Budgeting for the Holidays?

 

 

Christmas with the Kranks, playing at any given time on a number of cable channels during the month of December, has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 5%. You read that right: 5%. A movie has to be mightily bad to receive such an abysmal score.

And yet, when I watch it, I see beyond the scathing critic reviews to the sound fiscal policy that lies central to the plot of this Christmas dud: a middle-aged couple, newly established as empty nesters, decide that the holidays have become a testament to excess.

They vow to skip Christmas this year, opting instead to spend their usual holiday expense on a Caribbean cruise for two.

Now, aside from the shenanigans that you would expect to ensue from such a premise, in a movie starring Tim Allen, there are some gleaming nuggets of wisdom we can take with us from those Scrooge-like Kranks.

And maybe, just maybe, the actions deemed horrific by their friends and neighbors can serve as lessons to help you keep some jingle in your pocket this holiday season.

Lesson #1: If you’re not budgeting for the holidays, you’re doing it wrong

Luther Krank is a numbers guy. He really crunched previous annual spending, down to ornament repair costs, to truly put a price tag on their customary Christmas expenditures.

As Grinch-y as this practice may sound, Luther Krank has the right idea. He will not be spending beyond his means because he’s accounted for every penny. He’s created a budget. And so should you.

If you don’t like the “B” word, let’s call it a spending plan. Either way, if you don’t know your financial limits, you’re setting yourself up for overspending.

In the madness of weekend sales, 24-hour specials, and last-minute markdowns, it’s easy to keep piling up those purchases that are such a “deal.”

And what does that get you? “Blue Monday,” which falls on January 19 next month. That’s the saddest day of the year, due in part to our excessive holiday spending finally catching up with us once those credit card statements come rolling in.

Don’t be a Blue Monday victim. Make a game plan:

  • How much can you afford to spend?
  • Who are you buying for?
  • What are your other holiday expenses? (parties, dining out, charity, décor, movies, concerts, etc.)

Once all expenses are accounted for, divvy up your budgeted dollars accordingly and enjoy the holidays guilt free! And my next tip might help with keeping your budget in line, too.

Lesson #2: Invest in experiences, not things

You’ve likely heard this one before, but kids outgrow toys, clothes go out of style, and physical objects rarely stand the test of time. But you know what lasts? Memories.

When Luther and Nora Krank decide to take a Christmas cruise, they decide to invest in quality time with each other. They even begin to connect more during the weeks leading up to their cruise, as preparing for the trip (and dodging holiday commitments) gives them something to look forward to together.

I’m not saying you have to skip Christmas altogether, or that you have to make a gesture as grand as a cruise.

But think about the little traditions unique to the holiday season that create priceless memories: putting up decorations, seeing distant relatives, baking cookies, looking at holiday lights, volunteering or otherwise giving to charity, and more.

These things cost little to nothing at all but can create a lifetime of cherished memories.

Don’t just take my word for it. This teacher’s post went viral for sharing that it’s the experiences her students talk about long after Christmas, not the expensive toys. 

Lesson #3: Sometimes, Just Sometimes, Giving Freely is the Way to Go

Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that by the end of the movie, Luther Krank ended up spending double what he normally would on Christmas, being forced to pry open his checkbook and unclench his fist from around his tightly guarded wallet.

And he was perfectly fine with that.

I don’t mean to negate everything I just said, but despite all our best planning, sometimes the opportunities to embody the holiday spirit, or to help someone in need, or to create wonderful experiences will present themselves when we least expect them.

And far be it for me to tell you to deny yourself the ability to take advantage of these opportunities. After all, these are the things that make the season bright.

Indeed, the reason I saved this lesson for last is that, if you have followed lessons #1 and #2, you’ve probably made it a lot easier to put lesson #3 into action.

Staying within budget, and prioritizing quality experiences, means you may have extra cash, or time, or good old holiday cheer to be able to give freely, whether that’s with money, time, or hospitality – all of which carry value and can be worth their weight in gold to those on the receiving end.

From my family to yours, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and may the spirit of Luther Krank guide you throughout the new year.

 

Should You Rent or Buy a Home?

Photo courtesy of Simon Kellogg @ Flickr

Owning a home is a quintessential part of the American Dream. It’s what you do once you secure a stable career, get married, and settle down.

Right?

That might have been something that felt written in stone in the past. In our culture, homeownership became one of the boxes you felt obligated to check on the “should do” list.

You should go to college and earn your degree to get a better job. You should get married to the right person before settling down and having kids. And you should buy a home as soon as you can afford to quit renting.

The thing is, your life is unique. So are your goals, needs, challenges, and opportunities. What society says you should do is not always the best option for you (or your personal financial situation).

Today, more and more people are realizing that what society says they should do does not necessarily align with the life they want to live. The question is no longer about when you should buy.

It’s whether you need to buy a house at all.

“Rent or Buy” Is the First Question to Ask — But Not the Last

You may have grown up hearing that “it’s always better to buy than rent,” or, even better, “you’re throwing your money away if you rent.”

Neither of these statements is true in all cases. That’s where the question can become a debate that you need to have with yourself if you’re considering renting or buying.

There’s no one right answer to the question, “should you rent or buy?” It all depends on a number of factors — as well as your personal preferences and what your financial situation looks like.

So if you find yourself asking if you should rent or buy a home, here are the other questions to consider before you can come up with the right answer for you.

In Financial Terms, Which Option Is Objectively Better?

You can start by looking at the numbers and facts to see, from a completely objective standpoint, if renting or buying makes more sense for you.

The New York Times has an excellent calculator that you can use to determine which is best for you. It will provide you an answer based on your location, which is important. The best financial option largely depends on the market you live in.

Check out the calculator here and plug in your own numbers to see if renting or buying provides you with the better financial deal.

This will give you a baseline on which makes the most sense, financially speaking. But you don’t necessarily need to stick with what the numbers say.

(Of course, if the result is it’s much more financially sensible to rent, you may want to stick with that for a little longer and take all the money you’re saving by doing so and invest it to grow your wealth.)

After all, buying a home is rarely ever a logical decision. It’s an emotional one. Which is why what you want does matter in this decision.

What Do You Actually Want?

You likely have a preference for renting or buying. What do you truly want for your life?

If you prefer the ease of renting, want the ability to move when you want to, or need to outsource a large part of the responsibility of maintaining a property to your landlord, renting might be the best option for you.

In fact, it could be the financially responsible choice to make if you need to prioritize other saving and investing goals (like financial independence) or if your career is such that you either A. travel often and don’t spend much time at home anyway or B. might leave you in a position where you need to move to a different city or even state within the next 5 years.

There is nothing wrong with renting, especially if you prefer it and don’t feel ready to buy now. The worst thing you can do is feel pressured into a huge financial decision based on what you think you “should” do.

Determine If Renting or Buying Is Better for You

It’s better to rent for now if:

  • It’s cheaper than buying or your budget can’t handle a monthly mortgage payment
  • You’re not prepared to commit to staying in the same town, city, or state for at least the next 5 years
  • Your cash flow can’t handle the regular maintenance and repairs homes require
  • There are no homes on the market in your price range

On the other hand, if you want a place of your own, are willing to put in the work required, and feel you can handle the responsibility — both financial and otherwise — that comes with homeownership, it might be time to start saving for a down payment.

If you’re set on owning, it could make sense if:

  • The cost of owning a home would not jeopardize other financial priorities, like retirement savings
  • You don’t have to empty out your entire savings account to afford the down payment
  • Renting is genuinely more costly than getting a mortgage in your area
  • Your income is stable and you expect to stay in the same location for at least the next 5 years
  • You’re eager to own and willing to accept the responsibility inherent in maintaining a property

Again, buying a house (or choosing not to) can be a highly emotional decision. That makes it even more important to talk through this issue with an objective third-party who isn’t emotionally invested in the outcome.

A fee-only financial planner working as your fiduciary can help you lay out the options and evaluate them from every angle to determine the best path forward for you and your family. A planner can help you look at what you truly want and then map out action steps that will take you there.

How Much Is Too Much College Debt?

CREDIT-Jannis-Tobias-Werner-Shutterstock.com

 

Over 44 million Americans walked away from their time in higher education with some amount of college debt. The total amount of student loan debt collectively carried by college students and grads today is $1.45 trillion, and the average 20-something-year-old borrower pays $350 per month on their loans.

 

There’s no question about it: student loan debt is a serious financial burden for many students, parents, and newly-minted grads.

 

Whether you’re considering college costs for a family member or want to go back to school yourself, you likely want to avoid dealing with student loan debt thanks to statistics like this and harrowing news items that detail individuals who are struggling to handle their tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of dollars’ worth in college debt.

 

But debt isn’t inherently bad. In fact, student loans can be useful tools to use as leverage. The real question is how much is too much college debt, and when does it shift from useful tool to financial anchor holding you back?

 

Using Student Loans as Productive Financial Tools

 

There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty around student loans. But this kind of debt can actually be useful to you or your student. Here are some reasons why:

 

Student loans allow you to leverage your cash flow. Instead of shelling out for the cost of college in cash — and potentially leaving you vulnerable to other unexpected expenses and emergencies — student loans allow you to gradually pay for college over time in a way that doesn’t stress your liquidity as much.

 

You can pay down debt and continue saving. In addition to not needing to drain your savings accounts, the fact that you can pay back student loans over time allows you to balance that responsibility with the responsibility you have to yourself to save for the future.

 

Student loans can help students build their own credit. If your teenager is headed off to college, taking out a loan can help them build their own credit (which they’ll need as adults in the real world). This is a less risky way to help them than providing them with a credit card, which can be hard to manage and far more costly if they fail to make payments thanks to dramatically higher interest rates.

Still, Debt Is Debt

 

If you’re reading this and thinking you now have the green light to take out all the student loans you want, think again. At the end of the day, debt is debt. And it costs you money to borrow and finance an education.

 

It might make more sense to avoid student loans altogether if you have the financial means to do so (or your student can help pay their own way, so you’re not on the hook for the entire cost).

 

But what if you are….

 

  • Considering emptying your savings accounts to cover college costs
  • Not saving for retirement so that you can save for college instead
  • Able to pay for college out of pocket through your cash flow, but just barely

 

If you find yourself in these situations, student loans can be a reasonable solution. Just make sure you understand how much debt is too much first.

 

How Much College Debt Is Too Much?

 

Let’s be clear on the obvious indicators of “too much college debt.” If you’re looking at debt that reaches into the six figures, it’s too much.

 

Most grads won’t earn anywhere near $100,000 in their first year out of school, making this debt extremely difficult to pay off and a huge burden to handle financially. If your student is aiming for a career path that typically pays $40,000 to entry-level workers, $80,000 is far too much debt.

 

How much of an income you can expect to make after college is the biggest factor in determining how much is too much. Here’s an easy way to start estimating an appropriate amount of student loans:

 

  • Research how much you (or your student) can expect to make after entering the workforce with a new degree. Don’t just look at old data from something like the Bureau of Labor Statistics — go on job boards like Monster.com or Indeed and search for open positions that you might qualify for after school and view what the starting salaries are for those jobs.
  • Look at how much a degree from a chosen university will cost. Include tuition, fees, room and board, and other common expenses like textbooks. Most colleges have information on average costs and expenses that you can use.
  • Calculate how much of that cost you can reasonably cover and determine how much in student loans you’d like to use to help finance your education.
  • Compare a reasonably expected salary to your expected amount of college debt.

 

If your expected amount of student loan debt is more than your expected salary, it’s too much. If it’s the same as your expected salary, it’s also likely too much (if you don’t want to spend the next 10 years paying off those loans).

 

If you estimate that the amount of your salary is more than the amount of debt you plan to take on, it could be a reasonable financial move to make.

 

Even when student loans can be used as financial tools, you need to be very careful about how much debt you take on. You also need a strategic plan for repaying it at the lowest cost possible before you start applying for loans.