Everything in life begins with change. Change is one of the only certainties in this life, and our ability to navigate change is critical for our survival. Ok, perhaps survival is dramatic, but it is indeed a critical life skill that builds upon itself to make us stronger and more adept at dealing with the myriad challenges we are faced with in our lifetime. All of us, from children, to teens, to middle aged adults, to senior citizens are regularly faced with new circumstances that challenge our security with the status quo. For many, significant discomfort accompanies these events, but once they go through the motions of accepting and then moving forward in this new reality, confidence and calm slowly return.
Financial matters often feel like the most daunting challenges. This is due to the stress created by financial insecurity coupled often with a lack of expertise with Financial matters in general. Financial literacy is, in my humble opinion, one of the most impactful skills that our education system can provide. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least taught, resulting in young people embarking on their future with no foundation on which to base their financial decisions.
Where does Financial Management Begin?
Prudent financial management is defined by the simplest of formulas:
Income > Expenses
This may seem silly, but at the highest and most complex levels of wealth, all too often it is the awareness of true expenses that leads to the success of the planning. The following are some simple techniques to get started:
Create a Monthly Financial Summary
The purpose of this exercise is to make sure you have a complete awareness of all of your financial obligations and the resources needed to meet them. The priority in this list will be the “non-negotiables”, or set expenses, such as Mortgage, car payments, utilities, etc. You would also want to include all credit card payments, gas expenses, and groceries. Essentially all of the expenses needed to live your life.
In addition to your expenses, you will include your “net income” each month, after taxes, rather than your “Gross Salary”. By comparing the Income to your expenses, you will begin to see how much “extra” you have each month, and subsequently be able to fill in the gaps on what else you are spending. Ultimately, the goal will be to determine if there is any opportunity to begin to save some of the excess in a disciplined savings strategy, either through a Retirement plan or other vehicle. The ability to do this before discretionary spending will allow you to “pay yourself first” as they say. You never miss the money, and it can immediately begin to work for you.
Identify Short and Long Term Goals
Once you have your arms around the state of your finances, you can begin to plan. A realistic plan is the key to any financial success. As they say “Garbage In = Garbage Out”, so being honest with yourself is critical. Setting goals is an excellent way to take control of your financial management. If you establish a goal, then you will need to create a plan to meet that goal. Examples of goals might be:
Short Term: Purchase a New Car, Payoff a Loan, Travel
Long Term: Purchase a Home, Payoff a Mortgage, Retire
Whatever the goal, a plan is needed to make sure that when and how the goal is achieved will benefit you both in the short and long term. For example, while you might be able to buy a new car or a new home with no money down, the long term impact of a higher monthly payment might add unexpected stress to your budget. Finding the balance between prudent and imprudent debt is key!
This is not to say that “debt is bad”. Incurring debt is not only sometimes necessary in cases of large expenses, it can also be an effective strategy to keep your savings working for you while moving forward with a needed expense. You are in essence, taking a bet that your investments will earn more for you than you are paying in interest on the loan, hence a net win for your long term balance sheet.
Where challenge presents itself is that we live in a world today where our needs are met perhaps “too” immediately. Gone are the days where we had to wait until we could afford things, and here is the age of immediate credit, online shopping, and countless “deals” for us to take advantage of in order to have the things we most want. With the ease of getting what we want when we want it, it makes it even harder, yet more important than ever to exercise discipline around our financial well being. Setting goals, time frames, and understanding where we are today are critical to ensuring our financial health in the future. By employing patience and setting realistic expectations, we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the most sound financial decisions, that will ensure our long term success.
Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it.
Surrounding yourself with facts and with advisors who are “truth tellers” is a key decision in taking control of your financial life. While we might not always want to hear the truth, we do need to hear it, so that we don’t make a financial mistake that could have long term, cascading effects. If your advisor is a “Yes” Person, rather than a “Here’s the pros and cons” Person, I’d suggest it’s time for a change to someone who will ADVISE.