assessment of how happy I was making $50,000, $100,000, $150,000, $200,000, $250,000, $350,000, $500,000, and $750,000. I decided working 20 hours a week making $300,000 a year is the best income balance for maximum happiness to provide for a family.
6) Always Remember That Everything Is Relative. The best way to determine worthwhile passive income streams is by comparing the likely return (IRR) with the current risk-free rate of return. If I round up, the 10 year bond yield is at 3%. Any new venture should thoroughly beat 3% otherwise you are wasting your efforts since you can earn 3% doing nothing.
What I’m doing: My realistic goal is to have a blended annual return of 2x the risk free rate. With a current 5% hurdle, I am not paying down mortgages that cost less than 4%. Debt at 5% is a wash. My realistic blue sky scenario is a 3-4X rate of return over the risk free rate which can be achieved with property, stocks so far for the past five years, and certain private equity investments.
7) Never Withdraw From Your Financial Nut. The biggest downfall I see from people looking to build passive income is that they withdraw from their financial nut too soon. There’s somehow always an emergency which eats away at the positive effects of compounding returns. Make sure your money is invested and not just sitting in your savings account. The harder to access your money, the better.
Make it your mission to always contribute X amount every month and consistently increase the savings amount by a percentage or several until it hurts. Pause for a month or two and then keep going. You’ll be amazed how much you can save. You just won’t know because you’ve likely never tested savings limits to the max.
What I Do: I’ve set up multiple investment accounts outside my main operations bank that deals with working capital e.g checking, paying bills. By transferring my money to a couple brokerage accounts and two other banks as soon as it hits my main bank I no longer have temptation to spend on frivolous things. As a result, I can wake up 10 years later and reap the rewards of compounding.
My 401(k) is the best example where consistent contributions over 20 years has grown to over $580,000 without any savings pain given it just became a part of life. Real estate is also a fantastic asset class for the long term. It’s fantastic to enjoy your home, pay down your mortgage each month, and end up with a paid off asset that has likely appreciated during your time of ownership.
8) You Must Force Yourself To Start. “A Journey Of A Thousand Miles Begins With A Single Step.” Laozi was a great philosopher who penned this popular English translation. Everything great started somewhere and you must set aside one day to tackle your financial independence goal. Circle the date on your calendar and cancel all other distractions.
What I did:The first two years of work in NYC was brutal. I told myself there was no way I could work on Wall St for my entire career because I’d probably die from heart failure by age 40. Having an early death in my mind willed me to save 50%+ from the first year onward and devise a CD, real estate, and stock investment distribution system for my savings every year.
I thought about starting this site for at least a year before I hired someone from Craigslist to give set me up and push me forward. Hiring someone to get started is totally worth it if you are a master procrastinator. You can now learn how to start your own site with my step-by-step guide to save yourself time and money.
PASSIVE INCOME SNAPSHOT
The below is my latest estimated passive income streams as I look to retire for a second time. I consider interest, dividends, rental income, and royalties as the only passive income streams. I do not include my online income from my business other than my severance negotiation book because writing takes a lot of work.
* I use Personal Capital to track all my finances in one place. It’s much easier to use their free software to follow 28 accounts on one platform than to log into various accounts to check my balances. They’ve also got great tools for x-raying your portfolio for excessive fees, recommending a more optimized asset allocation, and planning for retirement with their Retirement Planner.
Dividend Income: Dividend income is wonderful because it is completely passive and is taxed at only 15% if you are in the 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35% income tax bracket. If you are in the higher income tax bracket you will pay a 20% tax on your dividends. My dividend income portfolio mainly consist of dividend equity and bond ETFs such as DVY, VYM, MUB, TLT, and IEF. Total stock and bond income is a little over $100,000 a year due to a heavy accumulation of stocks and municipal bonds after selling my house.
Please read The Proper Asset Allocation Of Stocks And Bonds By Age to learn how to best structure your investment portfolio by age. The article goes through the very important “why” so you can invest more confidently for your retirement.
Real Estate: I currently own one rental property in San Francisco which I bought in 2003 (2/2 condo), one vacation rental in Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe (2/2 condo), and my primary residence.
Real estate is my favorite asset class to build wealth because it is easy to understand, tangible, provides utility, and rides the way of inflation. I recommend individuals try and get neutral inflation by buying their primary residence as young as possible. The power of inflation is just too hard to counteract.
If you own physical real estate, consider refinancing your mortgage if you haven’t done so in a while. Mortgage rates in 2020 have fallen to six-year lows, even after a 10+-year bull market.
Credible has one of the largest lending networks online where qualified lenders compete for your business with real quotes. You can get a quote in under three minutes and compare the various rates and lenders all in one place. I recently refinanced my primary residence to a 7/1 ARM at 2.625% with no fees.
How To Engineer Your Layoff – In 2012, it took me four months of absolute focus and two years of data to publish my first e-book about helping people negotiate a severance. The book went through over 30 revisions by four people. Then I updated the book for 2020 with 80+ more pages (190+ pages total) using more successful case studies and highlighting more strategies for those who want to break free with money in their pocket.
The book now generates over $50,000 a year in passive income and has helped numerous people walk away with nice severance packages and healthcare benefits so they can pursue their dreams. Below is a snapshot of my Paypal account highlighting books sales.
Venture Debt – I invested $120,000 in my business school friend’s venture debt fund. He started his own after spending 8 years at one of the largest venture debt funds as a Managing Partner. I’m very focused on income generating assets in this low interest rate environment. The true returns are yet to be seen, as the fund has a 5-7 year life before it returns all its capital.
Real Estate Crowdsourcing – After selling my SF rental house in mid-2017 for 30X annual gross rent, I reinvested $550,000 of the proceeds ($810,000 total) in real estate crowdfunding, $600,000 in dividend stocks, and $600,000 in municipal bonds.
My goal is to take advantage of cheaper heartland real estate with much higher net rental yields (8% – 12% vs. 2% – 3.5% in SF) and diversify away from expensive coastal city real estate.
As of 2020, I’ve invested $810,000 in a portfolio of 17 different commercial real estate projects across the country through real estate crowdfunding. My favorite platforms are Fundrise, for all investors, and CrowdStreet, for accredited investors.
There is a multi-decade demographic shift away from expensive coastal cities and into the heartland of America due to lower costs, the rise of remote work, and technology that enables telecommuting. I believe secondary cities like Memphis, Austin, and Phoenix will outperform cities like New York City and San Francisco.
If you want to invest in individual commercial real estate deals, you can check out CrowdStreet, my favorite real estate marketplace for accredited investors. Their focus is on 18-hour cities with faster growth. Further, they charge the sponsor a fee, not the investor. Finally, they have a direct-to-sponsor business model so there’s more efficiency.
Fundrise is great for all investors who are interested in investing in eREITs (funds) for broader exposure and diversity. Fundrise has much lower minimums and is consistently one of the most innovative and well-funded platforms today.
What About Other Income Streams?
As part of the Passive Income Framework section, we are playing the game with integrity. It’s no fun beating the Big Boss with a cheat code or super weapon that annihilates all enemies with one click of a button. The goal is to develop income streams that keep rolling in if we do nothing at all!
Income streams that don’t count:
* Capital gains: Unless you can repeatedly sell stock for profit, capital gains is a one off item. It’s just as easy to lose money in the markets as it is to make money, so stop pretending like you are Warren Buffet.
* Freelance writing: Quality freelance writing takes tremendous effort. Ironically, the better the quality of your writing, the more you don’t want to freelance and just keep the articles for your own site. Freelancing is a great way to earn side income, however, it’s not really for me. I’ll probably take on one or two freelance jobs maximum per year and write no more than four articles a month elsewhere.
* Financial Consulting: I used to do four financial consulting sessions a month on average for $1,500 each session, but stopped in 2018 in order to focus on taking more care of my son and now daughter.
* Selling anything: If I decide to one day sell my Roberto Clemente rookie card for $800, I’m not going to include this in my passive income streams because I’ve only got a couple of them. Same thing goes for selling a watch or electronic device.
* Blogging: This 3,500 word post has taken around 20 hours to write with a dozen revisions. Content does not magically appear out of thin air as some might believe. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, consistency, and creativity to come up with helpful and interesting content. That said, I enjoy blogging so much.
It’s been over 10 years since I started Financial Samurai and I’m actually earning a good income stream online now. Financial Samurai has given me a purpose in early retirement. And, I’m having a ton of fun running this site as well.
Build Passive Income Already
“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.” Winston Churchill
Building passive income takes a long time. The key is to create a plan, save as much as possible, and just get going. Start investing in assets where you are most comfortable. Always start small and work your way up. Also consider creating your own income producing products.
I never would have thought a book about severance negotiations would earn more in passive income than a condo that now costs $1,200,000 to buy. Technology and the internet have tremendously lowered the cost of starting your own site and reaching millions of people.
Do something long enough and good things will happen. All the best in your passive income journey!
Recommendation To Build Wealth
One of the best ways to build wealth is to get a handle on your finances by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online platform which aggregates all your financial accounts on their Dashboard so you can see where you can optimize.
Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 28 different accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to track my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing, how my net worth is progressing, and where my spending is going.
One of their best tools is the 401K Fee Analyzer which has helped me save over $1,700 in annual portfolio fees I had no idea I was paying. You just click on the Investment Tab and run your portfolio through their fee analyzer with one click of the button.
They also launched an incredible Retirement Planning Calculator that pulls in real data from your linked accounts to run a Monte Carlo simulation model to output the most likely results of your financial future. I strongly suggest you run your own numbers, play around with the income and expense variables, and see how you stack up. It’s all free and easy to use.
Updated for 2020 and beyond.