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Tackling your personal finances can be overwhelming when you're unsure where to start.
Much as building a home benefits from a blueprint, your financial house might be easier to construct using a similar strategy.
In fact, a house is a good metaphor for thinking about the structure of a sound and secure financial life.
A Firm Financial Foundation Matters Most
When building a house, the first thing you think about is a solid foundation. Without one, anything constructed above it will be unstable and susceptible to collapse.
In recent years, we're hearing more about sinkholes and the risks to houses built above them.
In terms of personal finance, unsecured debt like personal loans and credit card balances are the ultimate sinkhole for your financial house.
Don’t be confused about mortgages.
They are a secured debt because the house is an asset. And it could be sold to pay down the existing loan.
An auto loan falls somewhere in between because the loan may exceed the actual value of your car or truck – a depreciating asset.
To build a firm foundation, your first job is to eliminate unsecured debt.
Building the First Financial Floor
Once the unsecured debt is paid off, it’s time to construct your first financial floor.
Some rooms on this level might seem obvious, like health insurance.
Everyone has heard stories about how quickly medical bills can result in massive debt and undermine (sink) the best-laid plans.
Make sure you have enough health insurance to protect yourself from significant financial hardship.
Another important room on this level is your emergency fund. This should be a savings account you use only for unforeseen circumstances including:
- The loss of a job
- An injury resulting in temporary time away from work (and your paycheck)
- A leak in your water heater necessitating the purchase of a new one
Vacations, tax bills, and predictable repairs (to your old roof for example) are examples of expenses you can plan for and schedule according to your cash flow.
An adequate emergency fund can be thought of as ‘debt sinkhole prevention’ because it allows you time to find a new job, pay for expenses while you recover from your injury and buy that water heater.
This keeps you from taking on credit card debt and destabilizing your financial house and future.
An amount equivalent to 3 – 6 months' basic living expenses is a good target depending on your financial situation.
Find a high-yield savings account or money market account for these funds, and you’ll earn some interest too.
More Rooms on the First Floor
Life and disability insurance are additional rooms to consider on the ground floor of your financial house.
Term life insurance makes sense if someone else (or your entire family) is dependent upon your income to maintain a reasonable standard of living.
If no one is dependent on your income, you do not need life insurance.
That doesn’t mean agents won’t try to sell you a policy which they’ll describe as a good investment. It is not.
Life insurance exists to protect your family’s source of income.
Similar and often overlooked is Disability insurance. It's actually far more likely you will have a disability than dying prematurely.
Consider a policy to provide income to you and your family in the event you're unable to work for an extended period.
It’s possible your employer offers these policies as part of your employee benefits package. Look into it first before deciding if you need additional coverage.
If you are self-employed, look for highly rated insurance companies and shop around.
Retirement Savings – Phase 1
Finally, if your employer provides a 401k savings plan, a 403b plan, or a 457b plan and offers to match your contribution, add a “closet” to your first floor and participate in this plan up to the amount required to receive the full match.
There will be more on retirement planning as the construction of your financial house proceeds.
Once you have securely constructed your first floor, continue to build.
Constructing Level 2
You have a firm foundation and have built your first floor; now it’s time to create level 2.
The rooms to consider on this level are:
- retirement savings
- bucket list items
- legacy decisions
The use of the word ‘consider’ is intentional but does not apply to all the rooms.
Everyone needs to consider they'll one day retire from active income generation. Hopefully by choice according to their own terms.
The other rooms are suggestions and depend on your skills, situation, and temperament.
Defined here as the termination of active income generation, retirement is something everyone must consider.
Or at least everyone who isn’t already there.
This is truly a case where earlier is easier. Time is retirement’s best friend.
Some people are fortunate enough to love their work and earn a decent living.
But even they must plan for a time when they can no longer do it for one reason or another.
Many people would like to retire as soon as possible. And there are few things more fun than plotting early retirement schemes!
If you're working and don’t already have enough assets saved to retire, you must contribute to a retirement plan of some sort. Find a way.
More Retirement Savings
If your employer provides a 401k/403b, or 457 or another retirement plan, use it. Contribute as much as you can but at least 10% of your earnings.
And to fast-track your retirement, consider setting aside A LOT more. If you're not earning an income, you may qualify for a Spousal IRA.
There are some situations where other alternatives might be better for you. But that discussion is best to complete with a coach or advisor.
If you're saving for your kids' college education instead of your retirement, please reconsider. Student loans exist. Retirement loans do not.
Some of you may also have parents to care for and navigating this financially (and emotionally) speaking can be tricky.
Once considered the American dream, and it may still be for some. For others, homeownership can be a nightmare.
The countrywide average growth of real estate values is 3% per year. The historical average inflation rate is 3% per year.
Simple math will demonstrate, on average, home values increase at about the same rate as inflation and thus have a real return of 0%.
There are other, more personal criteria by which homeownership can be measured, and those factors balanced with smart financing are important to consider.
This article about housing when leaving a relationship explores this further.
But owning investment real estate properties CAN be a wealth-building tool and good passive income source if designed that way.
To this point, we've really only talked about the “should” of personal finance. These are smart, responsible and, let’s face it, a little boring.
Now let’s get real and personal for a minute.
None of us know if we will even wake up tomorrow much less live to spend down our retirement accounts.
All of us have goals and desires filling our thoughts and inspiring our dreams.
Maybe it’s a fast car, a spiritual trek, or learning a new language. You shouldn’t be ignoring the “should” for these bucket list items.
Instead, consider special savings accounts for these personally meaningful objects or pursuits vital to a well-lived life.
This can also help keep you on track with the less sexy aspects of constructing a secure financial future.
A fun challenge is to figure out how to make these dreams a reality – with as little cash outlay and as much creativity as possible.
Finally, when you have some assets, it’s important to consider what should happen to them if your time on the planet is shorter than expected.
Legacy sounds like a grandiose concept, but it's really just the gift of money by will or beneficiary designation.
Most bank accounts, retirement accounts, and other liquid investments have provisions for naming a beneficiary. Always name a beneficiary when creating them.
Having an attorney review the documents may cost you more money, but it may also give you peace of mind.
A will does not allow your heirs to bypass your state’s probate process entirely. But beneficiaries of your accounts can receive their portions directly. Long before they receive the government’s blessing on the remainder.
A trust is a much more comprehensive legacy planning tool eliminating the need for probate.
A health care directive (power of attorney for health care), a living will, and a durable power of attorney declaration should also be considered.
These documents basically allow you to choose someone to make decisions on your behalf medically and financially if you cannot do so for yourself.
They also clearly state your wishes with respect to life-prolonging treatment if you suffer from a terminal condition.
Make sure your family or close friends have copies of these documents. Ensure your primary care doctor has the health care directive too.
The “staircase” between levels 1 and 2 (and on up) in this model is mindful spending. This is a euphemism for ‘spend less than you make and make what you spend meaningful to you.’
Without it, there are only a few ways to move from floor to floor.
Windfalls from the lottery or a significant inheritance may seem like elevators allowing you to speed up construction. But they don’t change the fundamentals, and obviously cannot be counted on.
Taking it up Another Financial Floor
It’s impressive to consider the progress made in this financial house project.
- You’ve got a solid, debt-free foundation;
- You have adequate insurance;
- Your emergency fund is in place;
- You’re saving for retirement;
- Considered homeownership;
- You are funding your bucket list; and
- You’ve even thought about what should become of this ‘house’ should you not wake up tomorrow.
Along the way, you’ve developed a solid, mindful spending habit and now you are ready to take on the construction of the next level.
On the third floor of your financial house, you’ll look at:
- funding your children’s education (if applicable)
- consider long-term care insurance
- after-tax savings and investing
- umbrella insurance policy for asset protection
Saving for College
Let’s start with education savings.
Many people have strong feelings about paying to or helping to pay to educate their children. And emotions always play a role in personal financial decisions.
One important point to remember – loans are possible for education but NOT for retirement.
Assuming you’ve considered that and still wish to set aside money for future college costs, then there are a couple of considerations.
A common vehicle for college savings is the 529 plan. These are federally tax-advantaged accounts with some state tax deductibility depending on your residence and are to be explicitly used for higher education.
Thankfully, the restrictions once making these plans less desirable have eased in recent years.
And with the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, federal rules allow 529 plans to cover “qualified higher education expense includes expenses for tuition in connection with enrollment or attendance at an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school.”
The other common vehicle is a regular after-tax investment account which has the highest degree of flexibility. But without the tax advantages.
There are a couple of other savings options as well
Additional Savings and Investments
If you don’t have children or are not considering paying for college, then the next room to consider on this floor is after-tax savings.
In truth, you already considered this room. But we specifically labeled it “bucket-list items” and suggested the creation of separate savings or investment accounts.
The after-tax savings here are more general in nature and might be thought of as your early-retirement account. Or your ticket to a personal sabbatical.
As you know, your retirement savings generally cannot be accessed without a penalty until you are 59 ½ except for some Roth accounts.
But you can use your after-tax savings for whatever purpose might arise, including the intention of retiring before 59 ½!
Because these assets will hopefully accumulate significantly, tax efficiency should be a consideration in your investment portfolio.
You will be taxed on investment earnings whether or not you withdraw from these accounts, so you’ll want to consider what types of investments to hold in these versus your retirement accounts.
Generally speaking, stock funds generate less taxable income than bond funds and should form the bulk of your after-tax investments.
Your bond fund allocation is best kept in your retirement accounts. As with everything, this can depend upon your specific financial situation.
Speaking of tax efficiency, and staying with the house metaphor, you might consider it the “insulation” around your entire financial house.
Tax increases will likely impact you as you build up from the foundation. So always ask yourself “how will this affect my tax situation?”
Remember, taxes are the most significant single bill we pay as citizens. Minimizing them to the extent possible throughout our lives can have a significant positive impact on our wealth.
Long-term Care and Umbrella Insurance
The final two rooms on this floor are additional types of insurance.
The first is long-term care insurance which covers the cost of nursing home care.
Medicare and other insurance policies will only cover nursing home stays if there is a medical (rehabilitation) need.
If you have sufficient assets to cover a long-term stay in one of these facilities or you have children willing and able to assist you financially, you may not need this insurance. If not, it's something to consider.
Be forewarned it's costly – no doubt because of the rapidly increasing cost of this type of care. Shop wisely and as with any other insurance, look for a highly rated insurer.
However, we live in a very litigious society, and while you might not feel rich, the vast majority of the population is still living from paycheck to paycheck, and those with a deficit of scruples might find you a juicy target for a lawsuit.
Umbrella insurance can help protect your assets above the liability limits of your other policies.
There’s Even an Attic
Once you've constructed the financial house of your dreams and prepared for a secure financial future, it's time to add an attic.
On this top floor, we take another look at estate planning.
This can be a challenging and emotional topic. But you’ve worked hard to get your financial houses in order, and you deserve to be in charge of what happens to it.
You’ve learned about wills, health care directives and durable powers of attorney. These are all a part of estate planning.
An attic is also a place for extra insulation (tax efficiency). Estate planning offers opportunities to minimize the impact of taxes that could affect your heirs.
Many people with complicated finances such as homes in multiple states, small businesses, underage children, or many heirs will want to consider a trust.
Trusts are popular because they offer flexibility and control over the distribution of assets and certain types allow your estate to bypass probate.
Probate is the state-based governmental process that controls the post-mortem management of assets. Your will directs the distribution of them.
There are rules in place which lead the process in the absence of a will, and it is important to know these rules in your state.
Wills and trusts can be used to specify what you want – rather than what the state thinks is best.
Trusts are expensive and complicated documents. They are probably best created by an estate attorney.
You may not need a trust – especially if your estate is simple and mostly limited to liquid assets (cash, mutual fund investments) which can be assigned beneficiaries, allowing assets to pass outside of a will or trust.
If you have no heirs, you might consider a charitable trust.
Vanguard has a sister company offering one. Their trust allows you to assign percentages of your estate to one or more charities of your choosing. Distributions occur according to a specific formula and they allow you to specify how your money is invested.
These types of trusts generally do not require an estate attorney. This is also a good option for a secondary beneficiary if you have an heir to designate as primary.
The Financial House YOU Built
It may be apparent to you why estate planning has a floor all its own. It is a big subject, and this article is a summary blueprint or model.
In fact, many of the levels and rooms of this financial house can and should be explored further.
You'll want to tailor them and any financial rules of thumb to your particular circumstances, financial goals, and retirement dreams.
Unless you're just beginning your adult life, you will probably find you already have a partially constructed financial house.
Let this guide serve as a suggestion to supplement your current financial plan. And consider some rooms you may not have thought about.
Much of this can be done on your own but you might find consulting a financial professional can help with decisions around your unique circumstances. Happy building!
Article written by Carol Christie, a longtime financial coach and a candidate for CFP® certification. She pursued FIRE before FIRE was an acronym and loves the like-minded souls that make up that community. Carol partners with individuals and couples on their path to financial freedom through her hourly coaching business Free to be Finance.