Tag Archives: Roth IRA

How to Make the Most of Your Tax Refund

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. Admittedly, knowing how to make the most of your tax refund can be a daunting task.

Still haven’t submitted your 2016 tax returns? If you have a simple return, such as a 1040-EZ, I recommend completing your simple return with E-File.com today. You can complete your Federal return for FREE and receive free support along the way. And FinanceSuperhero readers can receive a discount on state returns by using this link – $6 Off State Filings With Coupon Code “6OFFSTATE”.

If you’re planning to complete a 1040A or require additional schedules, the team at Liberty Tax has local offices in your area to help you every step of the way. Other tax preparation services come and go, but LibertyTax has been helping people file their taxes the easy way since 1997.

Receiving a tax refund is a great opportunity to improve your financial outlook. Follow these 9 pro tips to make the most of your tax refund in 2017!

The FinanceSuperhero Guide to Making the Most of Your Tax Refund

Assuming you have a tax refund coming your way, you could be on the verge of changing your financial picture.  With great opportunity comes great responsibility! The following advice will help you to make the most of your tax refund and make significant progress on your financial journey. I recommend following the steps in numerical order.

1. Give a Portion of Your Tax Refund to a Charitable Organization

Longtime readers will not be surprised that I am suggesting giving as the first step to make the most of your tax refund. 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.

I strongly believe that giving 10% is the best way that we can make a charitable 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 only a few months away from carrying no debt other than our mortgage.

Why? As I mentioned, we believe helping others is both a calling and 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 and/or Emergency Fund

When looking to make the most of your tax return, simply saving money can be a wise choice.
When looking to make the most of your tax return, simply saving money can be a wise choice.

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 additional 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. Get out of 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 barrier 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. You may get the push you need if you make the most of your tax refund in this way!

 

4. Invest in Tax-Advantaged Investments

The real fun begins when you no longer have non-mortgage debt. 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.

Want to make the most of your tax refund? Opening an IRA or taxable brokerage account with Betterment is a smart way to maximize the impact of your refund.
Betterment returns vs. US Market and Typical Investor Returns (Credit: Betterment)

If you’re looking for an easy to use platform for investing, Fundrise offers real estate investment options with low financial barriers for entry.. Their Tax-Coordinated Portfolio works to maximize your earnings and minimize tax burdens across all types of accounts, including taxable accounts, Roth IRAs, and traditional IRAs. It is simple to sign-up or rollover an account, select a portfolio of ETFs, and be on your way toward earning better returns right away.

Compared to other platforms, the Betterment portfolio is designed to achieve optimal returns at every level of risk. Through diversification, automated rebalancing, better behavior, and lower fees, the Betterment approach to investing can help you generate 2.9% higher returns than a typical DIY investor.

Make the most of your tax refund and start investing with Betterment by signing up today!

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.

Related PostEscape From Student Loans: How Two Educators Paid Off $17,831.65 in 54 Days

6. Destroy Your Mortgage Debt

Pause with me for a moment and imagine a life without a mortgage payment. If you can’t image it, check out the FREE E-book, How to Hack Your Mortgage and Save Thousands, written by my friend Andrew at FamilyMoneyPlan. This is the plan he and his wife used to wipe out their $320,000 mortgage in 6 years.

What could you do with an extra $1,000 per month? $2,500? $5,000? I just felt an overwhelming sense of excitement  and 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! Make the most of your tax refund to accomplish progress on an annual basis and you 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.

Want to make the most of your tax refund? Investing in real estate with Fundrise is an exciting option for investors in 2017.Fortunately, today’s investors can invest in real estate without the hassle of becoming a landlord or hiring a property manager. Fundrise offers real estate investment options with low entry costs.. As of February 2017, they offer three eREITs for new investors: the West Cost eREIT, the Heartland eREIT, and the East Cost eREIT. It is amazing that technology has brought common investors like you and me the opportunity to invest in multi-million dollar buildings half way around the country!

Even if you’re on the fence about real estate investing or just not quite ready to dip your toe in the water, I recommend signing-up with Fundrise today – it is 100% FREE, with no obligation, and in doing so, you’ll position yourself to learn more and possibly avoid wait lists.

8. Improve the Value of Your Primary 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 Investments: new front door, landscaping, deck or patio, kitchen or bath remodel, walkway lighting

Bad Investments: swimming pools, 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.

Are You Ready to Make the Most of Your Tax Refund?

A tax refund is a great opportunity to get ahead in your finances. 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.

If you haven’t yet filed your 2016 tax returns, be sure to check out E-File.com or LibertyTax today. Either way, careful consideration of your circumstances will put you on the path to make the most of your tax refund this year!

 

Note: This post was last updated on February 14, 2017.


Readers, did you receive a tax refund this year? Are you currently awaiting a refund? How do you plan to make the most of your tax refund?

Checking Up On My Goals

One month ago, I turned 30. Much to my surprise, I didn’t wake up the next day feeling like a stiff old man. In fact, I didn’t feel a day older than 20.

A day prior to this milestone birthday, I published a list of 30 goals I hope to achieve in the next year. Yesterday on Twitter, Staci – @Streamline365 – checked-in and inquired about my progress, which made me very happy. As I have written in the past, I have a strong desire to both help others with my blog while also seeking accountability for my actions and pursuit of my goals. So, thank you, Staci, for calling me out!

With that said, I offer a quick check-in on the progress toward goal achievement one month into my 30s.

INVESTMENT GOALS
1 – Max out both of our IRAs for 2016. $11,000 total investment.
PROGRESS: None to report, but that will change in September.
2 – Invest a minimum of $2,000 with Fundrise.
PROGRESS: I am going back and forth on which Fundrise option I wish to pursue, the Income or Growth eREIT. Both options, though different, are enticing. I had planned to dive in during the month of July, but a few unexpected medical and personal expenses proved to set us back in this regard. The current plan is to make a decision and pull the trigger in late August or early September.

Related Post: The Fundrise eREIT: Accessible Real Estate Investing for the Average Investor

3 – Grow my overall account value with Betterment.
PROGRESS: None to report.
4 – Increase our overall net worth by 50%.
PROGRESS: I have begun tracking our net worth on a more regular basis, so that counts as progress, I suppose. According to Personal Capital, our net worth rose by 1% in the past 30 days. Ho hum.
5 – Set a target date for early retirement and formulate a plan to get there.
PROGRESS: Mrs. Superhero and I have had several discussions about our retirement options and plans. More specifically, we have defined our vision of what early retirement will look like for us. I intend to write about this in the future. With any luck, we may be able to narrow down a specific target date in the next few months.

HEALTH GOALS 
7- Lose 10 pounds by September 1, 2016.
PROGRESS: In the midst of birthday and anniversary celebrations, I gained 4 pounds. Oops!
8- Run at least four times per week.
PROGRESS: I’ve been consistently running twice per week. Time to step it up!
9- Weight lift at least twice per week.
PROGRESS: None to report.
10- Implement Meatless Mondays on a regular basis. This will represent a health goal as well as a budgetary goal (decreasing our grocery budget).
PROGRESS: Success! I miss meat every Monday, but this goal has been a good one.

FITNESS/RUNNING GOALS
11 – Run an unsanctioned half marathon in the month of July. This will help me to have a target for getting myself back in excellent running shape after a year of inconsistent training.
PROGRESS: I have one more week to achieve this one. Chicagoland has been an inferno lately, so I might not be able to squeeze this one in.
12 – Run a sanctioned or unsanctioned marathon in August.
PROGRESS: This remains a big stretch goal. Time will tell
13 – Run a sanctioned marathon in October.
PROGRESS: I have looked into a few options and am narrowing them down based on my calendar.
14 – Begin training for and compete in the Artic Frog 50K scheduled for December 2016; definitely a stretch goal!
PROGRESS: Remains a big stretch goal.
15 – Run a 5:30 mile. I haven’t been able to do this since I was 18; my best has been hovering around 6:05 for  while now. Nothing like jumping in the time machine to prove I’ve still got it!
PROGRESS: Also a stretch goal.
16 – Shoot hoops in the driveway at least three times per week. Mrs. Superhero surprised me by taking me out to pick out a basketball hoop for our driveway as my birthday gift a few weeks ago. I intend to put it to great use.
PROGRESS: The basketball hoop has been my favorite birthday gift in years. I love getting out and shooting around, even if for a few minutes, as a break and a means to clear my head.

BLOG GOALS
17 – Reach 15,000 Twitter followers prior to turning 31.
PROGRESS: As of today, I have 4,177 followers.
18 – Boost my Alexa ranking into the top 200,000 globally. This is part of the Yakezie Challenge.
PROGRESS: As of 7/24/2016 – Global: 628,956. US: 80,587. I’m thrilled with this progress!
19 – Break into the top 100 on the Modest Money Top Finance Blogs List prior to turning 31.
PROGRESS: Currently sitting at 271.
20 – Continue to publish 2-3 new articles per week while also pursuing additional guest posting opportunities.
PROGRESS: Success. In the past few weeks I have been fortunate to guest post on Budgets Are Sexy and Distilled Dollar, and I have another guest post slated on Millennial Moola this week. Thank you to J. Money, Matt, and Travis for these great opportunities!

CAREER GOALS
21 – Decide what I want to do with the next chapter in my life.
PROGRESS: I anticipate completion of my real estate licensure very soon, and the new school year kicks off mid-August.
22 – Join a real estate brokerage and close my first real estate transaction in 2016.
PROGRESS: See above.
23 – Reach my commission goals for my current consulting role.
PROGRESS: None to report.
24 – Begin laying the groundwork for writing my first book.
PROGRESS: I’ve jotted down some foundational ideas.

BUDGET GOALS
25 – Reduce discretionary spending by 10%. We can learn to be happy with less. This will be a primary key to achieving our investment goals.
PROGRESS: We reduced our restaurant allotment for the month of July.
26 – Include Mrs. Superhero more in the formulation of our goals. To her credit, Mrs. Superhero is great at supporting my dreams when they are wise and shooting them down when they are stupid. I would like to be careful to involve her more when strategizing.
PROGRESS: Mrs. Superhero and I have scheduled more frequent budgeting sessions recently.

LIFESTYLE GOALS
27 – Visit Nashville, TN for vacation and do our “Debt Free Scream” on the Dave Ramsey Show.
PROGRESS: Tentatively planned for March 2017.
28 – Go on three vacations – one in the fall (hopefully Las Vegas), one in the spring of 2017 (see Goal 27), and one in the summer of 2017 – and plan them utilizing travel hacks and deal hunting techniques.
PROGRESS: Aiming for Las Vegas in October!

RELATIONSHIP GOALS
29 – Take Mrs. Superhero on one date each week. Sometimes this will be simple, and other times it will be more elaborate.
PROGRESS: Success. It has been the highlight of each week to spend dedicated time with Mrs. Superhero.
30 – Spend more quality time with my two nephews and new niece. Also, call my siblings to catch up on a monthly basis.
PROGRESS: Success. I’ve especially enjoyed bonding with my niece, who has to be the most adorable 4 month-old in the world!

Uncle FinanceSuperhero and Charlotte
Uncle FinanceSuperhero and Charlotte

How has your July progressed? Are you on track to meet your goals?

Tracking Your Net Worth

Super Millennial LogoToday’s guest post is from a fellow superhero. Michael is the creator of Super Millennial. He teaches people how to evaluate their financial situation, simplify money management & automate their investments to reach their financial goals. Subscribe for his personal finance “Keys To Success” and blog updates here. Make sure to follow him on Twitter as well.

Note from FinanceSuperhero: This post greatly influenced me to begin tracking my own net worth in earnest. Ironically, when I started tracking my net worth for the first time in earnest rather than simply maintaining awareness of a ballpark figure, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was much higher than I had previously thought.

 

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Everyone wants to be a millionaire or billionaire, but to most people it’s just a dream and will stay that way forever…UNLESS you decide to make your dream a GOAL & work hard to achieve it.

If you’ve read “Think & Grow Rich” or Millionaire Next Door it should be evident how important goal setting is in all aspects of life, including finances. Wanting something is one thing, planning & going after it is another…one way to start focusing on becoming a millionaire (so you can ball out like DJ Khaled in any of his 80 music videos) is tracking your net worth. Even though I don’t think he has mentioned/screamed it yet, it’s a major key to financial success (trust me).

Do you know or track your net worth? I’d be pretty surprised/impressed if you are. Whenever I ask someone if they are I tend to hear the same few excuses:

  • “Why should I track it? Seems time consuming & doubt it’ll matter ”
  • “But I don’t have that much money…”
  • “What’s the point of tracking a few thousand dollars?”
  • “I’m way too in debt to want to see exactly how much”


It doesn’t matter if you have $1,000 or $1 million dollars, it’s amazing how helpful it is to track your overall net worth…and it takes five minutes a month!

I started tracking my net worth after reading J Money’s “Budgets Are Sexy” …. over the past eight years he’s been able to go from 50K to now 500K and shows exactly how. Needless to say I was very inspired to start…

I REALLY wish I would have started this earlier in life, I’ll be honest and admit I just started in late 2015 (around 9 months now) and within a few pay periods I was amazed at how much it factors into my financial decisions (& how good I was at saving). Don’t worry I’m not asking you to track every single penny you spend, because I know you won’t (nor would I), let Mint automatically do that for you.

I’m only asking that you do this once a month, not daily or weekly to really see your progression and how easy it become to get “richer” by paying attention to your finances.

Here are the top benefits of tracking:

Main Benefits:

  • Financial Progress: We all want to evolve & progress in anything in life, its human nature. It’s even better when you grow your $$$ & can look back to the month or year previous and see how far you’ve come. Progress is impossible without change! 
  • Confidence Builder: For example if you saved an extra $1,000 in your emergency fund or watch your 401K increase due to a bigger contribution. It will make you feel proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish (and want to do more)…..do you think millionaires just got there by luck? No they made a conscious effort to earn, save & repeat! 
  • Avoids focusing on just assets: If you have 200K in assets but 100K in debt you’re just lying to yourself, it’s important to factor both into the calculation.
  • Loans: Your net worth can be a factor if you plan on applying for a loan in the near future (i.e. banks feel more comfortable giving you a loan when you have good credit & money in the bank).


How should you track it? There isn’t one specific way but here’s how I do it and takes up 5-10 minutes each month. I pull up my Personal Capital account for most of my accounts and then add to a google doc (not all of my accounts sync w/PC). 

It doesn’t matter if you use it or a different version, it’s just important to get in the habit of tracking your progress. Make sure to include all accounts and a comments section so you can notate when there are major +/- changes (i.e. 401K increase, stock market drop 5%, tax refund, inheritance, etc).

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You’ll spend 5-10 minutes a month entering the information for assets & liabilities and it will caclulate your net worth.
Here’s what you should include:Assets

  • 401K – You have a 401K and contribute AT LEAST to your employer match right?
  • IRA – Roth IRA’s are amazing, if you need to learn more check this out.
  • Checking Account:  I personally use Chase, but where’ve you bank make sure you don’t have a monthly “convenience” fee and low ATM fees if you bank at another ATM. 
  • Savings Account: I love Ally bank – no fees & 1% interest is better than nothing
  • Brokerage Account: If you have one…
  • Additional Accounts: Any other investment, CD, money market, etc….

 

Liabilities

  • Auto Loans: This is an asset and a liability, if your car is valued at 25K and you have 15K left on the loan add the 25K to assets & 15K to liabilities.
  • Student Debt: Yes they suck but you gotta include them too…..
  • House: Same as the car example…this is an asset and a liability, if your house is valued at 250K and you have 150K left on the loan add the 250K to assets & 150K to liabilities.


Regardless of where you are financially, knowing your net worth can help you evaluate where you are and plan for your financial future. Once you understand your situation you become more aware of your spending/budgeting and can achieve both your short and long term goals.  

On top of planning and reaching goals it will also help you stay motivated and can be a huge confidence booster. It can also make you aware of your current investments and how they are fit for different market conditions. For example in February the stock market dropped but my net worth barely moved, I had such good asset allocation that the loss was minor in comparison to the market.

If you are not watching your personal net worth on a regular basis, you are skipping an important step in preparing for retirement (or EARLY retirement if you do it right). As always save early so you can thank yourself later. Once you have your tracking system setup hold yourself accountable to spend five to ten minutes to update monthly (use a calendar reminder or choose a specific day of the month).


Readers, don’t forget to head over to SuperMillennial to check out more of Michael’s superhero advice and follow him on Twitter.

Do you track your net worth? Have you found a better way? Let us know in the comments section below.

A Detailed Guide to the Zero-Based Budget

Do you feel hopeless about money? Have you tried to make a budget in the past and bombed big time? In this post, we will take a detailed look at how to create a zero-based budget which will help you take back control of your life and money.

What exactly is 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, start here.

Methods of Budgeting

Do you feel hopeless about money? Have you tried to make a budget in the past and bombed big time? In this post, we will take a detailed look at how to create a zero-based budget which will help you take back control of your life and money.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, or EveryDollar.

If you are a budget rookie, I cannot understate the importance of creating a budget and crunching the numbers yourself, at least for your first few budgets. I highly recommend the pencil-and-paper for your first few budgets simply because it will force you to pay attention and be precise.

Budget Basics

Before we get into the specifics of your budget, let’s review some key 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.
Giving/Charity
Saving
Housing
Utilities
Food
Transportation
Clothing
Health/Medical
Personal
Recreation
Debt
  • Within each category, your expenses should fall within the following typical ranges.

 

Category Recommended Percentages
Giving/Charity 0-10%
Saving 5-15%
Housing 25-35%
Utilities 5-10%
Food 5-15%
Transportation 5-15%
Clothing 2-7%
Personal 5-10%
Health/Medical 5-10%
Recreation 5-10%
Debt 0%

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

Health/Medical: Insurance co-pays, prescription co-pays, miscellaneous medicine, gym memberships

Recreation: Movie tickets, concert tickets, sporting events, local/regional travel, miscellaneous recreation

Debt: Student loans, car loans, home equity loans, credit cards

The Specifics of a Budget

Your figures may or may not fall neatly within the categorical ranges above. For example, if your Housing costs represent 24% or 36% of your monthly budget, this is not a serious problem. The percentages above are only 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.

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 zero-based budget based upon a $5,000 monthly income:

Category Dollar Amount Allocated Allocations as Percentage of Budget Recommended Percentages
Giving/Charity $500 10.00% 0-10%
Saving $250 5.00% 5-15%
Housing $1,500 30.00% 25-35%
Utilities $500 10.00% 5-10%
Food $700 14.00% 5-15%
Transportation $400 8.00% 5-15%
Clothing $150 3.00% 2-7%
Personal $500 10.00% 5-10%
Health/Medical $200 4.00% 5-10%
Recreation $150 3.00% 5-10%
Debt $150 3.00% 0%
Totals $5,000 100.00%

As you can see above, the total of all categories combined 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 Zero-Based Budget

In the previous section, we allocated targeted spending amounts based on our categories – put simply, we made a plan. Now, we will explore how to reconcile our actual monthly spending with these estimated allocations, or examine how well we are following the plan.

Start by downloading copies of your monthly checking, savings, and credit card statements. If you are doing a paper pencil-and-pencil budget, I recommend adding expenses by category using columns on a legal pad.

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.

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.

Next Steps

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 winning with money. A budget doesn’t require sophistication, manipulation, or secret wisdom. It requires patience, intentionality, and a desire to be in control of your money. Even if you suck with money, you can do it!


Readers, how do you plan your monthly budget? Do you create a zero-based 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.

The Car Lease – The Devastating Costs of Luxury

Yesterday, while driving around town to complete errands in my fuel-efficient, three-year-old Hyundai Sonata, I found myself waiting at a lengthy stop light. Naturally, the wait annoyed me to some degree, as I was the only car in sight. However, Moonlight (my wife’s affectionate name for our Hyundai) and I weren’t alone for long, as we were soon joined by a sleek, shiny 2016 Audi A8 Sedan.

Leasing a car may seem smart, affordable, and convenient, but this luxury may be costing you your freedom, retirement, and much more!While I am admittedly a car lover, I must admit that my interest was divided equally between the A8 and its driver. Why? The driver could not have been a day older than 25, by my observation, and naturally, the Finance Superhero in me could not compute many scenarios in which this young man could afford such a fine vehicle.

I know what many of you are thinking:

  • Good for him! This fellow has clearly done well for himself.
  • Did you strike up a friendship with Mr. A8?
  • Age is hard to predict; maybe this hot shot is older than he looks.
  • Weren’t you jealous?

My thoughts:

  • Maybe.
  • No.
  • Maybe.
  • No.

Jealous? While others may have felt envy, I only felt pity.

Yes, it is quite possible that this driver was closer to 35 than 25. It is possible that he is a new partner at a leading law or accounting firm. However, statistics dictate that it is more likely that he is a 20-something who earns slightly above the median US adjusted gross income ($36,841 in tax year 2013, according to IRS.gov). Regardless, I assert that the driver’s income is a variable that pales in comparison to the opportunity cost in driving and likely leasing such a fine vehicle.

I Hope He Likes the Car

Except in cases of significant wealth, the luxury vehicle represents one of the largest financial boat anchors in the lives of Americans. Leasing one – or any car- can destroy your budget, crush your dreams of financial independence, and eliminate hope for a modest retirement.

For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that Mr. A8 is leasing his vehicle. The current manufacturer lease offer for this vehicle is $899 per month for 36 months with $4,644 cash due at the time of signing. This represents a total cost of $37,008 over three years, or $12,336 per year! For a car!

What’s that? You’re still not convinced that Mr. A8 isn’t getting a fine deal?

Let’s assume that Mr. A8 utilized the $4,644 cash due at signing on the Audi and instead purchased a much more affordable yet attractive vehicle. For example, suppose he found a deal on a 2004 Honda Accord and stretches his budget to $5,000. In this scenario, he would not have any monthly auto expenses, aside from gasoline and regular repairs. This would free up $899 per month!

What could he do with these money? Here’s a suggested monthly breakdown (rounding up to $900 for the sake of simplicity):


$400 placed in a money market account as a sinking fund designated for the purchase of a replacement vehicle when the Accord goes to the junkyard in the sky

$500 invested in a company 401k/403b, up the company match, with remaining funds invested in a Roth IRA


Now, let us suppose that our 25 year old driver’s investments earn an average return (after inflation, the generally-accepted return figure for the S&P 500 is approximately 7%) and is compounded monthly. After thirty six months, Mr. A8 would have just over $20,000 combined in his 401k/403b and Roth IRA accounts, not including any company matching. Additionally, he would have $14,402.22 saved in his money market account (assuming an interest rate of .01%) toward the purchase of a future vehicle. If he continued investing this same amount each month until age 65, he would be poised to retire with investment accounts valued at approximately $1.3 million.

I hope Mr. A8 really likes his fancy car!

Common Objections

Despite the fairly simple math above, some people still love their leased car. I’ve heard many objections over the past several years. My response is usually very straight-forward.

I need a luxury vehicle for work purposes.

I understand that for many professionals, the appearance of a car is very important. However, a 3-4 year old Honda Accord or even 10 year old BMW will get the job done. And these vehicles can often be purchased in great condition, especially if you flash cash to secure a great deal.

I am not handy when it comes to automotive maintenance, so a lease makes sense for me.

This objection rarely rings true. First, very few people are capable of maintaining their own vehicles beyond routine fluid changes, brake replacement, and tire rotations. Leasing a vehicle does not eliminate maintenance costs. And no, maintenance is not free with a lease. You are paying for it, as the costs are built in somewhere.

Second, new vehicles are often subject to repairs that will later be addressed by manufacturer recall. Strategically purchasing used vehicles which have already had these concerns addressed and repaired and have already had their 50-60k mile maintenance performed is a much better way to go.

With a lease, I can drive a new car every two or three years.

Listen. You need to make a decision. We are talking about your vehicle or your retirement! Which do you want more? 65 year-old you will want to kick 25 year-old you in the butt for being stupid and leasing a vehicle when you could follow the simple mathematical plan above and still simultaneously fund your retirement AND drive nice vehicles. And 65 year-old you is likely to get that opportunity, as Apple will probably have invented the iTimeMachine by that point. Don’t screw things up for future you! Don’t walk away – run – if you’re tempted to lease a car.


What are your thoughts on car leases? Does it ever make sense to lease a vehicle? Have you or someone you know ever been burned by a car leaLeasing a car may seem smart, affordable, and convenient, but this luxury may be costing you your freedom, retirement, and much more!se? Share your thoughts in the comments section.