Monthly Archives: May 2016

Retirement Planning

I think it’s safe to say that we all have the goal of one day reaching financial independence. That is, the point at which we have enough money in savings and investments to support ourselves for the rest of our lives. So, how much money is enough?

Most of the time that question is answered with a single big number. And it’s true that in the end you’re working towards a single total amount of savings and investments. But that total number is composed of many smaller numbers representing the savings you need to support each individual expense.

What if you looked at it that way? What if you broke it down by how much money you’ll need to support each expense, each habit, and each indulgence for the rest of your life without ever working again?

How Much Does That Gym Membership Really Cost?

Let’s look at a single expense. Say your gym membership. And let’s say that costs you $40 per month. How much money do you need in order to support that expense for the rest of your life?

Using the 4% rule, which says that you can withdraw 4% of your savings each year with minimal risk of ever running out of money, it becomes a simple math problem. Take the monthly cost, multiply it by 300, and you get your answer.

In this case, $40 multiplied by 300 equals $12,000. That is, you need $12,000 in savings to support that monthly gym membership for the rest of your life.

Values-Based Decision Making

Looking at it this way can help you make more informed values-based decisions when it comes to spending and saving.

For example, how long will it take you to save the $12,000 needed for your gym membership? And which do you value more? That habit or the ability to be financially independent a little sooner without it? What about a $500 per month car payment? That will require $150,000 in savings. Is that an expense you’d like to support?

There are no right or wrong answers here. The goal is simply to understand how each expense affects your savings need and to make decisions based on what you value.

How to Plan Differently

Next time you look at your budget, I would encourage you to do a few things differently. Consider the options related to each expense. For example, you could have a $500 per month car payment or a $200 per month car payment or take the bus, let’s say that is $50 per month or walk, $0 per month.

Then, for each category, multiply your monthly budget by 300 to see how much money you’ll need in order to support that expense for the rest of your life.

Finally, step back, look at the numbers, and think about how they align with what you truly want out of life. You may find that you want to cut back on certain things. Or you may find that you want to save more in order to support important expenses.

Either way, you’ll have a better understanding of what it takes to reach financial independence and put your money toward what is most meaningful to you.

When is it Too Extreme

I’m not a big fan of being frugal, in general terms. Sure, it’s a necessary part of budgeting and cutting back on expenses when you are in debt up to your eyeballs (like me), but I don’t like being frugal on it’s own.

It’s not really the frugal part that bothers me, it’s more what the word has come to mean recently. To me, being frugal has come to mean getting very extreme in the ways that you cut your expenses. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many frugal advocates try and one up each other…

Frugal 1: You should cut back on your entertainment costs…look at cutting cable, eat out less.

Frugal 2: We cut our cable cord, stopped eating out, and started doing crazy extreme couponing. We are awesome!

Frugal 3: We threw out our TVs, forced our kids to read books only, grow 60% of our food in our garden, and we burned down our favorite local restaurant so everyone can be frugal like us. We are awesomer!

Frugal 4: We sold our worldly possessions to escape from this oppressive financial circus and moved into a local commune in the remote wilderness. We live in a hut and make our own food and clothes. We are awesomest!

Okay, we get it. You are the most frugal couple out there. You win!

The biggest problem I see with these frugal crazies is that they only focus on the expense side of the budget. They advocate things like extreme couponing, growing a garden, and doing a staycation…all of which require lots of time and energy. They never seem to focus on investing or increasing their income, which is another way to improve your financial situation.

I just think that “being frugal” has been done to death. I don’t want to start a garden and grow vegetables. I don’t have time for couponing. I don’t want to live in a commune. I don’t even know what a commune is, but I bet there is someone running around in a grass skirt calling everyone “dude” in a real mellow, stoner voice. The general frugal principles are great, but the manic nature of keeping up with the Frugal Joneses is ridiculous.

I mean, look at the picture I found when I searched for “frugal” on the Google. Who cuts up money like that?? A $100 bill no less?? Ridiculous!

You can cut your expenses all day long, but what do you do with the extra cash flow? That is the more important question. If you save on expenses but never invest that extra money, you have lost a great opportunity.

I’m not picking on all the wonderful financial bloggers and experts out there who advocate being frugal. I’m just picking on the extreme folks who recommend uncommon principles, almost as a way to point out how perfect they are. It’s like the people on Facebook who seem to lead these amazing lives. Gag!

Our Kind of Frugal

Obviously I’m going overboard here in order to get a laugh. At least I hope it was obvious. I go for the cheap laugh every time. It’s the classic sarcastic approach to things. Anyway…

Maybe I’m using the wrong term here with the word “frugal” and should instead use the word “cheap.” There is a good look at frugal versus cheap over at the financial blog Frugal Familia.

And there is a good reminder that it’s not how much you make but how much you keep, from the blog Route to Retire.

For me, being frugal is still about cutting back on expenses that are excessive and not in the “necessary to live” category. Here are a few steps we have taken recently to cut back on our expenses:

• Cut the cord – We cancelled our cable TV and went with a cheaper route. We bought digital antennas for about $35 each (two TVs) to get us about 20 local TV channels. We already subscribed to Amazon Prime for the free shipping and started using their video streaming service, giving us kids shows and adult shows. Then we recently added Sling TV for $20 per month, which gives us 20 cable channels, including ESPN (woohoo…got my sports).
• No more cards – We stopped my wife from using credit cards. It wasn’t the temptation, but the easy access to credit that did us in. My wife thinks and acts frugally, but she can’t resist a sign that says “sale” or “clearance.” It’s her kryptonite. The big change was going to a debit card only for my wife. Now I transfer a set amount of money per week to her debit card account, which is her spending money for the week for gas, groceries, etc. I still use one credit card for gas or small grocery store trips and pay it off each month.
• Limited vacations – We cut down our vacations to more local getaways or trips with limited out-of-pocket expenses. I receive hotel points for work travel and we use the points for free hotel nights for the family. We spent three nights at the beach this summer…all for free. We barely fit in the hotel room, but that’s the tradeoff. Another savings is using the local amusement park where we pay for one admission and then get free admission for the rest of the season. My wife even gets free parking.