Tales from the Wallet: A Money Roadmap

money roadmapWe’ve talked about a ton of different money issues here, but it occurred to me that it might be helpful to do a simple “roadmap” post — a listing of what to do, in what order, with links to the appropriate posts.  So here’s my list of what to do with your money — if I were advising a friend, this is what I’d say.  Readers, what would your roadmap look like? Would it be any different? (Pictured: Halogen Cassie Patent Leather Phone Wallet, originally $48 but currently $32.16.)

1. Figure out what your money situation is.  Do you know how much you have in each account, where it is, and how much interest it’s earning?  Do you know what your debts are, and how much interest you’re paying?  I like Mint.com to keep track of multiple accounts (and I particularly like that it will email multiple email addresses with weekly updates — great if you’re married or otherwise in a joint banking relationship).

2. Pay all your minimums, always.  Try to avoid getting further in debt (especially credit card debt).

3. Get an emergency fund You need at least a LITTLE bit of money socked away in case of an emergency.  The goal is six to nine months of emergency savings (one-half to three-quarters of your take-home pay) but, if you’re starting from scratch that can seem daunting.  Make it a priority to put away at least $1,000.  Try to automate it if you can, so the bank automatically moves money from your checking account to your savings account. I would focus on this plan until you have at least 2 months of living expenses socked away.

Here’s where things get tricky, because the next few steps are all important and kind of equal…

4A.  Get out of credit card debt (or better yet, don’t get in it in the first place).  Sit down and look at any amount you owe and figure out a battle plan.  What is the smallest amount owed?  What is the highest interest rate you’re paying?  Put together a spreadsheet.  It makes good sense to tackle the highest interest rate obligations first.  Put whatever extra you can into repayment of that debt.  I like the idea of “rounding up” — if you owe $687 a month, can you round your payment up to $1000?  This has the added bonus of being a predictable, easily remembered amount that is taken out of your account.

4B.  Save for retirement — at least a bit. Saving for retirement always seems like something to do tomorrow or (even better) at some indeterminate date that is not now, but it is really important to start saving while you are young because of the magic of compound interest and investment returns.  Retirement savings should typically be made in tax-advantaged accounts – meaning IRA accounts or 401k accounts.  If you don’t know anything about those types of accounts, you really should take the few hours it will take to read up on them with personal finance books and other resources for newbies.

Specifically (and immediately): If you have access to a 401K plan with a company/firm match, figure out what the details are — if you put in $3K, will your employer match it with an additional $3K?  That’s free money!  You will kick yourself later for not taking advantage of it.  If you don’t have enough income headroom right now to contribute to the 401k, it would be wise to look closely at your life and assess whether you can cut back on expenses in order to get that match.  This is worth feeling ‘poor’ for a year or two, trust me.  Once your money is in the 401K you still have to choose what to invest in — if you’re young and have a small amount to work with, look for an broad market (Dow or S&P, for example) index fund with very low fees (certainly below 1% — I’ve seen some as low as .05%).  If your account is larger (or you are older), you will want to look into asset allocation.

Even if there is no match (I’ve never worked for an employer who offered one!), still save at least a LITTLE BIT in your 401K, IRA, or Roth IRADo what you can.  After a few months, odds are good that you won’t even miss the money from your paycheck — and you can always lower your contribution if you really need the money.  (While you’re doing this assessment you may also want to investigate any health savings accounts (HSA) or flexible spending accounts (FSA) offered by your employer and how you might use them — if you’re already spending $500 a year on qualifying expenses like prescriptions, over the counter medications, eyeglasses, and more, you may as well be spending pre-tax money on it.)

5A.  Tackle your student loans. Similar to your credit card debt spreadsheet, make a spreadsheet of your student loans.  What is the smallest amount owed? What is the highest interest rate you’re paying?  Once you’re done with your credit card debt and have established your emergency fund, really take a hard look to see if you can contribute a little bit more than the minimum on the highest interest rate loan.  As I mentioned above, I like the idea of “rounding up” payments — I also like the idea of using “windfall” money (a bonus, an inheritance, or some other money that you don’t normally get) to make a dent in your student loans.

 5B.  Amp up your retirement savings.  Once you find a little breathing room in your disposable income situation, start amping up your retirement savings.  The max ‘elective deferral’ for a 401K for 2014 is $17,500.  How close can you get to that max?  I want to stress this point again: the younger you start, the better position you’re going to be in.  This is a whole separate post, but I often thought that my 20s were my time to be wild and free and my 30s would be my serious, buckle-down time, financially — but I’ve seen so many friends financially derailed by spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on graduate school, helping aging parents, longterm unemployment, egg freezing/IVF treatments, adoption proceedings, childcare, and more.  If it’s just you in your 20s and you CAN save the money, DO IT NOW.  Buy the pair of shoes you want or splurge on that trip, but do it AFTER you’ve assessed how much you can max out your retirement savings now.

5C.  If you’ve paid off your debts and are maxing out your retirement savings to the extent you can, congratulations — you’re in an awesome position.  My advice here is probably unconventional, but I’m going to say you should celebrate this milestone with a splurge.  If your schedule allows, plan a great trip somewhere.  Buy a lovely watch or a pearl necklace.  Indulge yourself with a spa day.  Pick ONE thing (not all three), and get back to saving.

 6.  Get smart about your employee benefits I mentioned this briefly in 4C, but now is the time to get smart about your employee benefits — look into flexible spending accounts, health savings accounts, and more.  It isn’t exciting; it isn’t sexy.  Odds are you will be mildly or greatly confused by some of the descriptions you read — make the calls or ask the people until you understand what benefits are available to you, and can make an educated decision about what to opt into.  There are no dumb questions here.

 7A. Look ahead to the next 5 years — what do you want? To buy a home? Go back to grad school? Pay for a ritzy wedding?  Take 6 months off to travel the world?  Have a child? Some of these obviously may have happened along the way anyway, but if they’re still on the horizon, start thinking about how that will change the money equation, and if you need to, start saving for your goal(s).  (You should also assess if you can use any of the money you’re saving for retirement for those goals (and if you want to). 

7B. Consider 529 plans. After you’re maxing out your own retirement funds and you’ve paid off your debts is a great time to consider 529 plans.  If you or your spouse plan to go back to graduate school you can save for yourself; you can also save for a future child (or, obviously a child you already have).

 7C. Look into non-tax-advantaged investing.  If you don’t yet have children and don’t have plans for graduate school, I would skip 529s for the moment and instead look at non-tax-advantaged investing.  I’m a big fan of Vanguard and Charles Schwab; I think both have minimums around $3K and offer a lot of index funds; Vanguard has many target-date funds.  Once you have made your first purchase of an index fund, look at your finances and see if you can automatically invest money into your fund.  If you won’t miss an extra $25 a week, automatically invest it.  As with everything: every little bit counts.  Even if you’re saving for a house, a wedding, or another big expense, I’d still advise you to invest at least a little bit.

8.  OK: you’ve stocked your emergency fund, paid your debts, maxed your retirement savings, and even have a little bit socked aside in other investment accounts — what now?  Again: pat yourself on your back.  Consider talking to a fee-based financial adviser, and reading more in depth. It may make sense for you to buy property as an investment, to pay off your mortgage, to…. maybe… enjoy your success?

Readers, what would your money roadmap look like? Where are you along the path?  

Comments

  1. My dad has 100% control over the inflow’s and outflow’s of my money, other then the ATM which I DO have withdrawl authority over. As long as it is cash, I can spend it. But NO use of the PERSONAL credit card, or my L&T or BLOOMIES card’s can be made w/o his PRIOR consent, even if the manageing partner is reimburseing me for clotheing.

    Myrna say’s this is dumb, but this is the ONLEY way that I have been abel to maintain a saving’s account, b/c dad control’s it. I also have a 401(k) thru work that there is a deduction for each pay period, and dad control’s all outflow’s from my acount to pay for my COOP Mainteneance bills, and the credit card’s which are approved, get paid by DAD, not me, thru his checking POWER over my account.

    This free’s me up to be a lawyer, tho dad is thinkeing that he want’s to foiest this off on a guy who will MARRY me and take all of this off his back. He says that at his age and MY age, I should be more responsibel, but I do NOT care, b/c this way, I have more time for fun! YAY!!!!!

  2. Kat and fellow posters, thank you so much for all the advice through the years. I am finally beginning to find my feet financially, and I got my start here. I plan to meet with a financial advisor soon, but first I would like “anecdata” from you all about paying tuition for a partner. My boyfriend is finishing up one degree and about to embark on a second. Have any of you paid for the tuition of a person you were not married/related to? Could I get a tax break for paying tuition as a gift? Is this even a wise course of action? Some background: we plan to get married, and he has stated that he is fine keeping our debt separate (pre-nup). TIA!

    • Mid-career field change :

      If you have enough $ to warrant a pre-nup, I’d add an estate planner to your list to walk you through how the ed-med gift tax exemptions work if you do go through with this (I would not — no reason you can’t pay off his loans if you do get married and no reason they shouldn’t be his in case you don’t).

    • Sydney Bristow :

      Honestly, I probably wouldn’t pay my significant other’s tuition before we were married. I might split expenses differently (although not covering everything) if we lived together, but it would require a lot of discussion and thought. I think I’m just really risk-averse on this topic though.

      • Sydney Bristow :

        I know you didn’t ask this, but I wouldn’t co-sign any loans either.

      • Orangerie :

        Agreed. I don’t see why he can’t just get a loan in his name now, and you can contribute to the repayment when the two of you get married.

      • Anon in NYC :

        I went back to school when my now-husband was just my long-term, live-in boyfriend. He did not pay for any of my tuition or co-sign any of my loans. All of my loans covered tuition and living expenses, but he assumed greater responsibility for day-to-day expenses. Now that we’re married we’ve co-mingled all of our money and my student loans are paid using joint money. If our situations were reversed, I don’t think I would have felt comfortable co-signing any of his loans or paying for his tuition.

    • Anonattorney :

      As someone currently paying her husband’s grad school tuition, I don’t think I would do it if we weren’t married. It’s already a somewhat tricky financial puzzle, which is complicated further if you aren’t married.

      But, it’s tough, because the alternative is that your boyfriend will take out loans, and in some way or another you will be affected by that interest. Even if you don’t help him directly pay them off, he will be diverting more of his money into paying back his loans instead of contributing to the household.

      You won’t get a tax break by giving him the gift – he doesn’t declare it as income and you don’t get the deduction. He will likely be entitled to get a $2000 tax credit through the Lifetime Learning Credit, and I don’t think you will be able to take advantage of that if you are paying his tuition and you aren’t married. I am by no means an expert in this area, though, so it might be worth consulting a tax professional.

      I guess I don’t think I would do it if I were in your position. Are they still doing subsidized loans for grad school?

      • You may actually OWE gift tax if the amount you give him is more than $14,000 per year. There is an exclusion from the taxable gift amount (as in, won’t be subject to gift tax–not as in, a deduction for income tax) for tuition but it must be paid directly to the educational institution. You cannot transfer money to his account and then an hour later he transfers it to the school to pay his bill. The exclusion also does not apply for books, materials, or room & board.

    • You say you plan to get married. Is he your fiance? When is the wedding? That would factor in. If you are not officially engaged then I would say no, do not do it. But if you’ve set a date, it makes more sense.

    • Baconpancakes :

      Once you get married, the money he’d be paying the debt out of will be y’all’s money (darn you, lack of English second person plural!), so unless he can only get a personal loan, or gets a very high interest loan, I don’t think it would be worth it.

    • That sounds like a really bad idea to me.

    • Insecure First-Year :

      You have to do what’s right for your situation, and figure out what you’re comfortable with. IMHO, I would never pay for a boyfriend’s school.

      Both me and my now-husband went to graduate school at the same time, although I finished a year before him. I had/have the luxury of not needing any loans to get through school, and he financed a large chuck of his education with loans. I have never paid for his education, and I probably never will.

      When we were both in school, we shared expenses equally (we lived together), even though he was taking out loans to cover his share. When I was working and living in another city, I helped him with some expenses, but he was mostly on his own. When we got married, our agreement was what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine. That is, we both assumed full responsibility for any of our debts, and he pays his student loans himself. That may sound harsh, but we discussed it and agreed that’s how we both wanted to handle it.

      I suppose you could never really know how you would react if the facts were different, but sitting here now I think I would have a little resentment toward him if I was paying for his education. That’s just me, though–plenty of people feel differently. I just think you need to explore how you might feel down the road, especially if god forbid you didn’t stay together.

      • Anonattorney :

        Out of curiosity, what do you do about shared expenses (home, vacations, dinners out, utilities, furniture, etc.)? After his loan payments, do you tend to have the same amount of spending money? I always wonder how this actually works in practice.

        For me, this isn’t possible because I make significantly more than my husband. If we were going to handle our own finances then I would have to live in a much cheaper place, never go out to eat with him, and not take any vacations with him because he wouldn’t be able to afford it.

  3. Sydney Bristow :

    I think a roadmap can be a little difficult because there are things you can and should do simultaneously depending on your situation. I realize that I may have a more extreme view on debt than others, but my roadmap looks like this.

    Step Negative 1: Get into far more debt than I should
    Real Step 1: Like Kat, this was to get a clear picture on my entire situation. I personally used YNAB for this. It involved going through a ton of paperwork, online accounts, and calls to student loan companies to get details on my payments that were about to begin.
    Steps 2 & 3 done together: Pay at least the minimums on everything and split any extra money between starting an emergency fund and paying extra on credit cards if possible. If I was in a more stable job situation, I probably would have split this more sharply in favor of paying off the cards.
    Steps 3 & 4 done together: Continue adding to emergency fund and pay extra on student loans if possible. Continue until emergency fund built up to an acceptable level (in my situation, I’m comfortable at this point with 3 months of realistic expenses).
    Steps 4 & 5 done together: Continue throwing extra money at student loans if possible and fully fund a Roth IRA. I fund my Roth weekly and then throw any extra money at the loans. I’ll be doing this until my loans are paid off (hopefully within the next 8 years)
    Step 6: Debt free at this point, so I’ll be working to invest nearly as much money as I had been paying to my loans, starting with retirement accounts then non-retirement accounts above that. This step may involve a simultaneous Step 7 to save up to buy a house, but we haven’t decided what our plan is for that since we don’t plan to buy in NYC and don’t plan on leaving NYC for at least 25 years.

  4. Big City Broke :

    slight TJ, but its $$ related, I promise. I just moved to a big city (Boston), make what seems like great money. However, literally 50% of my take home pay goes to rent (I had to move quickly and honestly didn’t really have many choices of where to live). That doesn’t include utilities, car, parking, food, or anything else. Do other big city ladies pay this much, or did I just bite off more than I can chew?? I love, love, love my apartment and want to make it work. Not sure if I’m looking for advice or commiseration or what (and my work is over a mile from a T station, so switching to public transit would be hard, especially in winter). I’ve got a year to figure it out, and then will move if I can’t make it work. (And moving itself is expensive and will probably eat up 6 months worth of my savings). I love my life, but it seems ridiculous to feel cash strapped and broke at my income level.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      50% seems really really high. I’m in NYC and even if I paid the entire rent myself, it would be 25%. We do have a pretty good deal on our apartment, but it isn’t unrealistically low. I don’t know anything about the Boston rental market at all though so finding a lower percentage might be much harder there.

      • Anon in NYC :

        For comparison, I’m in NYC and if I were solely responsible for paying my rent it would be roughly 38% of my salary. With my husband it’s about 23%. I would say the same about my rent – not unrealistic, but also what I consider to be a pretty good deal.

    • Bostonite :

      The Boston rental market is insanely pricey. I’d say that desirable areas like Back Bay/Beacon Hill/South End may even be on par with Manhattan. We live in one of these neighborhoods and pay $5K in rent (large 2 bed/2 bath with parking). So depending on how much you make, I could see how you might pay in rent 50% of your take home pay.

      With that said, 50% seems really high for my comfort. I would consider moving to a less desirable location or a smaller place once your lease is up. I don’t know how much you’re paying but I think you can find a nice, small 1 bedroom for $2300 in the city if you look around.

    • Baconpancakes :

      It’s not uncommon in DC. Plenty of people make public-sector entry-level money, but the housing market doesn’t seem to care, so they end up paying 50% of their salary in rent, easy. BUT I wouldn’t recommend it, long-term. It’s just generally not a great idea to put so much of your cash into a non-investment.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      I would try at all costs to not have a car in Boston. Any chance you could pay a coworker to pick you up and drop you off at the T daily near work? Convince your employer to run a shuttle to and from the T? Bike to and from the T? Could you find cheaper parking away from where you live and T to that in the morning?

      To put it in perspective, the IRS seized a couple parking spots in Boston and auctioned them for over $500,o00! Cars in Boston suck.

      • Agreed. You really need to choose car vs. apartment. I’m not sure where your office is, but if you can’t easily get to it via public transportation, there really is no reason to be living in such an expensive apartment. Generally in Boston, the closer to public transportation a place is, the more it costs. It would really help if you posted actual numbers though because 50% of a $50k salary is quite different from 50% of $100k salary. There are also so many options in and around the city that, while the prices are exorbitant, you can make due on a decent salary.

    • I’ve heard 30% maximum of income (take home pay, I think) towards rent as a rule of thumb, so it sounds like you’re a bit high. Can you take on a roommate, plan to downsize at the next lease renewal, or negotiate with your landlord?

      Good luck

    • It is awfully high. Do you have rent control there, though? My expensive city does and it helps. I was pushing 50% when I moved here, but my salary has gone up while my rent remains the same, so I’m closer to 30% now and things are a lot more comfortable. So this might become less horrible over time.

    • I don’t know what 50% of your income is, so I won’t answer in terms of percentage. I also live in Boston and I live in a pretty large 2-bedroom apartment in metro Boston 10 minutes from the T that is fairly nice and it costs ~$2900 a month. I consider this a luxury and I feel pretty sure that if needed, I could find an apartment significantly less expensive that would be perfectly serviceable. I also have a car, but parking is free and the car is paid off, so it doesn’t add that much to my monthly costs.

    • Big City Broke :

      My 1 bedroom is $2500, if that puts things in perspective. I love how easy my commute is by car, and I love being in the city center– although I’m not sure why. I don’t (currently) have money to do anything, I just love the look of city lights outside my window, while I sit on my couch and enjoy my beans and/or ramen dinners! We’ll see how I feel after a year.

      I’m also stubborn. I hate the thought of a roommate at my age and income level. And I hate the thought of a studio. I agree, getting rid of my car would fix the problems, just haven’t really figured out how to make that logistically work.

      There’s no rent control in BOston. And while it’s not quite Manhattan (I bet my place would be 3-4k in Manhattan), it is bad– worse than DC, I would say.

      And on another note, I post here under lots of different names, and often just read and don’t post. I love the advice everyone gives. And despite some cattiness that might have crept in over the last year or two, I still love this site and read it every day (although I’m often so behind, I’m still reading last weeks posts instead of the current ones!).

      • Big City Broke :

        I’ll also add that I had to move quickly and during a very off-season time for Boston, so there were very few options. I plan to be here for awhile, so I think things will work out one way or another. I’ll just be eating cheaply and not shopping for the next year while I scrimp and save to re-stock my emergency fund (a principle I definitely learned about here!).

        • $2500 for a 1 bed is not crazy at all in Boston, though I really think if you are able to drive to work, that means you could live somewhere more convenient (see my comment below). I can understand if you moved here in a hurry and snapped something up at a big complex (like an Archstone or similar), or used a broker (they are always mad shady). I’ve found word of mouth or renting direct from owners is the best way to go in Boston.

      • Anne Shirley :

        I view “love, love, loving” my apartment as a luxury good. At this stage in my life I can afford that luxury without compromising my other financial goals. It sounds like you can’t afford both, but if you’d rather eat ramen than have a studio, that’s really your call.

    • I’m sorta confused by your work being more than a mile from the T, but not someplace that is cheap to rent. For example, if you worked in the Seaport (~1 mile from the T) you could live in a nice place in Southie for less than $3K/month and just walk to work. Anyplace super pricey (Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Financial District) would be really close to the T so you could live anywhere. And it seems like you currently drive to work, so that would rule out any of those pricey locations because there’s no parking.

      Is your office in like, Newton, but you live in Back Bay? It may be you just really picked the wrong place to live based on your office location (sorry if that sounds mean, but I can’t figure out how you’re paying such a large amount in rent but not able to take the T to work)

      • Big City Broke :

        Opps, I accidentally hit report! I may have picked the wrong place to live! Not harsh at all.

        I know it sounds impossible, but my work falls in magical spot about ~1 mile from two T-stops. (Ok, I checked on google and I did exaggerate a bit, it’s just under 1 mile from 1 T stop and just over 1 mile from another T stop). So the walk on my end, waiting for a train, the walk on that end, could easily be 30-45 mins, while my drive is like 10-15 door to door, and I’m nice and toasty and warm the whole time! I guess I’m paying dearly for my comforts! Maybe I’ll toughen up in the next year.

        • Yeah, that sounds pretty amazing for Boston. My commute was always 45+ minutes when I lived in Boston, and I never had the option to drive (unless I wanted to pay $300+/month for parking at my office).

          If you can drive 10-15 minutes door to door and parking at your office is free, I’d say that’s worth the extra $500/month you might be paying, in terms of time and hassle saved. But if you are looking to save, Somerville and Medford tend to be MUCH cheaper than Boston proper and parking would be most likely be free (on-street though)

        • Anne Shirley :

          You’re toasty and warm, and feel broke. It’s just a trade off you’re making. I used to be doing a similar car commute and have switched to 45 mins on public transit. With the $ saved, I’m making extra loan payments, adding to my savings, and paying my housekeeper. You can always reassess whether driving makes financial sense for you, but I can’t see trading a cozy commute for feeling cash strapped all the time.

  5. Thank you! This was a really helpful post. Bonus: the pictured wallet won’t break the bank!

  6. Time to relax :

    This was a great road map! Does anyone have tips on how to RELAX once your plan is in place? I have monthly budgets set and now it’s just a waiting game to watch my money accumulate. I’m working on building an emergency fund and I find myself incredibly stressed, trying to save more than what my budget allows, checking my mint account 10-20 times a day, etc.

    • ExcelNinja :

      No advice because I’m in the same boat! I’ve paid off all of my debt except my car loan, and have healthy retirement savings. I now need to work on getting an emergency fund together, and objectively I know I’m doing well but I too just can’t relax!! I obsessively check mint every day.

    • Also very interested in this. I have the plan in place, have every inflow and outflow of my accounts planned until December 31, and am staying within my budgets…but I just cannot stop checking Mint multiple times a day or manipulating my cash flow spreadsheet trying to squeeze another dollar here or there to throw at student loans.

  7. Question about Emergency Funds :

    My husband and I don’t have an emergency fund. But we also have zero student loans and zero credit card debt (pay in full every month since we got them) and we own our cars. We owe less that $100K on our house, have defined benefit pension plans and health care is covered (we’re in Canada) and LTD is covered through work. We wouldn’t have day care costs if one of us was suddenly unemployed and we can afford our other expenses on one salary.

    Does it make sense to but aside money for an emergency fund? I’d always planned on using our credit cards to fill the short term gap if one of us was unemployed /other emergency but based on Kat’s post I’m rethinking that strategy. I’d rather use if towards other things (ie: trade in for a newer used car, education fund for kids) but is that crazy when we don’t have an emergency fund in cash?

    • If one of you became unemployed, don’t count on the daycare costs going away. Job-hunting is quite time consuming and stressful, and not easy to manage while taking full care of a young child or children.

      • Another point is that depending on where you live, if you take your kid out of daycare, you may lose your spot and you will need it once you find another job.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I think a credit card could be helpful in a pinch if the situation is resolved in just a few weeks, but I wouldn’t want to rely on them if the situation (I’m thinking a job loss) lasts longer than a month. If I were you, I’d set aside some money in an emergency fund, although you may be comfortable with a smaller one than others would be since you have so little debt to pay on and presumably you could cut down your regular monthly expenses in an emergency situation. Of still have some cash set aside though.

    • If you can afford your expenses on one salary, what are you doing that you have no liquid funds? Just paying off the house and cars ultra-quick? If so, maybe think that the house is an asset you’ll use forever, so you can take longer paying it off. In 2009, I can remember banks freezing my friends HELOCs and cutting off credit cards if they took any sort of cash advance, so even if you have a lot of paid-off assets, you can’t use them to buy stuff in a pinch (e.g., you need a new roof, you need car repairs — I’m amazed at how a month can bring 1000s of expenses that weren’t in the budget). Cash gets you through the pinch.

      • Question about Emergency Funds :

        In terms of what we’re doing we’re paying off the house, saving for a (hopefully) future mat leave plus mat leave pension contributions (mat leave is a year but only part funded in Canada) and saving for renovations (I don’t want to think of that as emergency because if the renovations are started and one of us is unemployed – we’d still have to pay the contractor). The maternity leave money isn’t really emergency money – it just keeps us where we are when I’m working. I’d hate to have to go back early because we didn’t have an emergency fund.

        Good points about needing to keep childcare in place, accessibility of funds and larger unexpected expenses (roof/cars). I’d been thinking of an emergency fund as more about covering day to day expenses if unemployed.

        Thanks!

        • Regular but anon for finance qs :

          I think of it as 2 parts – a “true emergency” fund, for major life issues like job loss, major illness like cancer, etc and a “life happens” fund for unpredictable smaller expenses that aren’t in the budget like needing to spend a couple hundred dollars on expenses like when I blew out a tire or needed expensive dental work. Home repairs fall in the middle category – for us, replacing an appliance would be “life happens” but replacing the roof or HVAC would be “emergency”.

          If you are currently saving for mat leave, that could qualify as “we could dip into it if an emergency struck” fund.

          FWIW, we only have $1000-3000 in our “life happens” fund and no real emergency fund right now other than credit cards and home equity line. Sad to admit but true, our other “emergency” fund would be taking a loan or gift from our parents, which they have already told us would be ok. We also are paying extra on our mortgage, student loans and other debt, so if we had an emergency we could go down to the minimums and probably come up with some extra money in our budget that way.

        • If one of you lost a job, would you really feel comfortable choosing a newer car or home renovations over being comfortably able to pay your bills?

          I would suggest prioritizing creating a sizeable emergency fund over renovating your home (unless it’s absolutely necessary) or the like.

    • noo! always have an emergency fund! my mom got laid off and didn’t have a job for two years. my parents were crazy savers and it didnt really hurt them financially. you’re in a great position to start contributing to an emergency fund so you should start.

    • Do you have a lot of equity in your house? A home equity credit line might be something to look into. That way you could access that money in a way that is less drastic than selling the house and at more favorable interest rate than a credit card. I’d still say that you need some truly liquid emergency funds.
      Also, if your area daycares have waiting lists, I’d be reluctant to lose a spot while conducting a hopefully short job search.

    • Kontraktor :

      Agreed that it’s always a good idea to have at least some liquid assets set aside. What happens if one of your cars bites the dust completely and requires either a huge repair or purchasing something else? What if this happens when one of you didn’t have a job? What if you are disabled by a long-term injury? Certain health care costs may be covered, but what about costs associated with hiring help for the house or making your home accessible? There are a myrid of scenarios and what-ifs we could all think of and they are all precisely the reasons why an emergency fund is a good thing. Agree with the other commenters who say you are in a great place to start compiling one.

    • Senior Attorney Paging Godzilla :

      It always makes sense to put aside money in an emergency fund. You never know when the value of your house will take a dive, or the creditors will close your credit cards/jack up the interest sky-high. There is no feeling like having actual cash on hand to see you through in an emergency and in my view it is just plain crazy for somebody in your position not to have an emergency fund.

    • Anon-athon :

      Joining the emergency fund chorus here. You just never know what crazy thing will happen. We got hit with nearly $1,000 in vet bills recently. Not too terrible, and we certainly could have put that on a credit card. But it was nice to have the cash on hand and not have to scramble (at least about the financial aspect).

  8. Great timing on this post! I decided today to put together a budget. I have an account on Mint.com but I cannot stand that website. Every time I try to link my accounts I get errors. I am obviously putting in the right information but still cannot get it to work correctly. Does anyone else have this problem (over and over again?!). Can anyone recommend a better site – preferrable one that I can use online and as an app on my phone so I can always access my budget?

    • I started using YNAB (You Need A Budget) at the start of the year and am really loving it. It’s a little bit of a different approach, so I recommend watching the videos. It has an app, but you do have to manually add everything (no automatic inporting like Mint) so ask yourself if that would be a problem.

    • Guinness Girl :

      I love YNAB – youneedabudget (dot) com. I have never used Mint so do not know if it is comparable but we find it fantastic in terms of budgeting, tracking expenses, etc. between laptop & two smartphones. I heard about it on this site and it has changed our life.

    • I’m using the Quicken personal finance software. It costed me and will cost me again when I need to upgrade the software but I really like it.

      • I’ve linked my bank accounts etc so everything is automatic. I did use a Macro spreadsheet that I’ve developed myself in the past to track the budget but I used to miss putting in some of my purchases. With my new software, all I need to do is click a button.

      • I like Quicken as a money management software (I don’t update every year, but I don’t download transaction either. I enter manually because I like it that way.). I don’t like Quicken’s budgeting features though, it was not clear to me how money was pulling through and what different features meant.

        I climbed onto the YNAB bandwagon this year, and I really like it as a budgeting software (as opposed to a money management software). So, yes, I’m entering all of my transactions twice, but I like the interface and set up that YNAB has, as well as the philosophies that back up the program.

    • Tried Mint, husband not quite comfortable with their security design, so I’ve stopped. Since then, I’ve been tracking 2014 expenses in an excel sheet titled 2014 Expenses. It’s a way for me to reconcile credit card statements easily to make sure there aren’t mistakes. Somehow I keep a closer eye on my spending when I actually have to manually enter in the numbers vs. automatically linking to my credit cards.

  9. Question – if no one knows offhand, I’ll do some more googling after work, but here goes for now – if you inherit an amount in the six figures, does that affect your ability to contribute to a ROTHA IRA? My understanding is that the ability to contribute is based on income, but does inheritance get taken into account? TIA!

  10. Personal Finance Q :

    Love these financial posts and would appreciate the hive’s thoughts. Apologies for the length, and please scroll on by if you prefer not to read about specific numbers.

    I just finished paying off approx. $175k in student loans. I have about 7 mo. of realistic expenses in an emergency fund and max out my 401k ($17.5k per year, employer does not match). No other debt, early 30s.

    After throwing my extra cash at loans for the past few years, I am now in the admittedly fortunate position of having some extra money to play with each month. I plan to funnel it to short-term and long-term savings. The short-term savings are for things like vacation, gifts, charity, and random medical expenses and the long-term for big expenses like a house, wedding, 6 months off to travel the world, etc.

    My questions:

    1) Where would you keep those savings accounts? My emergency fund is in a super low interest but easily accessible savings account. Am thinking either a higher-yield interest account online or index funds for my long-term account.

    2) Would you try to save more specifically for retirement? Based on internet calculators, it seems to me that saving $17.5k in a 401k for 30-35 years is sufficient, so I am not planning to open another retirement account. But this assumes I will be able to saving the max amount pre-tax for the next three decades, which might not be the case when I change jobs, start a family, etc. Maybe I should save more now for retirement while I can. FWIW, I live in a high COL area but do not have particularly extravagant tastes and cannot imagine requiring more than $100k per year in retirement, if that.

    • TimRiggins :

      1 – Emergency funds are not meant to make you a lot of money, so don’t worry about a high interest rate. Online banks have a higher return than a brick and mortar, but the highest rate is around .95% APY. For me, I put 6 months of comfortable expenses into my emergency fund, and I continue to contribute 2% of my gross income to it every month to keep up with inflation. For the other savings accounts, if the goal is short term (and there are various definitions of short-term, but I go with 3 years), it’s best to keep in a savings account since the market can kick you right at the moment you need the money. For the rest, I’d go with a mix of bond and stock funds – maybe 40/60 since you don’t know when you’ll cash out but you are looking for growth.

      2. I’m in favor of saving as much as possible for retirement. If you qualify, open a Roth IRA. And if you still have extra, open a taxable investment account that is invested like your retirement accounts. I mean, what can it hurt? You are doing great, you have extra cash, so you might as well make it work for you!

    • Sydney Bristow :

      You are awesome! Congrats on paying down the loans! Any advice on how you did it?

    • Kontraktor :

      I would consider opening up an additional IRA. That should give you another 5-6k a year in retirement savings. Compounding is powerful, hence better to save more when you are young and you’ll get a little extra padding. Regarding needing enough, it’s hard to know; tastes may be basic, but we have no idea what inflation will be like when we’re older, what health care costs we’ll be responsible for, what the day to day money situation will be. Personally I would rather overcommit rather than under. My hubs and I probably prioritize retirement savings over liquid savings (a little too much? not sure) to take advantage of the ‘we are young compounding effect.’ We max out 2 401ks and 2 IRAs. Even then I wonder if it will be enough just with how unpredictable the future seems.

      • Personal Finance Q :

        Thank you all so much for your replies and the excellent advice. You are right – I should focus on over-preparing while I have the ability to do so. I had not considered adding to my emergency fund to account for inflation, but that is a great idea that I will implement. And I am not eligible for a Roth IRA, but I will look into opening up an IRA and then converting it later.

        Re loans for Sydney – Thank you! To be honest, what helped me the most was having a well-paying job. I realize that is not super helpful and am not trying to be flip, but I know that I could never have paid down my debt so quickly were it not for my salary.

        Otherwise, I budgeted by setting as many of my bills to auto-pay as possible, including transferring a monthly allowance for daily expenses to a checking account at a different bank from the one where I receive my paychecks. Based on that monthly budget, I had a general idea of how much extra I should have in my paycheck account to pay toward my loans per month. While I could access that extra paycheck money if needed, separating it from my day-to-day account really encouraged me to be mindful when making purchases outside of my set budget. I then forced myself to make an extra loan payment at least once a month, as close to that amount as possible. I went over budget occasionally, but I generally tried to live below my means. For me, this was less about foregoing the daily latte than it was about cutting down on the big expenses (living in a smaller, cheaper apartment) and avoiding temptation (i.e., making most purchases, even for drugstore items, online to avoid the urge to impulse buy). And at least 90% of any bonus or tax refund went to my loans.

        What motivated me the most was referring to an excel spreadsheet I kept, tracking my net worth over time by inputting the balances of all of my accounts and debts on a bi-monthly basis. It was incredibly encouraging to see my net worth slowly move from the red to black (literally – all my debts were in red font!) and to see each loan balance drop to zero over time.

        • Sydney Bristow :

          Thanks for that. I know what you mean about the income. It can make the biggest difference. I keep a spreadsheet too but now I’m going to make my debts red. :-)

  11. This really is great timing. I’m 25. I just got a (small) raise, I max out my 401k contribution, I have no credit card or student loan debt but I do need to buy a car in the next few months and get serious about curtailing my shopping habits. From there I need to sock away a better emergency fund than the $3,000 I currently have. I also want to sell some stock that I have and use it to start an IRA.

    There’s nothing holding me back and this raise made me realize I make too much money to have so little to show for it savings wise. I’m not in a bad position by any means but I want to be in a better one. I need to make a budget and stick to it.

  12. What a great post! Can anyone recommend some extra reading on item 7C – the index funds?
    I need to start doing this but it just really overwhelms me and freaks me out. It’s not rational but maybe additional info would help. Also, any personal experiences with CS or Vanguard welcome. How does it work exactly if let’s say I want to invest, let’s say, ~ $10K?

    Also, any experience with Learnvest? It seems user friendly but I don’t know anyone who uses it…

    Thanks in advance.

      • +1.

        Also, I use Charles Schwab to invest in index funds (5 different ones- S&P 500, Dow, Top 1000, Russell 2000, and International). I started that before I read MMM and JL Collins Money where they can’t recommend enough using the Vanguard funds. From what I experience though, they seem to be pretty much the same and have similar expense ratios.

        Anyways, if you went the Vanguard route, read that MMM article and you can literally put the whole 10K into that one index fund (I can’t remember the name). After doing a ton of research, there just doesn’t seem to be a better way to make a large ROI with (relatively) lower risk. Only for long term stuff though.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi has a helpful chapter that covers index funds. I have my Roth at Vanguard and it was really easy to set up. The site walks you through the steps and it took something like 10 minutes to do. You need to input your personal info, add in bank account info to use to buy the shares, and pick the fund you want. I think Vanguard has one called the Total Stock Market Index Fund. You can invest all $10,000 at once or set up a recurring investment of smaller amounts. Doing it using either method is better than not doing it at all so just do whichever one that you’ll actually do.

    • I have a financial planner through Learnvest and really like her and the assistance in developing a plan because (as I describe below) while I think Kat’s suggestions make sense in the abstract, they don’t entirely work for me. That said, I think that Learnvest’s software is inferior to Mint in several ways. First, several of my accounts won’t connect, it doesn’t “learn” the correct way to analyze things (my husband buys lunch at the same place every day and it always categorizes that expense as “rental income”), and it doesn’t “roll over” your budget or allow you to create quarterly budgets (which I think is really useful for very large purchases such as vacations and also for smaller but occassionally large purchases such as clothes). So if you are thinking of a premium account, I’d encourage you to do it, but I don’t think that their free site is worth it.

      In terms of a plan, here’s how we handle it. (By way of background, I’m married, have $150K in student loans, ~$500K for a mortgage, and no credit card debt.)

      1a. max out 401(k)s (done/ongoing)
      1b. emergency fund–we started by putting $10K in this (done)
      2. baby fund–next step was to put aside $30K so that I could take three additional months off unpaid if I wanted to (done)
      3. simultaneously build up to emergency fund (goal is $60K) and save for a Ferrari for my husband (that is a goal we are making very little progress on but you have to have some fun); paying minimums on loans (ongoing)
      4. every year we use bonuses (approximately $40K) to tackle one or more major goals–such as the baby fund, one year of nanny expenses, or one of my student loans (ongoing)
      5. once we’ve finished the emergency fund, we will put that money into student loans and then mortgage and possibly a nondeductible IRA

      It will probably take us 5-10 more years to finish pay off the mortgage and student loans based on this plan. We could save more aggressively but spend a lot of money on travel (my husband’s family is split between Mexico and Europe; we live in the U.S.) and (currently) furnishing our home.

      One note on emergency funds v. retirement–it obviously depends a lot based on whether you share expenses with someone else, stability in your career(s), etc., but once you have 1-2 months of living expenses saved (as opposed to 6-12, which seems to be the standard advice these days), I would seriously consider maxing out your 401(k) (or paying down debt) before building up a more robust emergency fund because the amount that you need in retirement is probably far more than you could possibly imagine. As it is, I feel like my husband and I will be cutting it close even though we have 30+ years to go until we retire and he’s been saving for retirement since he was 21. (I had a little retirement savings in my 20s but didn’t get serious until I was about 30.)

  13. Wondering :

    Finance related question…

    Has anyone purchased an investment property and if so, can you share some advice on how to move forward with this process? We are currently renting in a high cost city, Boston, but are reluctant to buy a home because we don’t know our 5-year plan yet. However, we recently sold our home (in another city) and have some extra cash and thought perhaps we should invest in some real estate. We would like to purchase a small 1 bedroom in a desirable neighborhood in Boston or Brookline (which is a buyer’s market right now and housing prices have remained stable over the years).

    Is this a good/bad idea? Thoughts?

    • When you say you don’t know your plan, does that mean you might leave Boston? Buying investment property seems rather hands on to me. What will you do for maintenance? Can you afford if it isn’t rented out or the rental rates plummet ? What if you have to move and you aren’t in a position to sell? You’ve owned a home before so I’ll assume you know about all of the surprise expenses that can pop up.

      • Wondering :

        Mascot, all very good points:

        We may leave Boston but we may also be here for the next 10 years, depending on the job situation. If we were to leave Boston, we would either sell the property or hire a maintenance company to take care of it. Rental rates are unlikely to plummet in the areas we are looking at (rent has gone up every year even in the economic downturn) but if they do, we can afford to suck up the cost and pay the rent at least for some time.

    • Regular but anon for finance qs :

      Not sure about in larger cities, but for our family the only way investing in rental properties works out is that we do everything ourselves – we’ve bought and renovated 2 duplexes, living in one unit while renting or fixing the other. Hiring out the reno, maintenance, basic repairs or property management would eat into ALL our profits and it would basically be a wash, if not a money losing proposition. Also, my husband is a self employed contractor, so when a tenant calls to say “I locked myself out and left the stove on” or “I think a pipe burst upstairs and there is water pouring out of th ceiling” (both happened this winter) he is able to drop everything and rush over immediately before the damage is worse, and then rearrange his schedule to do the repairs fairly quickly.

      If you are handy and can afford the time and money, I do recommend the route of buying a duplex where you can live in one part and rent the other (we’ve generally had better behaved tenants when they know the landlord is on the other side of the wall). Or buying a “starter home” with the intent to live in it a few years and then rent instead of selling. But if you think its just a matter of buying a property and then collecting rent every month – no way, its way way way more work than that.

  14. Can anyone with a pension (feds especially) tell me how you factor this into your retirement savings? My husband has a TSP and FERS with mandatory 20 year retirement (law enforcement). If I am reading OPM correctly, he gets 1.7% of his high three (unless congress changes it to high five or something) times 20. So if his high three ends up $80,000 (totally random number, he makes $60k now), we would get $27,200 per year?

    How much do you try to save between TSP and if you have a spouse and he/she has a 401k, how much do you try to save in those vehicles?

    Currently TSP has really been outperforming my 401k so we are funding that and doing matching minimum on mine. (Fed spouses have a vested interested in retirement funds so I’m not worried about him fleeing the country with the money.)

    • Kontraktor :

      Sorry, I accidentally pressed report. I need to stop doing that. meh…

      Anyway, my hubs is military and we max his TSP in addition to my 401k (I only get a small match) and 2 Roth IRAs. Right now, we presume my husband will be in for 20 years and get the pension, but we don’t make any 100% gaurantees, hence funding the other retirement vehicles as well. It sounds like you are calculating the pension amount correctly; usually a percentage of the highest salary. As I said in a previous comment, I’d rather overcommit rather undercommit, and I don’t want to count on a pension that may or may not happen (even if he gets the pension, there is no 100% assurance the amount won’t be changed at some point). I view it as a potential added bonus vs. a hard and fast definite in our retirement future.

      • Thanks. Can’t afford to max either right now. I’m still paying off high student loans. I’m trying to do the “minimum we need” calculations. I appreciate your perspective though and maxing all around is awesome if you can do it!

        Is there no protection at all on the pensions? I thought when Congress last discussed the change to high 5’s people with more than x years of service (3?) were grandfathered. Since it is a wage benefit, I thought there had to be some protection, particularly post ERISA – though I know the gov’t likes to exempt itself from all sorts of legislation.

        • Kontraktor :

          It sounds like you are doing good to at least get your match. I’m just saying that as your financial situation changes, I would still continue to invest in retirement solutions aside from just relying on pension. In terms of protection, I guess I just don’t have much faith in government; look at the recent attempts to try to remove certain COLA adjustments from veteran pensions. We’ve seen enough flip-flopping with government policy for me to not have confidence that any pension, government or not, is 100% assured. Further, my husband could get hit by a truck tomorrow and die, or have to get out of the military unexpectedly before 20 years, making his pension nonexistant. So, as I said, we just treat it as a potential income not given and do our retirement calculations separate.

    • I work in state government and I expect to retire with a pension in 25-30 years, when I am 60-65 years old. I’m 35 now. I will receive about 67.5% -70% of the average of my top 3 years, which will be plenty. I still invest and save aggressively in a Roth IRA and individual mutual funds. I also have a supplemental annuity and deferred compensation through work. I would like to have about $3 million in all my investments at retirement. I am not too worried about the pension disappearing, but I don’t want to be limited by it. I am single and it looks more and more like I will stay this way, though I want to have kids. I want to be able to pay for my kids’ activities and educations.

  15. commuting :

    I think I am probably just being a baby here, and plenty of you will tell me that you walk your commute no matter what.

    Let me lay out a scenario for you: I live a mile from my office in relative suburbia compared with a lot of you. We don’t have stellar public transit (just a bus–no metro), and the bus that runs where my stops would be are on a 20-minute cycle. There are sidewalks almost every step of the way between my house and my office. I will also say that it is not anything near flat.

    That being said, I keep fairly normal business hours, though I do have regularly-scheduled evening meetings. It is rare that I need a car during the day at work.

    I have a car. It’s paid for. It’s budgeted for maintenance and fuel. I have no parking fees at my office. My commute via car is about 5-8 minutes, depending on “traffic”. When I walk, it takes me close to 30-45 minutes. I don’t even have to wear fancy clothes at my office–so I can wear jeans and commutable shoes without a problem.

    Thing is, I love my car. I love the freedom it affords me to have a little extra time in the mornings, and to not get home so late in the evenings. I’m not sure that I’d even save that much money by not commuting, given the short distance and no additional cost.

    Given my situation, WWYD?

    • I’d walk 2-3 days a week for starters and strive to walk every day. 30-45 minutes seems like a long time to walk a mile. I occasionally walk 3 miles to work and that takes an hour. I listen to podcasts and books on tape and enjoy the exercise. I ordinarily spent 4 evenings a week at the gym or working out outside so I get home late almost every day anyways. It would be nice to get the exercise out of the way by walking. Consider yourself lucky that your office is so convenient!

    • Senior Attorney Paging Godzilla :

      I live half a mile from work and there is no way on God’s green earth that I would even consider giving up my car.

    • Anonattorney :

      Drive.

    • I’d walk when I wanted to (nice weather, ready early enough, etc.) and drive the rest of the time.

      For background: I grew up in a rural area where everybody drives pretty much everywhere, even if they’re going less than 1/2 mile. Parking is always available, and you need a car to get around because there’s no transportation, and the culture seems slanted towards ALWAYS driving, even in those limited situations where it’s not necessary.

      Background 2: A few years ago, I lived in the suburbs of a big city and was 3/4 mile from the train, and my office was 1/2 mile from the train, so that added up to 2.5 miles of walking per day. I HATED it. On nice days when I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t have a lot to carry, the walk was ok, but that was not most days. When it was cold (which it is often), it would be miserable. When it was hot, I was always getting my work clothes sweaty. I had to bundle like crazy in the winter which always made getting ready take even longer. Anytime I had to carry anything heavier than a light purse, it was uncomfortable. I couldn’t wear about 75% of the shoes in my closet (purchased at a time when I drove door-to-door to work; they’re comfortable for the minimum amount of walking I’d do around an office, but not for a 2.5 mile hike daily), and that irritated me (unless I was willing to commute in commuting shoes and carry my work shoes, but then that added to the crap I had to carry with me, and the items pressing against my skin and making me sweat more in the summer).

      So maybe I’m a baby too, but I hated hated hated that commuting situation. My commute now from my new home (in the city) is just as long as my commute from the suburbs was, but the walk on either end is super short, so most of my commuting time is spent sitting on the train reading, and I am SOOOOOO much happier and less stressed. In your situation, I’d definitely drive to work the majority of the time.

      • Toward the end of my time in suburbia, it got to the point where I was driving most days, despite the high cost of parking near my office and cost of gas for a 20-mile round trip commute. I really hated the walking part of the walking/train commute.

    • Wondering :

      Are you asking whether you should sell your car? Definitely not, given that it’s paid off and you live in suburbia. However, I agree that you may want to walk at least 1-2 days a week when the weather is nice, just for exercise and fresh air. FYI, I walk 1 mile each way to work and it takes me 17 minutes each way (but it’s flat throughout).

    • I would ride my bike.

    • Why not invest in some nice comfy shoes and walk a few days a week? I’m from NYC so I tend to walk very quickly but I could probably cover a mile in about 12-15 minutes, a bit more if I was talking to someone. Plus, I always looked at it as built in exercise and a great time to call friends/family.

    • Wildkitten :

      Get a fitbit!

    • Regular but anon for finance qs :

      I just got a new job that’s about 1.5 miles from home. Its totally flat here, but really really cold right now, and there is 0 public transit. I drive right now, but once its reliably in the high 40s to mid-70s I plan to bicycle a few days a week in order to combine commuting with exercise. Could you consider that option?

    • Anonymous Angeleno :

      I would drive, because I work in biglaw and time is my most scarce resource. But also, if you want to drive, and can afford to drive, you shouldn’t feel guilty about driving! Walk when you want to, enjoy the exercise and sunshine (in nice weather), and don’t beat yourself up about it either way.

  16. +1 on the “great time to call”

    I’m so sick of my 3/4 of a mile walk home from the metro and can’t wait until I move. But now I’ve started using it as a time to call my family and friends and it’s so much better (but still looking forward to moving closer to the metro)

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