The tenets of healthy living are almost cliché by now: Eat your leafy greens, increase your "core strength" with some weight-bearing exercise, and get in a cardio workout every day for at least 30 minutes.
Managing your financial life is about as rote: Spend less than you make, regularly sock away some money for the future, and when you're 65 or so, pack up your desk, slap on some sunscreen, and head to milder climes.
In other words, save your leafy greens and lift your golf bag with your legs, not your back.
But unlike healthy living, good financial habits need to change over the years. Investing on autopilot will keep you in the air, but if you want to land safely with your finances intact, you've got to take the controls at different times in your life.
Building, providing, and protecting
As we age, our financial priorities change. In our 20s and 30s, we focus on building a decent future. From age 40 to mid 50s, it's about making wise finance decisions and living a little. Those ages 55 through 69 are concerned about protection -- both of assets and their family's well-being.
And how do I know so much about what's on your mind? I don't. But the folks at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards have provided a blueprint of financial concerns for all ages. The "average" concerns of the 1,000 survey respondents aren't representative of "average" Americans. Each is the upper-quartile of income in their age group. The average net worth of those surveyed was $562,000, with an average household income of $106,000.
See if you identify with any of these labels that the CFP Board came up with in its 2002 consumer survey:
- In your 20s and 30s, you're an "Up & Comer" -- saving for retirement (as an investor, you are pretty risk-tolerant), managing your debt, and building a college fund are high on your list of financial priorities.
- From age 40 to your mid 50s, "Mid-Lifers" are more likely to pursue the help of a professional financial planner. They are living a little (focused more on funding vacations and travel) and trying to empty the nest and finance their kids' college educations. These are the peak earning years. At the same time, you're showing your age and have less of a tolerance for risk as you invest.
- At age 55 (until you're 69), you get your key pass to the "Retirement Cusp" club. Your financial concerns tend to buzz around shelter -- having a cushy emergency fund, getting adequate insurance protection, and sheltering your income from taxes. "Live and make it last" is your motto.
So, how do upper-income folks invest for their needs? We certainly applaud their savings resolve. On average, participants said they saved or invested 12% of their total income (median) in 2001. Here's how they allocate their assets:
- Real estate equity (31%)
- Retirement savings plans (26%)
- Stock mutual funds (10%)
- CDs, money market and savings accounts (10%)
- Individual stocks (7%)
- Pensions (6%)
- Misc. assets (bond funds, bonds, annuities) (10%)
Excluding bill-paying and balancing their checkbooks, they spend an average of five hours a month on financial matters.
But spending time managing your finances is quite different than having a road map in place -- one that you check on a regular basis and reprogram the GPS to find the best path to your destination.
Surprisingly, less than half of upper-income consumers surveyed by the CFP Board have a formal financial plan in place. Not surprisingly, though, the more money folks have and the older they get, the more likely they are to get their financial affairs down on paper and map their way. More than half of "Retirement Cusp" individuals, and nearly half of those with a net worth of more than $500,000, have a formal plan.
Young whippersnappers could learn a thing or two from their elders. According to the survey, those who don't have a formal plan in place are less likely to feel satisfied with the management of their financial affairs. They worry about being financially prepared for retirement and tend to doubt the money decisions they make.
It's often a life-changing event that sends them into the arms of a professional financial advisor. Receiving an inheritance or financial windfall prompts 72% of folks to seek help. Complex investments and making asset distribution decisions follow closely behind.
Those with a written financial plan review it at least on an annual basis, with 16% examining it every six months, and a third checking it quarterly.
Take a cue from the Scouts
Like a midlife crisis or the car going on the fritz as you're on the first leg of a long-awaited road trip, there are some things in life you can count on. The key is to be prepared, whether you're getting serious about buying a house with your new bride, your son declares a new major the semester before he's supposed to graduate, or the market takes a dive just as you start to build your retirement getaway.
Having a financial plan -- one that you consult on a regular basis -- can take the guesswork and stress out of managing your finances, no matter what life stage you're in. It will help you project future costs, see how your current savings match up with them, pinpoint current and future financial issues, identify weak spots, and provide a much-needed wakeup call regarding savings, spending, and orthodontia costs.
There are a lot of ways to formulate a financial plan. We've revamped our financial advice area to help you put your plan on paper. There's even a comparison chart to make it easier for you to distinguish one type of professional help from another.
No matter what kind of help you choose, when you need expert advice, you want to be certain you have found a person competent to give it, and one who will act in your best interests rather than their own. When it comes down to it, your money, like your health, is your responsibility.
Life happens. Make sure that your financial plan happens right along with it.