Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Importance of Building Savings Habits Early

We’re taught to save money from the time we get our first tooth fairy payment, but when we’re young, saving doesn’t always seem necessary. A common belief is that saving is for people who are getting ready to buy their own house, put their kids through college, or retire.

Why Saving Money Early Is Key

First, it makes savings a habit. Take the tooth fairy profit, for example. The quarter a six-year-old saves from the dollar she found under her pillow isn’t going to fund her college tuition (a child only has so many teeth, you know). But having her tuck that little bit away in a savings account or piggy bank will get her into the habit of saving a little from everything she is given or earns in the future. The same goes for high schoolers and college students. Saving some of their summer job pay or internship income will prepare them for saving when they enter the work world full-time. Opening a Roth IRA sooner rather than later can be one of the best financial decisions that a young person can make.

Second, you may actually have more money now rather than later. A recent college grad just starting their full-time career or a young newly married couple may find this hard to believe, but they may have more expendable income now than they will in 10 or 20 years. Just as their income will most likely increase over the years, so will their expenses. Moving out of an apartment into a house increases maintenance and utility costs. Having kids not only adds expenses like additional food, clothing, and medical bills, but parents also often find themselves needing larger cars and more living space to accommodate their growing family. If both parents decide to keep working, they are likely to incur childcare costs; and if one of them leaves the workforce to parent full-time, that income is lost.

Plan of Household Expenditure to Save from Retirement

“I’m Too Busy to Plan for Retirement”

Like all of us, you’re busy. Retirement is a fuzzy, distant event that has nothing to do with shuttling the kids to lacrosse practice or dance lessons while making sure family members with five different schedules manage to eat a semi-healthy dinner every night.

Maybe you’re a professional, dutifully saving 3% of your salary into a 401(k) every year and getting 3% on top of that in matching funds by your employer. This is better than most Americans: this rate of savings will fund a retirement in some form, but probably not the retirement you want. Saving at least 10% of your income (or more if you’re getting a later start) is often what’s required given the increasing likelihood that you’ll live to 85, 90 or possibly even 100. (For more, see Can I Retire Yet?.)

Why I Hate “Budgets” and Love “Spending and Saving Plans”

What comes to mind when you hear the word “budget?” Either it feels like an exercise in denial or it feels like a tedious, hours-long exercise of tracking where every single nickel is going in your household.

While scrupulous tracking may be required if you are in genuine financial crisis, it is not required if you have some money in the bank and are already saving at least a small percentage of your income each month. However, if you’re looking to save more for retirement and get yourself up into that 10% to 15% range that is required to fund what will likely be a retirement of 30 or more years, I do recommend having a simple spending and saving plan in place to help you get there.

With my busy clients, I’ve found the plan needs to be easy to set up and maintained in an hour or two per month; otherwise, like many other good intentions, it will get thrown overboard in the daily scramble. This household spending plan will have you off and running in a few hours and can be easily maintained once a month to help you meet your retirement savings goals.

Set Your Retirement Savings Goal

If you’re still in your 20s, consider setting a savings goal of 10% of your income. If you’re in your 30s or beyond and don’t have a lot saved for retirement, think about how you can get to 15% or more. (For related reading, see 5 Strategies to Avoid Outliving Your Money.)

This may seem a little intimidating, given all the categories of expenses that are competing for your paycheck. If so, rather than setting a final percentage goal (10% or 15%), make a commitment to increase your savings rate by 1% a year until you get to your final target.

Establish Your Spending Categories

Make a numbered list of all of your household spending categories. Lump things together as appropriate. For example, your heating bill, your power bill and your water bill can be combined under the category “Utilities.”

Separate other things that you think should be tracked separately. For example, consider separating “Dining Out” from “Other Entertainment” and “Food/Household Supplies” if you suspect you may be overspending in restaurants. Create no more than about 20-25 categories. Sample budget categories are included at the end of this exercise.

Make Some Super-Rough Spending Guesses

Spend no more than 10 minutes going through your list and making some super rough guesses on how much you spend in each category.  Do not get out any old bills, credit card statements or a calculator at this point. Put the spending categories into three buckets – big expenses, medium expenses and small expenses. The purpose of these guesses is simply to group expenses into the categories, not to understand where every dollar is going.

Choose Your Spending Plan Targets

Use the Spending Grid Tool below to help you decide which spending categories you will target for reduced spending. For each numbered spending category, draw an appropriate bubble on the grid.

Big expenses should go toward the top of the graph and little ones should go toward the bottom. Similarly, expenses you’d find easier to reduce should go toward the right of the graph while those that would be harder should go toward the left.

How Much in Savings You Need to Live Comfortably

According to the Federal Reserve’s study on economic well-being in U.S. households, published in 2016, Americans are satisfied with how they are doing financially. The number of adults reporting they are “living comfortably” or “doing okay” rose to 69%, up from 65% in 2014 and 62% in 2013. However, surveyors then asked a series of follow-up questions that called into serious question what most Americans perceive as comfortable. For example, 46% of study participants admitted that if an unexpected expense costing $400 arose, they would be unable to pay for it without selling property or borrowing money. Of the 22% of respondents who incurred an unexpected medical expense over the previous year, nearly half, or 46%, still had debt from that expense.

It’s difficult to rationalize the impressions most Americans have of their financial situations with actual numbers. Simple math indicates sizable overlap among those who claim they are doing fine financially, yet could not pay out of pocket for a basic car repair. This calls into question whether $400 in savings can support a comfortable existence. It also raises other interesting questions, such as how much in savings is truly sufficient to be financially secure, and how this number may vary based on a person’s stage of life and living standards.

Minimum Savings for Comfortable Living

Financial guru Dave Ramsey, who advocates debt-free living and financial security, advises $1,000 in the bank as a starting point for clients who are destitute or currently have no savings. This sum, though insufficient to live on for long if an income loss occurs, at the very least prevents a car breakdown or minor medical mishap from causing a financial disaster. Despite the high level of financial security self-reported by the majority of Americans, nearly half lack this basic first step for an emergency fund.

Three-to-six months of living expenses represents a more comfortable nest egg. Three months of expenses is a sufficient emergency fund in periods of low employment, assuming the person possesses high-demand skills. This level of savings is particularly secure if the person is willing to cut back on discretionary purchases and live a frugal lifestyle. Those with fewer marketable skills and those who have fewer expenses that they are willing to forgo should aim to keep a full six months’ expenses in savings.

Other Considerations

The exact amount that constitutes comfortable savings varies based on a person’s unique circumstances. A person with children requires a bigger cushion, since that person is responsible for providing for others. A single person with no children needs less in savings, particularly if he or she is willing to live a bare-bones existence or take any job that is available in a pinch.

A person who still lives at home with parents and has no expenses, or who shares a dwelling with several roommates and has minimal expenses, can more comfortably cut savings than someone who has a stack of bills to pay every month. Of course, many people in these situations find it an ideal time to put money away, perhaps saving up for a house down payment at a later date.

Similarly, a person’s debt load influences how many months of income represent sufficient savings. For example, if 30% of a person’s take-home pay goes toward debt payments each month, that person clearly needs more savings than a debt-free person.

Every person is unique when it comes to his financial needs. No matter the dollar amount of a person’s savings, what matters is the ability to stave off financial calamity for as long as needed in the case of a job loss or income reduction.

Is Investing $25 a Month Worth It?

Any time you move money from your checking account to another account, whether it’s an individual retirement account (IRA), investing in stocks, mutual funds or savings account, you’re making an important step toward a financially secure future.

But what if you only have $25 a month to invest? Can you still secure your financial future? Or is it better to put it into a savings account until it’s large enough to counteract fees? This article will explain how to evaluate fees involved in small investments.

How to Translate Fees Into a Percentage of a $25 Investment

Saving $25 a month will total $300 in a year, not including any interest. A $40 fee on an investment account equals more than 13.33% of your investment. Thus, this $25 investment would have to earn more than $40 in a year just for you to break even. This means that if the fee was taken out at year’s end, you would have to earn a 27% return on your money to break even. Why 27% instead of 13%? The reason is because your money grows steadily, and you earn interest on the amount you have in your account. For example, after one month you’ve invested $25, after two months you’ve invested $50, and so on. As your account grows, the principal on which the investment earns interest grows.

Therefore whether a fee is charged for buying stocks or mutual funds, maintaining or opening an IRA, or a savings account where your savings isn’t higher than the minimum balance, you have to consider whether the fee offsets the benefits of your investment. The easiest way to figure out if your fee is too high for your investment is to calculate how much money is necessary in interest or profit earned to offset fees. For instance, if you invest $25 per month, $3 equals 1% of your yearly total of $300 invested. Divide any fee by $3 to figure out the percentage you would have to earn to overcome the cost of having the account.

If you are investing a different amount, multiply your monthly investment by 12. Then, divide the result by 100. This tells you what 1% of your investment is.

Investing Directly With Mutual Fund Companies

Cut the amount of fees you incur by setting up an investment account directly with mutual fund companies. You can contact mutual fund companies through their websites or by phone and avoid the fees charged by brokerage firms or financial advisors. This is a good choice when you don’t have much money to manage.

A pitfall of investing small amounts through this investment avenue is that you are subject to losses. It is similar to investing in stock in that your principal can decrease, or even be lost, based on how the stocks or bonds in your diversified fund rise and fall. Therefore, make sure the amount you invest regularly, for example $25, isn’t money that you will need in the next two or three years.

Paying Off Debt

An alternative to traditional investing avenues is to invest in decreasing your debt load. For instance, you could add $25 to the minimum monthly payments you currently make on your credit card, which charges you a 12.9% interest rate. By doing this, you save roughly $3.23 per year for every $25 you pay off. When your debt is gone, you’ll be able to put more money into long-term investments and you won’t have to worry about a small fee eating up all your profits because your earnings will more than make up for the fee charge.

Decreasing Your Mortgage Balance

If your home is tied to a 30-year, $150,000 mortgage loan with a fixed rate of 6%, sending in an extra $25 per month with your mortgage payment will cut approximately two years off your mortgage repayment term. There are two reasons for this:

  • You’re paying down your principal. For every $25 you pay off, that’s $25 dollars less you owe on your mortgage.
  • The amount of interest you pay on the amount of principal you pay off is eliminated for the rest of the term of the loan.

For example, suppose that you have a balance of $148,000 on your 30-year home loan after your first payment, and you decide to send in an extra $25 this month. You now have a mortgage balance of $147,775. The $25 you just paid off will save you $143.59 over the life of your 30-year mortgage at a fixed 6% interest rate.

As a bonus, you’re essentially saving for retirement by helping to insure that you won’t have to make mortgage payments after you retire if you stay in the same home.

The Bottom Line

Putting aside $25 a month to invest in a savings account, mutual fund or individual retirement account is a worthwhile venture. However, pay extra attention to make sure profits counteract fees. Also, consider alternatives, such as reducing your credit card debt or amount owed on your mortgage loan, that will allow you to invest larger amounts in the future.