The holiday season is here in force. I feel it and I’m sure you do too. This is a wonderful time of year. But I sometimes wish there were 62 days in December instead of only 31 days. I know it’s the holiday season because of what happens with my clients. The busy executives and business owners that I’m privileged to serve are often so busy during the year that I have to schedule meetings months in advance. The pace of work and life leaves them with little time for anything else.
But during the holidays, somewhere around the third week of December, things start to change. People slow down a bit. They take time off from work and spend it with family. They relax and just breathe.
It’s usually in the last two weeks of December that my clients reflect on the year behind and dream about the year ahead. They often set new goals, even wish-lists, for what they want to have happen in the coming year. If you are developing a wish-list for 2015, I’d like to offer you a framework to help establish your priorities.
What’s On Your Wish-List?
Along with dreaming about the future, my clients often use free time during the holidays to look at their financial situation. They review reports I’ve provided and consider returns on their portfolios. This often sparks conversations about what they might do in the coming months.
When I get a chance to speak with clients about their wish-lists, I often hear these kinds of goals:
- How can I play more golf?
- Should we buy new cars this year?
- Should we buy a bigger and more luxurious home?
- Should I send a child or loved one to study abroad?
- Should we take that expensive vacation we’ve been talking about for years?
- Should we give more to charities?
These are just some of the goals that people bring up when we talk. Do you notice how many of these goals are lifestyle related? Don’t get me wrong. We all work hard so we can live well. But it’s important to remember that the decisions we make in the short-term could have a long-term impact.
I often see clients coming up with larger lists than can reasonably be accomplished. Most of us simply can’t do everything. So what should you do? What really matters to you? How can you know that the pleasures you desire today are not robbing you of the opportunity to realize future goals?
This is the process of establishing priorities and it is fundamental to wealth planning. So by all means, dream big. But when the time comes to decide what you will actually spend money on in 2015, you may have to make some cuts to your list. How can you know what to cut and what to keep?
Here is a framework to help you prioritize your wish-list.
- Retirement impact
- Family needs
- Charitable goals
- Lifestyle goals
Cash-flow is foundational to everything else. If you have not yet established a budget for how much you have coming in versus going out in 2015, this is priority number one. You won’t really know how much discretionary income you have until this analysis is complete. Discretionary income determines the size of the overall pie. Every other decision is simply how big each slice of the pie will be.
When considering your cash-flow, be sure to take into consideration all sources of income. For instance, if you receive a bonus in Q1, what will you do with it? Do you anticipate receiving a raise in the coming year? If so, how much? Do you anticipate a decline in your household income? Will a wage earner retire or will their job be phased out?
When looking at expenses, be sure to account for not only the monthly expenses that recur with regularity but also the irregular expenses that you can anticipate, given what you know today. For example, if you buy a new house, how much will it reasonably cost to move? What about closing costs? If you buy new cars, how much will you want to put down?
Once you’ve established your baseline of cash-in versus cash-out, you should have a clearer picture of discretionary income. Now the question becomes, what do you do with it?
I believe the next most important goal is to save. Why? Because wealth building is about how much you keep, not how much you earn. To help you establish your savings goal for 2015, you’ll want to take a close look at where you are against goals for many of the items I outline below, such as retirement and education funding.
If you are on track with goals, you can probably dedicate a higher portion of discretionary income to lifestyle. But if you are behind and need to catch up, a greater portion of discretionary income should go to savings.
Another important measuring stick is how much you saved last year. As most people advance in their careers, their incomes go up. But so do their expenses. If you can increase your savings even a small percentage year over year, the impact to your future net worth can be substantial.
No matter what, you should have a savings goal for 2015 and a plan to make it happen.
When thinking about what to do with discretionary income, it’s important to consider how the choices you make will impact your retirement. This is another justification for saving more and spending less. Why do I say this?
At Whitnell we believe our country’s debt load will hold back the economy’s growth over the long-term. This is based on global economic indicators and the funded and unfunded debt obligations of the Federal Government. This makes it unwise to count on high rates of growth in your portfolio to support your retirement needs.
The best plans for retirement call for disciplined annual savings over the course of one’s career and growth in principle based on reasonably predicted rates of return. But the most important point is this. No matter what you expect from investment returns, the only way to accurately project what you will have for retirement in a certain timeframe is to save money on a regular basis.
Another important area that will vie for a piece of the discretionary income pie is what you need to spend to take care of family. My clients do a good job of building budgets for monthly living expenses: mortgage, auto, utilities, food and the like. But there are other expenses which are not so obvious which can drain wealth.
Educational funding is a key consideration. The cost of a university education goes up every year and the more prestigious the school, the bigger the price tag. Some of my clients are also considering sending their children or grandchildren abroad to study for a year or more. So make sure your plans for 2015 allocate appropriate funds for education based on your goals.
What is not so obvious these days is elder care. Many retirees lose corporate insurance benefits when they leave their companies. This means they are often relying on Medicare for healthcare needs. Even with all of the changes to health insurance in this country, long-term elder care could still be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years. Long-term care insurance can ease this financial burden, but the premiums should be a part of your financial plan.
Another trend I’m seeing these days is parents funding new businesses for children. As young people come out of college into a weak job market, their prospects for meaningful work are often bleak. In the age of the internet, app businesses can often be started with seed capital from loved ones. So if you have a recent graduate in your family, it is wise to keep an eye on their employment satisfaction.
Charitable giving is a fulfilling yet time consuming activity. It takes time to determine not just how much to donate but where to donate in order to have an impact. Unfortunately, most of us have been close to someone with an illness or affected by tragedy. Many of my clients feel strongly about a charitable organization to which they sense a connection or one which helped a loved one through a life-changing experience.
So when thinking about what to do with discretionary income, you would be wise to factor in charitable contributions. Will you support a new charity this year? Will you increase giving to a preferred charity? Will you make a sizable one-time gift?
You’ll notice where I placed this in terms of priorities. It’s dead last. It’s not that lifestyle is unimportant. We all work hard so we can live a great life. The thrill of a beautiful new home, the smell of a new car, the joy of digging your toes in the sand on a lovely tropical beach – it’s all very appealing.
But I would imagine that when you look back over the list I outlined above, you’d be willing to compromise, spend a little less maybe, on certain comforts to ensure you meet the important goals in life. I really don’t want you to have any regrets.
Even after you pare down your wish-list, you still will probably have questions. Some financial decisions require careful analysis and comparison of options to determine the best outcome. If you or your loved ones are trying to determine the best path forward in 2015, my door is open. Let’s talk.
The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. No illustration or content in it should be construed as a substitute for informed professional tax, legal, and/or financial advice.