President Lincoln once said, “If I had six days to chop down a tree, I’d spend five of them sharpening my axe.”
Sometimes, planning for an event can take longer than the event itself. This is particularly true when it comes to planning a secure financial future.
Many people put off financial planning, especially during uncertain economic times, because they either don’t know where to begin or they don’t think they have enough money to make it worthwhile.
The truth is there is never an ideal time or place to begin, and there is no specific level of income or assets one needs to make planning for the future worthwhile. You can (and should) begin planning for the future regardless of which life stage you are in and regardless of how much money you have.
To begin the process, first identify your present and future financial goals. If you’re like most people, your goals will include protecting your family in the event that you die prematurely or become disabled; managing your expenses while paying down debt; buying your first home or helping your children pay for college; saving for retirement; and distributing your assets to heirs — privately, equitably and tax-efficiently — following your death.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take during each life stage that will help you build and maintain your personal financial security.
THE FOUNDATION YEARS
If you’re in your foundation years, you are probably facing the most difficult times you will ever have financially. You may be newly married or just out of school; you may be taking on debt to acquire — and maintain — your family’s lifestyle; and you are probably starting a new job or career. While you may be earning enough money to live on, it could easily be taking all you have just to meet your monthly expenses.
Steps you can begin taking to plan for the future include managing your cash flow without going further into debt, establishing an emergency fund of three to six months income, and protecting your loved ones. To help accomplish these goals, you should consider buying a combination of term and permanent life insurance. Term insurance is an inexpensive way to obtain the amount of protection your family needs, while permanent allows you to begin building cash values that accumulate income tax-deferred. If your finances permit, this is also a good time to buy disability insurance.
THE ACCUMULATION YEARS
Once you’ve covered the basics, it won’t be long before you’ll want to start setting aside a portion of your earnings in tax-favored accumulation vehicles such as IRAs and employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, especially if your company offers matching dollars. Contributions to these plans can be made on a tax-deductible basis and assets grow income tax-deferred.
During these years, money you were formerly paying in rent may now be going toward your mortgage, the interest on which may be income tax-deductible. At the same time, you may be building equity in your house. If you have children, you may want to think about setting money aside in a college savings program, and you may want to begin expanding your investment horizon. While investments such as stocks or bonds carry greater risks, they come with the potential for greater reward.
Your accumulation years are also a good time to review your life insurance protection to ensure it is still sufficient to meet your family’s growing needs. You may want to consider adding special riders to your policy that extend protection to family members.
THE PRESERVATION YEARS
Once you’ve reached the preservation years, you will probably have accomplished many of your early financial goals. What’s more, you may finally have the financial freedom to accomplish a few of the special things you might always have wanted to do, such as buy a vacation home, help your children or grandchildren get established financially, or even retire early.
But your planning isn’t over. There are still steps to take to help ensure that your future financial security won’t be compromised by a long-term illness or unnecessary taxes and penalties. Looking into your long-term care and retirement distribution options could save you a significant amount of money and make the difference between a comfortable or merely safe retirement.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
When you do retire, you will enter what many people refer to as their golden years: You can finally begin enjoying the fruits of your hard work and planning. In this stage, your debts are probably paid off, your finances are probably in order, and you likely have some discretionary funds that allow you to travel or enjoy a few favorite activities. If you’ve planned carefully, your golden years can be a time for doing what you want, when you want.
During this stage, you may not only want to plan how you will pass your assets on to your heirs, but how you might benefit a favorite charity. You will want to consult with a financial adviser about trusts, powers of attorney and charitable giving strategies. If your income exceeds your expenses, you may want to consider using distributions from your retirement plans to pay premiums on a life insurance policy. By doing so, you can increase the value of what you leave to your heirs.
Building personal financial security is not something you accomplish just once, nor is it something you begin once you’ve accumulated a specific amount of assets. It is something you do as soon as you can and keep doing throughout life.
To that end, if you’re among the millions of working men and women who dream of one day being financially secure, take a few minutes — right now, right where you are — to consider your financial goals and the various life stages through which you’ll pass.
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Bonfanti, CFA
Originally published in the Jewish Exponent