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Wow, it’s been quite a while since I posted — three and half months!

That was never intentional. But at the same time it was completely intentional.

What was I doing the entire time?

Preparing for the CFA Exam.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to pursue the CFA designation, so I spent all my discretionary time the past few months studying for the Level I Exam, which I just took at the end of June.

Now that the exam is FINALLY OVER, I can write again! I thought there would be nothing better than to start back up with what I learned.

Of course I won’t bore you with the actual material I learned for the exam, but instead will share lessons I learned from the process of studying for such a rigorous exam. The biggest challenge was the sheer volume of information involved. The curriculum for just the CFA Level I Exam (there are three levels) was 3,444 pages.

And this is not like reading Harry Potter. The material is dense, packed with practice problem sets.

It proved to be a major undertaking. And like any major undertaking, there are lessons to learn along the way:

preparing for the cfa exam

1. Have a Startup Mindset

I view this pursuit as an investment in myself and my career. Naturally, I also considered pursuing an MBA, but at a MUCH lower cost the ROI on being a CFA charterholder appears much better. Plus, it goes deeper rather than broader in terms of knowledge, fits my specific area of interest, and involves complete independent study. All pluses for me.

But it is still a huge commitment — more time than money.

In January, I was deliberating whether to actually take the plunge or not. What if I couldn’t find the required time? What if I started and then hated studying? I mean I’ve been out of school for a decade.

I decided to treat it as a new enterprise and employ the Lean Startup approach of “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap.”

The CFA Institute provides the first section on Ethics (the first 300 pages of curriculum) free for anyone to download. Kaplan Schweser also provides a free sample of their study material for a full section on Fixed Income.

I got both of these and started studying BEFORE ever registering.

I spent 3-4 weeks working my way through this material, validating that I could allocate the time and that this was something I was willing to do.

2. Without a Plan, You Plan to Fail

This is such a cliche thing to say, but it’s absolutely true.

Once I did register, I had a little wake up call as I saw the immensity of the entire curriculum for the first time. My lean studying pace wasn’t going to get the job done.

I needed a plan.

And the plan was essentially a study budget.

This study budget had to be reverse engineered. The test date was fixed. Can’t change that. With the amount of information, I initially budgeted a full month to review material and take practice exams. That left me with 3.5 months to work my way through the curriculum.

In order to reach that deadline, I set a daily page budget: 25 pages for each weekday and 37.5 pages for each day of the weekend. 200 pages total each week.

And then kept myself accountable. If I didn’t keep pace, I’d have no shot at passing the exam (which has a 43% pass rate).

It’s important to understand how small actions fit in the big picture. The daily progress feels like you didn’t make any progress at all, but at the same time it’s the only way. Just like chipping away at a mountain of debt.

3. More Important to Budget Energy than Time

There was a time when I thought money is a person’s most valuable resource. At some point, I eventually realized that money is abundant and time is much more valuable. But now I realize there’s something even more valuable than time…

Energy.

Just because we have the time to do something doesn’t mean we have the energy. Our typical natural energy levels are highest in the morning and then in decline throughout the day with a second wind coming in late afternoon (yay work is out!).

I learned that studying in the morning was by far the easiest — I’d get through pages faster and retain the information better. In the evenings, the earlier I studied the better. If I knocked out 2 hours between 7-9pm, it was a much more productive session than 9-11pm.

Late evenings and lunch were the most difficult times. That’s when energy levels are lowest and the “I don’t feel like it” battle is highest. I found myself losing that battle most at lunch, because I still had the evenings to fall back on.

But if it’s 9pm and I haven’t completed my daily pages, I had no choice but to try and push through. But many times I hit walls and had to resign myself to bed without hitting the daily quota.

Blocking off time doesn’t matter if you don’t have the energy at that time.

4. You Can’t Do Everything (At the Same Time)

At first, I thought I could study and still do everything else, such as blogging and actively trading stocks.

I very quickly learned that was not the case.

Adding a commitment that requires 3-4 hours of time each day on top of a full-time job doesn’t leave much extra time at all.

My stock trading suffered as I couldn’t give it the time and attention needed. Being an active trader requires an hour or two of daily homework scanning stocks, creating trade plans, placing orders, and updating trade results.

Same situation with this blog. Writing new content, being active on social media, answering emails/comments, reading articles from other bloggers — no time for any of that.

As a result, I made the decision to stop trading completely, pull that money out of my brokerage account, and use half of it to pay down debt. We banked the other half as emergency funds.

This blog would just have to sit.

Any time outside of work or study was reserved for my wife/family/friends. But if you ask Mrs. Budget Boy, it was nowhere near enough.

In order to accomplish anything worthwhile, it typically requires making sacrifices. Not just your own personal sacrifices, but also the people closest to you.

The stock market and blogging will still always be there.

5. Seek Out Better Methods

It was a struggle in the beginning to do 25 pages per day. This often required about 3 hours of study time.

After going through 40% of the material, I realized it was getting difficult to keep pace day after day and that I didn’t have any time to review previous material as I just plowed forward. Retaining the old information was getting harder as I stuffed more and more in!

I would need more time to review and practice at the end. One month wouldn’t be enough, especially since 2 weeks of that included a vacation.

I had to find a new strategy.

I obtained what you could call cliff notes for the CFA Exam. All the important material in a condensed format. Which I found as a free promotional offer (so you purchase the next levels). Many sites offer study materials for $300-400 which I had no desire to pay, especially since I had already gone through a huge chunk of the material.

I started using these notes to get a strong foundation in each area and supplement that with the normal curriculum in order to get all the examples, practice problems, and detailed reading for areas that were less clear. Just like that my weekday capacity increased from 25 pages on average to 38.

That’s a 50% increase!

This was a game changer.

With an accelerated pace, I could now budget an additional 2 weeks of review time. These 2 weeks proved absolutely critical, so that I wouldn’t just finish the curriculum before my vacation. I would finish the curriculum AND review everything again before we left. That way, I could just be in practice mode for the final month.

There are major parallels to personal finance here: If you can increase your income, the whole game shifts.

That’s exactly what this felt like — as if I were now making much bigger principal payments on a huge mountain of debt. It’s very satisfying to watch debt get wiped out faster.

Many times we put artificial ceilings on ourselves, thinking this is the best that we can do. There’s often a better strategy or method where we can break through to new levels for the same amount of effort.

6. Bad Days are Way Worse than Good Days are Good

In both study methods, my daily pages would fluctuate. I had a daily target — some days I would hit it exactly, others I would do extra, and others I would fall short.

It felt like treading water where you’re just trying to keep your head above the surface.

Underdelivering only causes more stress and pressure as it raises the required daily quota to meet the same target. It’s like strapping a weight to yourself as you’re treading water. You’re asking more of yourself each day going forward while tiring yourself out more.

The absolute worst — the goose egg.

Fortunately, I only had one of those days. But there were also a handful of single-digit page days.

These are like financial setbacks. You can do a lot of things right, but one mistake can undo a lot of good decisions.

7. Having a Concrete Goal is Motivating

In my professional career, I am constantly frustrated by a lack of clear goals and expectations. They tend to be very vague and managers can never give you a straight answer.

But then performance evaluations are based on whether you meet, exceed, or fall below expectations. The same expectations that were not defined. How does this make sense?

Having a 100% clear, black and white goal with a hard deadline is so refreshing.

Although we may not always be able to get these from managers, we can at least get these from ourselves.

Most deadlines are arbitrary and can easily be moved. But when you have an immoveable deadline, you have to be fully committed. Getting half-way there by the deadline may seem like a win for losing weight or increasing income, but that would result in a clear fail for the exam.

Often we set goals for ourselves but they may be too broad. Like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to make more money.”

By how much? And most importantly by when?

I will lose 15 pounds in 90 days.
I will increase my salary by $10,000 in the next 6 months.

Clearly-defined goals are much motivating and more likely to result in success. A major takeaway of this studying process is ensuring goals are specific and measurable. I guess SMART goals do work.

8. Prepare for Burn Out

When you’re pushing yourself hard towards a goal which requires so much time and energy daily, it’s common to get burned out at some point.

Not only did I get burned out, but so did my wife. Studying required me to be less involved/present and for her to take on additional responsibilities. After 3 months of this, we were both getting worn out.

We had booked a vacation to Greece before I ever registered for the exam, which meant we’d be gone for 2 weeks and return 2 weeks before the exam. Not optimal for studying.

I wanted to be able to enjoy our vacation and be present, so Greece had to budgeted for. Built into the study budget was minimal studying during our vacation, so it required doing more everyday in the months before in order to be where I needed to be before we left. By being on track, it gave me peace of mind, allowed me to be present and enjoy our vacation, and enabled me to come back refreshed for the final 2-week push of studying.

Of course, I still had to study while I was in Greece, but it’s pretty easy to wake up a little early and get some morning studying done in places like this (Santorini).

Studying-for-cfa-exam-in-santorini-greece

There are different levels of burn out. There’s the daily level where you’re like, “That’s it, I’m done for today.” And then there’s the long form where there’s a deep tiredness in your mind and body and you start asking: “Why am I doing this to myself?”

In the end, that non-optimally timed vacation ended up being exactly what the doctor ordered.

In the future, I will be sure to build recovery / vacation days into the plan… intentionally.

9. Ensure Your Plan is a Winning Plan

When preparing for the CFA Exam, there is a number that you see A LOT — 300 hours. The average Level I Candidate spends about 300 hours of study time to prepare. That is great as a benchmark to know what you’re committing to, but there is one major problem:

The average candidate doesn’t pass!

As I mentioned earlier, the pass rate is only 43% on the Level I Exam. Even worse, that stat doesn’t include the fact that 20% of candidates don’t even show up! They acknowledged defeat before exam day. Effectively, only 34.4% of those that register actually pass.

So if your plan is designed to study for 300 hours, it’s a LOSING plan!

Winning means being BETTER than average, so you have to find an edge somewhere. As soon I started working my through the curriculum, I knew instantly that 300 hours wasn’t going to be enough. In order to be well prepared, it would require much, much more.

I estimate my total study time ended up between 450-500 hours.

Whether it’s our personal finances or any other endeavor, let’s not use average as the benchmark to model ourselves after… let’s look at what the most successful people do.

10. Start Earlier

Out of all the lessons, this is the simplest and most important.

We talked about game changers earlier — this is the biggest game changer of them all. I didn’t register until the very end of the normal registration, which was the 2nd week of February.

Registration for June exams opens in August of the year before. That’s right. AUGUST!

I made life hard on myself by not deciding to take the plunge earlier. Of course, I wasn’t even thinking about it until January. Imagine having DOUBLE the amount of time!

This is just like planning for retirement. Imagine 2 people planning to retire at age 60. Sam is currently 40 years old while Pam is 20. Who do you think is more likely to succeed?

Pam of course!

That’s not to say that Sam can’t succeed. He definitely can, but he’s got his work cut out for him. Pam has such a huge advantage it’s not even fair. In studying for this exam, I was Sam. I crunched it all in a shorter period of time, resulting in more stress and pressure.

The good news is that for future exams I now know to register in August. Talk about giving myself an edge over the other candidates.

However, we can’t ever go back and start planning for retirement earlier. If you haven’t started yet, all you can do is start now.

Crunching it in was still better than waiting for the next exam. Waiting would’ve set me back another year.

Bottom Line

Wow, this ended up being way longer than I intended. After all this, you’re probably wondering:

So did he pass?

The CFA Institute does not release the results until mid-August. Fingers crossed.


Preparing for the CFA Exam is no small undertaking. Besides all the topic areas learned, there are also many lessons to be learned from the actual study process. Here are my top 10 lessons and tips from studying for the CFA Level I Exam. #studytips #budgeting

4 thoughts on “10 Lessons from Preparing for the CFA Exam

  1. This post is very applicable to my life right now.

    I just began studying for the CFP exam and been having a hard time balancing family, work, blogging and CFP studies.

    I’ve recently decided to cut way down on the blogging. I just don’t think it’s possible to do both. It seems like you had the same plan.

    Thanks for writing this up and the best of luck on your results.

    1. Thanks Jason! When you’re deciding between blogging vs. family/work, it’s pretty much a no brainer which one you have to sacrifice (although sometimes it’d be nice to be able to choose work).

      Good luck on the CFP exam!

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