January isn’t just the start of the year. It’s Financial Wellness Month. A good time to remember that most of our customers aren’t just finance and business pros. They’re spouses, parents, grocery shoppers, short-order cooks, bill payers, carpoolers, errand runners, garbage taker outers…
Busy people have busy lives and, like the proverbial barefoot shoemaker, finance people can trip up when the professional becomes personal. Especially when spouses, families, and emotions are involved.
Here are the secrets to bringing your work skills at home, yet leaving your office stresses behind.
Secret 1: Use Budgeting to Bring You Closer
Budgeting is harder at home than it is at work.
At work, the needs of the company or department tell you what’s necessary and what’s discretionary. At home, it becomes personal. How important is the daily latte? Do we really need five streaming services? How much does that yoga class cost?
It’s almost like you’re asking for a fight with your significant other. Or yourself. But it doesn’t have to be.
Make a date to discuss the budget. But don’t talk about the budget right away. Start by talking about your shared goals. What you’re trying to achieve. What can a budget help you do? Are you trying to build a financial cushion? Save for a vacation? Or your kids’ education? Maybe you want to pay down debt?
Whatever it is, find common ground. Once you have that, it’s a lot easier to distinguish between what you need (called “non-discretionary” spending at the office) and what you want (discretionary spending). It’s also easier to agree on priorities for non-discretionary spending. And make compromises with each other.
Budgeting may not be as much fun as a date night at the movies, but the effects are more long-lasting. More than 80% of people who budget say it’s helped them avoid or get out of debt.
Secret 2: Make Peace With a Financial Plan
Scott and Ronnie spent the better part of their marriage fighting about money.
Scott, a freelance graphic designer with a feast-or-famine income, liked to enjoy the money when he made it. Ronnie, the bookkeeper for a small import-export company, always worried during those times when money went out faster than it came in.
Peace came in the form of a financial plan that recognized Ronnie’s need for security and Scott’s desire to splurge.
First, they agreed on a base budget that covered essentials, including life insurance and contributions to Ronnie’s 401(k). Then, they decided that when Scott had a lucrative month, they’d allocate a portion of his income to paying off debt and building an emergency fund. The rest would be discretionary. They would have separate discretionary allowances, affording Scott the independence to use some of his gravy days as he saw fit.
The couple met regularly to discuss finances. Once the debt was paid off, they started building up the emergency fund, and added college savings accounts for the kids, and a SEP IRA so Scott could build a retirement fun. At one point, the emergency fund had grown beyond the six months of expenses that financial planners say is ideal. So they took a family vacation. A nice one.
Shortly after Ronnie turned 63 (Scott was 62), the import-export company closed. By that time, the kids were out of the house and on their own. The emergency fund had become an investment account, and they had years of accumulated growth in their 401(k) and IRAs.
Scott and Ronnie don’t fight or worry about money anymore. Nor do call themselves retired. Scott and Ronnie will tell you they’re “financially independent.”
Secret 3. Play by the Credit Bureaus’ Rules
At a company party last month, some people got into a conversation about car loans, and a CFO learned that his credit score was lower than a recently hired bookkeeper’s. Not surprising. Bosses don’t always have the time to do what they’re supposed to do, including:
- Pay your bills on time: The busier you are, the more likely it is that bills will get lost in your inbox or pile up in a drawer. You may see late fees as a price of success. But credit bureaus see them as a sign that you may be overextended. As a result, your credit score goes down, and the APR on your new car loan goes up. Pay bills when they come in.
- Don’t apply for credit you don’t need: The cashier tells you that you can save 30% on today’s purchase if you get a store credit card. It’s tempting. But every time you apply for a credit card, your credit score takes a hit. Apply for too many cards in too little time and the credit bureaus may tag you as a risky borrower. Better to have just one or two cards with no annual fees, low APRs, and decent rewards.
- Stay below your credit limit: Don’t look at a $5,000 credit limit as permission to run up $5,000 in debt. Credit bureaus look carefully at your “credit utilization.” That is how much credit you use compared to the total amount of credit that is available to you. Keeping your account balances below 30% of your available credit may help your score. So don’t use more than $1,500 of that $5,000 limit if you want to boost your credit.
- Establish a credit history: The longer you have a credit card, the longer your credit history and the better you look to the credit bureaus. In fact, if you’ve decided to move from one credit card to another, it pays to keep and occasionally use the old account, especially if there’s no annual fee. This gives you a longer credit history and the line of credit that you’re not using can contribute to a lower credit utilization ratio. And a higher credit score.
Secret 4. Organize Your Financial Records
Like many accounting professionals, Susan overestimated her head for numbers. She has a bunch of CDs and savings accounts divided between three banks. She has some stocks sitting in an online brokerage account she hasn’t looked at since the pandemic. There’s cash in two universal life policies. And five 401(k)s from different jobs throughout her career.
What Susan underestimates is the value of all these assets. She didn’t fly to her brother’s 40th birthday party because she didn’t know that she could afford it. Her e-statements sat in computer files and the physical statements went into a drawer, sometimes unopened.
A finance professional, Susan knew about the zillions of apps and tools, free and not, to help her track all this. Weighing the pluses and minuses of each just led to more inertia. Ultimately, she realized she only needed a six-column spreadsheet. One by one, she pulled statements out of the files and listed:
|CD: 1-Year with automatic rollover
|Automatic rollover 2/23/24
|Life Insurance: $1,000,000 Universal
|$225 monthly premium auto-paid from checking
|From XYZ job.
If she came across duplicate statements from the same account, she kept or entered the most recent Statement Date and Values. She now had a list that she could automatically organize just by alphabetizing the Location or Type columns. The whole exercise took half a Sunday morning. And even though she feels too busy to update the spreadsheet every time she receives another statement, she has a much better idea of where her money is and her net worth.
Also, she can show them to a financial advisor (or herself) and make the most of her assets and time. She can consolidate CDs and savings accounts at one bank. Finding the records of past-job 401(k)s, and replacing them with one rollover IRA.
As a bonus, Susan came across $1,460 in an online savings account she didn’t remember opening. The Status column on it now reads closed. She surprised her brother and his family with a visit when her nephew turned 10.
Secret 5. Don’t Forget the Basics
As a financial or business professional, you’re probably comfortable with the big things we talked about in this article: Planning. Budgeting. Credit. Organization. However, it’s often the little, obvious things that trip you up.
- If you don’t have life insurance, get it now. Get it even if you don’t yet have a family or assets to protect. The younger you are when you buy life insurance, the less it will cost for the rest of your life. Also, buying life insurance insures your insurability. Should you get sick before you buy life insurance, you might not be able to get it. Or you’ll have to pay a lot more for it, even if you fully recover.
- Protect your identity. Keep important information like credit and bank logins, account information, and social security numbers in a safe place. Many of the credit bureaus, for a fee, will notify you of any credit check or attempt to open an account in your name. It’s worth the fee for the peace of mind.
- Most important, keep your head on straight. Don’t let your understanding of cash flow, debt management, and financial record-keeping undermine common sense. Spend only what you can afford. And if you have to incur debt — for a car, home, or other big-ticket item — don’t borrow more than you can comfortably pay back.
Maybe money can’t buy happiness. But managing it well can buy sanity.
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