How to Help Your Kids Understand Money

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with a class at Pacific University, in Forest Grove, Oregon. We covered a variety of personal finance topics. I’ve done this before, and I’m always struck by the fact that young people are largely unprepared to live in the world of personal finance.

There are many reasons for this. It’s not taught in schools. Often parents themselves don’t understand the concepts. When quizzed about basic financial literacy topics, most Americans only score about a C minus. But a big obstacle is interest.

When talking with kids, or anyone, about money, you have to meet them where they are. The topic has to match not only their skill, but their interest. As with most skills, if the topic is not currently relevant, it is too abstract. Here is what I’ve learned from the literature and my own experience:

Elementary School Kids

Once kids are in the third grade, they have enough math skills to do a bit of money management. Your kids should have some money available to manage on their own, whether it’s from doing chores or an allowance. Have them save up for the things they want that are not necessary to everyday life. Help them understand the process for saving. How much money will they put aside each week? What are they willing to do for the thing they want, such as extra chores or giving up other ways they spend their money?

It’s important that kids truly have a choice. This is one area where I routinely got it wrong with my own kid. I remember vividly the day she wanted to spend $5 for a pony ride. I lectured her about how many weeks of allowance it took her to save $5 (though she wasn’t saving for anything in particular) and how short the ride was going to be. I should have just let her get on the pony.

Older elementary school children have the ability to understand the concept of debt. While I don’t encourage taking on debt for things you can reasonably get by saving ahead, it’s not a bad idea to let your kids have the experience of owing you money.

If they have something large on their wish list, consider letting them borrow the money from you to be paid in installments over a time you choose. Make a contract with them that clearly states what they will pay each week and how long it will take to pay you back. Talk to them about how they will raise the money for the payments.

Middle School Kids

Middle school kids can start to learn more about creating a budget. You can give them control over some of their needs as well as their wants. Give them a reasonable budget for things like their school clothes and supplies, and let them make their own choices about how to use it. Show them alternates to their choices, but let them make their own and live with them.

They can also understand the cost of living. Consider having your kids participate in paying the bills with you and making some family decisions. For example they could help plan a vacation, making choices that fit in your budget. Or you can work together to save for something the whole family can enjoy, like a new television.

High School Kids

In high school, you can add in activities that involve more complex financial concepts, but you are losing their interest. From here on out, you need to focus on things in which they will have a personal stake. College is a good one. Most parents have not saved enough to cover the full cost of college. Kids need to understand where the money is going to come from.

Make your family situation clear to them, and explain how they can help themselves. Good grades and extra curricular activities can result in scholarship money. After school and summer jobs can help them pay for books and room and board. And most importantly, their choice of schools will have a huge impact on how much money your family has to come up with.

If debt is going to be part of the picture, estimate their monthly payments now. It will help them understand the impact of the choices they make. You can estimate payments for different loan amounts at StudentAid.gov, and you can find more resources to help your child understand their options at the same site on this page.

College Age

College students are living on their own to some degree, and it’s a great time for them to begin to understand how the world works. College students should begin to pay some of their own bills. Likely candidates are cell phone bills and car insurance. If they are not living in the dorms, have them manage rent and utility payments and groceries, even if you are providing the funding.

When your child starts looking for work, with or without college, help them understand company benefits. Even some internships offer health insurance and an opportunity to participate in retirement plans. Help them understand how these benefits work and why they should participate. It’s also important to talk to them about building an emergency fund. How much they need, how they will save it, and why it’s important should all be understood.

It’s hard to get young people to begin thinking about retirement, but if they start participating in their company retirement plan early, it will reduce the amount of money they need to save out of their paychecks for the rest of their lives. I’ve found illustrating how a company matching contribution works is miraculous in getting these newly minted workers to participate. Here is a simple example you can use:

  • Your young person contributes $100
  • Since the contribution is before tax, only $80 comes out of their pay
  • Their company matches their contribution with $100
  • They have saved $200, and only $80 has come out of their pay.

Talking to kids about money is hard. You want to protect them from the cold world realities as long as possible, and as a culture, we’re just not good at talking about money period. The hard part is even if you do everything right, which you won’t, sometimes they just don’t listen. I wrote about how my own efforts didn’t help my daughter avoid going into the financial ditch in this post. But keep in mind, every lesson you teach stays in their heads somewhere. They’ll remember when the time comes.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

Why Medicare For All Is Logically Affordable

With the 2020 presidential election campaign just getting off the ground, health care is shaping up to be a foundational issue, as it should be. Health care in the the United States is expensive and complex. Per person spending in the U.S. is higher than other similarly wealthy countries. It’s actually twice the average spending of Europe and Japan.

Democratic candidates are unanimous in their support for reform. Nine candidates have come out in favor of Medicare For All, an aspirational statement with multiple meanings, or some form of universal health care. Another three have come out in support of an expansion of Medicare or Medicaid.

Critics first reaction to the idea, even though a concrete plan has yet to be proposed, is that it is unaffordable. But there is no logic behind this conclusion.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, health care spending was $10,739 per person in the U.S. in 2017. Some of this was paid by insurance companies through employer sponsored or individual health care plans, some was paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, some was paid out of pocket by the patients, and some was paid by health care providers when patients were unable to pay their bills.

While the cost of health care is projected to continue to rise, the fact of the matter is someone will pay it. Single payer solutions to paying for health care, which is what Medicare is, don’t, by themselves, change the cost of health care.

As a thought experiment assume every dime of health care spending were paid for by the government through an increase in corporate and individual taxes. You must then assume the other ways you pay for health care would go away and compensate for the higher taxes. The cost of health care will still average $10,739 per person.

The average annual premium for employer sponsored insurance for single coverage was $6,896, and it was $19,616 for family coverage according to the 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Benefits Survey. Average premiums for plans under the Affordable Care Act in 2018 were $5,280 for single coverage and $14,016 for family coverage. These expenses would go away if the government paid for health care.

Out of pocket costs paid by patients continue to rise and provider networks are getting more and more narrow. This makes patients responsible for more of the cost of their health care and subject to financially devastating bills. If the government paid for all health care you must presume that your own costs will go away, offsetting the increase in your taxes. Other expenses, like those paid by insurance companies and those paid by health care providers would all go away.

A single payer system does not mean that the government will be in charge of your health care. They aren’t now with Medicare enrollees. Why would they be under Medicare For All? It also does not necessarily mean that all insurance companies will close. There are European countries that utilize insurance providers under a single payer system.

However, health care could benefit from some government regulation. Pricing is far from transparent, and even if it were, it’s not like you’re going to call around if your baby’s fever spikes to 104, or your husband is having a heart attack. And the cost of some life sustaining medications is becoming unaffordable even if you have insurance. It is the pricing side of the equation that makes health care so expensive. Not who pays for it.

Similar to health care, we depend on our electricity to work at an affordable price. Utility prices are regulated by municipal boards. It might be worthwhile to consider a similar arrangement for health care.

So no. Medicare For All is not unaffordable. We are already paying for healthcare in one way or another. In exchange for higher taxes, companies, health care providers and individuals would pay less for health care. The overall cost of health care won’t necessarily change with the implementation of a single payer system, though with some creative thought, we might be able to get that under control as well.


Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

Your Retirement Savings Account is Not an ATM

There it is. It’s just sitting there, and you need it. Why not take advantage of it. It’s your money after all. If you need money, and you have money in your retirement account, it can be very tempting to borrow from it.

Most retirement plans allow participants to borrow against their balances. About one in five 401(k) participants have an outstanding loan, and over a five-year period, almost 40 percent of participants borrow from their account at some point. Most loans are taken to pay off debt, usually of the credit card variety.

That can make some sense, since the loan rate on a 401(k) loan is lower than rates on credit cards. But there are other costs beyond the interest rate. While you are essentially borrowing from yourself, there are several consequences to taking the loan that make this a bad idea.

  1. While your loan is outstanding, your money is not invested in the market. You are earning the interest on the loan to yourself, but you are missing out on the greater growth you could get from stock market-oriented investments. The market rate of return is the true cost of your loan. Historically the stock market has returned on average 10 percent per year.
  2. Some employers don’t allow you to make contributions while you have a loan outstanding. If that is the case with your plan, you will miss out on the opportunity to grow your retirement account balance. If your employer matches contributions, you will also miss out on that.
  3. Your loan is repaid with after-tax dollars. When you retire, the money you repaid, like the rest of your balance, will be taxed when you take it out to meet your living expenses. So your loan will be taxed twice.
  4. If you leave or are let go from your job, you will only have sixty days to repay the loan or it will be considered a distribution. The distribution will be taxed as ordinary income in the year you take it, and you will pay an additional 10 percent penalty.

Instead of taking out a loan from your retirement account, consider what other options you have. If you are consolidating debt, have you considered taking advantage of a zero or low interest promotion on a credit card? Instead of adding to your debt, can you reduce your spending either by cutting discretionary expenses or by making bigger changes to lower the cost of where you live or how you get around?

To avoid using your 401(k) as an ATM, make sure you have an emergency fund. You should have at least three months of mandatory expenses saved in an easily accessible account, such as a bank savings account or a money market mutual fund. If you have a high deductible health care plan, work toward saving enough to cover at least the deductible. And make sure you are setting aside money for those big expenses, like home and auto repairs, that you know will come up, but you don’t know when.

In some cases, a loan on your retirement account may be the best of a few bad options, but that doesn’t make it a good one. There are costs that aren’t obvious, and they put you at risk of a big tax bill if you lose your job. Avoid having to make the choice by saving ahead for emergencies and other big expenses.


Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

I Want it All

GrubHub has a new TV ad that features the song lyrics by Queen “I want it all and I want it now.” This ad seems to sum up our consumer culture and precisely why so many people with good incomes can’t seem to get a grip on their financial situations.

Americans of all income levels struggle with unexpected expenses and debt, and, as a result, find it difficult to even have financial goals, let alone achieve them. Just this week, it was reported that the famous lawyer, Michael Avanatti, is accused of embezzling nearly $2 million from a client’s settlement to pay for his “own expenses and debts.” How can a guy like that run out of money?

A 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research found that of those in the top one-third by income, one in three reported having difficulty covering regular expenses. I’ve seen it myself. I recently spoke with a couple making $400,000 a year, but going further into credit card debt with each passing month.

This couple seemed confused. They made so much money but couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting ahead. Eating out twice a day, designer clothes, and weekend getaways had something to do with it, but they hadn’t tallied their expenses. They also weren’t paying their debt down, which caused them to wrack up extra interest charges, and their careless approach to paying their bills resulted in unnecessary late fees. They simply weren’t paying attention.

It could be that high income people like these simply believe they don’t have limits. They make enough money, they shouldn’t have to worry about how they spend it. They want it all and they want it now. But that mindset is a trap. It can keep you on a treadmill of always needing to make more money, or in the case of Avanatti, to steal it.

There is always a limit. No matter how much money you make, if you want financial security, you actually have to do something about it. You must always pay attention to how you spend your money, and save for your financial goals. And you don’t even need to make a lot of money to do it.

Alan Naiman, a Seattle social worker who died last year at the age of 63, managed to save enough to give a small fortune to charity when he passed. By living an extremely frugal life, he was able to save and invest enough to have several million dollars in his own estate, and to his own savings he added his parent’s estate. All tolled, he donated $11 million.

Of course, these stories are extremes. You are probably not spending your way to bankruptcy despite a top 1% income, nor are you willing to hold your shoes together with duct tape in order to reach your financial goals. But they do illustrate the possibilities and what is required. While it may be true that you can have anything you want, you can’t have everything you want. You will always have to make choices. Choose wisely.


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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

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How to Go From Happy to Desperate in 6 Weeks or Less

Last week GoBankingRates published an article on how to get your grown kids out of the house. After seeing it, I thought I better come clean. Our daughter, Kaye, has been back living with us for about a year after being mostly on her own for about two. She’ll be moving out again sometime this summer in a much better position, but it took a catastrophic fall to get her to learn how to manage her money.

Kaye made a series of decisions that, had we not been able to help her out, would have led to her becoming homeless. It was a serious eye opener and highlighted how vulnerable you can become.

In March of last year, Kaye moved into an apartment with her girlfriend. Both were making minimum wage. Kaye was busing tables at a big chain restaurant, and her girlfriend was working two jobs part time. They didn’t make much, but between the two of them, if they were smart about their decisions, they would have been all right.

There are several apartment complexes near us that offered relatively cheap rent for the Portland Metro area. They’re close to public transportation, which was important since neither owned a car. If they had picked one of those, their rent would have been about $500 a piece. It would be tight, but with no other big bills, they could have swung it.

They didn’t do that. They rented a much more expensive place that wasn’t nearly as accessible by public transit. Kaye’s girlfriend bought a car. Not a cheap used car but a nearly new mid-sized sedan. The payments and insurance were $500 a month. Well, they might still have been able to swing it, if the two of them picked up extra shifts.

They didn’t do that. Kaye’s girlfriend had a dispute with one of her bosses and quit. And then didn’t do much to get another job. Meanwhile, Kaye wasn’t getting enough shifts to even work 40 hours a week. The restaurant was sending her home when business was slow. She couldn’t get a second job, because she was scheduled 40 hours, but she wasn’t actually working them.

Through the month of March, we heard about spending that was extravagant, even for people who had money. They had a spa day together, and Kaye’s girlfriend had her hair done in dread locks to the tune of $300. They went out to nice dinners. I had no idea where the money was coming from.

And I’m just watching, knowing my daughter is going down in flames. She wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to show her how to make ends meet. She would barely sit still as I explained what she could really afford. She thought because she had made it on her own for a bit, she knew better. It was clear she was not going to take any of my advice.

It was tearing me up. After all, I wrote a book about this stuff. How had I screwed up with her to the point that she wouldn’t listen to me on the one thing I’m really good at? Nothing I said was getting through.

So, I shut up. My husband and I could only stand by and hope they figured it out.

Then Kaye got good news. She was offered a new job, with higher pay, benefits, and paid leave. We were all thrilled. She was to start on April 15th. She gave notice at the restaurant. I cautioned her to make sure she worked until she started the new job. She was going to need the money.

She didn’t do that. She left her restaurant job as soon as she could at the end of March. It left two weeks before she started her new job, and it would be another three weeks before she would be paid again. Five weeks total without a paycheck. Her girlfriend working 20 hours a week at minimum wage. Things were getting very dark.

Meanwhile her relationship with her girlfriend was deteriorating quickly. By the end of April, they were breaking up. They had no money. Kaye had sold a few pieces of jewelry to scrape together money for food. There was no way they were going to be able to pay rent in May. She finally came to us for help. All told, it took only about six weeks for them to crash and burn.

With the caveat that Kaye would pay us back, we covered the May rent, giving Kaye’s girlfriend the time to find another place to live. She ultimately went back home to her own parents. We also covered the fee to break the lease, so neither would have a hit to their credit. All in we paid over $3,000.

Kaye moved back in with us with the understanding that while she lived with us, she had to attend the Mom school of basic money management. The first thing she and I did was create a budget. We researched what she’d pay for rent and utilities in a roommate situation by searching Craigslist roommate wanted ads. We estimated the cost for food, laundry and toiletries. Since she needed a car for work, we agreed to sell her one of ours over time. So, car insurance was added to the list of mandatory expenses.

Each month Kaye gave us the money to cover these expenses, and we put it in a money market account for her. These were bills she would have to pay if she lived on her own. In addition, Kaye covered other costs out of her remaining money. Things like gas for the car, haircuts, her phone and any other spending came out of what was left after she paid these mandatory expenses.

To make sure she didn’t overspend, I asked Kaye to sit down and write out how she would spend every dollar of her paycheck before she spent any money. She simply wrote it in a ledger. She itemized the expenses and planned out how she would spend her remaining money. To help break her impulsive spending habits, she left her money and debit card at home, unless she had a planned expense to pay.

One year later, Kaye routinely plans how she’ll spend her money. By making the payments to us, she has saved enough money to cover three months of living expenses and more than enough to cover move in costs when she is ready to move out. In just a few months, she will have paid enough to buy the car from us. Of course, she couldn’t have made so much progress so quickly if she didn’t live at home. But it’s still a big accomplishment.

On her own, she’s also saving money to maintain her car, and cover her healthcare plan deductible and some potential out of pocket healthcare expenses. She saved enough money to have a short vacation in January and is saving for another trip in October. When she does move out, I believe she will have the skills she needs to stay afloat. She gave me permission to write this story about her experience, in case it would help someone else.

It didn’t take long for Kaye to appreciate her planning routine. She feels in control of her money and now uses it to do what she wants within what her income will support.


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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

This is Not Us

One of my favorite shows on television is the NBC series “This is Us“. It tells the story of three siblings, two of them twins, the third adopted, coping with life under the backdrop of the death of their father twenty years earlier, when they were teenagers. It’s one of those emotional roller coasters of pain and elation as the characters face and overcome heart wrenching challenges.

But I’m worried about the characters’ finances. They live lavish lifestyles with seemingly no regard for where their next dollar will come from. For two of the siblings, Kevin and Kate, there may be plausible explanations for the way they live, but they are a stretch. The one I’m really concerned about is Randall.

Early in the show, Randall worked for a hedge fund as an weather derivatives trader. He had a nervous breakdown after the death of his biological father with whom he’d recently reconnected, and wasn’t able to return to work. His wife, Beth, was a city planner, but was laid off.

They have a large home in Alpine, New Jersey. A Zillow search suggests a home like their’s in that area would be worth at least $1.6 million and probably as much as $3.5 million. At $1.6 million, with a 20 percent down payment, their monthly mortgage would be over $6,000. At $3.5 million, the payment is over $13,000 per month.

For much of the second and third season, neither had a job. Meanwhile they bought an apartment building in Philadelphia, which required a significant investment for maintenance and repairs, and Randall ran for city council there. We’re not sure where the money came from for that.

So while the two were finding themselves, we can only assume they were burning through their savings like mad. Though neither seems to be worried about money. Randall’s new gig as a city council member will at most pay $150,000, or $12,500 a month. That means the mortgage payment alone will eat up two thirds to more than all of his take home pay.

Beth recently took a job as a dance instructor. That job pays about $25 an hour in New Jersey. That will give her $2,000 to $3,000 a month in pay, depending on how many hours she works. Maybe they’ll be able to cover the mortgage between the two of them. But who knows how they’ll pay their other bills.

The lifestyles of our favorite TV characters, like Randall and Beth, can distort our ideas about what is a “normal” lifestyle. The characters’ implied spending can be far above what families in similar income brackets can really afford. That world is simply not the real world, and trying to live up to it can be a dangerous trap.

While it’s natural to compare yourself to others, don’t do it. Instead consider a different comparison; where you stand relative to your savings goals. Having a savings goal and working toward it can be an effective way to overcome your concern that your lifestyle is somehow not up to par. Keeping track of your progress and comparing where you are to where you were is much more satisfying than comparing what you have to what someone else has, especially if they aren’t real.


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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

How to Keep Medical Expenses From Wrecking Your Plans

Medical expenses may be one of the biggest budget busters. Even with health insurance, there are deductibles that must be met. After the deductible you will still have coinsurance to pay, at least until you reach your annual out-of-pocket maximum.

Today’s insurance plans often have very high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. If you are having a terrible year, medically speaking, you can easily rack up several thousand dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. And for some, it can make meeting your other financial obligations difficult.

My go-to advice for expenses like these is to save ahead for them. Everyone gets sick from time to time, so you’re going to have some medical expenses. Saving up enough money to cover at least your deductible, will ensure you don’t have to adjust your monthly spending plan should a doctor’s bill come in.

If your healthcare plan offers a health savings account, put your healthcare savings there. Your employer may even help you by making a contribution to it as well. Contributions are made before tax and withdrawals for eligible medical expenses are tax free. The account is yours, so you don’t have to worry about spending all the money in the year you contribute, and you can continue to hold it or roll it over to a new provider if you are no longer with your current company.

However, if you’re worried you’ll have a significant expense before your savings are built up, there is a product that can help you. Supplemental health insurance can help you cover your deductibles, copays and coinsurance. You can add the coverage at any time. Whether it’s a good deal depends on the coverage you select and your core healthcare plan.

For example, a thirty-year-old woman could get a plan that will pay $7,500 if she were in an accident or came down with a critical illness for about $40 per month. That would cover most of the maximum out-of-pocket expenses under those circumstances for any healthcare plan. For broader coverage, that includes hospital stays, surgeries, and doctors visits, the same age person could pay $130 per month. Prices go up for older ages.

You would need to save much more than $130 per month, to have $7,500 set aside in a reasonable time frame. If you just saved the $130, it would take you nearly five years, and a lot can happen in that time.

If you are interested in a supplemental insurance plan, you can search online for policies available in your area by entering “metal gap insurance” in your search engine. Metal gap refers to the plan categories under the Affordable Care Act (bronze, silver, and gold). Before you buy a policy, pay attention to the details of the coverage. Make sure you understand what constitutes an “accident” or “critical illness”.

There are drawbacks to these plans. They are not subject to the same regulations as core healthcare plans. You can be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions. And if you develop a chronic condition, your coverage may not be renewed. Saving for your medical expenses will always be less expensive than paying for insurance. However, if you don’t have adequate savings now, a supplemental insurance plan may help keep your financial plans on track.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

How Marie Kondo Can Help You Meet Your Financial Goals

The new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, is getting rave reviews. Marie Kondo is the best selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The Netflix series brings Kondo into American family homes, where she teaches them the fundamentals of organizing their stuff.

Organizing your stuff and managing your finances have much in common. They both require you to evaluate your situation, think ahead and make choices. The foundation of Kondo’s approach to decluttering is to choose the things that “spark joy”, and jettison the possessions that don’t. This particular focus on the things that make you happy is also a good way to manage how you spend your money.

If you are not making the progress on your goals that you want, you need to change something. To save more, you must spend less. For many, this simple truth keeps them from facing their financial situation and taking a step toward a more secure future. It simply doesn’t seem like any fun to spend less.

Yet many of us spend money on things that are not important to us. Takeout food eaten on the go, clothes that never get worn, TV channels that never get watched are all expenses that do not enrich our lives.

For most, your choice is not between doing what you love and financial security. It’s more about not doing what you don’t love. If you approach freeing up room in your monthly spending to save more with this in mind, you may find that it is a fun challenge to weed out those wasted expenses.

Some friends, Lisa and Candice, asked me to help them get started on a strategy to meet their financial goals. The two love music, and going out to dinner. This type of entertainment really made them happy. But they thought they would have to give it up if they wanted to make progress on their goals.

However, a review of their spending revealed some expenses that were neither necessary or making their lives better. For one, they were subscribed to a home security service, but in fact never actually engaged the alarm system. This is clearly an expense they could avoid. Other expenses that didn’t “spark joy” were daily coffee runs and takeout lunches that they consumed at their desks alone.

It may not be just the small stuff either. Maybe you have an expensive car, where a lower cost model would do just as well. Or you have extra room in your home that doesn’t make you happy just sitting there empty.

It may be that you can’t fully meet your savings goals by getting rid of expenses that don’t bring meaning to your life. You may need to get creative, and perhaps you ultimately do need to cut back on the things you love doing. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing them altogether. You won’t be successful long-term if your only tool is to deprive yourself of the things that are important to you.

Short of earning a bigger income, you only have so much money to go around. You have to make choices about what you do with it. Make them intentionally. Choose the things that bring you safety, security and joy, and give up the things that don’t. Make sure saving for your financial goals is one of those you keep.

Photo by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

How Life on the Average 401(k) Balance Will Look

America’s retirement savings balances continue to be alarming. In a 2014 study, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) estimated that 40 percent of us would not be able to cover basic expenses once we are no longer earning a paycheck. The situation has not improved.

The following table shows average and median retirement savings by age from the Vanguard How America Saves 2018 study.

Age Range Average Balance Median Balance
Less than 25 $4,773 $1,509
25 to 34 $24,728 $9,227
35 to 44 $68,935 $25,800
45 to 54 $129,051 $46,837
55 to 64 $190,505 $71,105
65 and over $209,984 $64,811

Average balances are skewed high by a small number of large accounts. The median balance indicates that half of near retirees have $71,000 or less in savings.

Of course there are issues with these numbers. Vanguard’s study is based on participant balances in Vanguard retirement saving plans. It is possible that participants have balances elsewhere in prior employer savings plans or in individual retirement accounts. Participants who have worked at their jobs longer do tend to have higher balances. But the EBRI’s study indicates missing accounts probably isn’t the primary reason for the low balances.

Using the 4 percent rule, with the average balance for the 55 to 64 set of $190,505, you could reasonably withdraw about $635 per month and have your savings last through your retirement. At the median balance you could withdraw about $216 per month.

Social security will provide some help. The average Social Security check after the recent cost of living increase is $1,461 per month. Between the average savings and the average social security check, you would have just over $2,096 per month to live on. With the median savings you would have $1,677.

If you are a couple, and you are both getting the average Social Security check and you each have the average in retirement savings, your monthly income would be around $4,200. That might be reasonably comfortable if you’ve paid off your mortgage. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator indicates that amount covers basic living expenses in Portland, Oregon, is generous in Cleveland, Ohio, and not nearly enough in San Francisco, California. If you’re both at the median savings, of these three cities, you’d only be OK in Cleveland.

But savings balances for women tend to be only two thirds that of men, and women’s Social Security benefit is also lower on average. Women often work in lower paying jobs, and many have periods with no earnings, because they stayed home to take care of children or other family members. These factors lower both their savings and their benefits. So an average or median couple’s available income may be lower than double the individual average or median.

How do these numbers stack up to what you’re currently spending? According to University of Minnesota data, median household income in 2017 was about $5,167 per month before taxes. At the median savings rate, with Social Security (assuming both you and your spouse have the same savings and Social Security benefit), your retirement income would be about two thirds of your current income.

Of course you are neither average or median. Your situation is unique, but poverty in retirement is becoming more and more common. If your savings are falling short of what you need, what can you do?

The first step is to get a handle on what you have.

  • Understand your total savings balances for retirement and how that stacks up to the cost of your current lifestyle.
  • Find out what your other sources of income will be. You can estimate your Social Security benefit at www.ssa.gov with either their quick calculator or by setting up your own account.

The next step is to develop a strategy for closing any gap you may have.

  • Can you save more money? If you can, you’ve already taken a step closer, because you’ve reduced the cost of your lifestyle.
  • Can you reduce your cost of living in retirement, by making changes in your lifestyle or changing where you live?

The key to ensuring you have a comfortable life when you stop working for pay is to know what you need to do. Even if you have work to do and limited time, your confidence will rise simply by making a plan. There is no time like the present to get started. Wherever you are, you will have the most options for a better future if you start today.

Photo by Matthew Bennett on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

If You Don’t Do This, You Could be Paying on Your Student Loans for Most of Your Career

In my last post, I demonstrated how taking just $5 dollars per day from spending and putting it toward paying down your debt could have you out of debt in a surprisingly short time. One reader wrote back that she would never put extra money toward paying off her student loans. She wasn’t able to break even with her payments, and she felt paying extra on the them was like simply lighting her money on fire.

I could see both the frustration and despair in her words. And it was clear that she couldn’t see how the extra payments could make a difference.
The huge balances some carry can make it seem like you’ll never get out from under your debt.

Student loans are complex, and the myriad of repayment plans can make it harder to make a dent in your balances. In 2007, new student loan repayment plans were introduced on federal loans to help indebted graduates better afford their payments. These plans are based on a percentage of your income, and extend the repayment period. The payments are lower than the standard ten-year repayment term.

But in some cases, these extended payment plans can have you paying less than the total interest that is accruing on your loan. You aren’t making any progress on reducing your loan amount, and interest continues to grow. That was the case with the reader who wrote to me.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that half of student borrowers are in their mid-thirties before they begin repaying their loans and 30 percent are not reducing their balances after five years of payments. Unless you want to make payments on your student loans for much of your working life, you eventually need to be paying enough to cover all the interest and some principal every month.

Debt payments take away your flexibility. You must maintain a larger emergency fund, because your monthly obligations are larger. You may find it difficult to do other important things like save for retirement or college for your own children. Your financial security rides on you getting out of debt.

So it is worthwhile to make extra payments on your student loans. If you can’t afford the payments under the ten-year standard repayment plan, and therefore need a longer repayment schedule, pay as much as you possibly can anyway. Your goal is to cover all the interest and some principal.

With each principal payment the next month’s interest will be lower, and your next payment will include more principal. With more principal covered, the next month’s interest will be lower still. It becomes a virtuous cycle that get’s better with each passing month.

If you can direct windfalls, like a tax refund or bonus from work, to pay down your principal, you can give your repayment plan a boost. If you can increase your extra payments over time as your income increases, you can make even faster progress.

You may be thinking, why bother. These income based repayment plans come with debt forgiveness after twenty years. Why should I make extra payments?

Aside from the advantages of eliminating debt payments from your monthly budget, the forgiven loans will still cost you. While the student loan arm of the government may forgive your debt, the IRS will not. The full outstanding balance will be considered income in the year it is forgiven, and you will owe income taxes on the forgiven amount.

There is one exception to all of this. If you qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, your loan will be fully discharged after ten years with no tax implications regardless of how much principal is remaining. So if you are in this program and can stay in public service for the full ten years, there is no reason to make extra payments on your student loans.

For everyone else? Pay as much as you can. Take drastic measures if you need to, but cover all the interest and at least some principal with each loan payment. Paying extra is not futile, it is necessary. Your financial freedom depends on you getting out of debt.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my award winning book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security.  It is available on Amazon.

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