How to prepare for financial changes

 
Incarnation (#100) By Mark Ryden
We don't always get to prepare for major financial changes, things like a job loss or an unexpected medical expense can really throw us off of our game. In these situations it's best to have an emergency fund to fall back on. But occasionally in life we have changes that we can prepare for. Sometimes that might be moving to a new house, having children, quitting a job to go back to school, or perhaps my favorite one to dream about - retirement.

So how do we prepare for an event like this. How do we know that we are making a responsible decision?

Budget

Before you know what the future holds you need to know what's in your past. Some people don't know where their money is going at all, for this I prefer to use Mint. It's a budget tracking tool that shows you where all of your money goes. It takes a little bit to get all of your accounts linked up but once you have everything there it's really easy to navigate and see what you're spending your money on. There's also an app called You Need A Budget (YNAB) that is very popular for budgeting, some people say that YNAB is more proactive with your budget than reactive like Mint where you just see where your money went after you spent it. I've never used YNAB, the first month of it is free but after that there's a fee so I've never been that interested in it, but I do hear positive things.

Knowing where your money goes is a huge first step. If you find that you're spending $1500 a month on food for one person then you could probably tighten that up, because $50 per day is probably more than you really need.

Simulate Your New Expenses

Once you know what you're doing with your money, hopefully you found a few places to tighten things up while you were there. The next step should be to see if you could get by with your new expenses (or perhaps lower income). If you have enough time to implement this test run before it's actually time to do it you should try actually setting aside the money that would be going to this new expense. I would recommend putting our "simulation" money some place different than your regular checking account, that way you don't get tempted to spend it something when we are pretending that money doesn't exist. If you have a separate savings account for an emergency fund then this might be a good time to pad that account a little. If you don't have a separate account for this then this would probably be a good time to start that emergency fund. :-)

If you know you'll have $300 less income during this change then set aside $300 each month in the simulation. Or if you'll be moving to a bigger home because of a new child and rent will increase by $800 then set aside that much.

The two major keys are to accurately project how much you will really be spending (this could be hard with a new baby) and to pretend that this money does not exist anymore. If you can make it through the month with ease then you know that your new budget will work. Personally I like to error on the side of caution so I personally recommend to overestimate your costs. The worst case scenario is that you end up with extra money which is always a good problem.

What to do if your simulation fails

If you can't get by with your simulation not all hope is lost, the first thing you should do is re-evaluate your projected expenses. If you're leaving a job then this step probably won't work for you, you will know exactly how much your paycheck was and can do the math. But if you're projected expenses for a new baby are $400 per month (I have no idea what kids cost) then perhaps consider using cloth diapers and knock off $40 a month from your projected costs. If you're planning to move to a bigger house, then perhaps you should move to a "slightly" bigger house, or a house in a cheaper neighborhood.

The second step would be to look at your regular budget you have now. Are their things you can cut back on now. Some people can't get rid of their Starbucks habit but perhaps bringing lunch to work instead of going out will save you a lot. I know it did for me. You could also cut cable or find a cheaper cell phone plan. There's usually lots of things that people can cut back on. And it's not because they can't, it's because they just don't want to. I'm certain that not everything in your current life is a need, you just need to figure out which things are more important, the change you want to simulate, or your life the exact way it is now.

Have you ever prepared for a financial change? What did you do to prepare?

Unlocking Financial Independence

When I first exited college I knew that summer/winter/spring breaks as I knew them would never be the same. I could no longer come home for the holidays and party with my high school friends like we had no jobs because... Well, we were going to have to get jobs, and at that point vacations would become a precious commodity. I knew that I had one last free shot at travelling where how long I was gone for would not matter. At that point I didn't really have a job history that mattered, saying that I had worked at a grocery store or at temp agencies simply didn't matter.

Going into the software industry I knew that while I may be able to take a month off between projects (once I had saved up vacation time) was possible, but the likelihood of being able to take off for 3 months and being able to return to a job was a lot less likely.

So I did what any recent college grad would do, I got the first crappy job that I could so that I could earn some money, but I planned to quit it after 2 months. Then I would travel for a while before I had to get a real job.

Practice and Discipline

September by Eric Joyner
September by Eric Joyner
Personal finance is hard and there's really no shortcuts to it. If you want to get good at anything; an instrument, a sport, writing, math or anything else, it takes practice and discipline. The same thing applies to personal finance, the more you work at it, the better you will be at it. And just like anything else in life, some people are naturally better than others at it but this shouldn't discourage you because you can get better at finances.

It's like weight loss, changing your fixed expenses is like having surgery. The changes to your finances are immediate and permanent if you move to a smaller house or closer to work, or even if you sell a car. But changing your discretionary spending is like losing a pound a week, it takes time and hard work, but with practice and discipline you will get there.

The Minimalist Game

Nightstand light with marbles powered by a 9 volt battery
I just finished hauling out another days worth of stuff from my house, another load of things that I had been holding onto for quite some time for one reason or another but I didn't really need. It all just seemed to be clutter and junk in my life that I wasn't going to use but I had a hard time getting rid of. Last month I decided to play the Minimalist Game, for those of you that don't know the game I will explain the rules once again:

The Minimalist Game
Find a friend or family member. Someone who’s willing to get rid of some of their excess stuff. This month, each of you must get rid of one thing on the first day of the month. On the second, two things. Three items on the third. So forth, and so on. Anything can go! Clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, decorations, etc. Donate, sell, or trash. Whatever you do, each material possession must be out of your house—and out of your life—by midnight each day.
It’s an easy game at first. However, it starts getting challenging by week two, when you’re both jettisoning more than a dozen items each day. Whoever can keep it going the longest wins. You both win if you can make it all month. Bonus points if you play with more than two people.
via the minimalists
Like it says in the description, it's easy at first, until it gets really challenging during the second week. I think it was somewhere around day 8 where I started thinking, oh shit, all the easy stuff is gone, I'm going to have to fall back on what I was "saving" for the end (old clothes), and I'm barely just beginning. The funny thing is, each time I got to a point where I didn't know what I was going to get rid of next I looked around and really thought about it and I could always find stuff I didn't really need. Sometimes the hard part was just figuring out how to get rid of it. If there was a decent monetary value to the item that's when it got tricky. I typically strayed away from those items since selling things on craigslist takes more time and one at a time was not going to get me far with my daily goals.

I had a hard time throwing out the art supplies that I intended to make something with. So for this challenge, I counted the items that I used as things that were purged from my house even though they did not completely disappear. As seen in the picture above, I made a nightstand light made out of a cigar box and marbles, the box is filled with a hard resin coating so the marbles and the light inside cannot move. It is all powered by a 9 volt battery that is hooked to a switch that I fixed to the side of the box. Technically the marbles did not leave my house, but the bottles that were holding the unused resin were thrown out after so that counted as a purged item. When I started that project (years ago) I didn't know exactly what I would fill the box with, just that I wanted a light and a resin coating. I think the motivation of throwing out (and wasting) my supplies was the trick I needed to finally putting it all together.

I still have a couple of items that I am counting as purged even though they are still technically in my house. I have a fish tank along with fish supplies that is awaiting a donation pickup.

What Did I Learn?


Ignore socially responsible investing, focus on responsible consumption

Dilbert By Scott Adams
By Scott Adams
It may have been said before but the first time I heard it was in an article by Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert), “Invest in companies you hate.” of course in his article he also states not to take investment advise from a cartoonist, so you may want to take it all with a grain of salt. But his many points about betting on the bad guys really backs up why many of those companies are good at making money and therefore good investments.

I guess one of the first questions that may come to peoples minds is, what is socially responsible investing? Sometimes it's called ethical investing, others call it following your personal morals. I guess the simplest definition that I can think of, is investing in companies that hold values of importance of the investor. Some of the most common ways people approach socially responsible investing is to not purchase stocks from companies that produce or make money off of war, cigarettes, alcohol, GMO foods, or things that could be bad for the environment. There are many other socially responsible ideas, but those are usually the most common ones that come up.


Financial Flexibility

Rebirth by Hannah Yata
I was at work, and it was just one of those days where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The not so uncommon occurrence of my coworkers not knowing how to properly do their jobs meant I had to step in and fix their problems for them. It was a long day, and I couldn't wait to be done with it.... And then suddenly I was. I woke up, realizing that it was all just a dream, but then the nightmare began because I  had to get ready to actually go into work for the day.

Right then I knew I needed a vacation. It has been about 2 years since I've taken a "real" vacation. I've had some smaller few day trips but they weren't really trips about escaping for a while and really unwinding. That dream happened a few weeks ago and immediately after I started thinking about vacation, it took me a little time to decide where and when I wanted to go but today I booked my flight and on November 27th I will be flying to Japan for 24 days to truly recharge for a while.

This is one of the main reasons that I save a large portion of my income, so that I have financial flexibility.

Overestimation Versus Underestimation

Kelly McKernan - Illusory
Illusory by Kelly McKernan
I was recently reading about long term goals and some other peoples planned journeys to financial independence over at Frankly Frugal Finance and Big Guy Money. They had some fairly detailed analysis of what their long term goals were, going out 15 to 25 years even. While I have gotten out the spreadsheet from time to time and plugged in numbers and calculated out 10 years or so I've never really put much weight into it.

Every year for the past 4 years I've put down a financial goal for myself. I get the balances of all of my accounts, tack on a percentage rate of how much I think it will grow, add in how much money I expect to add to that account myself, and then tack on a smaller percentage rate of how much my new money will grow throughout the year. Each year I seem to get more and more detailed with this because each year I find that my estimates are significantly off. Every year, including this one I have beat that initial goal. But I shouldn't get ahead of myself yet, the market could tank before the year ends and I have a significant vacation coming up that will not be cheap, either way, unless something major happens my financial goals for the year look like they have already been achieved.

The main reason I'm off is because of stock market returns. The market has been very kind to us in the past 4 years so I never plan for the market to grow by over 20% like it did last year but it's a nice bonus when it does. Since every year I seem to beat my goal, each year I make it more aggressive. But I know that this bull market can't keep going for forever, so one of these years (possibly very soon) the market won't do well and I will fall short. Maybe I'm a pessimist, or perhaps I've been listening to all of the gloom and doom warnings about how the market can't keep going up like this forever, but I'm guessing that next year I won't be so lucky.

But all of this got me thinking about why we might overestimate or underestimate our goals and what that might say about the person making them. In the business sense of things this may be easier to measure which route you should take:

Learn From Others Mistakes

Jinkx Monsoon By Chad Sell
We all make mistakes in life, and it's actually a very healthy thing to do provided that you learn from them. Learning helps our brains stay sharp and keeps our life fuller. Occasionally someone close to you makes a mistake that affects their life so profoundly that it touches yours, you realize that you never want that to happen to you. Sometimes it's a parent or a sibling, and other times it can just be a friend or coworker. Either way, you see their mistake and you make sure that it will never happen to you.

But there's already a lot of good advice that you hear everyday that most people ignore, I know that I did. It's so common and you hear it all the time that for some reason we just tune it out like, "Blah, blah, blah, I've heard that grandpa, of course I wouldn't do that." But we go ahead and do it anyways. We think that the older generations are telling us something so obvious that we of course would never do it ourselves. Here are some common ones that you should avoid, many of these I did myself, learning the hard way instead of from others.


New Game: Live like you're Unemployed

Naughty Boy by Brandi Milne
Near the end of 2009 I was fired from my job. It wasn't anything specific that I did or didn't do, it was just that the recession hit my company pretty hard and they had to downsize by about 35%. I was one of the newer people there at the time so I'm surprised that I lasted as long as I did but in the end. I lost my job.

At the time I received the maximum unemployment benefits allowed which I believe was $400 per week or $1600 per month. Depending on what part of the country you live in that might be more than enough to get by, but in San Francisco, that's not a whole lot. After I paid all of my fixed bills such as mortgage, HOA fees, utilities, internet (I still had to look for a new job so the internet was an absolute must). I was left with about $300 to spare for all of the other stuff.

Keep in mind that I said, all of my "fixed bills" I hadn't counted food for the month yet. For me, $300 is plenty to get by for a month, but if I wanted to do more than eat then things got a little dicey.

It shouldn't take a special day to do something

by Sylvia Ji
Most people know areas of their lives that could use some improvement. It can be diet, finances, work, etc. I don't know about you but even though I know what areas I could improve I tend to get lazy and postpone a lot of these things because why start today what I could do tomorrow?

It's this way of thinking that leads people to need a special occasion to start making the changes in their lives that they want to see. For many people that special occasion is New Years Eve.

But why does it take a special day to start?

Sometimes that "special" day isn't so special, sometimes it's just significant. Some people start to fix their lives when something breaks or goes wrong. Sometimes people are forced to exercise or fix their diet after an event such as a heart attack or other medical emergency. Or they will begin to fix their finances once they realize that they can no longer cover their monthly bills.

Don't wait for an emergency to force you to make a change you already know about!

Right now I see a lot of clutter starting to build up around my house.  Some of it is art supplies that are left over from the last time I was inspired to paint, others are just small knick-knacks that have been given to me over time that I feel bad throwing out since they were a gift. Either way, it's building up to a point where I know that I will have to do something about it soon. Instead of waiting for the day to come when I am forced to clean it up (i.e. my girlfriend making me) I decided that I will take action before I am forced to. I've decided to do this by playing the minimalist game.

The Minimalist Game

Find a friend or family member. Someone who’s willing to get rid of some of their excess stuff. This month, each of you must get rid of one thing on the first day of the month. On the second, two things. Three items on the third. So forth, and so on. Anything can go! Clothes, furniture, electronics, tools, decorations, etc. Donate, sell, or trash. Whatever you do, each material possession must be out of your house—and out of your life—by midnight each day.
It’s an easy game at first. However, it starts getting challenging by week two, when you’re both jettisoning more than a dozen items each day. Whoever can keep it going the longest wins. You both win if you can make it all month. Bonus points if you play with more than two people.
via the minimalists 

So instead of waiting for a special day to start this game, (the first of the month) I've decided to just start today and try to go for 30 days straight.

In the past when I've decided that I needed a change such as working out more or eating better I just decided one day to start, I feel like if I'm postponing it for a special day then I must not really be dedicated to the change that I am looking for since I'm already looking for excuses not to do it.

Do you wait for special days to start new life improvements? Feel free to join me in the minimalist game, or even better just decide to start a new change that you already know you need to make. Let me know if you do it!

Misunderstandings

Hope by Jeremy Fish
Hope By Jeremy Fish
I only have a few people in my real life that know about this blog. I keep it to a minimum for a number of reasons, and based on the number of misinterpretations by the few people that know, I feel like I made a good choice for now. People tend to think that once you start working towards a goal like retirement and you're so fanatical about it that you write about it multiple times a week that you are obsessed with not spending money. Therefore you are cheap. They believe that anything that costs money is something that you avoid like the plague.

Perhaps in some situations they are correct, I know that I could live in a fancier house without roommates, buy nicer food, or even just pay for the convenience of driving to work to save time avoiding public transportation for an extra $200 per month. But I choose not to do any of those things.

I actually think that I am horrible at being frugal. Yes, I will not buy things that I don't really need, but if I feel like it's something important then I will most likely overspend on it. My rationale usually follows along the lines of, "if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right." That's also part of the reason that I take this blog seriously, since I'm going to do it, I'm not going to half-ass it. I'm going to do better than the "good old college try" I'm going to see if I can make it work.

Early retirement is ruining my life.

Breaking Bad Bear By Lora Zombie
**Apparently I wasn't very clear that most of this was sarcasm. Please note that none of this stuff is really ruining my life, in fact I think everything I mention is a postive thing rather than a negative. I guess I need to work on my sarcastic writing tone more!**

I always thought it was silly that most people worked from 9 to 5 to 65. Society pretty much set this standard that everyone is meant to live by, and for some reason I haven't been listening to those rules. But a few years back I decided to save over 50 percent of my income so I could reach financial independence early. Only recently have I stared to realize how this is ruining my life, and I'm reminded of it every single day.

Because of my saving habits I don't have extra money to buy stuff that helps me fit in with my friends and co-workers. First of all, when I'm going out to meet up with them, many times I end up taking the bus or even *gasp* walking. When I'm hoofing it to meet up with them at a restaurant or bar I have nothing but time on my hands to think about the poor decisions that led me use my own two legs to get me places.