How to Save Without Goals
If you’ve ever spoken to a financial planner or read a personal finance article, you’ll know that it’s critical to have goals. A person without goals — if you believe the experts — is like a rudderless boat, going nowhere in calm waters, tossed around in stormy weather, and sinking well before reaching shore. (See also: Setting Great Goals...and Achieving Them)
I could never articulate my life goals to a financial planner or advisor. My desire to have shelter, clothes, food, and money for incidental expenses along with time to pursue my interests seemed too simple to be classified as a worthy goal. My dream of becoming a published author seemed too ambitious and unlikely. A proper goal for a financial-planning discussion, I thought, would be to build a real estate empire or retire on a Caribbean island before I turned 30.
How basic survival and high aspirations could combine to shape a financial plan was foreign to me. Really, though, I didn’t grasp how spelling out my goals could yield a plan far superior to my longstanding one of saving, investing, and trying to live within my means.
In the years following my early encounters with financial planners, I’ve learned about life goals and financial plans:
- Lack of goals doesn’t portend financial disaster (despite my inability to establish financial plan-worthy goals, I have a net worth well above the national average).
- Goals aren’t always reached in logical, sequential order.
- Priorities can shift dramatically from year to year, and opportunities can surface and appear erratically.
- Goals can influence better, but not perfect, decision making about personal finances.
- Great planning doesn’t override the need for following good personal finance habits of saving, investing, minimizing or avoiding unnecessary debt, and living below one’s means.
So, if you haven’t yet finalized your life’s to-do list (or if you’re not ready to share your dreams with a financial advisor), here are starter plans.
- Open a savings account and put $25 in the account each month.
- Save money for your retirement: contribute to your company’s 401(k) plan so that you can get matching funds (if available); open and fund a Roth IRA, up to the legal maximum each year.
- Get health insurance, either through your employer or purchased on your own, and buy life insurance if you have a family (or plan to have a family).
- Pay off debt. Start with credit card debt and then pay off car loans, student loans, and mortgages.
- Buy some stocks or bonds with any extra money you might have.
- Open a savings account and set up direct deposits of $25 each month. If you can’t afford $25, then start with $10; if you can afford more, go to $50 or $100.
- Save for non-monthly expenses. Start putting funds aside for these bills, which will probably include car insurance, life insurance, and vacations. You’ll need $100-300 per month or possibly more.
- Save for major purchases, such as a new (or used) car or home improvement project. Set aside a few hundred dollars each month.
- Build an emergency savings fund of at least $1,000 up to $5,000 or more to an amount that equals monthly expenses multiplied by six months.
- Open and fund a Roth IRA, up to the legal maximum each year. Set up an account with an online discount brokerage firm such as TD Ameritrade or E*Trade.
- Make contributions to your 401(k), if your company offers one. Scrutinizing investment options and administrative costs is useful, but optional for this slightly-more-than-basic plan. Contribute the maximum amount or whatever will reap the full company match.
- Open and fund a traditional IRA, up to the legal maximum each year.
- If you’re just getting started, don’t spend all your money on personal insurance but cover the basics.
- Get health insurance so that an accident or sudden illness won’t incur huge bills that may take years to pay. Buy coverage through your employer or consider a high-deductible plan that keeps monthly expenses low. But pay attention to the policy limit to make sure you are really protected from a crisis.
- Buy some life insurance worth 5-10 times your annual income, if you have family members who depend on your income.
- Tackle credit card debt first, as this type of debt usually carries the highest interest rate. Even if you have a great rate now, teaser rates expire and often skyrocket to really high rates (20-29%) later. You’ll also want to keep a low balance or even a zero balance so that you can possibly use your card for unexpected expenses.
- Make payments on car loans and student loans on time but don’t feel pressured to pay them off early, especially if you have a low interest rate.
- Get settled personally and professionally before buying a house and taking on a mortgage. Don’t rush to pay off this loan either, though paying a bit extra on the principal can speed up the payoff.
- Realize that what matters most about debt is not how quickly you pay off loans but whether debt temporarily sustains an unaffordable lifestyle.
If you've got extra money to save and invest,
- Buy some bonds or Treasury bills
- Invest in index funds or individual stocks
- Open a DRIP account with your favorite company
- Buy rental property
- Save for your children’s college education by opening and funding an Education IRA or 529 savings plan.
- Give money to charity
- Learn about tax laws and changes in tax laws, which will impact this year’s cash flow as well as future income.
This pseudo plan is a placeholder, which can be modified to your particular needs…until you have defined your goals and can see how life goals should mesh with financial plans.
To learn about ways that goals can influence financial planning, see these articles:
- Goal Setting, Getting Out of Debt Once and For All
- 9 Signs You Need to Fire Your Financial Planner (Nora says that a planner should always ask about goals before creating a plan or recommending products)
- The False Goal of Maximizing Investment Returns
- When Not to Put Money in Your 401(k)
- Use Investments to Reach your Goals (I particularly liked the recommendation to "explore even those desires you wouldn't normally consider discussing with a financial planner."
Have you succeeded or floundered with or without a plan?
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