Personal Finance Education Series: (3) It All Starts with Saving

I thought it was important to dedicate a chapter to probably the most fundamental basis for any great personal finance & investing plan: saving.   The truth is, without a strong desire and dedication to saving, the rest is just decoration.

Saving, at least in this context, has a very specific meaning.  It means spending less than your income on a consistent basis.

It sounds easier than it is, however.  We live in a society that completely surrounds people with millions of things that they can’t afford, but that are sold to them as if they must have them.  Peer pressure makes this worse, because in our society you get to publicly see people’s possessions (cars, houses, gadgets) and not their bank statements.  As a result, the people who have spent the most money on publicly visible things look the wealthiest, even if they are up to their eyeballs in debt.

Don’t confuse having a lot of financial assets with saving.  The average baby boomer has $52,000 in their 401(k), but also has thousands of dollars in credit card debt.  It is very easy to fall into the trap of using debt from credit cards to cover expenses, and then feel like your saving by contributing to a college fund or a 401(k).   In the end, that debt will catch up to you.  In most situations, saving means covering all of your expenses with your income, and then having money left over.

I’ve spent some time on this blog talking about behavioral finance, and some of the ways that people are irrational with money.  As a result, I thought I’d point out at least a couple of popular ways that people seem to find ways to consistently spend less than they make.  Please feel free to share your own techniques below in the comments.

The first way is to always focus on value, and to begrudging spend regardless of income.  If you were fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, you likely are familiar with this approach.  Many people are often suprised to find out how many wealthy people, who don’t need to worry about spending an extra $10 for dinner, actually fit into this category.

This approach may seem miserly to some, but it’s not always unhealthy.  In fact, at its heart, this approach focuses on the basic fact that very few things, in fact, are “needs” vs. “wants”.  You may have the extra $20,000 to buy a luxury car, but do you really need it?  Isn’t there something else you’d rather spend that money on?

The problem with this approach, of course, is that taken to the extreme, it can lead people to save everything, and enjoy nothing.  Every now and again, you hear about the old widow who left $20 Million to a University, even though she lived with no heat and ate oatmeal every day.  Sad, really.

The reason this approach does work for many people, however, is that typically if you are judicious about all of your spending, you regularly will avoid an awful lot of impulse buying.  In general, like in dieting, it’s the impulse spending that really does in many people’s budgets.  Things that feel like “needs”, but really are “wants”.

While I’d like to think that I’m judicious about spending, I’ve never been able to make the first approach really work for me.  I believe in saving, but I also believe in spending to an extent to enjoy life with your family.  That leads me to the second approach.

The second approach is a form of strict mental accounting.  The idea here is to have a strong understanding of your income, and dedicate fixed percentages of it to different savings goals.  This approach has been put into practice extensively in the past twenty years for 401(k)s, but can be used for almost any savings goal.

In order to make this approach workable, many people find that they need to make it a little stronger than a mental promise to put money away.  To give it teeth, people now use automatic deductions from their paychecks or bank accounts, to help siphon money away before it’s spent.

Some companies will let you do this with your paycheck.  If your company doesn’t, most online banking services will let you set up monthly (or even weekly) withdrawals.  You can easily set up automatic withdrawals to fund savings accounts, retirement accounts, college savings accounts, health care accounts, and dependent care accounts, just to name a few.

In fact, the reason that owning real estate often works well for most people is that in can be thought of as a forced savings plan, with a certain amount every month going to principal.

If you fit into the category of someone who really want to get a handle on their personal finances, make sure that you are set up for success on an ongoing basis.   The easiest way to do this is to produce a quick Income Statement for yourself.

It’s really fairly easy.  Start by looking over past bills, credit cards, bank statements, and paychecks.  Make a quick tally, say for the last three months, of:

  • Income (Salary, Gifts, etc)
  • Expenses (Mortgage, Utilities, Dining, Groceries, etc)
  • Saving (401(k), ESPP, college, etc)

All of your income went somewhere, so it’s important to tally up how much you spent, and how much you saved.  Don’t be surprised if, in fact, your “saving” and “expenses” add up to more than your income.  What that probably means is that some money effectively came out of your bank accounts, and went to fund something else (hopefully another savings vehicle, like a 401(k), and not a new dining room table).
Most personal finance magazines recommend that people save around 10-15% of their income, but the actual number will vary depending on your income, your circumstances, and your goals.  Obviously, the higher percentage of your salary you save, the quicker your assets will grow.   As a regular reader of magazines like Money & Smart Money, you’ll often read about people who save 20, 30, even 40% of their income by living frugally.  There is no right answer.

When you start crunching the numbers for goals like buying a home, saving for college & funding retirement, you start realizing that it takes a fairly large percentage of your salary to achieve those goals in the time frames that make sense.   As a result, 10-15% seems to be a sweet spot in terms of balancing short term needs with long term goals.  Personally, I recommend that people not pick a single magic number, but instead really think through their different long term goals, and then pick a number for each that will actually lead to success for those goals.

Once you have your savings plan in place, then the next step is to start breaking up the money across your different goals.  In my next post, I’m going to talk a little bit about one savings goal that often goes overlooked, and yet is likely the single most important goal of all – the emergency fund.

The Product Wars: Video Games & High Definition DVDs

Fun website I found today, as I was reading about the ongoing battles between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray DVD, the two competing high definition DVD formats on the market currently.

The website is called “The Product Wars”, and it basically just scrapes for data (not sure this is the best indicator vs. scraping eBay, but I digress…)

In any case, they have pages that show a lot of statistics about how well the competing systems are doing.  Here is the page for the DVD Wars.

Takeaway?  Blu-Ray is doing much better than expected, given the PS3 shortages and the cost advantage of HD-DVD players.  In fact, right now, it looks like Blu-Ray has the edge.

The website also has a page dedicated to the next-generation video consoles: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360.

Takeaway?  The Xbox 360 is still outselling everything, although the Wii seems to have eclipsed the Xbox 360 in terms of popularity on a few key measures.

Fun data, if you are into those two markets.