Pay Cash or Not? Cash Flow Versus Liquidity

Let’s say, hypothetically, I have $50,000 in cash just sitting in my savings account. I need to replace my car and I’ve decided on a model that costs $20,000. I can get a very low interest loan for that car from the dealership – 0.0% or 2.9% or something like that.

What do I do?

You can really make a compelling case for either just buying the car with cash or keeping the money in checking and using the low-interest loan. In fact, I often go back and forth on that very question, and you’ll see differing opinions on this from different personal finance folks, including answers that vary depending on the interest rate of the loan.

The issue comes down to one of personal finance philosophy: cash flow versus liquidity.

Cash flow simply means the amount of cash you have going in and coming out each month. Your income versus your expenses. The fewer expenses you have, the greater your cash flow and the easier it is to save for other goals or survive economic twists and turns.

Liquidity means that you have easy access to cash or the cash value of something. Your baseball card collection has really low liquidity. The home you’re living in has pretty low liquidity. On the other hand, the cash in your pocket is very liquid. Liquidity means you have flexibility because you have cash in hand.

The usual argument against improving your cash flow is that you have to sacrifice liquidity to get it. In other words, to buy that car, you have to sink $20,000 in cash into that car. Suddenly, you have a lot less liquidity. You have a smaller cash reserve to deal with emergencies that come your way.

The argument against liquidity is that it requires discipline to maintain it. If you had $50,000 in the bank, would you not be tempted to buy something that you wanted? If you did, you’ve lost that liquidity for something you don’t really need.

My belief is that liquidity is better if you assume that your future is full of positive opportunities. If tomorrow is going to bring opportunities to get ahead, investment opportunities, business opportunities, and the like, liquidity will open those doors for you.

On the other hand, cash flow is better if you see a future with significant risk. A future with significant risk translates into a future with reduced income or with increased expenses – in other words, a crunch on your monthly cash flow. A long illness. A job loss. A new child. An ill or dependent parent. Having collateralized debt – like a car loan or a mortgage – means that the item can be repossessed, leaving you not only with reduced cash flow, but without transportation or a roof over your head.

The problem? We can’t see the future. We do not know what’s coming in the future. Is it a future loaded with opportunity? Or is it a future with significant risk?

In the excellent book The Black Swan, the author, Nasim Nicholas Taleb, argues that we often use mental tricks to disguise the randomness of the past from ourselves, turning our very random lives into a coherent and understandable story. We often do the same thing with the future, imagining not the chaotic future we’ll likely have, but a smooth road leading to some destination.

Lately, I’ve found myself hedging my bets more and more. What if I become ill? What if my income level drops? The better my cash flow is right now, the more room I have in my cash flow to deal with these challenges.

My conclusion is this: once you have a certain size of emergency fund (I usually use two months’ of living expenses per dependent), your focus shouldn’t be on further liquidity. Your focus should be on improving your cash flow. Not only does this protect against longer-term problems, it also creates a future where you’re more able to tolerate the unexpected in your life.

In simpler terms, get an emergency fund, then shoot as hard as you can for debt freedom. That might sometimes involve additional savings (like saving up to pay cash for a replacement car), but the goal is to keep your cash flow as healthy as possible.

Coincidentally, just an hour before this article went live, I got into about this very topic.

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