I have been thinking about early retirement a lot lately. Upon first glance, you might read that sentence as an indication that I am looking for an escape from my current day-to-day grind. On the contrary, I feel that Mrs. Superhero and I are in a good place at the moment. We enjoy our full-time careers in the classroom, and we feel invigorated by our side businesses in real estate and the music studio, respectively.
My thoughts on early retirement are admittedly impacted by a variety of influences. First and foremost, everyone in our family trees has opted for traditional retirements. On the other hand, nearly everything I read on a regular basis, from books and magazines to blog articles, touts the benefits of early retirement and financial independence.
What are my current thoughts about early retirement? I’m seriously pondering whether I am even interested at this point.
Any discussion of the pros and cons of early retirement should begin with a look at the purposes behind retirement at a basic level. Quite obviously, the cultural phenomenon of retirement exists because humans are not physically and mentally equipped to work forever. As a result, we work and save for four to five decades, on average, in order to survive when we are no longer able to support our basic needs through earned income.
To recap, the most basic life plan is as follows:
WORK 40-50 YEARS + SAVE MONEY = BASIC SURVIVAL AT AGE 65-70
The above plan is a reality for an alarming cluster of the population. Yes, you can and probably should aim higher with your retirement goals. For example, you could save and invest more than is required to meet your basic retirement needs, allowing yourself to live a little in retirement. However, tomorrow is promised to nobody. Or you could save more and retire a bit earlier, say in your late 50s or early 60s.
So, we might describe the intermediate plan as follows:
WORK 30-40 YEARS + SAVE MORE MONEY = COMFORTABLE RETIREMENT AT 55-60
For a small number of renegades with their hearts and minds set on early retirement, even this sensible plan is insufficient. Thanks to mathematical breakdowns by Mr. Money Mustache and countless other bloggers, waves of people are targeting a much earlier retirement. How? They are aiming to increase their savings rate, as a percentage of net income, to figures which exceed 40 percent and approach 85 or even 90 percent!
In order to reduce this table to a formula, we might proceed as follows:
WORK 3-20 YEARS + SAVE LIKE THE DICKENS = RETIRE EARLIER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
The most beautiful thing about the chart above is that it is not income sensitive in any way, shape or form. It applies to you whether you earn $40,000 per year or $4 million per year. Of course, it should be much easier to save when you have an inflated income. Yet, that pesky thing called “lifestyle” tends to get in the way.
In essence, we might say that early retirement is a largely a choice.
Early Retirement Pros and Cons
Now that it is apparent that early retirement is mathematically accessible for virtually everyone, let us examine the merits of such a plan.
Among many pros of early retirement, the following stand out:
*Opportunity to spend increased time with family and friends
*Freedom to travel
*Reduced stress and improved health
*More time to pursue other interests or even a new career
Obviously, early retirement is not without its cons, which include:
*Possible negative impact upon health (possible loss of health benefits, decreased physical activity)
*Possible boredom and/or depression
*Increased stress (more time to worry; constant fear that your nest egg may be insufficient)
*Limitations due to fixed income
As with virtually all matters of personal finance, the pros and cons are largely situation-dependent. For example, my Grandpa retired only a few years early and came out ahead in nearly every manner possible: he increased his earnings and kept busy by working side jobs, gained the freedom to spend time with his children and grandchildren, and took several vacations each year with my Grandma.
On the other hand, I know a person (who shall remain nameless) who would quite likely suffer an early death if he were to retire early. He would spend his days and nights wasting away in a recliner watching television, despite being of able mind and body. Quite likely, early retirement would be an early death sentence for this person.
Our Current Plan
Back in June, I established 30 goals as I approached my 30th birthday. Goal 5 stated, “Set a target date for early retirement and formulate a plan to get there.” I have been dragging my feet on this one ever since; as I said, I’m just not sure what I want to do at this point.
Strictly based upon Money Mustache’s chart above, Mrs. Superhero and I could likely retire somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-17 years, or 2031, given our current assets and savings rate. Since I am a proponent of stealth wealth, that’s about as specific as I’d like to get at this point in time. However, we could make some changes in current spending and investing plans and possibly retire in approximately 10 years. This would not be achievable without significant sacrifice and postponement of other significant goals.
All of which has led me to an important conclusion: I simply desire to achieve other goals more than I desire early retirement at this point in time. Among other goals that I feel will bring me and Mrs. Superhero greater joy than early retirement, starting a family ranks at the top of the list. Additional goals include:
*Fund college for our future children
*Travel with moderate frequency
*Give and support missionary work beyond our current ability to do so
*Finish our basement (which is currently unfinished)
*Possibly own a second home
If our pursuit of these goals brings us increased happiness and slightly slows our pursuit of early retirement by 5-10 years, I feel I am OK with that. I would rather retire slightly later than mathematically possible and achieve more in life rather than retire with unfinished business.
In closing, let us consider one of the oldest retirement clichés, which says, it is better to retire to something than to retire from something.
What are your current retirement plans? Do you aspire to retire early? If so, how do you hope to achieve early retirement?
Last week, the state of Illinois finally passed what I would describe as a “Band-Aid” budget. While politicians largely celebrated this move and patted themselves on the back, their budget does very little to solve the gaping wound that is the state of financial chaos in which Illinois currently finds itself.
As I read the headlines and a few articles, I marveled at the difficulty the legislature faced in passing a budget. As you may or may not know, Illinois recently went an entire fiscal year without a budget. This standoff made previous budget delays (18 days in 1991, multiple delays of several weeks in the 2000s, and the bitter standoffs of recent years) look like small blips on the radar.
While Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan set aside partisan gridlock long enough to pass a budget, public schools, state universities, and social service agencies are from celebrating. To the detriment of the citizens of Illinois, the finger pointing between Republicans and Democrats will surely resume and intensify in the next months.
Right around the time that Governor Rauner was delivering his press conference regarding the new budget, I sat down to review my planned budget for July 2016. Since September 2009, I have created a unique monthly budget using Gazelle Budget, the online software platform created Dave Ramsey’s team at Ramsey Solutions. That makes 71 unique budgets. It felt good to add yet another accomplishment to the mental list of ways in which I put the state of Illinois to shame.
MY FIRST BUDGET
As I often do when completing a budget, I took a look through the archives to see how Mrs. Superhero and I have come. My trek brought me back to September 2009, the month in which I created my very first budget.
In September 2009, I was a newly-employed, engaged bachelor, living independently for the first time in my life. Less than one week before the new public school year started, I accepted a job offer to teach music about 25 miles away from my university campus. With a week to prepare, I scrambled to locate housing, sign my contract, and prepare for a radical life change.
At the time, I had barely a tiny inkling of how to responsibly manage my money. I had recently read The Total Money Makeoverin record speed, but I didn’t know the first thing about budgeting an “adult” paycheck. This was going to be the first time I had ever earned a paycheck which included a comma in the amount field!
After reading about Gazelle Budget (which is being replaced soon by EveryDollar), I purchased an 18 month membership, which included access to all three hours (ad free) of the Dave Ramsey Show podcast, for $89.95. Moments later, I created my first budget.
I began by projecting my total net income for the month, $2,357.29 in total. In that moment, I recall feeling pretty wealthy. I continued by inputting my desired charitable giving ($236 – 10%), rent ($400 – I rented a room in a two-bedroom condo from a friend-of-a-friend), food ($305 – for groceries and restaurants), and my debt obligations ($50 car payment and $200 credit card bill). From that point, I filled out the budget with an estimate of utilities, transportation (gas, car insurance, and routine maintenance), clothing (new work clothes and change for laundry), personal spending (spending moneyblow money Starbucks fund, books, gifts, hair cut, toiletries, and the Gazelle Budget subscription), and savings (emergency fund and honeymoon fund).
As you can see above, my projections for spending (middle column) were not entirely accurate when compared with my actual spending (leftmost column) at the end of the month. In fact, despite projecting a zero-based budget, I spent more money than I earned in September 2009.
This was hardly a Superhero effort.
On the other hand, the percentages of my categorical spending mimicked responsible spending.
THE TROUBLE WITH PROJECTIONS
For the first full month of living on my own, I updated my budget on a daily basis. I kept a stack of receipts for all cash purchases and utilized internet banking to reconcile all other transactions. Yet despite my diligence, I was still brand-new to the process of budgeting.
As you can see below, I overspent considerably on food and personal spending; I had budgeted a combined $572.29, approximately 24% of my net income, but at the end of the month, I had spent a combined $761.58, approximately 32% of net income.
When I broke these spending figures down further, I discovered that I had spent $156.50 at restaurants and $80.77 at Starbucks.
20 TIPS FOR THE BACHELOR’S OR BACHELORETTE’S BUDGET
I chose to present the above figures for two primary reasons. First, I wanted to prove that it is possible to build and maintain a monthly budget as a single person. Second, I wanted to be fully transparent about my early mistakes.
Yes, creating a budget is not always easy. It isn’t the cool thing to do, especially as a young 20-something fresh out of college. Even at age 30, I can still recall the temptation to throw caution to the wind and live it up. Heck, I almost went out and leased a car!
However, I still recall one of the most powerful motivators for a 20-something single: the desire to prove one’s independence. Creating a budget is one of the best ways to set out to accomplish this goal and appear to be an adult. If you don’t manage your money responsibly, you will surely appear to be a child to you parents and extended family.
To win with money as a bachelor or bachelorette, follow these 20 tips.
1. Share costs with a roommate.
In my case, I avoided spending $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and spent $400 to rent a home in a two-bedroom condo. By sharing costs in this manner, I avoided spending 40% of my net income on housing costs.
Housing is by far the biggest budget buster for the average bachelor or bachelorette. Spending within this category can be a difference-maker.
2. Gather an accurate picture of your monthly debt obligations.
When you are just starting out, you will feel the temptation to delay examining your debts, particularly if your student loans are still in deferment. Avoiding your debts will not make them go away, so gather this information, including total principal, interest rates, minimum payments, and loan terms for each debt. If you’re unsure or unclear about any debts, contact the appropriate customer service department right away. Also, you should check your credit report; remember, this can be done free of charge once per year with each of the major credit reporting bureaus.
3. Prepare your own meals and cook at home as much as possible.
As a single young adult, preparing your own meals will accomplish two goals: you will save money, and you will not gain weight eating low nutrition/high calorie fast food. As an added bonus, you will be able to host your dates for dinner and impress them with your fine culinary skills. They’ll expect Ramen, and you’ll blow them away with shrimp creole!
Ladies, don’t forget, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
4. Maintain a college lifestyle, at least in terms of spending.
When your first paycheck rolls in, you will immediately experience the temptation to buy everything in sight. If you establish an unreasonable level of spending out of the gate, you will set yourself up for failure. As much as possible, continue to live a college lifestyle (i.e. behave as if you are poor), within reason, of course.
5. Do not go out and buy a new (or new to you) vehicle.
You need to get used to living on a budget first in order to determine what you can or cannot afford in a new vehicle. Don’t allow pride and vanity to influence your decision-making process. If your current vehicle gets you from point A to B, it’s a keeper – at least for a few months.
6. Invest in a decent coffee maker with a timer function and brew your own coffee at home.
I learned this the hard way when at the end of my first budgeted month I had spent $80.77 on coffee on my way to work. I had a decent Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, but it didn’t have a timer feature. If I happened to be running late to work in the morning, I resorted to a quick Starbucks stop, which cost me significant money without adding any perceived value (neither happiness-wise nor nutritionally speaking).
7. Stay in.
Fortunately, I did a good job of this. My wife-to-be and I enjoyed cooking dinner at my condo and watching reruns of The Office. I know that many single people will feel the temptation and be pulled into the expensive night life scene, but do so within reason. Invite friends or your significant other back to your place, where food and drinks are cheap.
8. Find affordable dates with Groupon and Restaurant.com . I’m not even sure if Groupon and Restaurant.com existed back when I was a bachelor, but taking advantage of them today is a key part of our dining out experience. With either platform, you can purchase certificates for what is usually a fraction of the value, which allows you to realize significant savings and still enjoy a night out. The most common Restaurant.com offer is $10 for a $25 gift certificate. Check out the Restaurant.comofferings in your area by following the link and entering your zip code.
9. Build an emergency fund as quickly as possible.
As a young single person, building an emergency fund is the definition of adulting. Without an emergency fund, you will face unexpected expenses and be forced to swipe your credit card. Or worse yet, you may have to beg your parents for a loan or a gift.
10. Begin charitable giving right away.
While I have always given 10% to charity and missions organizations, I know this isn’t for everyone. If you’re not a natural giver, start small. Even $1 or $10 per month will benefit worthwhile organizations. If you’re not into structured giving, pay it forward and purchase the coffee or meal for the driver of the vehicle behind you in the drive-thru.
I strongly believe that regular, consistent giving is a key to winning with money. The act of giving teaches you that money is not an asset to be horded, stockpiled, wasted, or worshipped, but a tool to help yourself and others.
Remember, you will fail at this at first. Over and over and over. However, I found comfort in a Dave Ramsey quote during my initial months of struggle with my budget:
Adults devise a plan and stick to it. Children do what feels good. -Dave Ramsey
12. Accept that your budget projections will rarely be perfect.
On a related note, embrace your budget mistakes as they occur. Be willing to adjust your budget several times during the first several months.
13. Share your budget with a friend who is wise with his or her finances.
Accountability is helpful for everyone. It is part of the reason why I write this blog. A good budget is not inflexible.
14. Tell yourself every day that instant-gratification isn’t all that gratifying.
A few days ago, I read that the average person only waits 5 seconds for a web page to open before becoming irritated and moving on. Clearly, we live in a culture which embraces speed and instant results over patience.
You will need to learn to delay your desires in order to maintain a successful budget. Make a plan and stick to it.
15. Don’t worry about investing money right out of the gate.
In the personal finance blogging community, the suggestion to delay investing for retirement is utter blasphemy! However, I believe that there are better uses for your first months of pay. Make sure your budget is in order, build an emergency fund, and take time to research your investment options. When the time comes to invest, look into low-cost options through Betterment and Motif Investing. You will be glad that you waited.
16. Identify your values and be sure that your budget follows them.
If you’re not sure where to start with values-based budgeting, check out my two part series on budgeting with values in mind:
Writing V-SMART Goals is the best way to accomplish your goals.
18. Be transparent with your friends and family about your budget.
It is OK to explain that you are striving to manage your spending responsibly. In fact, if you keep your budget goals a secret, it will be more difficult to stick to your budget, as co-workers will invite you out for happy hour drinks and apps every Friday. Just be up front and honest.
19. As follow-up to number 18, be willing to say “no.”
If you want to live on a budget and win with money, you will likely hurt people’s feelings from time to time.
20. Avoid making any purchases on impulse.
If you are considering a sizeable purchase, write it down and check back again in thirty days. See my recent piece, The Thirty Day List, for a step-by-step process on delaying purchases.
Note: This piece contains affiliate links. FinanceSuperhero only recommends products designed to save readers money.
Readers, what budget tips do you have for singles?
Recently, in an effort to force myself to slow down a bit and actually relax, I started watching a few episodes of the hit-show The Goldbergs, which is set in 1980s Pennsylvania. Mrs. Superhero claims that I am really half-watching and half-working on my laptop, but that is a subject for another article.
In an episode I watched last week, Murray, the family patriarch, is sitting in his recliner, sans pants, and his wife, Beverly, is in the kitchen, when his oldest son, Barry, approaches and asks for money. Here is their conversation:
Barry: What if I told you one day there’d be a piece of technology that can guarantee I play professional basketball? Well, that day has come. The Reebok Pump. A cushion of air around the foot that literally allows you to defy the laws of gravity. And the amazing part? It’s only $175. Don’t say no.
Beverly: Honey, I’ve got a pair of Reeboks upstairs you can have.
Barry: Oh, really? Can I please borrow your beige mom sneakers? Listen! My dream is to be a basketball superstar, not a nurse!
Murray: Well, here’s the thing about your dream. It’s stupid.
Barry: You have the money. Just get your pants and give it to me.
Beverly: Barry, your father’s pants are not a bank.
Murray: Money comes from hard work, you moron. You really want those shoes, come down to the store and work for ‘em.
Barry: Fine! But when I get to the NBA, and you want my autograph, I’m signing it, “Worst wishes, Barry.”
As I watched this episode, all I could do was laugh–a lot. An hour later, as I lay in bed, my stupid brain could not stop thinking about this conversation and the events which followed.
Barry Goldberg begins working with his father at the local furniture store. Ironically, he is a natural salesman and does very well, but his success comes after some early struggles. When his first payday arrives, Barry is astonished to receive a paycheck for $33.
Barry: Is this some sick joke? Oh. You’re just busting balls, huh? This is a joke paycheck.
Murray: I wish I was busting balls. Welcome to the real world.
Barry: I know I made more than this. Why is it so low?
Murray: Taxes! You got federal, state, social security, F.I.C.A..
Barry: What are you talking about? Those aren’t real things.
Murray: Did you ever go to school? Taxes? Those are totally real things.
Tough Love and Tough Lessons
In these two brief scenes, Barry Goldberg’s words and behavior provide a glimpse into the American entitlement culture and the interconnected role of money.
-Barry is easily swayed by the power of advertising.
-Barry expects money to be given to him rather than earned.
-When Barry begins to work, he overvalues his contributions and expects unrealistic earnings.
-Barry is oblivious to the basics of federal and state taxes.
Fortunately, Murray Goldberg, while unconventional, is a good dad at heart and teaches Barry key lessons in a very short time.
-Money is easy to spend but difficult to earn.
-Money comes from hard work, moron!
-Taxes are a painful reality.
Early Money Lessons
Fortunately, Superhero Dad wasn’t too much like Murray Goldberg when I was growing up. He wore pants, most of the time, and didn’t call me and my siblings morons.
Like Murray, Dad worked hard to provide for our family, and he made sure that we did not go without anything which was truly a need.
On the other hand, we experienced our fair share of tough love, and I am grateful for that today.
Like Barry Goldberg, I used to ask Superhero Dad for money for many unnecessary things, like going to the movies with friends or baseball cards. I quickly learned a simple lesson:
Work and get paid; don’t work – don’t get paid.
When Dad opened up his wallet, I could be sure that I would soon be raking leaves, mowing the lawn, or climbing up on the roof to clean out the rain gutters in order to earn the money bestowed upon me.
The Finance Superhero Plan for Raising Financially-Literate Children
Mrs. Superhero and I do not yet have children of our own. However, between the two of us, we know a thing or two about teaching children as a result of our professional backgrounds. When we do have our own children, we will carefully implement the following techniques and teach financial lessons:
–We will let our children see how we manage our finances. We will be appropriately transparent, within obvious reason, so our kids learn the value of money.
–We will implement commission rather than allowance. Our children will learn that those who work get paid and those who do not work do not get paid.
–While the importance of work and the natural compensation which follows will be emphasized, we will teach our kids that not all work is for the purposes of getting paid. Sometimes, we will roll up sleeves and work to serve other people and support the community. Sometimes, we will work to care for our own household or personal belongings. Pay is not to be expected for all work.
–We will guide our children to give, save, spend, and invest. Dave Ramsey touts the “give, save, and spend” mantra, in that order, and I don’t have a problem with it. We want our children to experience first-hand that that money is not meant for hoarding; rather, it is a tool to take care of both oneself and others, too.
As a result, some of our children’s savings will be in a liquid money market or savings account. This won’t be about earning interest, which will be low, but it will show our children the value of having money remaining and to teach them not to spend all they earn. When they want to spend all of their money and deplete their savings, we will let them from time to time (this will be SO painful for me!) and allow them to learn from their mistakes at an early age.
In addition to learning about spending and proper decision making, we will teach our children about the power of investing when their limited earnings permit it. We believe that children can learn the power of compound interest at an early age. If their earnings won’t support investing, we will involve them in the process of funding their ESA and 529 accounts when they are mature enough to understand.
–Likewise, we will emphasize the importance of investing to instill a long-term mindset. We will start them early on this so they think investing is “just normal” and “what everyone else does.” They will be astonished when they look up as adults and see that their once small investment has grown due to time and compound interest.
Leaving a Legacy
As Mrs. Superhero and I get closer and closer to starting a family of our own, I have thought increasingly about the legacy we will leave behind. I have thought about all I have learned from my elders, including Superhero Grandpa (and Grandma) and Superhero Dad (and Mom). I know I will be like most parents and rarely have all the right answers.
In the ancient Book of Proverbs it is written, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Through education and experience, we hope to leave this kind of inheritance, built upon a foundation of love, wisdom, and stewardship.
Readers with children, what have you taught your children about money? Do you provide an allowance? At what age do you believe children should begin learning about money? Readers without children, how did your parents teach you about money? What lessons remain vivid in your memories today?
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my Grandma and Grandpa. They reached retirement shortly after my birth, and both of my parents worked full-time jobs. During the summer months, I spent one day each week with my grandparents. I will forever cherish the memories of eating homemade toasted bread and strawberry jam by the morning sunrise, the countless mornings spent building utility trailers with grandpa, sunny afternoons at the park, late-afternoon naps, trips to the pool, and the unparalleled hearty dinners from Grandma’s kitchen. Life was good.
During the school year, Grandma and Grandpa picked me up at the bus stop until I was old enough to stay home alone for a few hours. Those afternoons, too, remain as poignant memories. Grandpa and I often drove to the lake to feed the ducks, roamed the Earth in search of free lumber, or took his hunting dogs for adventures in a nearby wooded area.
During one particular walk in the woods, Grandpa and I wandered off the beaten path and onto a narrow, single track trail. At the end of this trail, we discovered an old, junked out car which had been left in a large hole in the ground. To the adventurous mind of a little boy, we had just discovered the equivalent of the Lost City of Atlantis.
I recall spending the remainder of that day thinking about that old car. Who had owned the vehicle? How it had gotten to its final resting place? And how had it had managed to sit in the woods untouched, year after year?
Grandpa knew how to entertain me, teach me to think, and lead me to dream big. This all came naturally to Grandpa, because he was an entertainer, a thinker, and above all, a dreamer himself.
As I grew older, my adventures with Grandpa became less-focused on the things of childhood and more focused on life lessons and my future. Ever a motivator and encourager, Grandpa believed in me and had big dreams for my future. He said that I could be a doctor, lawyer, or businessman if I studied hard and earned good grades. Grandpa knew a thing or two about hard work, but he was the first to admit that he never saw a good grade in his life.
When I reached my teenage years, Grandpa became less-mobile, and our time spent together grew more and more sedentary. We traded walks in the woods for visits over coffee and cookies in the three-seasons room of Grandpa and Grandma’s new condo. Since Grandpa passed away in 2013, my biggest regret remains that I did not record more of Grandpa’s stories and advice.
One story, however, is permanently etched in my mind. One afternoon, Grandpa the told story of how he get started in investing. He explained that he had seen his neighbor drive by and wave in a brand new car every spring. One year, in his typical, rather direct fashion, Grandpa asked the gentleman how he could afford new cars each year. Unembarrassed, the neighbor told him that he had high-performing stock investments and that dividends were the key to his annual car purchases. He also spoke glowingly about his financial advisor.
In an instant, Grandpa had hatched a new dream far bigger than new cars. He wanted a piece of the pie for himself and for his family. Later that week, Grandpa went down to the advisor and opened a new brokerage account. The rest is history.
I grew up hearing faint whispers about Grandma and Grandpa’s wealth. They were thorough practitioners of stealth wealth, and while they owned their modest home outright and drove nice vehicles, they lived a minimalist lifestyle. The watched evening television in the dark, did not have central air conditioning, and rarely spent money. At Grandpa’s funeral visitation, an old friend told me that he once saw a moth fly out of Grandpa’s wallet. Literally.
Only one memory lingers as an indication that Grandpa and Grandma had money. Grandpa and I had just sat down for lunch at the kitchen table, and Grandma walked in from getting the mail. She handed Grandpa a piece of paper, which in hindsight was an investment statement, and said, “Well, you’re half of a millionaire.”
Grandma probably didn’t know I was listening (Note: She is still with us, so I will have to ask her soon if she remembers this story). Without knowing for sure, I suspect that Grandma was being modest. I am confident that their investments represented only a portion of their assets. I was likely being thrown off the trail of two Secret Millionaires!
The Fruits of Their Labors
Among many the many benefits of their financial wisdom, Grandma and Grandpa were:
1. Financially Free. They had no debt, no obligations, and as a result, they could do virtually whatever they wanted when they wanted to do it.
2. Frequent Travelers. They vacationed a lot and visited every place which interested them.
3. Generous to Family. They provided weekly Sunday dinners for 20+ people, often took the entire family out to dinner, provided nice gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and gifted a one-time lump sum to each of their grandchildren one year in order to reduce their tax liability.
4. Proud Yet Humble. They knew they had earned everything they possessed, yet they never boasted.
A Contagious Dream
For years, I have desired to experience those fruits for myself. Ever since that afternoon at the kitchen table, my foremost financial goal has been to reach millionaire status. Not for vanity or bragging rights, but for the feeling of freedom, the ability to help other people, and to give away massive sums of money.
Today, as I write this article, I cannot help but wonder:
Will a cool million really be enough?
According to the life expectancy calculator at John Hancock, I can statistically expect a baseline life expectancy of 83 and a projected life expectancy of 93. Considering my goals of early retirement, it appears my nest egg will need to last upwards of 40 years! And what if I live to be 100?
Factoring in rising inflation and the decreased buying power of money as I continue to age does not increase my optimism that $1 million will be enough. Even if it were enough for me and Mrs. Superhero to live on, would it really permanently change our family tree? Would it benefit future generations of my family? Would it truly leave a lasting legacy?
I have few doubts that Mrs. Superhero and I will reach millionaire status, even though we are far from it at this point. But based upon the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate, I question whether $40,000 per year will be sufficient.
The Dream Redefined
While I am an advocate for specific written financial goals, my target retirement number is surprisingly fluid at this stage in my life. Mrs. Superhero and I are focused upon eliminating our non-mortgage debt over the next couple of months, and I find it too distracting to focus upon too many goals at one time.
In the meantime, I am still dreaming of my own retirement. My dream is simple at its core:
Be free from the rat race–forever!
Enjoy carefree experiences with Mrs. Superhero, our siblings, and our future children and grandchildren
Work on my own terms in my future retirement, if I choose to do so, and answer to myself and no one else
Change my family tree forever
Never experience stress due to work or money issues ever again
Until my dream is redefined again, this is my motivation.
Readers, what are your dreams for retirement? What motivates you? If you are currently retired, are you living your dream as you had hoped?
Tax refund: Next to the words “pay day” and “debt free,” these are my two favorite finance-related words. Whether my annual tax refund is a modest sum or a mid-size windfall, I am always happy to see my refund directly-deposited into my checking account.
I will not debate the merits of adjusting withholding to maximize your monthly income in lieu of a refund in this space. I have my reasons for continuing to maintain my withholding at its present rate to receive a refund, which I will share at a later date. Many of you will have equally valid reasons to adopt the opposite approach.
Assuming you have a tax refund coming your way, you are on the precipice of a great opportunity. As a Superhero, you must know that with great opportunity comes great responsibility! In accordance with the Superhero values of Order, Precision, and Maximization, the following flowchart will help you to answer navigate the waters of a tax refund and make significant progress on your financial journey. I recommend following the steps in numerical order.
Superhero Steps to Maximizing Your Tax Refund
1. Give a Portion of Your Tax Refund to a Charitable Organization
It should not come as a surprise to you that I am suggesting giving as the first step. As previously mentioned, Mrs. Superhero and I have placed Giving at the top of our monthly budget. Giving aligns with our values, and helping others provides us with much more satisfaction and enjoyment than buying more stuff or eating delicious food.
Mrs. Superhero and I strongly believe that giving 10% is the best way that we can make a societal contribution prior to reaching financial independence (at which time we will significantly increase our giving). We have always done this, dating back to the time when we faced a mountain of debt, and we continue to do so today, even though we are mere months away from carrying no debt other than our mortgage.
As I mentioned, we believe helping others is the most satisfying use of our money. Giving is also a strong reminder that money is not something to be hoarded out of greed. We want to value money and practice good Stewardship, but we also want to remain far removed from the love of money.
Many people reject giving in favor of keeping their money strictly to themselves. Ironically, it is usually these same people who senselessly give their money to big banks and other financiers in the form of outlandish interest payments on cars, boats, and other stuff. Personally, I would rather give in a meaningful way.
Even if you give 1% of your tax refund, you will help others and begin to change the way you view money.
2. Increase Your Savings
After supporting societal progress by giving, use your tax refund proceeds to improve your liquid savings. Unless you are an extremely high income earner or have a stable passive income stream, you absolutely must have an Emergency Fund. If you do not have one, consider this a full-blown, alarm-sounding crisis that must be addressed immediately! Statistically-speaking, there is close to a 100% chance that you will experience some form of an emergency within the next decade, so be ready!
While I recommend maintaining an Emergency Fund of at least 3-6 months of minimum living expenses, you may also wish to establish an Opportunity Fund. I do not specifically recommend amounts or figures for this fund, and you may wish to skip it entirely in favor of moving onto Step 3. However, an Opportunity Fund could allow you to make a fun, somewhat impulsive decision without any accompanying feelings of guilt or regret.
3. Defeat Your Debt Once and For All
After you have given and increased your security via your Emergency Fund, you are fully-prepared to take on the primary villain standing in the way of Financial Independence: Debt.
The sooner you eliminate your non-mortgage debts, the sooner you free a significant portion of your monthly income and simultaneously gain the freedom to invest in tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Both the Snowball and Avalanche methods are valid means to achieve debt freedom. For the purposes of this post, I am less-concerned with the method you implement to eliminate your debt; just get it done. Your tax refund may be just the push you need.
4. Invest in Tax-Advantaged Vehicles
Upon donning your Debt-Free cape, the real fun can begin. If you are free from the shackles of debt, the next optimal use for your tax refund is to maximize your retirement contributions. For the purposes of this limited space, ensure you are maximizing employer-offered plans, specifically if they offer a match, and then move onto your Roth IRA and Traditional IRA.
5. Contribute to Your Children’s College Funds
If you do not have children, skip ahead to Step 6. If you have children, you need to learn the nuances of the Coverdell ESA (Education Savings Account, also nicknamed the Education IRA) and 429 plan. The ESA has income and contribution limits (currently $2,000 per year), but I recommend you start with the ESA in most circumstances, if eligible. The important thing to understand is that minimal contributions to these vehicles will place you in a position to send your children to college without the burden of student loans if you begin early.
6. Destroy Your Mortgage Debt Pause with me for a moment and imagine a life without a mortgage payment. What could you do with an extra $1,000 per month? $2,500? $5,000. I just felt an overwhelming sense of peace typing these words. The next time I visit my doctor and have my blood-pressure checked, I am going to visualize the wonders of a mortgage-free life to improve my numbers.
For the average family, mortgage interest represents the second-largest expense that they will pay in their entire lifetime. In some cases, total mortgage interest paid on a 30 year mortgage can be approximately 75-80% of total principal, even at today’s advantageous interest rates! The peace I felt moments ago has now been replaced by an angry adrenaline rush. I want to crush my mortgage as soon as possible! Using tax return funds to accomplish progress on an annual basis could shave several years off your mortgage, especially if you are already paying extra on principal on a monthly basis.
7. Invest in Non-Retirement Funds and/or Real Estate
If you have made it to Step 7, please allow me to offer my congratulations. With no debt whatsoever, healthy savings, and kids’ college covered, you are poised to generate significant wealth. At this stage, you may have achieved Financial Independence, depending upon your lifestyle.
I recommend using tax refund money to invest in simple index funds at this stage. A modest tax refund sum is enough to get you started with many index funds. Adopt a long-term approach, relax, and watch your money grow.
Similarly, this is the time to invest in real estate, if interested. Becoming a landlord isn’t for everyone, and paying a property manager could eat into your net profit from owning a rental property. However, a rental property can yield some of the highest annual investment returns if managed well and purchased at prices below market value.
8. Maximize the Principles of Contribution to Improve Your Home
At this stage, true fun begins. When you are financially well-poised for the future, a tax refund represents an opportunity to both invest and add joy to your life simultaneously. This is the time to make improvements around your home which increase your happiness and feature a high return on investment.
Good examples: new front door, landscaping, kitchen or bath remodel, walkway lighting
Bad examples: swimming pools, basement refinishing, utility sheds
9. Build Sinking Funds for Bucket List Items
Last, but not least, comes additional saving for specific purchases. If you make it down to Step 9 when determining how to implement your tax refund, you are an authentic Superhero. I recommend establishing separate sinking funds for a variety of priorities, such as vacations, new car purchases, secondary homes, or major home additions.
The purpose of a sinking fund is to plan for future purchases which are far off in the future. At this stage, you do not want to be fooled into getting back into debt or be caught off guard by large, necessary expenses. With a sinking fund, you won’t be financially caught off guard when your house needs a new roof, your furnace fails, or your vehicle sputters and dies.
Again, I established the Superhero Steps to Maximizing Your Tax Refund with the Superhero values of Order, Precision, and Maximization in mind. I am confident that you will not fail to cover all of your bases by following these steps. Depending upon where you are in your journey toward Restoring Order to Your World of Finances, you may wish to skip steps or modify the order. For example, renters may wish to place saving for a home down payment in the Steps. As always, let your values guide your decisions at every step of your journey.
Readers, did you receive a tax refund this year? Are you currently awaiting a refund? How did you allocate the funds?
In my previous post , I proposed that because change is inevitable, we should do anything and everything within our power to take action to create positive changes, thereby pursuing continual growth. In order to effectively pursue this growth, a wise Superhero should create goals. Before we unpack these ideas further in relation to our personal finances, I want to make some important distinctions.
Goals Are Empty Without a Foundation of Values
If you think you are motivated by goals and achievement, you are wrong. “But I have achieved a lot in my life,” you say. Congratulations! I want you to achieve all of your goals. I certainly want to achieve all of my own goals. However, the goal itself is not the driving force, as we saw when reflecting upon the rapid rise of a young phenom named Michael Jordan. Values are the driving force for meaningful goals. Show me a significant goal, and I will point out the values that underpin the goal.
Side note: It is possible to achieve a significant goal that is not underpinned by one of your highest values. For example, I could set a goal to complete a triathlon in 2017. Do I think I could complete this goal? Absolutely. Do I have any interest? No. Why? While I value Health and Personal Wellness, the driving value that leads me to exercise is Leisure, believe it or not. Swimming and biking are not nearly as leisurely to me as is running -I know, feel free to groan. However, I think we all can agree I am pretty likely to phone it on the triathlon and end up running a marathon instead.
Discover Your Values
Now that we have seen the importance of our values in relationship to our financial goals, allow me to present a few simple questions which are designed to help you quickly identify your values. All of the following questions are related to the concept of Purpose. Think of Purpose as the reason you wake up in the morning.
What or whom do you live for?
What activities and experiences provide you with deep fulfillment?
How do you best contribute to the world?
What kind of legacy do you wish to leave?
Honest and in-depth answers to these questions should point you clearly to your Purpose and, subsequently, a set of easily identifiable values. Alternatively, values may point to purpose, depending upon how your line of thinking.
Think of Purpose as the reason you wake up in the morning.
A Non-Financial Example of Values and Purpose
During a European college band tour in 2005, I met a Pastor in a small Austrian town who clearly understood his life’s purpose, identified his values, and adhered to them by his actions. As he told me his story, I was fascinated by the seemingly-disconnected details of his remarkable life. This was a man who had grown up in the US, yet here he was, complete with a southern drawl and Colonel Sanders beard, leading a flourishing congregation in a picturesque town nestled between snow-capped mountains. Curious, I asked him how he had been called to his position. His response, which puzzled me for years, is much clearer today in light of my understanding of the principles of purpose and connected values:
“Called? I wasn’t called. I had to go.”
This was a man who knew his purpose and acted upon it. I believe he was compelled to do so. He left his comfort zone in order to fulfill his purpose, and at the intersection of purpose, values, and action, he found fulfillment.
What Happens When We Discover Our Values and Purpose?
Like the Pastor above, when we discover our values and purpose, we will naturally shift toward spending the majority of our time and energy on impactful activities. Hint: Highly-successful people do not watch 6 hours of television and compulsively check their Facebook feeds every fifteen minutes. Successful people allow their purpose and values to drive their actions.
Your Financial Values
Armed with knowledge of your personal values, now let us answer the following adapted questions:
What is your primary reason for earning money?
What use of your money do you find most fulfilling?
How do you best contribute to your financial well-being?
What kind of financial legacy do you wish to leave?
I believe the answers to these questions will show you your Financial Values. Here is an example, which utilizes my brief answers to the above questions:
What is your primary reason for earning money?
Living well in the present and the future.
What use of your money do you find most fulfilling?
Giving to others.
How do you best contribute to your financial well-being?
Carefully managing my family’s income to ensure it aligns with your goals and values.
What kind of financial legacy do you wish to leave?
I wish to change my family tree and have an impact that is several generations deep without breeding a sense of entitlement in my children and grandchildren.
Did you notice any themes? My financial values are Moderation, Giving, Stewardship, Order, and Dependability. I craft each monthly budget with these values in mind.
How to Start Values-Based Budgeting
I strongly believe that getting on board with a values-based budgeting approach can be the boost you need to reinvigorate your financial pursuits, expand your horizons, and achieve your dreams. Here are a few examples of how this approach has revolutionized my own budgeting process in the past few months:
Mrs. Superhero and I discovered that our spending on restaurants and expensive dinners was far out of alignment with our values. Yes, we value time for relaxation, and spending money on a night out certainly provides that. However, we realized we were not gaining additional relaxation benefits from dining at a local five-star steakhouse versus spending $20 at Red Robin. This freed up a significant percentage of our budget, which we re-dedicated toward toward saving and reducing debt.
I am strongly considering reducing or eliminating my cable TV package. Intellectually, I grasp the enormous benefits just waiting to be realized when and if I pull the trigger on this change. For me, cutting the cord will be equivalent to what many people experience when they cut up a credit card they have had for decades. It will be painful, but I am starting to realize I value my financial independence far more than the ability to access hundreds of channels. As a sports fanatic, I will, however, need to ensure that I have alternate systems in place prior to cutting the cord.
Mrs. Superhero works extremely hard in her day job as a music teacher and as a self-made entrepreneur with her music lesson studio. After discussing her values, she and I have decided to reinvest more of her income in needed items for the studio in the near future, such as tablets, method books, and an accounting service.
To get started, ask yourself the following questions:
How can my values influence my goals and my budget?
Make a list of your values and keep them near by as you assemble your budget.
How do my recent actions misalign with my values?
Track your spending actions for one week (or better, one month) and connect them with your associated values. If they do not align, you have discovered an opportunity to improve your budget.
How do my recent actions align with my values?
Continue to implement these steps to stay on track.
What false values are indicated by the patterns of my actions?
For example, am I spending too much money on restaurants, clothing, or miscellaneous categories, all at the expense of other goals?
Build on SMART Goals to Achieve Success
When you have built a successful budget that have been able to adhere to for several months, you are on track to achieve your goals. If you discover that you are not sticking to your budget, I have one final recommendation.
Most people today are familiar with the concept of SMART Goals. Smart goals are intended to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented. I would like to propose a simple addition to this concept.
You guessed it: Values.
Introducing the V-SMART Goal: Values-based, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented
I believe that the creation of V-SMART Goals can be the jolt that you may need to finally establish goals and retain the momentum and desire to fully accomplish them. Allow me to provide a simple example:
SMART Goal: I will pay off $5,000 of debt on my MasterCard prior to July 1, 2016, by limiting my discretionary spending in the areas of Clothing and Entertainment.
V-SMART Goal: In order to align with my values of Stewardship and Financial Independence, I will pay off $5,000 of debt on my MasterCard prior to July 1, 2016, by limiting my discretionary spending in the areas of Clothing and Entertainment.
Just by making a simple distinction like you read above and keeping values at the forefront of your mind, I am confident you will increase your success. The consideration of values has added a new depth and breadth to financial planning and budgeting for me and Mrs. Superhero. It is supporting faster achievement of our goals.
To bring this post to its conclusion, I would like to leave you with a profound reminder from Henry David Thoreau:
What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.
In this post, we will take a detailed look at how to create a zero-based budget.
A zero-based budget is a budget in which all income is allocated to a budget category with no remaining unused funds.
At this point, you should realize that you can’t afford to go another month without a budget. It could be the difference between one day reaching financial freedom and remaining in bondage to debt. It could leave you trapped working a job you hate just to pay the bills. It could diminish your happiness. If you don’t feel urgency and understand the importance of a budget, thus requiring more convincing , start here.
Methods of Budgeting
Depending on your personality and degree of tech-savviness, you may wish to create a budget the old-fashioned paper-and-pencil way. You may prefer using Excel, or even an automated program, such as Mint, YNAB, EveryDollar, or PersonalCapital.
If you are a budget rookie, I cannot understate the importance of creating a budget and crunching the numbers yourself without the benefits of an automated program, at least for your first few budgets. I highly recommend the pencil-and-paper or Excel methods for your first few budgets simply because these methods will force you to pay attention and be precise.
Before we get into the specifics of your budget, let’s review some pertinent basics.
You need to create a new, unique budget at the beginning of the month, every month. Why? Some expenses occur on a bi-monthly or quarterly basis, and you will want to capture this within each unique budget you create. Remember, some expenses are fixed, while others vary from month to month.
Your budget should be based upon your net income (after state and federal taxes, employer deductions, and insurance premiums). Whether you are paid bi-weekly or weekly, this figure, too, will vary from month to month.
You should create a budget which utilizes categories. I personally use the following categories, which are recommended by Dave Ramsey. You should use the categories that represent areas of significant expense in your budget, delete those which do not, and add any pertinent categories which may be missing.
Within each category, your expenses should fall within the following typical ranges.
Sample Expenses Within Each Category
Giving/Charity: Tithes and offerings to church/religious organization, charitable donations
Saving: Emergency fund savings, retirement savings (401k, 403b, Roth IRA, Traditional IRA), college savings (ESA, 529), vacation savings fund, sinking funds
Housing: Rent, mortgage (including property taxes and insurance in escrow), home maintenance
Utilities: Electric, Gas, Water, Trash, Home/Mobile Phone, Cable/Internet, Home Security
Food: Grocery, restaurants, fast food, coffee and drinks
Transportation: Fuel, auto insurance, auto maintenance, bus passes, train tickets, Uber fares, tolls, miscellaneous transportation costs
Clothing: Includes shoes, outerwear, work wear, accessories Personal: Discretionary spending, disability/life/identity theft insurance premiums, miscellaneous spending
Debt: Student loans, car loans, home equity loans, credit cards
The Specifics of a Budget
Before we proceed, it is important to note that your figures may or may not fall squarely within the categorical ranges previously mentioned. For example, if your Housing costs represent 24% or 36% of your monthly budget, this is not a serious problem. Please view the percentages above as suggestions for a healthy budget. Clearly, room exists for give and take, particularly if you are a very low or very high income earner, as long as your percentages add up to 100%.
Some of the categories above cover fixed expenses, such as Housing, Debt, and Utilities. Others address what we will call variable fixed expenses; you will spend money in each of these categories during a typical month, but the amounts may vary slightly from month to month. Variable fixed categories include Food, Transportation, Clothing, and Personal. Finally, the remaining categories, including Giving, Saving, and Recreation, are what we will refer to as discretionary expenses. You may choose to allocate money within these categories, but it is not mandatory for your family’s survival.
Note: Mrs. Superhero and I strongly believe that Giving is important, and we choose to include it as a fixed expense within our budget. Your values will dictate how you choose to handle this category in your budget.
Here is a sample budget based upon a $5,000 monthly income:
Dollar Amount Allocated
Allocations as Percentage of Budget
As you can see above, the total of all categories combines equals $5,000. This budget adheres closely to the recommended percentages, and it even manages to stay below the recommended percentage ranges in the Health/Medical and Recreation categories.
Creating Your Detailed Monthly Budget
In the previous section, we allocated targeted spending amounts based on our categories. Now, we will explore how to reconcile our actual monthly spending with these estimated allocations.
In order to utilize accurate expense figures, it is advisable to download copies of your monthly checking, savings, and credit card statements from your financial institutions. If you are doing a paper pencil-and-pencil budget, I recommend adding expenses by category using columns.
Once you have calculated categorical totals for the entire month, the final step is to add all categorical totals and compare the final sum to your allocated final sum. Again, in order to have a zero-based budget, these figures should be identical.
Possible Problems and Trends
As you are doing your first few monthly budgets, you are likely to encounter the following problems or trends:
Spending more than the allocated targets in one or more categories
Spending less than the allocated targets in one or more categories
Why? A budget is a rough prediction. Think of it as a rough draft of an essay. You will return to it and refine any errors at the end of the month. The previous mistakes you made will influence and impact your thought process as you create later budgets.
Two Serious Warning Signs and Solutions
The following are two warning signs that your budget is not working:
Warning Sign: You consistently spend more than the allocated targets in specific categories. Solution: Increase allocated funds for the category if you are within recommended ranges. If you are exceeding recommended ranges, implement measures to reduce spending.
Warning Sign: Your spending exceeds your income. Solution: Forgive me for shouting, but STOP OVERSPENDING! Stay out of restaurants, learn to like your old clothes, and ride your bike to save on gas. Alternatively, seek alternative streams of income.
Now that you understand the nuances of a zero-based budget, get started on yours today. A budget only takes a few minutes to assemble, but the rewards are potentially without limit. Getting on the right path, understanding your money, and controlling your money are keys to being a Finance Superhero. A budget doesn’t require sophistication, manipulation, or secret wisdom. It requires patience, intentionality, and a desire to be in control of your money.
Readers, how do you plan your monthly budget? Do you use automated software? Excel? Paper and pencil? How much time do you spend on your budget each month? Share your thoughts and burning questions in the comments section below.