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Declare your (financial) freedom!

Declare your (financial) freedom!

As we head into the Fourth of July weekend, almost everyone I know is making plans for a celebration. Barbecues. Fireworks. Family and friends. It’s a time-honored tradition of celebrating the declaration of our independence from England way back in 1776. And while we should never take those liberties for granted, one thing that can give you a great reason to celebrate every day is your personal financial freedom.

Sound like an impossible dream? No matter what the state of your finances today, here are five steps to help pave your way toward true financial freedom:

  1. Freedom from illiteracy. According to this 2015 S&P Global Financial Literacy Study, nearly half of the U.S. population rates as financially illiterate. Financial illiteracy’s close companion, innumeracy, or mathematical illiteracy, is also a challenge. Even many highly educated people don’t understand the impact of compounding, the difference between “good debt” and “bad debt,” or why working with a financial fiduciary is vital to financial success. No matter where you are on the spectrum, make it your mission to be a lifetime learner when it comes to money, investing, and your finances. The more you know, the better your decisions will be. A great place to start: read How to Think About Money by Jonathan Clements. This easy read will have you on your way to worrying less about money, making smarter financial choices, and squeezing more happiness out of every dollar.
     
  2. Freedom from chaos. If your financial files are in a constant state of chaos, you can bet your financial life is in pretty bad shape as well. No matter what the reason, know this: you’re not alone. Finances are complicated, but the longer you procrastinate, the more complex the challenge will be. If you can’t get yourself to dive into that growing stack of papers, or if you simply don’t know where or how to begin, set your pride aside and reach out to your financial advisor to get help now. Need more inspiration? Read my blog For your finances, getting organized can be the greatest challenge.
     
  3. Freedom from debt. Debt is a huge problem in the US. In 2017, the average US household held more than $8,000 in credit card debt, up 6% from last year. And that doesn’t even include auto loans and other “bad debt” which, in contrast to “good debt” such as a home mortgage, student loans, and business loans, doesn’t have the potential to generate benefits over time. Because “bad debt” reduces your income, adds no value to your wealth, and forces you to pay more every month for an item that is losing value, it’s one of biggest threats to your financial freedom. Use a debt snowball to reduce and eliminate the debt you have today, and avoid taking on more debt in the future. For more on how debt can impact your future, read my blog There’s no such thing as an unexpected expense.
     
  4. Freedom from mindless spending. Financial independence requires understanding that every dollar matters, and being mindful about how you spend each and every dollar you have. Does that mean every dollar has to be relegated to paying down debt or saving for the future? No. But it does mean creating a budget to plan how much you need to save and how much you can spend every month. By creating a cash budget, you’ll already feel liberated because you’ll be in charge of your finances, instead of letting your finances be in charge of you. To dive deeper into budgeting and learn how making mindful choices with your money can help you relax about your finances, read my blog Cold, hard cash! (Are you paying attention?).
     
  5. Freedom from the unexpected. A recent survey from Bankrate revealed that 57% of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 unexpected expense. If you too are living paycheck to paycheck, it’s time to create a “freedom fund” to cover 6-12 months of living expenses. While that may sound like a lot of cash, think of it like paying off a debt to your future self now, build it into your budget, and pay yourself first every month. Once your “freedom fund” is at the ready, you’ll be amazed by the sense of relief you’ll experience when you’re no longer living paycheck to paycheck. Want to learn more about this approach? See my blog Celebrate retirement planning week: Create a “freedom fund.”

Financial independence isn’t only for the wealthy. By being mindful about your finances now, you can intentionally work toward a level of freedom that ensures you can always stand on your own two feet. Best of all you’ll have financial peace of mind so you can relax about your money. That’s the kind of freedom you’ll want to celebrate every day of your life! If you need help getting there, I’m always here to help!

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There’s no such thing as an unexpected expense!

There’s no such thing as an unexpected expense!

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.

Ready to get started? Check out 7 Steps to a Budget Made Easyor use NAPFA’s find an advisor guideto find a fee-only financial advisor near you.

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Cold, hard cash! (Are you paying attention?)

Cold, hard cash! (Are you paying attention?)

Cash. It’s by far the most important piece of wealth management. And yet it is often the very last thing most people want to focus on. Time and time again, when I sit down with a new client, the first thing on their agenda is reviewing their account statements, while the first thing on my agenda—always—is to take a look at how they’re spending and saving their hard-earned cash. It’s not the sexy part of finance, but much like building that less-than-beautiful foundation to support your beautiful home, careful attention to cash flow and cash management is vital to building and preserving long-term wealth.

Tonya and Ray came to meet with me last week. In their mid-50s, they want to be sure they’re on track by saving enough for retirement and making smart choices about pre- and post-retirement taxation. They’ve also decided it’s time to get help with their investments (better late than never!). They came armed with lots of documentation: account statements, tax returns, and even a monthly budget. They seemed to have all their ducks in a row.

Then I took a closer look at the budget they had set in front of me. There were buckets for mortgage, utilities, insurance, and car payments. But everything I saw listed was a fixed expense. These are the expenses that are predictable and unchangeable. What was missing were buckets for their non-fixed expenses—the very items we can manage to achieve the two biggest goals of wealth management: eliminating debt and growing assets.

I asked the obvious question: “How are you spending your cash?” Tonya was quick with an answer: “It’s right there, in the ‘credit card’ bucket. We charge everything so we can easily keep track of it all.” Sure enough, there was a line item labeled ‘credit card’ with a budgeted amount of $2,000/month. “Ok, I asked, but where is that $2,000 going? Exactly?” They both chimed in with a lot of answers. Groceries. Gas. Restaurants. Car maintenance. Pet food. Prescriptions. Theatre tickets. Clothes. And they were clearly very proud that it was all contained in one manageable bucket. They assured me this method was working well for them.

But was it?

Luckily, in Tonya and Ray’s case, because these expenses were all on a single statement, we were able to track every expense. We drilled down into the details and looked at just a single month to see exactly where their cash was going. The numbers surprised us all. While they guessed they had spent $1,000 a month on meals and entertainment with another $1,000 slotted for necessities, the numbers told a different story. Two concert tickets at $125 each; monthly gym memberships of $120 each; one movie night at $36; four rounds of golf at $195 each (which they assured me was an unusual splurge), including two lunches at the resort for $90 a pop. While they were limiting themselves to one “nice” dinner out each week, they had spent $485 in that category, plus they’d added a handful of less extravagant meals, lunches, and lattes that racked up to $530. Total on meals and entertainment: $2,501. When we added in the other items included in the ‘credit card’ bucket (plus a few other surprises like $260 for housekeeping and $100 on supplements), what they were spending was more than double their original $2,000 monthly budget. Clearly, the budget wasn’t working after all. Without a method for closely managing cash, Tonya and Ray had been blind to the enormous rippling effect of their lack of daily money management and their invisible spending habits.  

Tonya and Ray are not alone. All too often I find that even the most financially diligent investors fail to have a basic financial planning document that includes a detailed record of their cash flow. Twisting arms doesn’t work (trust me, I’ve tried!), but by biting the bullet and following these three steps, they (and you) may finally get on the right path:

  1. Identify your top 3 goals—and make building an emergency cash fund #1. Regardless of the state of your finances, having cash on hand to cover unbudgeted expenses is key. Having an emergency fund equal to at least three months of your total household income is essential to avoid having to take on new debt in the future. Goals #2 and #3 might include paying off credit card debt, saving for a car, or funding next year’s vacation. (Read more on the power of an emergency fund in my blog When did it become ok to be financially illiterate?)

  2. Identify your income and your fixed expenses. Income is what you’re bringing home each month—salary, distributions, etc. Fixed expenses include mortgage or rent payments, insurance, utilities, and non-credit-card debt such as car payments. Be sure you know what’s coming in and what’s going out every month.

  3. Build your detailed budget. Err on the side of too much detail, and create a line item for every expense category. Separate your needs from your wants, and keep an eye on your top 3 goals from Step 1, includingcontributing to your emergency savings and paying yourself first for retirement (see my blog Getting back to basics in the New Year for more on this important topic).Be specific, and be certain your expenses don’t exceed your income! I encourage you to use a basic household budget worksheet like this one from Kiplinger. While there are apps available to help, none of them can do this work for you, and they can be more of a distraction than a benefit.

If the word “budget” reeks of giving up your spending freedom, rest assured that careful management of your cash flow is certain to have the opposite effect. By parsing your spending, aligning your spending habits with your personal goals, and projecting your cash flow into the future, you will gain the financial freedom you’ve been seeking all along—guaranteed. And the effects are long lasting too. When done well year after year, you’ll slowly but surely develop a comfort level with your actual life costs. You’ll realize you know whether something is “in the budget” without having to look at the numbers. And when changes happen like buying a home, changing jobs, growing a family, or ending a relationship? It will be that much easier to adjust to life’s transitions, whatever they may be, and rest easy knowing you (finally!) have your cold, hard cash under control.

Need help taking charge of your cash flow? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  to schedule a time to meet. As always, I’m here to help!

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09 November 2016

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All written content on this site is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Lauren S. Klein, President, Klein Financial Advisors, Inc. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and we make no representations as to its accuracy or completeness. Read More >