How Long Will My Savings Last?

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If only we had access to a reliable crystal ball, how simple saving for retirement could be. Instead, the process can feel more like a Magic 8 Ball® inquiry, finding fresh and fleeting new answers to the familiar question “How long will my savings last?” Telling you to concentrate and ask again, that it is […]

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Mint Money Audit: Making the Most of a Side Hustle

This week’s Mint audit introduces us to Selena, 48, a mom of two living in San Antonio, Texas. She is a community college director and her husband, 51, is a full-time graphic designer who also manages a booming side hustle…

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How To Retire At 50: 10 Easy Steps To Consider

Can you retire at 50? On average, people usually retire at 65. But what if you want to retire 15 years earlier than that like  at 50? Is it doable? Below are 10 easy steps to take to retire at 50.  Retiring early can be challenging. Therefore, SmartAsset’s free tool can match you with  a …

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How to Choose a 401(k) Beneficiary: Rules & Options

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Choosing a 401(k) beneficiary ensures that any unused funds in your account are dispersed according to your wishes after you pass away. Whether you’re married, single, or in a domestic partnership, naming a beneficiary simplifies the estate process and makes it easier for your heirs to receive the money. There’s room on 401(k) beneficiary forms […]

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Got Cash? What to Do with Extra Money

I received a great email from Magen L., who says:

I no longer have any retirement savings because I cashed it all out to pay my debt. We also sold our home and moved into an apartment just as the pandemic was hitting. With the sale of our house, the fact that my husband is working overtime, and the stimulus money, we've saved nearly $10,000 and should have more by the end of the year. My primary question is, what should we do with it?

Right now, I have our extra money in a low-interest bank savings [account], and I'm considering moving it to a high-yield savings [account] as our emergency fund. Is that a good idea? For additional money we save, I intend to use it as a down payment on a new house. However, should I be investing in Roth IRAs instead? What is the best option?

Another question comes from Bianca G., who says:

I have zero credit card debt, but I have a car loan and a student loan. I will be receiving a large amount of money sometime next year. If my fiancé and I want to buy a home, is it better to pay off my car first and then my student loan, or should I just pay down a big portion of my student loan?

Thanks Megan and Bianca for your questions. I'll answer them and give you a three-step plan to prioritize your extra money and make your finances more secure. No matter if you're a good saver or you get a cash windfall from a tax refund, an inheritance, or the sale of a home, extra money should never be squandered.

What to do with extra cash

Maybe you're like Magen and have extra cash that could be working harder for you, but you're not sure what to do with it. You may even be paralyzed and do nothing because you have a deep-seated fear of making a big mistake with your cash.

In some cases, having your money sit idle is precisely the right financial move. But it depends on whether or not you've accomplished three fundamental financial goals, which we'll cover.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life. Consider what you're doing right and where you're vulnerable.

Try using a three-pronged approach that I call the PIP plan, which stands for:

  1. Prepare for the unexpected
  2. Invest for the future
  3. Pay off high-interest debt

Let's examine each one to understand how to use the PIP (prepare, invest, and pay off) approach for your situation.

How to prepare for the unexpected

The first fundamental goal you should have is to prepare for the unexpected. As you know, life is full of surprises. Some of them bring happiness, but there's an infinite number of devastating events that could hurt you financially.

In an instant, you could get fired from your job, experience a natural disaster, get a severe illness, or lose a spouse. If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we have to be as mentally, physically, and financially prepared as possible for what may be around the corner. 

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Getting equipped for the unexpected is an ongoing challenge. Your approach should change over time because it depends on your income, debt, number of dependents, and breadwinners in a family.

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets—such as an emergency fund and various types of insurance—can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Everyone should accumulate an emergency fund equal to at least three to six months' worth of their living expenses. For instance, if you spend $3,000 a month on essentials—such as housing, utilities, food, and debt payments—make a goal to keep at least $9,000 in an FDIC-insured bank savings account.

While keeping that much in savings may sound boring, the goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth. The idea is to have immediate access to your cash when you need it. That's why I don't recommend investing your emergency money unless you have more than a six-month reserve.

The goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth.

If you don't have enough saved, aim to bridge the gap over a reasonable period. For instance, you could save one half of your target over two years or one third over three years. You can put your goal on autopilot by creating an automatic monthly transfer from your checking into your savings account.

Megan mentioned using high-yield savings, which can be a good option because it pays a bit more interest for large balances. However, the higher rate typically comes with limitations, such as applying only to a threshold balance, so be sure to understand the account terms.

Insurance protects your finances

Another critical aspect of preparing for the unexpected is having enough of the right kinds of insurance. Here are some policies you may need:

  • Auto insurance if you drive your own or someone else's vehicle
  • Homeowners insurance, which is typically required when you have a mortgage
  • Renters insurance if you rent a home or apartment
  • Health insurance, which pays a portion of your medical bills
  • Disability insurance replaces a percentage of income if you get sick or injured and can no longer work
  • Life insurance if you have dependents or debt co-signers who would suffer financial hardship if you died

RELATED: How to Create Foolproof Safety Nets

How to invest for your future

Once you get as prepared as possible for the unexpected by building an emergency fund and getting the right kinds of insurance, the next goal I mentioned is investing for retirement. That’s the “I” in PIP, right behind prepare for the unexpected.

Investments can go down in value—you should never invest money you can’t live without.

While many people use the terms saving and investing interchangeably, they’re not the same. Let’s clarify the difference between investing and saving so you can think strategically about them:

Saving is for the money you expect to spend within the next few years and don’t want to risk losing it. In other words, you save money that you want to keep 100% safe because you know you’ll need it or because you could need it. While it won’t earn much interest, you’ll be able to tap it in an instant.

Investing is for the money you expect to spend in the future, such as in five or more years. Purchasing an investment means you’re exposing money to some amount of risk to make it grow. Investments can go down in value; therefore, you should never invest money you can’t live without.

In general, I recommend that you invest through a qualified retirement account, such as a workplace plan or an IRA, which come with tax benefits to boost your growth. My recommendation is to contribute no less than 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income for retirement.

Magen mentioned Roth IRAs, and it may be a good option for her to rebuild her retirement savings. For 2020, you can contribute up to $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re over age 50, to a traditional or a Roth IRA. You typically must have income to qualify for an IRA. However, if you’re married and file taxes jointly, a non-working spouse can max out an IRA based on household income.

For workplace retirement plans, such as a 401(k), you can contribute up to $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over 50 for 2020. Some employers match a certain percent of contributions, which turbocharges your account. That’s why it’s wise to invest enough to max out any free retirement matching at work. If your employer kicks in matching funds, you can exceed the annual contribution limits that I mentioned.

RELATED: A 5-Point Checklist for How to Invest Money Wisely

How to pay off high-interest debt

Once you're working on the first two parts of my PIP plan by preparing for the unexpected and investing for the future, you're in a perfect position also to pay off high-interest debt, the final "P."

Always tackle your high-interest debts before any other debts because they cost you the most. They usually include credit cards, car loans, personal loans, and payday loans with double-digit interest rates. Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Typical low-interest loans include student loans, mortgages, and home equity lines of credit. These types of debt also come with tax breaks for some of the interest you pay, making them cost even less. So, don't even think about paying them down before implementing your PIP plan.

Getting back to Bianca's situation, she didn't mention having emergency savings or regularly investing for retirement. I recommend using her upcoming cash windfall to set these up before paying off a low-rate student loan.

Let's say Bianca sets aside enough for her emergency fund, purchases any missing insurance, and still has cash left over. She could use some or all of it to pay down her auto loan. Since the auto loan probably has a higher interest rate than her student loan and doesn't come with any tax advantages, it's wise to pay it down first. 

Once you've put your PIP plan into motion, you can work on other goals, such as saving for a house, vacation, college, or any other dream you have. 

Questions to ask when you have extra money

Here are five questions to ask yourself when you have a cash windfall or accumulate savings and aren’t sure what to do with it.

1. Do I have emergency savings?

Having some emergency money is critical for a healthy financial life because no one can predict the future. You might have a considerable unexpected expense or lose income.  

Without emergency money to fall back on, you're living on the edge, financially speaking. So never turn down the opportunity to build a cash reserve before spending money on anything else.

2. Do I contribute to a retirement account at work?

Getting a windfall could be the ticket to getting started with a retirement plan or increasing contributions. It's wise to invest at least 10% to 15% of your gross income for retirement.

Investing in a workplace retirement plan is an excellent way to set aside small amounts of money regularly. You'll build wealth for the future, cut your taxes, and maybe even get some employer matching.

3. Do I have an IRA?

Don't have a job with a retirement plan? Not a problem. If you (or a spouse when you file taxes jointly) have some amount of earned income, you can contribute to a traditional or a Roth IRA. Even if you contribute to a retirement plan at work, you can still max out an IRA in the same year—which is a great way to use a cash windfall.

4. Do I have high-interest debt?

If you have expensive debt, such as credit cards or payday loans, paying them down is the next best way to spend extra money. Take the opportunity to use a windfall to get rid of high-interest debt and stay out of debt in the future. 

5. Do I have other financial goals?

After you’ve built up your emergency fund, have money flowing into tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and are whittling down high-interest debt, start thinking about other financial goals. Do you want to buy a house? Go to graduate school? Send your kids to college?

How to manage a cash windfall

Review your financial situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track.

When it comes to managing extra money, always consider the big picture of your financial life and choose strategies that follow my PIP plan in order: prepare for the unexpected, invest for the future, and pay off high-interest debt.

Review your situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track. As your life changes, you may need more or less emergency money or insurance coverage.

When your income increases, take the opportunity to bump up your retirement contribution—even increasing it one percent per year can make a huge difference.

And here's another important quick and dirty tip: when you make more money, don't let your cost of living increase as well. If you earn more but maintain or even decrease your expenses, you'll be able to reach your financial goals faster.

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The Basics of Medicare Eligibility

Medicare is a federal health insurance program widely used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents age 65 and older. The program also applies to those younger than age 65 who have disabilities, end-stage renal disease (ESRD) or other diseases. But … Continue reading →

The post The Basics of Medicare Eligibility appeared first on SmartAsset Blog.

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How to Make Better Financial Decisions

Woman learning how to make better financial decisions

A key financial decision people struggle to make is how to allocate savings for multiple financial goals. Do you save for several goals at the same time or fund them one-by-one in a series of steps? Basically, there are two ways to approach financial goal-setting:

Concurrently: Saving for two or more financial goals at the same time.

Sequentially: Saving for one financial goal at a time in a series of steps.

Each method has its pros and cons. Here’s how to decide which method is best for you.

Sequential goal-setting

Pros

You can focus intensely on one goal at a time and feel a sense of completion when each goal is achieved. It’s also simpler to set up and manage single-goal savings than plans for multiple goals. You only need to set up and manage one account.

Cons

Compound interest is not retroactive. If it takes up to a decade to get around to long-term savings goals (e.g., funding a retirement savings plan), that’s time that interest is not earned.

Concurrent goal-setting

Pros

Compound interest is not delayed on savings for goals that come later in life. The earlier money is set aside, the longer it can grow. Based on the Rule of 72, you can double a sum of money in nine years with an 8 percent average return. The earliest years of savings toward long-term goals are the most powerful ones.

Cons

Funding multiple financial goals is more complex than single-tasking. Income needs to be earmarked separately for each goal and often placed in different accounts. In addition, it will probably take longer to complete any one goal because savings is being placed in multiple locations.

Research findings

Working with Wise Bread to recruit respondents, I conducted a study of financial goal-setting decisions with four colleagues that was recently published in the Journal of Personal Finance. The target audience was young adults with 69 percent of the sample under age 45. Four key financial decisions were explored: financial goals, homeownership, retirement planning, and student loans.

Results indicated that many respondents were sequencing financial priorities, instead of funding them simultaneously, and delaying homeownership and retirement savings. Three-word phrases like “once I have…,", “after I [action],” and “as soon as…,” were noted frequently, indicating a hesitancy to fund certain financial goals until achieving others.

The top three financial goals reported by 1,538 respondents were saving for something, buying something, and reducing debt. About a third (32 percent) of the sample had outstanding student loan balances at the time of data collection and student loan debt had a major impact on respondents’ financial decisions. About three-quarters of the sample said loan debt affected both housing choices and retirement savings.

Actionable steps

Based on the findings from the study mentioned above, here are five ways to make better financial decisions.

1. Consider concurrent financial planning

Rethink the practice of completing financial goals one at a time. Concurrent goal-setting will maximize the awesome power of compound interest and prevent the frequently-reported survey result of having the completion date for one goal determine the start date to save for others.

2. Increase positive financial actions

Do more of anything positive that you’re already doing to better your personal finances. For example, if you’re saving 3 percent of your income in a SEP-IRA (if self-employed) or 401(k) or 403(b) employer retirement savings plan, decide to increase savings to 4 percent or 5 percent.

3. Decrease negative financial habits

Decide to stop (or at least reduce) costly actions that are counterproductive to building financial security. Everyone has their own culprits. Key criteria for consideration are potential cost savings, health impacts, and personal enjoyment.

4. Save something for retirement

Almost 40 percent of the respondents were saving nothing for retirement, which is sobering. The actions that people take (or do not take) today affect their future selves. Any savings is better than no savings and even modest amounts like $100 a month add up over time.

5. Run some financial calculations

Use an online calculator to set financial goals and make plans to achieve them. Planning increases people’s sense of control over their finances and motivation to save. Useful tools are available from FINRA and Practical Money Skills.

What’s the best way to save money for financial goals? It depends. In the end, the most important thing is that you’re taking positive action. Weigh the pros and cons of concurrent and sequential goal-setting strategies and personal preferences, and follow a regular savings strategy that works for you. Every small step matters!

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Want to know how to allocate savings for your financial goals? We’ve got the tips on how to make financial decisions so you can be confident in your personal finance! | #moneymatters #personalfinance #moneytips


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