When I met Carolyn for the first time in January, she was distraught. What finally got her to pick up the phone and get financial help was this year’s extreme rainy season—and a big financial surprise. “I didn’t even realize how old my roof was, or that it needed repair, until the water started coming in!” And come in it did. Carolyn had been out of town on business when the leaks opened up, and her home was a mess by the time she found it three days later. Her homeowner's insurance was covering the interior damage (minus a hefty deductible), but she was told she needed a whole new roof. The cost: $22,000. A high-earning corporate executive, Carolyn had lots of credit, but her emergency fund was non-existent, and a new roof was one thing she couldn’t put on a credit card and pay off over the next few months. She needed cash, and she needed it now. “I thought I was in great shape financially,” she told me. “Who knew I’d need so much cash with no notice?”
The answer? I knew. Or at least I could have provided a pretty close estimate, even though I’d never met Carolyn until she walked through my office door that afternoon. I’m no psychic (if I were, there’d be no need for financial planning!). How did I know Carolyn would need that much cash for a home repair? It’s all in the numbers. It’s all in the budget. I repeat: There’s no such thing as an unexpected expense!
All I needed to know was this: Carolyn owns a home in Newport Beach. If her home is worth anything close to the median price of about $2M, a 1-percent rule tells me that her home maintenance will average about 1% of the purchase price of her home—or $20,000—per year. Suddenly $22,000 doesn’t sound that surprising at all! But without a budget, every expense was unexpected. Without a budget, Carolyn didn’t have a clue.
The 1-percent “rule” means that when you purchase a large, illiquid, expensive-to-own asset like a personal residence, almost everything will have to be repaired or replaced eventually. I guide people to set aside a replacement fund of 1% of the purchase price each year for these very predictable costs. The work may not occur each year. It could be a roof, a kitchen, a driveway, plumbing… but it will be something. It always is.
The new roof is just a drop in the bucket (pun intended) when it comes to Carolyn’s money challenges. She was earning a substantial income but wasn’t setting aside cash for irregular discretionary expenses. She had no revolving debt, and she was saving for retirement. But her cash flow planning was a non-starter. In hindsight, maybe her leaking roof was a good thing; it was just the wake-up call she needed to get her to take action.
We began by finding the cash she needed to fix her roof (thank goodness for her good credit and a good chunk of home equity!). But we didn’t stop there. Next, we worked together to create a budget so she knows what she earns, what she spends, and what she can afford. She began to use eMoney (my favorite personal financial management software) to be sure she stays on track. She’s now building an emergency fund rather than relying on credit cards, and she’s earmarking cash reserves for those not-so-surprising expenses such as car replacements, home repairs, annual vacations, and even a planned future nip-and-tuck. The next time a large expense hits her, I have no doubt she’ll have the funds in place to cover the bill.
What Carolyn has discovered is that cash planning is the foundation for a solid financial plan. A cash budget creates a wonderful sense of financial freedom. “I always thought budgeting was like dieting—that I’d always feel deprived—so I just didn't look at how I was spending,” she told me. “Now, I feel the exact opposite. Because I know how much I have and where I want to use it, I don’t get stressed about an expensive dinner that I know is in the budget. Even better, I know I’ll never have surprises, and I don’t worry when I see my credit card statement arrive!” She’s also building a “freedom fund” to be sure she has the funds to support her dreams down the road, whatever they may be. (Read my blog Celebrate Retirement Planning Week: Create a “freedom fund” to learn more!)
Like many of my clients, Carolyn has discovered one of the great financial secrets: cash planning is empowering. Remember, there’s no such thing as an unexpected expense! Making intentional, conscious choices about when, where, and how to spend your hard-earned dollars is key. Align what you want with what you need and (finally!) relax about your finances.