Why Your Retirement Is More Important Than Saving for College

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Yes, it sounds harsh. But this is an important financial reality to understand: you should prioritize your retirement savings over saving for your kids’ college expenses.

This isn’t about loving your kids less. It’s about knowing how to prioritize your financial goals in the best possible way for both your sake and theirs.

And remember, putting your retirement needs ahead of saving for college doesn’t mean indefinitely choosing one over the other. You can balance both these competing goals and fund each at the same time.

Here’s why your retirement savings is that important — and how you can balance your desire to help your kids by saving for college while also making sure you take care of yourself.

There’s Only One Way to Fund Retirement

Our kids have countless options when it comes to higher education and paying for it. We give them whatever help we can. They can contribute themselves by earning scholarships or working part-time as they go through school.

There are plenty of ways to reduce the cost to make college more affordable, too. They can choose a lower-cost, in-state university. You can help educate kids on how to live frugally and limit their expenses while still in school.

And while it might not be ideal, students can take out some student loans to help fill the financial gaps. This is not the same thing as taking out far more than they can reasonably expect to repay once gainfully employed after graduation, or taking out more loans than they need to pay for tuition.

The point is, our children have several ways they can fund higher education or reduce the expense of college.

But when it comes to retirement? We’re mostly on our own.

We need to take responsibility for funding our lives after work. Social Security and other benefits can help, but these aren’t guaranteed (or likely to completely fund what you need for the rest of your life).

There’s not much flexibility on where to get this money — or how long we have to fund our retirement goals. If we don’t save and invest now during our working years, we may need to keep working or dramatically change our lifestyles.

Saving for Retirement Helps You and Your Kids

Still, many parents feel averse to the idea of saving for their own needs ahead of helping their children. But it’s just like the idea of the oxygen mask on an airplane: you need to address your own needs before you can realistically help anyone else.

You do no one any favors — least of all your children — if you fail to plan for your retirement and end up needing someone to help you. That burden will likely fall on the very children you wanted to help in the first place!

By prioritizing your retirement ahead of financial goals like saving for college, you ensure that you take care of yourself after you stop earning an income. Your adult children won’t need to use their own income to financially support you.

How to Save for College Without Neglecting Your Retirement

None of this is to say you shouldn’t save for college to help your children. You should allocate money to fund your own retirement goals first. But you can contribute what you can from your cash flow to college savings after that.

Make sure you take advantage of employer benefits and packages that are available to you. Contribute at least enough into your 401(k) to get the match, and fund tax-advantaged accounts that can lower your year to year tax burden.

By doing what you can to save on taxes, you might have more money left over throughout the year to use for college savings.

You can also make the most of college savings dollars by investing them into an appropriate vehicle for long-term growth. If your kids are younger than 10, they have nearly a decade to go before starting their freshman year at a university.

Take advantage of that timeline by investing into a 529 plan or another brokerage account. As they get closer to attending college, you’ll want to adjust the plan to keep that money as safe as possible.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to fund 100% of your child’s higher education, either. As your kids get older and can better understand financial realities, make them part of the conversation. Giving them the knowledge that you agree to fund up to 50% or 75% of their university expenses can help them make informed decisions about which schools to apply to or what programs to consider.

And don’t forget to encourage your kids to participate and make their own contributions. That doesn’t need to be financial. They can do their part by achieving academic success that secures scholarships and grants. Or they can commit to certain sports or programs that provide a path to a subsidized university education.

Every parent wants to help their children succeed and have a better life than they enjoyed. While saving for college is one of the primary ways you can do this, remember that your children can appreciate your help after graduation, too.

The best way to make sure they can live out adult lives in which they get to prioritize their own financial goals over your financial needs is to fund your retirement first. Once you’re on track there, then you can turn to saving for college and other goals.

Make the Most of Your Vacations: Save for Travel, Not a Vacation Home

 

A vacation home works for some people and can provide a lot of benefits. It’s wonderful to have your own place to escape to when you’re ready to relax and unwind. And if you make good decisions about where and what you buy — and get a little lucky in the process — a second home can be an asset.

 

But the key point? It works for some people and certainly not all. In fact, for most people saving for travel instead of a vacation home makes much more financial sense. It also ends up better for you in the long run regarding happiness and enjoyment.

 

That being said, it’s well worth understanding how to make the most of your vacations, you’re better off saving your money for trips, experiences, and various destinations — not a second home.

 

Vacations Are Fun and Games — Vacation Homes? Not So Much

 

Buying a vacation home often makes you a second-home owner. With homeownership usually comes with a second mortgage, property taxes, insurance, the responsibility for repairs, managing a property that may be far away, potentially managing renters (or paying someone to manage that process for you), and so on.

 

In other words, it may sound fun and exciting. But don’t get swept away thinking about all the benefits. Vacation homes come with all the downsides — and potentially even more — of any property you own, pay for, and are responsible for taking care of throughout the year.

 

Add in handling those responsibilities over distances, and a vacation home is often a fast-track to frustration (and a lot of work, to boot!).

 

Make the Most of Your Vacations by Maintaining Your Freedom to Choose

 

Those downsides don’t even account for the fact that owning a vacation home tends to mean you’re locked into the same vacation year after year. Again, that might be fine for some folks — but for most people, the freedom and flexibility to vacation in various places and explore new things is worth a lot.

 

You may remain stuck with one type of vacation for as long as you own your home. And even if you’re not, that begs the question: why bother with the vacation home in the first place? Keep the freedom and spend that money on taking dream vacations wherever you choose to go.

 

The Benefits of Saving for Travel

 

Still not convinced? Consider these reasons you should save for travel instead of plunking your money down in another property that you’ll only use a few weeks (at most!) out of the year. You’ll get:

 

  1. The opportunity to explore and visit more places.
  2. The option to take different kinds of vacations (cruise, beach house, camping, etc.).
  3. Increased flexibility (where you go, when you go, how long you go, how many people go, etc.).
  4. The ability to budget for “that one big trip” you’ve always dreamed of (maybe three weeks in Southeast Asia, or a month in Europe) by spending less on travel in the year or two leading up to the trip (such as a camping and hiking trip at a national park).
  5. Fewer unexpected expenses, since you don’t have to worry about vacation home repairs, furniture, the air conditioning going out…
  6. The freedom to follow the deals and to pick vacations based on deals you find online, without being locked into any one place.
  7. Simplify your life with greater peace of mind.

 

Travel Can Keep Your Other Wealth-Building Goals on Track, Too

 

Traveling, as opposed to a vacation home, can keep your other financial goals on track because you can spend significantly less on travel (even luxury travel) than you would buying and maintaining a property. Travel gives you more flexibility in how you use your money, even to the point of choosing not to travel.

 

As your life circumstances change — you suffer an injury or illness, get married, have kids, take care of an elderly parent — travel may not be the right fit for a few years. And that’s okay. You can save your money and explore places closer to home while you need to prioritize other things in life.

 

While you can choose how and when you travel, you can’t choose to not pay your mortgage on your vacation home if another savings goal or family need becomes a priority that year. When purchasing a vacation home, you lock yourself into those expenses year after year — even when your goals, financial situation, and interests change.

 

What to Think About If You’re Set on a Vacation Property

 

If you do choose to forge ahead with a vacation home, here are just a few points you’ll want to keep in mind:

 

  1. Make sure you know the neighborhood and surrounding area. Is it a place you are going to want to visit for the next 30 years or more (assuming a 30-year mortgage)?
  2. Are you going to have renters? Keep in mind that you have to a rent a vacation property for large chunks of the time if you want to receive the tax benefits. This usually means making the most popular weeks available to renters — not your family.
  3. Renting a vacation home often requires hiring a management company, or managing it yourself. It also means more wear and tear on the furniture and property. Account for this when you look to see if your budget can handle a second home.
  4. A vacation home is more than the price of the home. It needs to be furnished, maintained, repaired, and insured (and often vacation homes are in costly areas, such as a beach house on the water). Again, account for these expenses when you consider the financial aspects.

 

There are so many benefits to saving for travel rather than tying money up in another property. Remember, you can’t buy your freedom – and a vacation home certainly takes some of that away.

 

At the very least, if your heart is set on a vacation home, do a lot of research, planning, and consideration before jumping in feet first. Understand all the pros, and more importantly, all the cons before committing. A vacation home may make sense if you fully understand the consequences and downsides and feel those sacrifices are worthwhile.

Whichever way you choose to enjoy the money you use for vacations and other fun experiences, make sure it aligns with what’s important to you and your values.

Budgeting for Coffee Sucks, Try This Instead

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Trying to cut back on your spending gets tedious when you focus on minute details. Yes, it’s important to track every dollar — but to feel anxious about spending on small purchases that you value because you’re trying to save more and spend less? That can quickly lead to budget burnout.

 

Preparing for and responsibly purchasing big-ticket items (from a laptop to a car to a house) is much more important than counting every last penny. Think about it. Does it make sense to stress over buying a coffee or spending an extra $1.99 to add guacamole but to have zero plan when it comes to major purchases?

 

Quite frankly, budgeting for coffee sucks — and it’s not worth your time or effort to pour your energy into everyday items instead of looking at the big picture and failing to prepare for big expenses.

 

You want to make responsible decisions on the big stuff. A few coffees won’t break the bank and deserve a place in your budget if your daily latte is truly important to you.

 

But buying “too much car” or “too much house”? That’s where you can run into major financial trouble.

Cutting Out Lattes Just Doesn’t Cut It

Focusing on small expenses, like your coffee fix doesn’t do much to impact your budget, cash flow, and ability to save and invest if you fail to examine your larger purchases.

 

If you spend $5 every single day of the year on coffee, you will spend $1,825 throughout the year. Now, that’s no small number. But perhaps all you need to do is cut your coffee consumption by half. You still get to enjoy your latte multiple times per week while also saving $912.50 per year.

 

Compare that to obsessing over the tiny costs and nickel and diming yourself. You’d save some more. But you’d also likely be stressed out and less happy. And the bigger issue? You might exhaust your decision-making power by constantly denying yourself a small pleasure.

 

You need that financial willpower more when it comes to big depreciating things, like cars and boats, etc. Let’s image you purchase a car today and lock into monthly payments of $250 for five years. That means you give up more control in the future on what you can afford to buy(and how much you can save and invest) because the $250 is already accounted for, every month, for five years. All in, that’s $3,000 a year and $15,000 over five years!

 

It’s a much more dramatic impact than budgeting for coffee.

 

The Impact of Big Expenses on Your Budget Over Time

 

Take this one step further. Say you spring for the extra fancy model of the car. If your monthly payments were $500 for five years because you financed a more expensive car, that’s $30,000 worth of cash that you devote to this one expense.

 

That’s the other thing about budgeting for coffee: you can change your mind anytime about how much you’re comfortable spending on those little things. Big purchases that you pay for over time? Not so much. You commit your future budget to being limited for years.

 

If you took that same (lower) car payment of $250 and invested it instead every month over five years, you would have about $17,000 assuming a 5% rate of return. Leave that money alone for 30 more years until retirement, and at 5%, you’ll have $73,500.

 

It’s important to think bigger and look at big-ticket items that can drain your cash flow for years to come. While cutting things like a daily latte can help you reduce costs, prioritize preparing for bigger purchases first and don’t set yourself up for failure by depriving yourself small pleasures like coffee from your favorite cafe a few times a week.

 

Instead of Budgeting for Coffee, Create a Big-Picture Plan

 

Try this relatively simple process to review your big-picture budget without getting into all the details of every single purchase:

 

Take your last pay stub and find the net amount (after taxes and deductions for your retirement account, health insurance, life insurance, etc.).

If you’re paid once a month, the net amount on your last pay stub is what you want. If you’re paid twice a month, multiply the number by two. This is your net monthly income.

List every single fixed expense you have and how much each one costs you, on a monthly basis. These expenses may include your mortgage, utilities, insurance, other debts to repay, taxes, etc.

Add up the monthly cost of each fixed expense.

Subtract the total amount you spend on fixed expenses in #4 from the net amount you earn each month from #2.

The difference is the amount you have to spend each month on everything else, including savings.

 

The best way to increase your discretionary spending (and more importantly, your ability to save), is to knock off or reduce some of the fixed expenses.

 

This may mean spending a couple of hours shopping for cheaper car insurance. Or, if you’re spending more than you earn each month, it may mean a change as drastic as moving to a less expensive place to live.

 

Here’s an example:

 

Net monthly income = $6,000

Fixed expenses = $4,000

Difference = $2,000

 

That $2,000 has to cover all your food, gas, entertainment, gifts, shopping trips, everything for the month. That includes savings and other investments outside what you automatically contribute to retirement from your paycheck.

If it’s not enough, look at your large recurring expenses and see what you can cut. You may need to sell the expensive car and get a cheaper one. You may need to reconsider major luxuries in your lifestyle that seriously drain your budget of cash to put on things that are ultimately more important to you — like being able to travel, save for a big goal, or retire sooner to spend more time with your family.

 

In Times of Change, Focus on Your Financial Plan

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No one can guarantee when the markets will go up or down. Lots of talking heads and so-called “experts” like to claim they know when factors like news items or current events will impact how the stock market behaves, but it’s all guesswork.

It’s extremely easy to get caught up in a 24/7 news cycle that produces headlines and predictions meant to invoke emotional reactions in viewers. But the key to long-term financial success is tuning out the noise and understanding that ups and downs happen.

We know markets can be volatile. That’s part of the price paid to invest and earn more money than you could almost anywhere else — and it’s also something to account for in a comprehensive financial plan.

The only certain thing is that the market will rise and fall. We don’t know exactly when. All the noise from reporters, TV hosts, or others speculating about what the market will do next because of elections, the Fed, or whatever else they point to as the why behind their guesswork only serves as a negative distraction.

Instead of panicking and reacting based on what you hear on the news or from folks at work, you can create and set a financial plan, tailored specifically to you, based on reasonable, objective decision making (instead of emotional and irrational). A great financial plan accounts for your goals, your risk tolerance, and your concerns — and it means you already know what to do when others threaten that the market may take a turn due to whatever people happen to be worked up over today.

What Does It Mean to Have a Comprehensive Financial Plan?

A comprehensive financial plan is specific to you. It includes factors like:

  • Your goals (saving for a house or a child’s college education, retiring early, starting a business, and so on)
  • Your income
  • Your cash flow
  • Your tax situation
  • Your target retirement date
  • Your future earnings and income
  • Your risk tolerance
  • Your time horizon

Note that each of these components of a financial plan starts with “your.” That’s because a comprehensive financial plans starts with you — not the news, or the global markets, or future predictions.

And of course, a financial plan can include more than just what’s listed here. Again, the theme is you. What’s important to you? That has to be factored in.

While investing is an important part of achieving your long-term goals, focusing solely on investments alone is similar to running around a hamster wheel. There will be highs and lows, but if you aren’t working toward something, you’re just running in circles.

Investing coupled with a comprehensive plan that looks at the big picture ensures you are investing appropriately for your situation and making progress toward your goals.

Don’t Panic and React with Emotion

One of the most important benefits to having a financial advisor is that they can serve as a gatekeeper to keep you from reacting emotionally and totally derailing your financial plan. When markets tank (like they did in 2008 and 2009), people start to panic.

As they watch the markets fall, they react emotionally. They can’t stomach losing so much money. They freak out! And then they sell at the absolute worst time: when markets are already down!

Keep in mind that after you sell at the bottom, you won’t know when to buy back in — and that often leaves people buying at the top of the market. Selling low and buying high is the opposite of prudent investment advice. Meet the “behavior gap”.

Think of it this way: you wouldn’t go to a store and specifically not buy something because it was on sale. It’s the same way with stocks. When they’re down, they are “on sale.” This is the rational, objective way to look at the market.

But when it’s your money and your net worth you see taking a hit because the market dropped, it’s extremely difficult to maintain that mindset and act rationally. Again, most people panic and never dream of buying because it really hurts to see those red down arrows next to your investment balances.

An objective third party can help you prevent such a huge mistake. A financial planner willing to act as your fiduciary will remind you of your comprehensive financial plan that was already built assuming there would be market volatility.

In short, that means your planner can give you some of the most valuable advice you can ever receive when everyone else is panicking: don’t deviate from your plan! That may mean staying the course and taking advantage of this latest ‘sale’.

The Right Plan Will Hold Steady Through Current Events

Ultimately, a comprehensive plan stands the test of time. Because market fluctuations are expected (remember, it’s the timing that’s unexpected), your plan already accounts for them.

Your financial plan tells you what to do even in turbulent markets or troubled and uncertain times. It’s designed for the long-term. What feels like a big, massive upheaval today will likely be a blip on the radar when you look back in 30 years.

The best way to safeguard against panic and emotional reactions is to have a financial plan — and then stick to it.

Ready to invest in real estate? Take a close look at your margins

Philip Taylor

                              Photo credit: Philip Taylor

We’ve all heard the mantra: “Location, location, location!” When buying investment property, a great location is often considered the #1 rule for success. But as we’ve all seen in that late night, drag-out game of Monopoly, location certainly isn’t the only factor at play.

A decade ago, we all learned more than we wanted to know about subprime mortgages. People were investing money they didn’t have using loans they should never have been given. The stage was set for the perfect storm. Home prices started falling, refinancing became difficult (especially with historically high debt-income ratios), and those previously attractive adjustable-rate mortgages began to reset at higher interest rates. Monthly payments rose dramatically and mortgage delinquencies soared. It’s the scenario that led to a shocking 3 Million foreclosures in 2009 followed by a complete overhaul of mortgage banking regulations. It took years for housing prices to climb back out of a deep, black hole—and even longer for people to recover financially and psychologically.

Prior to the housing crash, real estate had almost always been viewed as a solid investment, averaging over 6% for decades. Now that housing prices are on the rise, investors are once again turning their eyes toward rental properties. Many risk-averse investors gravitate to real estate as an attractive proposition. You can feel it. You can see it. You can drive by your property and know your investment is real. But is investing in property the right choice for you? The answer depends on one thing: the margins.

Many investors look at a basic equation, “money in and money out,” when calculating returns. It seems so simple. Purchase a $200k property that generates $1,300/month rent and earn $15,600 a year—it’s a risk free 8% return using borrowed money! But is it? There’s much more to the equation, and if you dive in and look at the details that deliver the actual margins and return, you may find your investment isn’t what it seems. Be sure you’re considering these key factors when calculating your actual profit margin:

  1. Maintenance & turnover costs. Of course, installing that new water heater costs more than just your time, and your renters may not be very forgiving of an overgrown lawn. Maintaining any property can be expensive, and costs can escalate even further when you experience turnover. Cleaning, marketing, and preparing your property for a new tenant adds up, and every day your property is vacant becomes another drain on your margin.
  2. Insurance & mortgage expenses. Insurance premiums for rental properties can run over 20% more than a typical homeowners policy, and additional liability insurance may be required. Also consider that mortgage rates are higher for second (and third and fourth) homes, and require a 20%+ down payment. Creative techniques to use personal lines of credit can be used to mortgage the property, but that means tying up your available credit that may be needed as an emergency fund during leaner times.
  3. Liquidity. Speaking of liquidity, you pay a steep price for being able to ‘touch’ your property. While it may not be a tangible expense, real estate’s lack of liquidity creates costs when you need cash and timing is an issue. In most cases, completing a sale and seeing any cash in your pocket can take several months, which can force you to borrow money to cover expenses. And borrowing may be difficult if you’ve tied up your credit line with property.
  4. Weighting. Many clients ask me, “How much should I invest in property?” Unless you’re building a career in real estate, an age-old rule of thumb is that your net worth should be spread evenly across three areas, with 33% of your equity in each: 1) real estate, 2) partnering with the great companies (i.e., owning equity), and 3) lending to great companies (i.e., owning bonds). And yes, your home must be included in this equation!
  5. Estate & legal complexity. Have you seen what lawyers charge these days? As a landlord, you’ll need legal help to understand your rights, draft rental and operating agreements, choose which type of entity should own your properties, etc. If a tenant needs to be evicted or if you have a dispute, legal fees can skyrocket. Plus, estate planning for real estate can get complicated (and expensive) quickly with an LLC or partnership.
  1. Capital gains & depreciation. It’s not uncommon for CPAs to recommend investment property to minimize taxes, but in reality, when the time comes to cash in your chips and sell that property for college or that summer home you’ve dreamed about for years, all depreciation is essentially recaptured by your diminished basis—and subtracted from your “earnings” and any return on investment. Capital gains tax ranges from 15% to 20%, so they’re an important part of your real margin. Postponing capital gains is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul…and it all comes around in the end. (Think you’re exempt? If you haven’t lived at a property for at least two of the previous five years, you’ll lose the capital gains tax exemption, which allows individual filers to keep $250,000 of profit from the sale tax-free.)
  1. Tax complexity. It sounds great: write off expenses through the property to avoid Self Employment tax on your income. If you carry a loss, now you have stepped into Passive Loss Land. Income exclusions limits, at risk rules, passive activity limits, etc. Don’t forget property tax! All of this complexity eats up your valuable time, increases your expenses, and reduces your margins.
  1. Compensation for your own hours worked. Here are a couple of questions for you: How much do you make an hour? Is your money working for you, or did you “buy” another job? For example, if you’re earning $150K annually working 40 hours a week (with a few weeks vacation thrown in), you’re making about $78/hour before benefits. It’s not uncommon for property owners to spend several hours a week managing everything from rent collection to fixing water heaters to dealing with vacancies and rental applications. Of course, if you’re paying someone else to manage your property, be sure to subtract management fees from your margin, and include your true hours worked in the equation as well.

So is buying investment property a wise idea? Is it the best way to build wealth? Is rental property really ‘risk averse’? Only if you can be certain that “sure bet” doesn’t turn into a financial drain that steals your precious time, overweights your net worth with investments that lack liquidity, and adds too much complexity to your finances. If you’re not willing to do your homework and consider these important factors, don’t expect location to save a poorly planned use of your life savings. Even Park Place won’t win the game if your margins aren’t in line with your costs.

Want help deciding whether real estate is the right investment for you? Contact me to schedule a time to run the numbers.

Generation X? I feel your pain!

Photo-Bill Gracey

Generation X has some problems—and not just their own. Perhaps the biggest one of all is that this group has everyone else’s problems too! On one hand, they’re dealing with aging parents. On the other hand, they have young kids, college-aged kids, or adult kids who are moving back home or need financial support because they can’t find a decent job post-college. And all this is happening right when stressed-out GenXers are in mid-career and trying desperately to build their own net worth.

 

If you’re in your late 30s, 40s, or early 50s, you know the scenario well. Your career is in full swing, and even if you are making a great salary, it seems money is just flying out the door. If you have kids, they’re more expensive than ever (who knew $100 cell phone bills, iPhones, laptops, and SAT prep camps would be part of the new parenting equation?) and college costs are skyrocketing more each year. Your house is another story. Even if you were lucky enough to purchase a home (or at least refinance) in today’s low interest rate environment, you’re still paying a higher percentage of your income than previous generations toward housing. And if you’ve been in the same place for a while, renovations can throw another blow to your budget. But it doesn’t stop there. You are the “sandwich generation.” Your parents are aging…and they need your help. According to the Pew Research Center, about one in seven GenXers is providing financial support to both a child and an aging parent. From helping your parents through illnesses, to getting them set up on Medicare, finding great assisted care, selling their real estate, and more, the tasks you have to tackle seem endless.

 

It’s exhausting just thinking about it. As an advisor, one of my most important roles is helping my GenX clients juggle these overwhelming responsibilities today while also planning for the future. Because no matter how mired you are in today’s challenges, your own retirement could be an even bigger problem—unless you plan well today. To help make the juggling as easy as possible (let’s face it: it will never be easy!), here are my top five tips for getting through the “sandwich generation dilemma” with your sanity in tact:

 

  1. Take care of yourself first. With so much responsibility for others, it’s easy to forget to take care of you. But just like we’re told to put on our own oxygen mask first before helping others, it’s vital that you keep yourself healthy too. Get your annual physical. Get a flu shot. And see your medical team when something isn’t quite right. These are the years when preventive care makes a huge difference in your health today (so you can take care of everyone else) and helps to ensure your wellbeing as you age.
  2. Start thinking about how you want to define “retirement.” Unlike your parents, you probably don’t see yourself retiring at 62. You expect to live a longer, healthier life, and you may be planning to keep working much later or start a second or even third career—something that invigorates you and keeps you socially, intellectually, and physically active later in life. You want to play by your own rules, but that takes money. Which leads us to…
  3. Invest in yourself now so you can buy your independence and dignity later. Let’s face it: money is the key to independence. Once you’re ready to move on from your current career, you’ll want to have the assets to support your “non-retirement” dreams in the future.  Whether investing in yourself means earning an advanced degree, nurturing a talent, or simply putting a percentage of today’s salary into a “next career” bucket, being proactive now can help you make your dreams come true down the road.
  4. Lower your stress by getting your financial “house” in order. If you’re like most GenXers, your finances could be in better shape, in part because you’re money is so tied up in everything from your kids’ college tuition to your parents’ medical bills. That might be why 68% of GenXers report that they don’t have a good handle on cash flow, 53% don’t pay off their credit cards regularly, and 23% pay late fees. While changing this behavior may feel like one more thing to add to your to-do list, it will save you time—and stress—in the long run.
  5. Keep an eye on your endgame. Yes, all this juggling can feel overwhelming, but it’s vital that you attack your finances with gusto as soon as possible. Don’t just get your parent’s estate documents squared away—tackle your own as well. Make sure your money is working for you every day, and be sure you have adequate insurance in place to protect your assets and your family. Just like taking care of your health, making your finances a top priority can help lower your stress, give you more time to spend with your family, and ensure you have the financial strength to keep all those balls in the air.

Need help with the financial piece of the puzzle? Contact me to schedule a time to review your specific situation. Together we can plan for the future—your own, your kids’, and your parents’.

A New Age of Opportunity

 

charlie chaplin

 

Change may be a given, but even when we know it’s for the better, shifting our own thinking can be quite a challenge. Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times is a classic—not only because it’s Chaplin at his most brilliant, but because it does such an amazing job at contrasting the positive and negative impact of the last century’s industrial revolution. Imagine it: machinery was replacing “traditional” jobs at breakneck speed, and in a span of just 40 years people saw the invention of the telephone, the lightbulb, the airplane, and the Model T Ford. The changes were a shock to nearly everyone’s way of life.

 

I’d love to see Chaplin’s take on the rapid change we’ve seen over the past 40 years. Computers and other advancements have altered how we earn our dollars, how we spend our dollars, and how we shape our own futures. And just as it was in the early part of the last century, there are pros and cons to every change.

 

  • Communication: Can you imagine life without a cell phone? 87% of adults in the US now use mobile phones, and it’s hard to remember a time when getting lost on the road meant searching for a pay phone for help! From cell phones to the Internet to Skype, it seems every time we turn around there’s a new way to stay connected. Instant communication has changed our lives in many ways. Yet who would have expected to pay hundreds of dollars each month for what most people now consider necessary technology?
  • Energy: The focus on alternative energy sources was fueled (pun intended!) by the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and imports from the Middle East. As a result, natural gas is back on the map, and fracking is providing new sources of energy as well as jobs. To compete, oil companies have “turned on the pump,” making oil cheaper than it’s been in years. And while consumers are smiling at the gas pump, the downside is less incentive to continue to invest in solar power, wind power, and other alternatives that reduce the impact on natural resources.
  • Banking: Just 15 years ago, waiting in line at the bank to deposit your Friday paycheck was the norm. Then came the ATM. Then mobile banking. Now, apps allow you to take a photo of your checks for mobile deposits. We use Applepay to pay for goods and services, and Venmo to pay our friends. In the brokerage world, roboadvisors are streamlining processes and helping to reduce costs. Automation is, it seems, everything. As a result, traditional banks are fighting to stay relevant, and banking and credit card fraud have become a major global issue.
  • Healthcare: The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is reshaping American healthcare. Now that doctors are being compensated for keeping patients out of the hospital rather than filling hospital beds, they’ve had to completely rethink their business models to focus on patient outcomes instead of patient volume. In response, some physicians have left the insurance system entirely, creating concierge medical practices that strive to offer a differentiated level of service for patients willing to pay directly rather than going through a health insurance provider.
  • Robotics: Everyone seems to love the idea of self-driving cars, wearable technologies, and other artificial intelligence (AI), but unlike the industrial revolution that created jobs on a large scale, the AI revolution has the potential to do the exact opposite. On the plus side, all of this new intelligence is expected to give us more free time to do the things we love to do (less driving, more playing!). I’m all for that!

 

It’s an interesting time, to say the least. From a financial planning perspective, here are three things that can help see you through the changes that I’m certain will continue for a long time to come:

 

  1. Build an emergency fund. If you’re in an industry that’s facing disruption, it’s important to have enough cash to cover 6 months of your current spending if you need to make a transition. One of the most important things you can do during a job search is maintain your dignity. Having an emergency fund can keep you from accumulating debt (no borrowing from your parents or racking up charges on your credit cards) and give you the support you need to make the best possible decisions when it comes to a change in your career.
  2. Diversify, diversify, diversify. Personally and financially. As things shift, it’s important to embrace change. Educate yourself. Learn new skills. Take charge, leverage new opportunities, and never, ever, put all your eggs in one basket! And when it comes to investing, take a lesson from the Enron scandal. Few people would risk investing in a single company, but investing in a single industry can be just as detrimental. By investing in great companies and allocating assets among various industries, demographics, and geographies, you can hedge the risk of a major disruption in any single sector.
  3. Continue to invest for the long term. Keep your eyes on your goals when it comes to your career and your financial outlook. Remember that even when volatility exists, the economy is on a steady upward climb. In the US, our economic data is better than it’s been in years. Unemployment is down to 5.1%—the lowest it’s been since early 2008. The GDP and housing starts are both continuing on a steady climb, and consumer confidence levels have rebounded. So take control of your investments, make non-emotional smart choices, and Invest in yourself while consistently building your wealth—regardless of changes around you.

 

Whenever societal changes reach the tipping point, the men and women who rise to the challenge are the big winners after the dust settles. So get excited about what’s happening. Adapt as quickly as you can and take advantage of new advancements to create a better future for yourself (even if a self-driving car tries to steer you in another direction!). Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s time to jump in, be smart, and get ready for a wild and exciting ride!
Ready to make some changes to your career or your finances? Let’s schedule a call to discuss what makes sense for you. I’m happy to help.

Is “breaking news” killing your financial plan?

The Only Goal That Matters

 

 

The financial journalists have been in their glory these last few weeks. Greece was a great headline grabber, as was the exciting reaction to the craziness by the US and global markets. It was better than football, basketball, and baseball seasons all wrapped into one. Why? Because it got people tuned in and waiting for the next “breaking news” story. It spurred lots of web clicks. It got the news sites buzzing and, ultimately, I’m sure it sold a lot of whatever was being advertised at the moment.

 

The fact is, all that financial “news” means absolutely nothing to the normal investor. Sure, the play-by-play changes in the stock market may make a difference to the day traders—at least for the day. And yes, the clicks on CNN’s website will make a difference to some marketing genius’s commission check. But for anyone investing for the long term, none of it matters. It’s just noise.

 

Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money, gets it. He’s great at breaking down financial topics and explaining them through simple graphs and diagrams—on napkins (see above and below). Carl obviously shares my perspective on “important, global news” and its relationship to your personal financial plan. What he says here is true: there’s “very little overlap!”

 

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But now you may be wondering, if the news doesn’t matter, what does? We all want to feel like we’re in control of our finances, and somehow listening to all that noise makes us feel like we’re doing something. “I’m paying attention!” “I’m staying informed!” And while the financial news may be a great form of entertainment, knowing the details of the Greek default, the plummeting price of Gold (yes, the 0% yield I talked about in my blog way back in July 2013 holds true), or the latest guesses on when the Fed will raise interest rates won’t help you reach your financial goals.

Instead, turn off the television, turn off the Internet, and pay attention to these 5 steps:

 

  • Make a plan and stick to it. If it’s complicated, work with a financial planner you trust, create a plan based on your goals, and make it happen.
  • Balance your savings, spending, debt, and risk. Part of your plan should include building your wealth while also managing spending and reducing both debt and risk.
  • Diversify your investments. The old saying that you shouldn’t “put all your eggs is one basket” is probably more true in investing than anywhere. Diversify, diversify, diversify.
  • Plan for future expenses. Don’t spend what you don’t have. It’s much better to save today for the new car you know you’ll need next year than to finance it and pay a whole lot more for what you get. For more on this, see my blog 7 Steps to Start Building Wealth Now.
  • Focus on your own goals. Stop getting sucked into the latest financial news frenzy, and remember that your neighbor’s “big stock win” has nothing to do with your long-term plans. Carl Richards’s napkin says it best: “When it comes to investing, the only goal that matters is yours.”

 

Spoiler Alert!

Whatever you do, remember that journalists have no dedication—much less any fiduciary responsibility—to you, the investor. And to take a little fun out of their game, here are my big spoilers: Greece will eventually pay back at least a sizable portion of what they owe; Germany won’t stand for any less. Gold will continue to yield a big, fat 0%. And neither of these “news” items will affect your retirement outcome. But maybe (just maybe!) the Saints will be lucky enough to make it to Super Bowl 50. Now that would be some news to pay attention to!

Need to create a long-term plan based on your own financial goals? Contact me to schedule a time to meet. We can dive into your finances together and put a plan in place that works for you.

Doing more chores than your spouse? (You must be the mathematician!)

photo credit to: "Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon"

photo credit to: “Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon”

 

For most couples, dividing up the chores is one of the first items of business when they start a life together. Taking out the trash, doing the laundry, cutting the grass, scrubbing the toilets. We all know the list. And paying the bills, which is on there too, is typically handed off to the partner who is either best at math or has traditionally been the most responsible with money. What most couples don’t realize is this: the mathematician in the house is getting a pretty raw deal.

Sure, the chore of “paying the bills” is pretty straightforward. In the beginning, finances are simple. The most important tasks are budgeting, paying every bill on time, and managing monthly cash flow. Not so bad. The chore is done in the time it takes to cut the grass. But as time moves on, finances get more complex. Suddenly “paying the bills” includes finding the best rate on a home mortgage and figuring out how much to contribute to your 401(k) and 529 plans. Deciphering complex benefits packages and navigating corporate buyouts are added to the list of responsibilities. Juggling FSAs, HSAs, and insurance claims fall into this category too, as does trying to pick stocks, diversify investments, stay educated on the market, and think about tax liabilities. It can sure make scrubbing the toilets seem a lot more attractive than it did in the early days.

Lisa and Matt called my office a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t a happy discussion. They’d hit a breaking point, and they needed help. Lisa had been their family “CFO,” and she was proud of how she’d handled the finances over the years. But two things had changed. First, Lisa felt she could no longer do the job well; they were trying to buy a second home, and she felt overwhelmed by the decisions that needed to be made. Second, when they initially dove into the financing process, they got some unhappy surprises. They were in much more debt than they’d realized, and their FICO scores had dropped below 700. Matt accused Lisa of mismanaging their money. Lisa didn’t know what she could have done differently. Things were a mess.

Lisa and Matt’s story is all too common. No matter how hard they try, most people don’t have the knowledge they need to make complex financial decisions. In worst-case scenarios, a serious error has been uncovered: taxes are misfiled, assets are lost, or there’s been hidden overspending by one spouse or the other. That’s when I become as much a mediator as a financial advisor. And I hate to see it, because today’s troubles could have been avoided years ago—back when the chores were being divided, and “paying the bills” and “cutting the grass” where somehow seen as equivalent. The fact is, the grass never gets more complex, but your family finances are a dynamic, moving puzzle that requires both time and expertise.

Whether I’m talking to newlyweds just starting or older couples who have hit a treacherous fork in the road, here’s what I recommend:

1. Take on joint responsibility for your finances—NOW. As partners, you should share equal responsibility for all aspects of your money. Sure, one person may be dealing with the basic bill paying, but you should each consider it your fiduciary responsibility to your relationship to make mutual decisions about the budget and how your money is being spend. No one wants to have to ask permission to make a major purchase—or be criticized for financial decisions that were made when they were simply doing the best they could.

2. Don’t wait until there’s a financial tragedy to get help. Inevitably, your finances will get more complex and you’ll realize it’s time to start working with a professional. All too often, it takes a misstep of some kind—a financial wake up call—to take this step, and by then, there’s a mess to clean up. A good rule of thumb: if managing your money is taking longer than it takes to cut the grass, it’s time to get some help. If, like Lisa and Matt, you know it’s time for some real advice and guidance, be cautious who you turn to. Co-workers, friends, and family may empathize, but rarely have any formal knowledge in finance. Google is… well… Google. And a salesperson (even one who goes by the title of “advisor”) may be selling rather than solving. Find the right advisor for you using these tips from the National Association of personal Financial Planners (NAPFA).

3. Know what you don’t know. Your math skills may be fantastic, but without formal training and experience in financial planning, you could very well find yourself in a mess like Lisa and Matt 10 years from now. A professional advisor can help you get back on track financially—and keep you there over the long term. Here are just a few of the questions you may want to ask an advisor in your first meeting:

  • How do we balance saving for our children’s college education and saving for our retirement?
  • Should we try to pay off our mortgage early, or is there a better way to leverage our assets?
  • How can we include our aging parents in our plan?
  • What can we do to plan today for tax-effective asset distribution in retirement?
  • Are we doing everything we can to keep taxes to a minimum and spread out our tax liability?
  • Do we have enough and the right type of insurance, including life, disability, healthcare, etc.?

Of course, the challenges are different for everyone. For Matt and Lisa, it didn’t take us long to identify how they’d gotten where they were and what needed to be done to help rectify the situation. Next we created a plan that took the decision-making off Lisa’s chore list and made the finances a joint project. By working together as equal financial partners, they now have a clear path toward a more successful financial future and, hopefully, an easier road to their own “happily ever after.”

Ready to take the finances off your chore list? Contact me to schedule a time to meet. We can dive into your finances together and put a plan in place that works for you.

7 Steps to Start Building Wealth Now

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I have the same conversation with my Gen X clients all the time. We start digging into the details of their finances, and we see the debt piling up. And while certain debt is reasonable—particularly for appreciating assets like a home or business—racking up debt for depreciating assets does something most people don’t even realize: it depletes your buying power and actually steals your future earnings, effectively turning your dollars into zeros. And because it’s no myth that “you have to have money to make money,” those zeros impact your wealth over the long term—not just while you’re paying off that $50K Lexus.

In my December blog I talked about the power of invasive online marketing to sway our wisdom when it comes to buying stuff (lots of it!). Marketing’s goal is to turn almost anything into an impulse purchase. But the problem reaches far beyond marketing. I see many people—otherwise rational decision makers—buy themselves into a hole early on, and spend decades trying to dig themselves out at a time when, ideally, they should be building wealth for the future. The problem is a lack of understanding the true budget, versus what we think we should be able to afford to have or do. If that brand new (and well marketed) luxury item costs “only” $350/month, it can feel like a reasonable expense, even if the sticker price is far outside what’s reasonable for your own budget.

Start BUILDING your wealth—today

By being mindful of your debt-to-income ratio and leveraging your expendable income wisely, you really can start building your wealth now, regardless of how much debt you’ve already accumulated, and regardless of how much time you have to save before retirement. Here are a few basic steps to start making your dollars work for you, not against you:

  1. Calculate your actual income.

For many—those receiving a salary from a corporation—this is an easy task. If you’re an independent contractor or business owner, it can get complicated. Be sure your actual income reflects your “take home pay”—after taxes. If you need to use an average, err on the low side.

  1. Identify your fixed expenses
    It’s true: few people actually have (and stick to) a budget. Even those who do often fail to identify every predictable and unchangeable expense. Start by listing the obvious expenses: your mortgage or rent, insurance (property, auto, health, life), utilities, food, estimated medical expenses, and car payments. (Note that luxuries like eating out, vacationing, and paying off existing credit card debt are not included in this bucket. We’ll get to those in a moment.)
  2. Identify upcoming expenses in the next 12-24 months.
    Do you need a new roof? Is your car more than 7 years old? Do you have a child heading off to college? Whatever your needs, it’s time to start saving for tomorrow’s expenses today. Divide the total into monthly “savings buckets.” This approach helps you avoid taking on debt to pay for expenses as they arise and increases your future buying power. Even if your savings doesn’t cover the total cost, it can significantly reduce the amount of that car or college loan—and put more money in your pocket.
  3. Calculate your remaining expendable income
    Once your fixed and upcoming expenses are covered, you can use the remaining bucket of money to build your wealth while simultaneously getting you out of debt. Subtract your total fixed expenses and your monthly “buckets” for upcoming expenses from your actual monthly income. You’ve now identified your true expendable income.
  4. Earmark 40% of your expendable income for paying off existing debt.
    Debt can be an emotional issue, which is one reason people are often just as irrational about paying off debt as they are at accumulating it. It may feel good to take that $5k bonus and pay down a credit card, but unless you’re also building your wealth, your money is still not working for you. Identify all current depreciating debt and start paying it down. Now. You can get that same great feeling of accomplishment by charting out how soon your debt will be erased under your new plan—and without taking on additional debt.
  5. Earmark 30% of your expendable income for building your wealth.
    Where this money is invested depends on how much you already have in an emergency fund, your time horizon until retirement, and other factors. Only your emergency fund should be sitting in an account earning 2% or less. All other assets should be allotted to longer-term, higher-earning appreciating
    investment vehicles. Of course, as your debt decreases, you can steadily increase the amount you’re able to contribute to building your wealth.
  6. Earmark 30% of your expendable income for non-fixed expenses other than debt.
    This is the fun part. Some of this will inevitably go to less-than-exciting (but still non-fixed) expenses, but once those are accounted for, you can start playing a little bit. Set your budget for eating out (yes, this should always be a budgeted item). Saving for next summer’s vacation. A trip to Europe. Your child’s wedding. Whatever your dreams, budget for these “fun” expenses now.

The word “discipline” has gotten a bad rap in our culture. We tend to think of it as anything but fun. But when it comes to getting disciplined about building your wealth, this step-by-step approach can simplify your day-to-day financial decisions, reduce your financial stress and, most importantly, help get you out of debt and into that enviable position of having your money working for you to build a more secure financial future.

Ready to get started today? Contact me to schedule a time to meet. We can dive into your finances together and put a plan in place that works for you.