“I can never retire.”
At the wake for a client’s son, in the lobby of a plush funeral parlor, a woman I was introduced to seconds earlier looked at me and confessed four impactful words. I wasn’t aware of her personal situation however I felt the weight of her conviction.
I asked: “So, how will you make the best of the situation?”
I hear this sentiment so often, it no longer surprises me. No matter where I go. As soon as people discover I’m a financial adviser, they’re compelled to vent or share concerns, which I value. I’m honored how others find it easy to confess their fears to me. Unfortunately, I rarely listen to good stories especially when it comes to the harsh reality of present-day finances.
Saving money whether it’s for a long-term benchmark like retirement or having enough cash for future emergencies is an overwhelming task for households and this condition has improved marginally since the financial crisis ended over six years ago.
According to a June 2013 study by Bankrate.com, 76% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Is that a surprising fact?
Consider your own experience. When was your last pay raise?
Wage growth has failed to keep up with inflation and productivity for years. During the heat of the great recession in 2009, you most likely endured a cut in pay from which you never fully recovered. On top of that, you’re probably juggling multiple responsibilities outside your original job description. To say the least, attempting to bolster savings is an ongoing challenge post financial crisis.
To develop a super-saver mindset you need to first accept the new reality and make peace with the present economic environment. Steady wage growth and job security are becoming as rare as pensions. The below-average economic conditions are more permanent than “experts” are willing to admit.
Before a change in behavior can occur, an attitude adjustment is required as saving is first and foremost, a mental exercise. For example, a super-saver feels empowered after all monthly expenses are paid, and a surplus exists in his or her checking account.
Instead of experiencing a “spending high,” super savers are happier and feel empowered when their household cash inflow exceeds expense outflow on a consistent basis.
You can feel this way, too.
I’ve witnessed hardcore spenders transform into passionate savers by thinking differently and keeping an open mind to the following perspectives.
Embrace a simple, honest saving philosophy.
Start with tough questions and honest answers to uncover truth about your past and current saving behavior.
You can go through the grind of daily life and still not fully comprehend your motivations behind anything, including money. Ostensibly, it comes down to an inner peace over your current situation, an objective review of resources (financial and otherwise), identification of those factors that prevent you from saving more and then creating a plan to improve at a pace that agrees with who you are. A strategy that fits your life and attitude.
The questions you ask yourself should be simple and thought-provoking.
Why aren’t you saving enough? Perhaps you just don’t find joy in saving because you don’t see a purpose or a clear direction for the action. Long-term change begins with a vision for every dollar you set aside. Whether it’s for a daughter’s wedding or a child’s education, saving money is a mental re-adjustment based on a strong desire to meet a personal financial benchmarks.
What’s the end game? It’s not saving forever with no end in sight, right? Perceive saving as a way to move closer to accomplishing a milestone, something that will bring you and others happiness or relieve financial stress in case of emergencies. A reason, a goal, a purpose for the dollars. Eventually savings are to be spent or invested.
Recently, I read a story in a financial newspaper about a retired janitor who lived like a pauper yet it was discovered upon his death, that he possessed millions. What’s the joy in that? Did this gentleman have an end game? I couldn’t determine from the article whether this hoarding of wealth was a good or bad thing. I believe it’s unhealthy.
Living frugally and dying wealthy doesn’t seem to be a thought-out process or at the least an enjoyable one. The messages drummed in your head from financial services are designed to stress you out; they’re based on generating fear and doubt. And fear is a horrible reason to save, joy isn’t.
Form an honest and simple philosophy that outlines specific reasons why you need to save or increase savings. Approach it positively, three sentences max to describe your current perspective, why you’re willing to improve (focus on the benefits, the end game) then allow your mind to think freely about how you will fulfill your goals. Don’t listen to others who believe they found a better system. Find your own groove and work it on a regular basis.
Much of what you heard about saving money is false and will lead you down a path of disappointment.
The “gurus” who tell you that paying off your mortgage early is a good idea didn’t generate wealth by saving (or paying off a mortgage early). They made it by investing in their businesses and taking formidable risks to create multiple, lucrative income streams. So before you buy in understand the personal agenda behind the messages. Worn personal finance advice like cutting out a favorite coffee drink and saving $3 bucks sounds terrific in theory but in the long run, means little to your bottom line. The needle won’t budge. And you’ll feel deprived to boot.
Financial media laments pervasively how you aren’t saving enough. From my experience, this message is not helpful; it fosters a defeatist attitude. People become frustrated, some decide to throw in the towel. They figure the situation is overwhelming and hopeless.
Don’t listen! Well, it’s ok to listen but don’t beat yourself up.
Saving money is personal. Meet with an objective financial adviser and don’t give much relevance to broad-based messages you hear about saving; it’s not one size fits all. Create a personalized savings plan with the end result in mind and be flexible in your approach. Appreciate the opportunity to improve at your own pace, to reach the destination for each path you create. Just the fact you’re saving money is important. The action itself is the greatest hurdle. Strive to save an additional 1% each year; it can make a difference. If not for your bank account, for your confidence.
Compound interest is a cool story, but that’s about it. Albert Einstein is credited with saying “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.” Well, that’s not the entire quote. Here’s the rest: “He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t pays it.”
I’m not going to argue the brilliance of Einstein although I think when it comes down to today’s interest-rate environment he would be quite skeptical (and he was known for his skepticism) of the real-world application of this “wonder.”
First, Mr. Einstein must have been considering an interest rate with enough “fire power” to make a dent in your account balance. Over the last six years, short-term interest rates have remained at close to zero, long term rates are deep below historical averages and are expected to remain that way for some time. Certainly compounding can occur as long as the rate of reinvestment is greater than zero, but there’s nothing magical about the “snowballing” effect of compounding in today’s environment.
Also, compounding is most effective when there’s little chance of principal loss. It’s a linear wealth-building perspective that no longer has the same effectiveness considering two devastating stock market collapses which have inflicted long-term damage on household wealth. What good is compounding when the foundation of what I invested in is crumbling?
Perhaps you should focus on the “he who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t pays it.”
I asked a super saver what that means to him. This gentleman interpreted it as the joy of being a lender and the toil of being a borrower. True power to a super saver ironically comes from living simply, avoiding credit card debt, searching out deals on the big stuff like automobiles and appliances.
Super-savers don’t focus much on compound interest any longer. As a matter of fact they believe it’s more a story than reality. They are passionate about fine-tuning what they can control and that primarily has to do with outflow or expenses.
This group ambitiously sets rules:
“I never purchase new autos.”
“My mortgage will never exceed twice my gross salary.”
“I never carry a credit card balance.”
“I’ll never purchase the newest and most expensive electronics.”
I know people who earn $40,000 a year save and invest 40% of their income. Then I’m acquainted with those who make $100,000 and can’t save a penny. Pick your road. Making tough lifestyle decisions aren’t easy but doable.
I believe the eighth wonder of the world is human resolve in the face of the new economic reality. Not compound interest.
Place greater emphasis on ROY (Return-On-You).
The greatest return on investment is when you allocate financial resources to increase the value of your human capital. In other words, developing your skill set is an investment that has the best potential to generate savings and wealth. Your house isn’t your biggest investment (as you’ve been told). It’s your greatest liability.
Many workers were required to re-invent themselves during or after the financial crisis. Their jobs were gone. In some cases, the industries that employed them for years were history, too. If you still need to work then you must consider directing as much as your resources as possible to multiply the ROY.
Take a realistic self-assessment of your skills, sharpen those that fit into the new economy or gain new ones to boost inflow (income). If you must stop saving to do it, do it. The increase in your income over ten to thirty years is real compounding.
People are finally beginning to understand that their current job is a dead end for wage increases or promotions. Finally, the status quo isn’t good enough, and that’s a great motivator to a ROY.
Increase inflow, decrease outflow – Let’s take an example – You earn $50,000 a year. You save 4% annually, that’s $2,000. If you achieve a 3% return on that money annually after 20 years that comes to $54,607.91. It’s admirable; some goals can be met along the way. However, if you’re looking to retire at the end of 20 years, big changes are necessary.
Super savers embrace the math and take on big lifestyle shifts to increase cash inflow. They’re willing to take on new skills, consider bold career moves, postpone retirement, and downsize to save additional income for investment and add time to work their plan. Everything is open for discussion.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Super savers maintain tremendous resolve to stay in control of their household balance sheets. Emotionally this group seems less stressed removed from the chains of debt. They tell me they have achieved control over their finances.
You can’t put a price on that.
To embrace a super-saver mentality peel away habits and lessons you believed were correct and take on a different set of rules; a new, perhaps slightly unorthodox mindset.
Super savers definitely walk in tune with a different drummer.
And they’re happier for it.
Richard Rosso, CFP, CIMA
Richard Rosso is the Head of Financial Planning for Clarity Financial. He is also a contributing editor to the “Real Investment Advice” website and published author of “Random Thoughts Of A Money Muse.” Follow Richard on Twitter.