“I’m going to start that novel.”
“I’m going to lose 10 pounds.”
That’s the sound of you formulating your 2016 new year’s resolutions. While these are important goals, don’t forget aspects of your financial life you’d finally like to take care of.
Just like any goal worth attaining, it doesn’t happen overnight, and often you need to take baby steps towards it. Committing to run 5 miles a day – when the only running you do now is from the couch to the kitchen – is sure to end in failure. But if you walk for 30 minutes a day, then run one mile, two miles, three miles…soon you’ll achieve the goal.
The same applies for your financial aspirations. Here are four important financial goals for 2016 that many people never quite get around to. Why? Because they seem too overwhelming. To combat this barrier, I’ve included small, tangible steps to get you there. I’ve also created an “I will” statement for each step. Although it may seem silly, there’s a lot of power in declaring to yourself that you will complete a task.
Pick a week in January and start. But this plan can work in any month of 2016.
Week 1: Start contributing to your 401k or IRA.
You’ve heard the numbers. If you start saving $500 dollars per month at age 18, you’ll be a gazillionaire by the time you’re 50. Well, you’re not 18, and you don’t have $500 dollars a month. So just start wherever you are.
Steps to Get There:
• On Day 1 I will find $25 per month I can cut out of my budget. Coffee, expensive cable plans, and eating out are prime targets for austerity.
• On Day 2 I will find a retirement plan provider. It doesn’t matter whether your employer offers one or not, although if they do, it’s as simple as calling your HR director. If your employer does not offer one, you can open a retirement account on your own. An employer-sponsored plan is called a 401(k), but an IRA, which stands for individual retirement account, is a plan you set up independent from your employer. Many great companies offer IRAs such as Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and TIAA Cref. Representatives at any good investment company will walk you through the setup process. Don’t worry about which specific investments to put your money in. To start, just pick a fund that’s already set up to get more conservative as you age. Investment companies usually call these plans something like “Retirement 2035” or “Retirement 2040.” (And always talk to a professional before investing.)
• On Day 3 I will transfer $25 or the minimum required amount into my IRA. After the initial transfer, you’ll contribute $25 each month. Yep, only $25 to start. You can do that. The amount is not important. What’s important is building the habit.
• On Day 4 I will set up contributions to be automatic. You’re more likely to forget or neglect to contribute if you have to do it manually each month. Most IRAs allow you to set up an auto-withdrawal plan. As 2016 rolls on, you can start contributing more. Work your way up to $100, $200, $300 per month or more. But right now, just worry about getting started!
Week 1 is done. Congratulations.
Fact: Someone age 35 with zero in retirement who starts saving $400 per month into a moderately aggressive retirement account will have $754,100 at age 70.
Week 2: Refinance or Buy a Home
Here it is: the mortgage guy telling you to refinance or buy a home. But I’d be giving you this advice if I were an landscaper or zookeeper. Why? Your mortgage is probably your biggest expense and liability, so refinancing makes a big difference. And buying a home could be the key to financial security later in life.
If you don’t yet own a home, bookmark our home buying page and make a plan to study it. We lay out step-by-step instructions on how to buy, and answer your burning questions in a free downloadable home buyer’s guide. Once you’ve downloaded your guide, skip to Week 3.
Back to refinancing – what about all that paperwork?
Let’s face it. The paperwork is unavoidable. But don’t let it intimidate you. A great mortgage company will guide you through the process. So here’s how to get started.
Steps to Get There:
• On Day 1 I will check my interest rates and compare to current mortgage rates. Go to Freddie Mac’s website to see this week’s averages for the 30 year fixed and 15 year fixed. If the rates are at least 0.25% lower than your current interest rate, it may be worth refinancing. Or if you want to convert your 30 year fixed into a 15-year or go from an adjustable rate into a fixed loan, it may be a good time to refinance even if the rate difference isn’t significant.
• On Day 2 I will contact two or three lenders to get a personalized rate quote. You won’t know if you’re getting the best rate and fees unless you compare various lenders’ offers. You can contact multiple lenders at the same time by completing one contact request form here. Or call (866) 240-5121 to be connected with a lender who will give you a rate quote over the phone at no cost. Is this a shameless plug? Maybe, but it’s the fastest and easiest way to connect with a few pre-screened and reputable lenders.
• On Day 3 I will decide on a lender. Request Loan Estimates from various lenders. Compare total fees, looking mostly at the loan origination fee, discount fee, underwriting, processing, and application fees. You’ll find these under “Origination Charge” section on the GFE or Loan Estimate. These are the big ticket items that lenders have the most control over. Look at the other fees, but they are not as important. You will pay generally the same with any lender for third party fees like title, escrow, flood certification, and credit report.
• On Day 4 I will contact the lender I have chosen and request a list of needed documentation in checklist format. Gather the requested items piece by piece, checking off items as you go. You’ll need your most recent 30 days’ worth of paystubs and last 60 days’ worth of bank statements, among other things that the lender will detail for you.
• On Day 5 I will send the documentation to my lender. Piece of cake. Most lenders accept documentation by fax, secure email, or snail mail. Whatever you feel most comfortable with.
That’s it. You’ve started your refinance. Your loan officer will guide you through the rest of the process. Oh yeah, and say you save $200 on your refinance. Go ahead and apply that to your retirement savings.
Done with week 2. Woo hoo!
Fact: Dropping your interest rate by 1% on a $250,000 mortgage will save you over $50,000 in interest over the life of a 30-year loan.
Week 3: Create a Budget.
You may ask why you didn’t create a budget first.
Well, you could have, but you would not have factored in your retirement plan or your refinance savings. This way, you will have more accurate numbers to work with.
Steps to Get There:
• On Day 1 I will find budgeting software that works for me. If you work in Excel, Microsoft has many free budgeting templates for download. Otherwise, there are online programs such as Mint and programs like Quicken that access your banking and credit card information and categorize your spending for you. You may have to try a few methods over the coming weeks and see what works for you. No matter which method you choose, make sure it’s something you’ll use that won’t be overwhelming.
• On Day 2 I will look over my last 60 to 90 days’ bank statements. Looking over your spending history will remind you of all your expenses. Determine your fixed monthly expenses first. That’s the easy part. Then figure out what discretionary money you are spending. This is more difficult. Budgeting software can help you categorize everything.
• On Day 3 I will compare all my expenses to my income. Are you expenses greater than your take-home pay? If so, you’ll need to cut your spending. Quite simply, spending more than you make is unsustainable long-term.
• On Day 4 I will examine my past spending and see which items are luxuries or flat out unnecessary items. If you find that you spend money wastefully at times, that means there’s room in your budget for greater purposes. Decide to cut one major item out of your spending. Remember, take baby steps. Choose one thing you can live without and cut it from your daily routine.
• On Day 5 I will make a plan for the money I just cut out of my budget. A great plan will be introduced in Week 4.
Fact: According to Forbes, Americans spend an average of $1000 per year eating out at lunch. If you spent $200 per year on packed lunches and put $800 per year in an investment account with an 8% return, you would have $12,257 after 10 years. Keep doing that for 20 more years and you’ll have $99,852.
Week 4: Start paying off debt.
Just a warning: this is the least sexy goal with the slowest visible results. But don’t let it stop you.
One strategy to combat the boring-ness of paying off debt is the Debt Snowball plan popularized by Dave Ramsey. With this plan, you pay off the smallest debt first, no matter what its interest rate. The reasoning is that you see results right away, and it motivates you to keep moving on to bigger debts.
Steps to Get There:
• On Day 1 I will identify a small debt I’d like to pay off. A $500 credit card or a car loan with a small balance will work best.
• On Day 2 I will get an envelope and find a secure place for it.
• On Day 3 I will get cash in lieu of spending the money on the unnecessary item from Week 3. Put that cash in the envelope.
• On Day 4 I will make a plan to deposit that cash each month so I can make payments on the debt account.
Fact: According to the Federal Reserve, the average U.S. adult carries $2,720 in credit card debt. That debt has an average interest rate of 14.95%, says Creditcards.com. That’s $406 the average person wastes each year in interest. If that money were invested at an 8% return, that $406 per year would turn into $49,181 after 30 years.
The key to financial goals is to realize that it’s a long, slow process. If you can accept that up front, you’ll do well. Perhaps in 2016 you shouldn’t resolve to complete anything, but to start.
That’s the goal of this article – to get you to make some first steps. After that, the rest is easy.