Sunday, February 26, 2012

You Need a Financial House First

That person staring back at you in the mirror has a personal finance plan that is hard to argue with or ignore. Your reflection is probably suggesting to you what it suggested back at the turn of the calendar year: to save more, spend less and focus on getting your debt in line. Intimidated by what is obviously an imperfection in your financial life, you agree. Again. Something needs to be done.

Those mirror conversations are often forgotten as soon as you walk away from your own reflection. And with good reason. Only when you are looking directly at yourself do you see someone who has made these types of promises before. Once the two of you part ways, the reality of past decisions thwarts many of these well-intentioned pledges to do better. The question isn't what is better - that answer we know - it is more like how can you do better?

Improving your personal finances is much easier than you might imagine. So let's look at why your reflection is suggesting an overhaul in the first place. You can't avoid the idea that retirement or at least the time of retirement is closing in, often quickly. You can't dodge the fact that in order to retire at all, let alone comfortably, you need to set aside larger portions of your paycheck. No one has ever told anyone they are saving too much. Everyone, on the other hand will suggest that you and millions of others just like you, aren't saving enough.

In this scenario, they will tell you to max out your 401(k). To do this, the average American with the average paycheck in the average 401(k) can set aside $17,000. This number for this average person amounts to almost a third of their paycheck. And most will agree, this is an austerity measure that will not happen no matter how much the financial profession points out its wisdom. The over 50 crowd can toss another $5,500 into these accounts in order to play catch-up pushing the total contribution in this "maxed-out" situation to almost half of the average wage earners paycheck.

Knowing you are under-contributing often is the first roadblock in doing what you've told yourself you need to do. Resignation sets in and the next time you are in front of that reflection you quip: "I'll never retire" or "I'll just have to work longer". These will, without any argument help you achieve your retirement goals. But in suggesting that lengthening your work life is an adequate solution, you are subtracting from your retirement life. Think of it this way: If the speed limit is 55 mph and you drive 45, you will arrive at your destination; it will simply take longer as as you watch your fellow cohorts pass you, you will become discouraged and this will begin to weigh on the journey.

So forget the limits. Instead focus on the percentages: five percent (5%) of your paycheck contributed and producing a modest return will net you about 25% of the income you currently own, ten percent (10%) will get you about 50% of your current wage while fifteen percent (15%) will get you very close to 75% of what your current income is. Of course you will need to contribute and do so over a span of at least 20-years. But is much more do-able that the whole number that is the maximum contribution.

But even if that is do-able, as I suggest it is, something will have to give. A recent New York Life survey, done as they suggested, across the kitchen table, portrays the average American as someone who will try and manage their debt better. This is translated into spending less. Debt as we all know works against you in many different ways. More than simply spending what you don't have and exceeding what your paycheck brings, the cost of servicing that debt acts as a direct subtracting to that 15% and any return you might get in your plan.

So not only will you need to contribute more but at the same time, you will need to draw down that debt faster. What that reflection in the mirror is suggesting is often too austere for even the most parsimonious among us. Who looks at themselves in the mirror and says: "this year, I live on 30% less." While this might be excellent practice for the retirement you probably will experience, it is quickly dismissed.

Fourteen percent of those surveyed in the New York Life conversation with an agent revealed you will seek help. What you are doing is trading the reflection for a person who will tell you what you have told yourself. Of course this suggests that this financial professional has access to better tools to do what you have promised yourself to do. Ironically, they don't. For a fee, they will tell you what you already know.

Fear might be a motivator and many have taken to making these threats. But fear also brings a natural human reaction: to run in the opposite direction. Comparing where you are now with where you will be because you have done so little so far is a from of this fear. So is comparing you to your cohorts.

The simplest solution: 5, 10, 15. Contribute 5% to your retirement, 10% to your debts and 15% to your mortgage. A five percent contribution to your 401(k) will not impact your take home pay and will probably meet your companies matching contribution. A ten percent increase in payments to your debts will shave years and hundreds of dollars off of the interest you might pay. A fifteen percent payment towards the mortgage principal will reduce the length of your loan by as much as ten years. Doing this will have you arriving at the point of retirement with no debt and no mortgage.

Once the plan is in place and you have done this for five years, begin increasing the contribution by a single percentage point each year. This will be much easier to do as the debt you own is paid off and once the mortgage is satisfied, you will find your reflection congratulating you. This is far better than the criticism it once offered.