For a very long time, I found myself spinning my wheels looking for a savings vehicle to drive off into a secure financial future. I was overwhelmed by the task that confronted me.
Not only did I have to save for my retirement, but I also need to save up for my kids' college education, emergencies, and a life -- a car, vacations, big TVs. So I did what most people do: nothing. My checking account was just a way station on the way toward higher debt.
The folks at Motley Fool Green Light have established 10 top goals for your money ranging from creating a cash cushion to stretching your employee benefits. I've found five forms of savings that were essential to address different points of my life:
- Emergency fund
- Retirement funds
- Investment accounts
- College fund
- Gotta-have fund
While this isn't anything new, the way the experts tell you to handle them wasn't going to cut it for me. Following the rules of thumb would take too long to accomplish them all.
If I had to finance three to six months of living expenses before contributing to my retirement accounts -- which need a minimum contribution of 10% to 15% of my gross pay -- so that I could start investing in stocks and saving for college, I was going nowhere fast.
So what I did instead was all of them. Sometimes half a loaf is better than a whole.
Emergency funds. I knew emergencies can strike anytime, so I didn't want to delay too long, but it's equally true that they don't happen all that often. If I focused on getting this set up to the exclusion of everything else, I would lose precious years waiting. With a stable job, I felt I could slowly built up my ING
(NYSE:ISG)money market account more comfortably than if my job was tenuous. If necessary, I could turn to a credit card in a pinch, or family and friends.
- Retirement accounts. This one also started off small, but I slowly built it up over time. When I got a raise, a good portion of it went into the account and used the balance to improve my standard of living a little. Doing it this way let's you save for the future but still enjoy a little bit today.
Investment accounts. I knew time was both my friend and my enemy. I waited a long time before I began investing, but if I waited any longer, I'd have nothing at the end. So I began contributing just $50 a month, building it up slowly over time. At around the historical rate of return on the market, $50 a month for 25 years shakes out to around $73,000. Not enough to retire on, but it wasn't going to stay that way forever. Buying a few shares of Intel
(NASDAQ:INTC)and Merck (NYSE:MRK)was better than buying none at all.
- College savings. Like my investment account, I couldn't afford to put much away, but I didn't want to saddle my kids with exorbitant college loans, either. While experts say to fund this last because your own retirement is more important and the kids' have available alternatives, putting something away now would help defray at least part of tuition.
Gotta-have fund. This is the sanity saver. Maybe the kids want a big-screen TV for the living room (OK, maybe you do) or Apple's
(NASDAQ:AAPL)latest iPod iteration, or whatever. A fund like this means you won't have to run up credit card debt to pay for it, which is the surest way to sap all of your savings. The experts say you shouldn't be buying this stuff if you haven't taken care of the first four items, but let's be realistic: Unless you're really exceptionally disciplined, you're going to get them; it's just a matter of whether you'll be saving up for them or buying them on credit.
A real plan for sound finances
I've found that being realistic about my financial future was a lot more helpful than trying to live by the experts' golden rules. Sound financial ideas is what Green Light offers subscribers every month. The experts there know that debt is the killer of financial futures -- the slippery roads that wreck your savings vehicles. When your money is going to credit cards each month, it's money that's not going toward your retirement, your kid's college, or your future.
Avoiding those potholes by doing a little bit of everything means you've started the process of moving ahead. It's not fast and it's not smooth, but it is heading in the right direction and can get you to where you want to be.