Key to Financial Success is Understanding and Managing Your Spending

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Sometimes the simple things can make the biggest impact on our lives.  One of the most important steps toward achieving financial success is to fully understand where you spend money.   Increasing your awareness of how much you have available to spend and where you spend this money helps you become more intentional in your spending.

Studies have found that many of our actions are based on habit rather than conscientious decisions.  This is true with the food we eat, our daily routines and our spending habits.  By tracking your expenses you may discover spending patterns that are preventing you from achieving your financial goals.

This may seem obvious, but if it’s been a while since you took a serious look at your spending habits, it may be time to track and evaluate your spending.  You don’t need an expensive software package, just a pen, paper, and a calculator.  Review your credit card statements and bank statements over the last 6 months and track your monthly expenses.  If you spend a lot with cash you may need to keep a journal, for a month, to monitor where you are spending your cash.  Don’t leave out the quarterly and annual expenses in your review.  Compare your expenses to your net income to determine how much is left at the end of each month.

This exercise should be enlightening and you will probably be surprised at the amount you spend in certain areas.  Think about your financial goals and evaluate how you are actually spending money in the context of your goals.  Are you maintaining an emergency fund and saving money to meet long term goals such as retirement, a new home, a new car or college education for your children?  Create a spending plan that supports your financial goals.

You may find it helpful to systematically set aside or invest money to build an emergency fund, invest for retirement or save for college tuition.  If this money is put aside, it may be easier to become accustomed to living on the remaining funds.

Regardless of your income level, the secret is truly understanding how much you can spend and being intentional about how and why you spend your money.   Budgeting is about setting financial goals and priorities, not keeping you from doing what you love.   If it’s a priority to spend a lot of money on eating out, taking a vacation or buying a new car and it fits within your financial plan, then enjoy yourself.   Alternatively, if you are spending too much in one area consider enjoyable alternatives.   For example, meet friends for happy hour rather than dinner at an expensive restaurant.

Being aware of your spending helps you spend more intentionally and weigh the trade-offs of every purchase.  The simple act of reviewing your past spending habits will make you stop and think before making spending decisions in the future.

Financial Mistakes to Avoid as You Approach Retirement

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

As you enter your 50s it becomes increasingly important to incorporate retirement planning into the management of your finances.  Your 50s and 60s will probably be your highest earning years at a time when expenses associated with raising children and home ownership may be tapering off.  It’s crucial to take advantage of the opportunities during this time to shore up your retirement nest egg.

One significant retirement mistake is the failure to assess your current financial situation and understand how much is needed to meet your retirement goals.  Many underestimate the amount of money required to cover retirement expenses which may result in delaying retirement.   Consider hiring an advisor to do some retirement planning and help you understand your options, how much money is needed, and what trade-offs may be required to meet your goals.

Another common mistake is to move all of your retirement funds into extremely conservative options, as you approach retirement.  With the potential of spending 30 to 40 years in retirement, it’s advisable to keep a long term perspective.  Consider keeping your short term money in more conservative options and investing your long term money in a well-diversified portfolio that can continue to grow and stay ahead of inflation.  As you approach retirement, it’s also important to avoid making emotional decisions in response to short term swings in the stock market.   Emotional reactions frequently result in selling low and buying high which can be harmful to your portfolio.

Many in their 50s and 60s have more disposable income than at any other stage of life.  Avoid temptation and be very intentional about your spending.   Avoid increasing your cost of living with fancy cars and toys or an expensive new house as you approach retirement.  Instead, consider using your disposable income to pay down your mortgage or pay off consumer debt to reduce your retirement expenses.

Another common pitfall is spending too much on adult children including your child’s college education.  The desire to help your children is natural and admirable but you need to understand what you can afford and how it will impact your long term financial situation.  Place a cap on how much you are willing to contribute for college and encourage your kids to consider less expensive options like attending a community college or living at home during their first few years of college.   They have a lifetime to pay-off reasonable student loans but you have limited time to replenish your retirement funds.

Finally, a failure to care for your health can be financially devastating.  If you are healthy you will probably be more productive and energetic.   This can result in improved job performance with more opportunities and higher income.  If you are in poor health, you may be forced to retire early, before you are financially ready.   You also may face significant medical expenses that could erode your retirement funds.

Get Serious About Planning for Retirement in Your 50’s

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

In our 50’s we still have time to plan and save for retirement and it’s close enough that we can envision ourselves in retirement.  Below are some things to address as you plan for retirement.

  • Set some goals and make plans, what does your retirement look like? Consider your path to retirement and your timeframe – you can gradually transition by working fewer hours in your current job, work part time in a new career field or completely stop working.  Think about how you will spend your time in retirement.   Work usually provides us with mental stimulation, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, social interaction and a sense of identity.  How will you meet these needs in retirement?
  • Evaluate your current situation. Take a thorough look at current expenses and assets.  Analyze your spending habits and compare this to your earnings.   Look for opportunities to save money to invest and prepare for retirement.
  • Ramp up savings and maximize your retirement contributions – try to save at least 10% to 15% of your annual income. Increase contributions to your 401k and IRA to take advantage of catch-up provisions.  These are your highest earning years where you can really benefit from investing in tax deferred retirement plans.
  • Invest in a diversified portfolio that will grow and keep up with inflation. Your retirement savings is long term money that will need to last another 30 – 40 years.   A reasonable portion of this money should be invested in stock mutual funds to provide you the growth needed to carry you through retirement.
  • Take steps to reduce your retirement expenses – pay off high interest debt, credit cards and vehicle loans. Make extra payments on your mortgage to pay it off around the time you retire.
  • Think about where and how you want to live. Do you want to move to a lower cost area or downsize to a smaller home? Put plans in place to meet your goals.  Complete major remodeling, repairs and upgrades on appliances before you go into retirement.
  • Develop a retirement budget. Consider the impact of inflation and taxes on your monthly outflow.  Many retirees are more active and spend more early in retirement.   Include expenses for health care and long term care in your budget.
  • Evaluate your Social Security options. Delay taking Social Security benefits as long as possible, up to age 70.
  • Calculate how much you need to pull from your retirement savings by subtracting your monthly expenses from your Social Security and pension benefits. As a rule of thumb, avoid spending more than about 4% of your retirement savings per year.  This will vary with the amount of risk you are comfortable taking in your portfolio.  To get a more precise projection on when you can retire, how much you can spend and how much you should save, periodically work with a financial planner on some formal retirement planning.

The Secret to Financial Freedom is Living below Your Means

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Over the years I have observed that a comfortable retirement and financial security can best be achieved with reasonable lifestyle choices.  One of the biggest detriments toward reaching financial independence is spending beyond your means and spending on things you don’t really need.  You don’t necessarily need millions of dollars to retire comfortably but you need to follow a lifestyle that minimizes your living expenses while allowing you to indulge on things or experiences that are really important to you.  Good financial planning requires a balance between current expenses and saving for the future. 

Many Americans have a habit of systematically increasing expenses in lock step with salary increases.  Along with a big raise or promotion comes the inclination to buy a bigger house or a new car.  As we progress through our careers, earning a higher income, we continually take on more financial obligations becoming hand-cuffed to our jobs and our bills.  By increasing your lifestyle every time your income increases you can get caught up on an endless treadmill, trapped with a lot of debt for a house and cars that may be more than you really need.  I’m all for enjoying some of the benefits that come from all your hard work but it’s prudent to spend below your income.   Avoid the temptation to live an extravagant lifestyle and compete with your neighbors, colleagues and friends.  Instead, take pride in following a solid financial plan by saving for the future to achieve greater financial freedom.

As a rule of thumb, save or invest at least 10 – 20% of your income and maintain a buffer of 4 to 6 months of expenses to cover emergencies or a change in your ability to earn a living.  Try to keep your housing expenses below 28% of your gross income; this includes your mortgage payment, insurance and taxes.  Avoid systematically increasing your expenses.  Give yourself some breathing room in case you want or need to make a career change.  Save for the future and keep your options open.  As your income rises automatically put a larger portion into savings and retirement.

To keep expenses under control, examine what is important to you and set some priorities.  You have worked hard and you deserve some of the nice things in life but spend your money on things or experiences that genuinely make you happy.   If you want a really nice house you may decide to spend less on vehicles, vacations and clothing.  If you love taking extravagant vacations consider buying a smaller home and less expensive used vehicles.  Never buy on impulse – always look for ways to save money on the purchase of things you decide are important to you.  

Prioritize your spending to live below your means, save for the future and focus on what truly brings you joy.

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