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Money – Balancing Spending Now and Saving for the Future

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I’m very excited to have my first piece run for Money Magazine’s new website Money.com, about balancing spending now and saving for the future.  This is a fundamental struggle that I deal with in my own life, and the large majority of my clients have questions on this topic as well.

While I can’t repost the full article here, I will say the top advice I seem to give to clients is about having a clear vision, and using that to help filter your spending.  The more I understood about what was really important to me, the easier it became to change my behavior and to make the tough financial choices I needed to make every week.

I think there’s a lot of other good advice in the piece, so please head over to Money to read the full article!

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Should You Pay Off Student Loans Early? 5 Questions to Consider

Should I Pay Off Student Loans Early?

I’ve recently had a few clients and children of retired clients ask me questions about paying off their student loans early, so I thought a blog post was in order. Like most posts here, this is a snapshot of my thoughts on a pretty broad topic, so please contact me if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Like many financial planning issues, there are a number of sub-questions that can help you decide if paying off your loans early is a great idea.  Below are my top five questions to consider:

  1. What’s your interest rate? – The interest rate on your loans plays a critical role in deciding if paying them off early is a good investment. Student loans that were consolidated several years ago likely have a quite low interest rate (I’ve seen as low as 2.25%), where those who have recently completed programs normally have an interest rate of 6.8%. By repaying a loan early, in some sense you’re guaranteeing yourself that rate of return by saving yourself future interest. Therefore, the higher the interest rate, the more benefit you have from paying off this debt early.
  2. Do you qualify for loan forgiveness? – There are many employers, and a new Federal Government program, that can provide loan forgiveness for borrowers. Like many financial things the devil is in the details so you’ve got to really read the provided documents to make the choice that is right for you. A few other factors to consider:  – How long do I need to work here to qualify for forgiveness? I’ve seen some programs kick in with as little as 3 years of service, where the Federal program requires 10 years of service and 120 payments.  – Will your loans qualify? Many programs offer forgiveness for federally guaranteed student loans, fewer for private loans. Read the details of what you’re being offered and ask questions.  (There are a lot of other provisions that the federal program is subject to that will likely require its own blog post in the future, so be on the lookout for that one)
  3. How much are you earning? – In an ideal world, you’d be able to make additional loan payments, build an emergency fund, and begin saving for retirement in the early stages of your career. Chances are you can’t do all of these, so you’ve got to prioritize on which will give you the best long-term return for your hard-earned dollars.
  4. Do you have a retirement plan with a match? – If your employer offers a retirement plan with a match, it’s hard for me to recommend passing that up to repay student loans. In some sense, a match is a guaranteed return on your investment, because you can get additional dollars contributed to an account, on your behalf, without you having to take them out of your paycheck. Grab the match and then decide if you want to put additional dollars towards student loans over saving for retirement while considering #5.
  5. How do you feel about debt? – This shouldn’t be an afterthought as it’s as critical as the other pieces. While few people truly like having debt, I’ve seen a wide range of true feelings with clients about the debts they carry and manage. Some are perfectly comfortable with making the monthly payments over an extend periods of time, others have huge emotional responses when they think about the payments and amount of debt outstanding. If your student loans are causing you emotional distress, then make paying them off a high priority, and free up that energy for more positive things in your life. Even if that delay caused you to have to work another 6 months before retiring, wouldn’t that be better than carrying around the emotional agony for 10 years because putting money away for retirement was the ‘smart thing’?

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Focus on Progress, not Perfection

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When I work with families, they tend to share a few characteristics

- They’re incredibly bright, which makes them good at seeing lots of possibilities in situations which leads to success but also leads to massive amounts of worry and indecision on some complicated issues
- They’ve been achievers for most of their lives, having success throughout school and a history of receiving accolades
- They’re achieving the financial success that they always expected, but are now quite hesitant to make decisions and take steps forward.

I think these 3 characteristics are all related, and work together to create a storm of fear and indecision for the big choices they face.  If you’ve always gotten praise and pats on the back, making choices that might not be right can fill you with fear.  Add onto that the cost and burden of not making good choices in this area, such as not being able to provide educations and retire with the comfortable lifestyle that you’ve envisioned, and it becomes incredibly difficult to make any moves at all.

Yet, for many of us that find the above characteristics familiar, amazing is what has gotten us this far.  We’re collectively talented, focused, successful, and used to doing things that to many are amazing.  So, how can you get started on your financial future if amazing is the bar that you have to meet to feel good?

The answer is:  You can’t. You’ll read another article, ask a friend for their opinion, meet with a few people, and ultimately end up not making any changes or progress, because you can’t be sure of the right answer or the right pathway.

Hard truth:  Success in your financial life isn’t about perfection. 

Success in your financial life looks like a lot of small choices that are difficult to see how they’re making significant progress, but ultimately it’s all we can do.  Beyond taking advantage of the big moments like bonuses, inheritances, and other windfalls, we’ve got to make it to our financial goals with the resources we generate on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, and becoming more successful in understanding those habits and making small changes is what leads to the results we’re seeking.

Dave Brailsford, the General Manager for Great Britain’s professional cycling team called this the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  When he took over the cycling team, he had a goal to win the Tour de France in 5 years, something that no cyclist from Great Britain had ever done.  He started with the theory that our professional cyclists were all amazing at training, riding, and strategy, and that there were likely no very large gains or changes to be made.  Rather, they focused on seeking “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.”  These improvements in many areas built up to a win for Great Britain in the Tour de France in 3 years, not 5, and are what can allow you to reach your financial goals.

Chances are, if there were $1,000 per month to find in your budget you would have already found it.  It’s small, subtle changes that will build up to the goals you’re hoping to achieve.

How do you find those small, subtle changes?

Review last week’s spending every week.  Doing a monthly review is tedious, and it’s hard to remember expenses from early in the month (what did I buy on Amazon on the 3rd?), but it’s pretty easy to remember what you spent on Amazon on Tuesday.  Look for patterns.  What spending decisions do you feel good about when you look at them again?  Which ones do you wish you could have another shot at?

It’s hard to say ‘no’ without a bigger ‘yes’.  Spending decisions are often about saying no to something so you can save the money for something else.  What are you willing to say ‘no’ to now, in order to be able to say ‘yes’ to a bigger goal, like a new house, travel, or starting a business?  Whatever the ‘yes’ ultimately is, get incredibly clear about it.  The more images and details you can put around it, the easier it is to make choices to support that vision.

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A Simple Way to Set Goals for 2014

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I love complex processes.  I really do.  There’s just something about the intricacies of a large spreadsheet that can really get my brain going, and I can spend lots of time deep in an analysis for financial questions.

Yet, when I tried to apply the same level of detail to my past goal-setting, it never worked out the way that I hoped.  I’ve tried spreadsheets and software and GANTT charts to try to lay out my goals in detailed sequences and it just doesn’t seem to work, and I’ve never understood why.  A friend passed along James Clear’s excellent post on setting aside goals to focus on systems, and it sparked a new way of thinking for me in this year’s goal setting.  Read it, it’s an excellent way to think about meaningful change.

With that in mind, I created my goal template this year in 3 simple pages that you can download below.  Print them off, and take 15-20 minutes to jot down your thoughts on these critical questions: (Download a PDF copy of these questions - 2014 Goal Template)

Q1 - Reflect on the past year.  What did you accomplish in 2013?  Personally?  Professionally?  Give yourself some credit for your accomplishments. What were this year’s successes?  Large and small, they all build towards your long-term vision.

Before you look forward towards your goals, have you looked back at the previous year at all?  What accomplishments did you have in 2013?  Put those down on paper, and remind the goal-setting part of your brain that you did accomplish some things last year.   We’re all much better at picking out the things we didn’t accomplish from a list than the ones that we did, so let’s take a few minutes to counter that natural tendency and prime our goal-setting mechanisms.

Q2.  What would you like to accomplish in 2014?  Personally? Professionally? 

Let your creative imagination have some space and think about what you’d like to have accomplished, when you’re sitting down at your desk in the first week of 2015, looking back at another successful year.  Write those down and think about what it would feel like to have those accomplishments on your 2014 success list.

Q3.  What do you need to do to accomplish your 2014 goals?  Skills to Learn?  Habits to Acquire? 

Now, take page 1 and put it on your left, and page 2 and set it on your right.  Place page 3 in the middle and let your brain make the connections from the positive past to the imagined future.  What are the things you need to do to make those goals a reality?  What habits and skills do you need to develop?  What connections do you need to make?  What activities should you try?  Take the advice of James Clear that I linked to above, and focus on those systems and habits.

I love setting goals and thinking about the future, and my biggest area of improvement lies in building systems that support those goals and positive changes that I’d like to make.  I’m focusing my energy on building positive habits that will lead to the goals that I’m seeking for myself, my family, and my business this year.

(Download a PDF copy of these questions - 2014 Goal Template)

Please share with me in the comments how this process worked for you, and if you have any questions or suggestions so we can all benefit from them!

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Frustrated With Your Partner? Here’s Your Task

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I often find when I talk to clients, they’re frustrated with a specific financial trait that their partner has.  Lately I’ve been saying something different to these clients, and hopefully it is both useful and true.

When you find yourself frustrated with something your partner is doing, there are two things you need to be able to do:

1 – Believe that they could act differently

2 – Talk to them like an adult about what’s bothering you

These are both deceptively simple, but quite challenging in real-life practice.  Yet if you can do these two things then you have a chance for real progress and change.

Believe that they could act differently.  If you believe that something is going to happen, you start to look for clues that you are right, and set up a situation that is bad for everybody.  You’re frustrated with your partner before they even do anything, and you’re setting up a negative feedback cycle that could sound something like the below statements in your head

  • He always just spends whatever he wants and doesn’t talk to me about it.  
  • She is so cheap!  I can never spend money on anything, she’s always going to get mad at me.
  • He doesn’t care about saving money for ________, he’d rather just spend it on meaningless things.

If that’s truly what you believe, you’re going to look for evidence that you’re right.  And most of the time, you’re going to use whatever you find to support that evidence, even if it’s a stretch (be honest, you’ve done it). If you really want to set the stage for your partner to act differently, you have to believe that they could.  Imagine them acting differently, and look at the activities that have recently struck that nerve with you about their financial habits.  Can you see yourself responding to them differently if you imagine them with the opposite financial trait?  Try this for a few days or a week and see what happens.  If you’re like me, you’ll learn that it’s really easy to slip back into old ways of seeing them, and if you are brave enough to hold the space to imagine them acting differently they’ll start to make small subtle changes that you will feel appreciate of, rather than criticize.

Second, you need to have an adult conversation about it.  Start with that picture of them in your head and talk about the thing that is bothering you.

  1. Tell them about the behavior is bothering you.  Use “I” statements to share from your point of view.  “I feel like I can’t ever spend any money without you getting upset.”  Let your statement be about what you are feeling, and let them respond.  
  2. Tell them about how you are working on seeing them differently.  Can you share an example of a time where they made a different decision, and how it made you feel?
  3. Ask them to tell you what they’re feeling, and really get into their perspective to understand it.  Stephen Covey talks about going beyond active listening to empathic listening.  Can we really understand where they are coming from?  What has happened in the past that has helped to shape their beliefs and perceptions about money?  I love to have clients talk about what money was like when they were growing up. It really gets at our core early lessons around money, and usually has a residual effect on how we interact with it now.

Give these new actions a try and explore what it could do for you and your relationship.

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Cash is King – It’s Useful For More Than Mattress Stuffing

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I seem to be having conversations with clients daily about cash.  We talk about how little they spend in cash anymore, the pennies in interest they are earning in their savings or money market accounts, and about how much they should be keeping in cash at all.  Here are a few short thoughts for you today about Cash and the most common conversations I have around it.

  • Carry Some In Your Wallet – When my 2 1/2 year old wants to play with her cash register, she doesn’t really understand what the paper things in the cash register are for.  She does understand the credit card and how it swipes, and how we use it to pay for things when we go to the grocery store or shopping nearly anywhere.  I now try to carry cash for this reason, to show her that some things we buy are one of the green bills, and some are 5 or more.  It’s a bit early to understand how they’re different amounts, but as your kids get older, can you start to involve them more in the process of understanding how your family spends your money?  If you want a fun question, ask a child where money comes from (even more fun if it’s not your own, I must say).  
  • Save Some For A Rainy Day – Cash in an Emergency Fund or savings account is a critical success factor for financial peace of mind.  When I talk to people who are struggling with spending, it’s a cycle of spending, digging out of a hole of credit cards or other loans, and then they can’t ever seem to make that next step of building up an emergency fund.  Once you have it, you don’t have to be focused on the return that it earns.  Return in an Emergency Fund is just bonus.  The point of it is that you have a stable, secure reserve of cash in the event that there is an emergency.  While you don’t see that return every day, all you need to do is think about a time when you needed some financial backup and it wasn’t there.  The financial return from an emergency fund comes in long-term savings, savings of credit card interest, the ability to have higher deductibles on auto and homeowner’s insurance and the savings you see there.
  • Save Some For An Opportunity – This is really where the old saying “Cash is King” comes from.  Cash isn’t king because you get a little bit of interest on it at the bank.  Cash is King because it allows you to take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself.  When you find the home that you’ve been seeking, having the readily available cash to make an offer and get an affordable mortgage is critical.  When your parents or grandparents invite you along on that big trip you’ve always talked about taking, or you finally decide it’s time for you to do that trip by yourself and you get an email alert about the airfare sale, having the cash on hand to move on it allows you to move forward confidently.

How else do you see Cash affecting your life?

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Top Posts – April 2013

 

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The 5 most viewed blog posts on the Upperline Financial Planning blog in April:

  1. 6 Tips for Refinancing Your Home – Financial Rules of Thumb Series
  2. Inherited IRA’s – What You Need to Know
  3. Financial Rules of Thumb Series – How Much Should My Car Payment Be?
  4. H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP® Named to List of Top Financial Advisors for Doctors for 2nd Consecutive Year
  5. Lending Money to Adult Children – 4 Things to Consider

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National Retirement Planning Week

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You may know that April is Financial Literacy Month. What you may not know that last week was National Retirement Planning Week. While the whole month’s focus is to increase your knowledge (read: literacy) when it comes to all things financial, this past week was laser focused on retirement planning.

The merits of these are debatable (if you didn’t know they exist, what good are they doing?).  One thing is certain, we need help in these areas.  Survey after survey indicates that Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement.
How can we realize this enough to answer the survey but not enough to do anything about it?
It’s Abstract
Retirement is “over there”.  It’s somewhere off in the distance.  Is it 59 1/2 or 65 years old?  Who knows.
It’s difficult to commit to saving money now for an ambiguous concept down the road.  Humans are fantastic are registering immediate responses.  Just see how long you can keep your hand on a hot stove.  But we’re not so great at delayed gratification, which really is what planning for retirement is about.  How well do you want to live after you stop working?
Here’s the trick: as you begin planning your retirement, it becomes less abstract.  You start realizing how much you could save and what that means for your standard of living.  Once you have the numbers, you start dreaming about the vacations you want to take and items to cross off your bucket list.
It’s Complicated
 
Unfortunately being abstract isn’t the only roadblock to retirement.  There are lots of ambiguous terms like 401(k), Roth IRA, Mutual Funds, Bonds, Compound Interest, Taxes.  That is a lot going on.  There are different vehicles for your plan as well as a variety of ways to fund them.
It is important to balance two sides of the same coin.  One, understand that you don’t have to know it all.  Meet with a fee-only financial planner and investment advisor that has access to more information than you.  In the multitude of council, there is safety.  Two, don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand.  Identify professionals that have the heart of a teacher that are willing to coach you into understanding your options.  You don’t have to know it all to begin with, but this is your retirement. You need to know what you are doing when you begin putting your money into something.
It’s Important
 
You don’t want to work your whole life.  Or, at the very least, you don’t want to have to work your whole life.  Do you want to travel?  Do you want to leave your family an inheritance?  Do you want to donate money to charities and worthy causes you believe in?
Whatever your personal drive, find the motivation to start your retirement planning now.
(This is the latest post from Upperline Financial Planning intern Trevor Acy)

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H. Jude Boudreaux Listed Among Top Financial Advisors for Doctors for Second Year in a Row

 

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We at Upperline Financial Planning are proud to announce that H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP® was recognized by Medical Economics Magazine as one of the Top Financial Advisors for Doctors again in 2012!  We are humbled by the honor and work hard every day to be worthy of the recognition.

We are proud of the company that we are building here, and would like to welcome you to contact us if you’re interested in learning more about our unique approach to financial planning.

 

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