Years ago, I dropped my business card into one of those fishbowls near the front door of a restaurant. You've probably seen them too – put your card in to win a free dinner for you and eight of your friends!
I just graduated college, was working for the first time, and I had a box of a thousand business cards. Certainly it was worth it to drop one in the bowl!
It turns out the meal might have been free but it still cost me. It cost me over an hour talking with a “financial planner” who was more sales person than planner.
After realizing I was simply parrying offers of life insurance and overpriced mutual funds (even back then, in my naivete, I knew that paying 1%+ in annual fees plus a sales load/commission was a bad bad bad idea), I thanked the young guy for the food, the pitch, and for remembering that there's no such thing as a free lunch after all.
He did give me one gift though – I knew I didn't have a financial plan. I wasn't married and I didn't have kids, so not having a plan wasn't a big deal. Fast forward a few years, marriage, and two kids; a financial plan is crucial.
But you don't necessarily need a “financial planner” to help you develop your plan. You have all the tools already, you simply need to learn how to fit it all together. I'll show you today.
What is a Financial Plan?
First things first – a financial plan is a look at your current state, a look at your future state, and building a strategy to get you from where you are today to where you want to be in the future.
When I met the faux financial planner, I was dating my long term girlfriend/future wife, had no kids, and was renting an apartment with a friend. I knew that within five years I would be married, probably with kids or on the way. I would also like to own a house too. The future state was in flux, as it always is, but we had a general idea of where we were going.
You can't predict the future, nor should you try, but you have a better picture of the future if you build a plan.
Now, we unpack each of the three steps – map out your current state, plan your future state, and build a plan to get you there.
Map Your Current Financial State
If you've read my article on how I keep track of my net worth, then you'll have a good idea of what “map your current financial state” means. It's a listing of assets and liabilities.
Each month, I update the numbers so I have a monthly snapshot I can use whenever I need it. For me, it's also my monthly check-in on our finances so nothing slips by for more than a few weeks.
When you have a handle on your income and your expenses, you know how much breathing room you have to save more.
Plan Your Future Financial State(s)
This is the hardest piece of the process because people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. Like horrible.
One of the benefits of working with a financial planner is that you talk things out with someone else. It's like a psychologist for your money. Many breakthroughs happen when you talk out loud about a subject and doing this on your own will only make you seem crazy.
If you're doing this on your own, you can still find success. You can try to plan out these future states yourself and then just talk to someone you trust. It needs to be someone you can be frank and open with, like your partner or a family member.
Let's dive into the planning of future states — first, don't think of it as a single future state but a series of future states. I think of our future in 5 and 10 year blocks. There are certain things I want to accomplish when I'm 35-40, things I want to accomplish when I'm 40-45, etc.
One of my future states was to buy a house when I was 25-30. There is a enormous difference between 25 and 30, but by putting the goal within that block I give myself flexibility. It gives my plan flexibility. As the age span gets closer, my target range gets smaller. When I was 25, I had a good idea of whether my plan of buying a house in that range is feasible. I also had a good idea that I'd buy a house at 27, or somewhere near there.
Think of the things you'd like to accomplish, put a time range on them, and then the future funding need of those goals and those blocks. It's all about the Benjamins, after all. 🙂
Let's take the house example again. I'm 22, I set the goal of buying a house when I'm 25-30, how much of a down payment will I need before I buy? $10,000? $30,000? I look at the houses I'd like to live in, calculate how much I'd need as a down payment, and put it down on my list of goals.
Now do this for all of your goals… including the biggest and hairiest: retirement.
For retirement, I like to keep it simple because it's something so far into the future (40+ years). I figure there will be plenty of times down the road to make course corrections. For now, I use the 4% withdrawal rule, estimate my future funding needs, and put that as my nest egg goal.
For every $40,000 a year I need to spend, I need to save $1,000,000. If I need $120,000 a year, then I'll need to amass $3 million.
Depending on how precise you like to be, you can adjust it for any pension or Social Security you'll collect. For example, I played with the Social Security Quick Calculator and it guessed I'd looking at around $2,645 in monthly benefits. That's $31,740 a year I won't need to pull from retirement savings and lowers my nest egg needs.
Financial Plan for Current to Future
You can take off your Predicting the Future hat and pull out your calculator. It's math time.
Going back to the house example – how much of a down payment do I need? Let's say it's $25,000 — how quickly can I save $25,000? That will give me an idea of how feasible that goal is. In doing the math, I may realize that I can't save $25,000 in 3 years. My block for the house remains 25-30 but the center of the bulls-eye might be 28 or 29.
With a goal of less than 5 years, I don't want to put those savings into the volatile stock market. I would stick it in a savings fund, perhaps some CDs, but with those earning a pittance in interest it's not even worth the time to calculate the growth of principal. To save $25,000 in five years, that's ~$416 a month. Doable or not? Look in your budget.
Let's take something a little bigger — retirement.
If I had a retirement goal is $1,265,000 in 45 years, how doable is that? For this, you'll want to use a calculator that can take a few assumptions and give you a number. I like the this one by Yahoo! Finance because it's easy to use, quick, and gives you enough assumptions to play with.
I kept the same starting assumptions (8% investment returns, 3% inflation, retire at 65 and 20 years of retirement income). It told me I'd need $822 a month towards retirement to end up at $1.5 million in my nest egg.
This means that if I want to retire in 45 years and buy a house in 5 years, I'll need to save $1,238 a month. Add more goals and the savings need goes up even more.
Whether or not it's doable depends on your budget. If it is not possible, you need to adjust things (earn more, spend less, or push out the timeline of your goals).
If you are willing to wait a year on the house, you need to save $25,000 over six years — $347 a month. Your monthly saving needs fall to $1169.
You will be pushed to make a few decisions about your future but now you'll do it armed with a plan and the numbers to back them up.
Review Your Plan Annually
You've created your Financial Plan – whew! Good job!
Now you need to remember to review it annually. You will want to review your progress, see if you're still on track (or behind or ahead), and then adjust it as necessary to fit the realities of life.
For things you wish to do in the next 5-10 years, you won't want to make any changes based on the progress of just one year. If it's something completely in your control, like you were supposed to save $500 a month and found yourself saving $600 – great! You can adjust your plan since all the inputs are within your control.
If you have something that's far into the future, like retirement, and it depends on things outside of your control, such as the return of the stock market, you don't need to adjust your plan every year. For example, you assumed the market would return 8% each year but it actually returned 15%. Wonderful! Leave everything alone.
If you are ahead, great. If you are behind, don't panic until a few years have passed and you look back at the annualized return over the last 5-10 years. That's when you'll want to make an adjustment. It's like landing a plane or turning a cruise ship, two things I've never done but I can imagine it requires a steady hand and no sudden movements. 🙂
There will sometimes be surprises, both positive (larger bonus! above average returns! huge raise!) and negative (water heater exploded! medical emergency!), the key is to use the plan to help you manage them.
Having a plan is very important because it forces you to think about the future, put numbers to it, and helps you make informed decisions rather than emotional one. Without a plan, you're going with your gut and that's not exactly a recipe for success.