Procrastination is a common malady. We all have busy lives, and immediate issues usually trump more remote ones—sometimes harmlessly, other times not. When it comes to financial planning, I’m in the camp that it’s better to act early and often; to regularly assess your situation, goals and the structures you have in place to accomplish them.
In my opinion, effective, consistent planning is about three core ideas: control, understanding and aspiration. With planning that starts early and hits all the right notes, you have the potential to exert more control over your future than if you lack such focus. Partly this is because you understand your financial picture: your cash flows, savings, asset allocation, emergency funds and more. By virtue of this control and understanding, you have the ability to aspire for more—whether in terms of providing for family, funding retirement or leaving a legacy.
How these elements fit together isn’t static. In fact, it changes constantly throughout every stage of a person’s life. In this column, I seek to briefly highlight some of the challenges that you or your family members may face in different periods, along with ideas and strategies that may be effective at those times. The idea is to encourage a holistic mindset and an interest in planning over the long term.
Early Career: Getting Started
In your 20s, and early 30s financial planning is all about laying the groundwork for the future: getting a first job, establishing credit, paying down student loans, and if possible putting dollars aside for costs down the road—a home, marriage, family, even retirement. A key underlying goal is to develop healthy financial habits: balancing spending and resources, avoiding living paycheck to paycheck or depending too much on credit card balances to pay your bills.
Where possible, consider contributing to your company’s 401(k) or other retirement plan—at least up to the company match. Often it’s hard to make the decision to cut into current resources in this way, but even a small set-aside will get you used to the exercise of saving—something that’s useful no matter how extensive your resources ultimately become. Moreover, the long timeframe that’s available to young investors is a huge advantage in seeking to build capital. Investing at this stage can help you become more educated about markets and used to evaluating portfolio managers—which will be helpful as you accumulate wealth.
Marriage, if it occurs during this time, obviously brings with it a general re-framing of your financial life. Couples differ in how they want to integrate their assets, and it may depend on the extent of the resources they bring to the table. Some may want to keep accounts separate, and (at least at first) take a more formal approach in contributing to bill paying. Others may be more comfortable “merging” right away. Openness is crucial, as is coordinated planning, so that the couple can have an appropriately diversified overall portfolio and more effectively reach for their goals.
Midcareer: Balancing Act
The task of midcareer years (30s through 50s) is often one of dealing with various, sometimes conflicting needs: intense focus on work, building a family, buying or upgrading a home, funding college (and in some cases private school before that), and continuing to save for retirement. It’s especially important at this stage to prioritize and not let the seeming difficulty of “getting everything done at once” interfere with getting anything done at all.
Capitalizing on tax-advantaged accounts can be crucial. 529 accounts provide generous tax-deferred savings for private school and college; 529As offer a means to transfer assets to disabled children without affecting their government benefits; IRAs (traditional and Roth) and defined contribution plans can help with retirement savings; for those in a high deductible health plan, health savings accounts can offer triple tax benefits, with tax-deductible contributions, tax-free earnings and tax-free withdrawals for qualified medical expenses.
At this stage, you may still want to be fairly aggressive with your retirement assets, based on the idea that you can afford more volatility in an effort to generate greater long-term performance. This means that you may be more heavily weighted toward “risk assets” such as equities and certain parts of the bond market, such as high yield or emerging markets debt, while keeping traditional bond holdings at lower levels.
Insurance is also a key part of the equation: having the appropriate level of replacement coverage on your home, life insurance to cover your family’s key expenses, disability insurance in the event you cannot work, to name some examples. Relatedly, it is prudent to maintain an emergency fund in the event of job or income loss, or unexpected uncovered medical expenses.
Finally, with the growth of your family and assets, estate planning may become a larger part of the picture: structuring your legacy, choosing guardians for your minor children, and arranging powers of attorney and health care proxies in case of your incapacity.
Pre-Retirement: Building Financial Flexibility
The period from your 50s through mid-60s is often one of eliminating or reducing certain obligations, and accelerating savings. College funding may require fewer assets, and as your kids leave the nest, you may find your life insurance needs have been reduced as well. At this time, it’s common to pay off mortgage debt—an attractive way to generate “return” from interest savings. For some people, it may make sense to downsize to a smaller home, whether due to less need for space or to generate additional resources.
Depending on the individual, however, certain financial challenges can be particularly intense at this time. For instance, you may face a “sandwich generation” issue: looking out for and supporting your own children while assuming more responsibility for your aging parents. The latter may be simply a matter of time spent (arranging care, helping managing their affairs) or a financial burden—for example, drawing on your assets to pay for assisted living or nursing home care. Taking care of such obligations while minimizing the disruption to your own life and plans is a key aspect of navigating such issues.
Within your portfolio, now may be a time to begin stepping off the gas, and allocating some of your equity dollars into bonds to help preserve capital and mitigate volatility. However, keep in mind that with long lifespans you may need growth-oriented assets to maintain your portfolio over an extended retirement.
Retirement: Rewards and Planning
If things have largely gone as hoped, you’ve generated enough wealth by your 60s to shift from saving to spending. This can open up potential to fulfill lifelong dreams for travel and lifestyle, volunteerism or starting a new career. At this stage, however, your well-being will likely depend on two variables: accurately gauging and controlling your level of expenses and then generating enough income to cover the balance of your retirement years.
In terms of expenses, it’s important to carefully think about how you want to live. Travel may be an initial goal, but people often pull back on such plans as retirement progresses. On the flipside, downsizing may seem practical, but ultimately not suit you or the extended family that pays you visits. Relief from the stresses of work may sound appealing, but a few restless months on the couch could prompt thoughts of doing charitable work or some paid consulting.
Looking ahead to potential long-term care needs is also crucial. Typically the age to consider insurance coverage is in your 50s, but costs are still viable on hybrid life/long-term care policies well into your 60s. Even if you self-insure, you should be thinking about where you may live in your later retirement years—staying in your own home or perhaps moving into communities that may offer independent and assisted living, progressing to more acute care facilities.
On the portfolio side, you’ll want to make sure you have a sufficient income stream—often accomplished through the use of bucketing shorter-term and longer-term investment assets.1 Early in retirement, the use of some risk assets in seeking to build capital can be appropriate, often with a gradual shift to a more conservative mix as time goes on.
Finally, this is the stage in life to really pin down your wealth transfer strategy. Assuming you have enough resources for your own needs, it may involve annual gifting, the payment of grandchildren’s education or medical expenses, and the use of trusts to limit income and/or estate tax liability, among other strategies.
Take Steps, Even Incomplete Ones
I’ve lightly covered topics that could take up whole textbooks due to their nuance and complexity. But the idea again is to highlight the need to think strategically about all potential factors that could impact your financial well-being, and then take reasonable steps at the appropriate time to put them in order.
This is not an “all-or-nothing” proposition. At every stage—particularly those busy middle years—it may simply not be possible to accomplish everything on your list. So, don’t over-plan, and be prepared to introduce tactical and strategic measures. Combining both, you should be able to make progress toward achieving your goals.