A Lifetime of Financial Advice for 2015 by Suzanne Trimbath

When household savings falls and household debt rises, “most people” are spending more than they make. When people find out I’m an economist, they often ask if I can explain why “most people” can’t figure out how to handle their money. The New York Fed recently reported the end of deleveraging: American households are borrowing again. When you get paid, you can do one of two things with your money: save it or spend it. If you aren’t saving AND you are borrowing, then clearly you are spending more than you make.

There are a lot of people in America who are young, struggling and without inheritance or some initial endowment to get started in life. The Census Bureau reports a 17.5% rise in the number of 25 to 34 year olds living with their parents (from 2007 to 2010). This increase cuts across all socio-economic lines. Regardless of the demographics that impact the way the economy grows, we all go through life-cycles. I did it, you did it and “most people” will do it, too. If you are smart, you’ll engage the economy throughout the cycles of your life. Here’s how it works. The six cycles correspond roughly to the decades from your 20s to your 70s.

CYCLE 1 (20s): Without an initial endowment, we all struggle in the first decade after we leave our parents home (or foster care, or whatever situation it was that brought you to adulthood). Your skill set is very low and you may or may not have gotten a college education. You are an unknown quantity in the job market, untried and unproven, so your wages will be quite low. You also have no secondary source of income (no endowment, remember, means no investment income). If you are smart and lucky, you’ll figure out that you have nothing and so you will spend nothing that you don’t have. Focus on keeping a good job, building some skills, try to get a little more education and keep your nose clean. That’s enough for the first decade.

CYCLE 2 (30s): By now, you’ve got a resume built up so you can expect to be promoted or to look for a better job that pays more, maybe has some benefits like health insurance and some kind of a savings plan. Put something into that employer-matched 401k plan: sure, you probably won’t be able to wait until age 65 to dip into it, but it will be money that you won’t otherwise have. The match means that you earn an instant 100% on your money. Even if the penalty for early withdrawal is about 25%, you will still be ahead by 75% even if you can’t wait for retirement. If you have some financial assistance (from family or a grant of some kind), you’ll probably acquire some sort of property at this point. Maybe it’s a small business or a home but it’s the grown-up thing to do. Stay away from making a big investment in some depreciable asset, like a sports car, at this point. These are the beginning of the years in which you will build capital for the future: financial capital (investments), human capital (skills and education), and social capital (a good network of contacts, both social and business). Focus on moving up in your career a couple of times so that you can begin to put money into savings and investment on a regular basis. Avoid the trap of building up a lot of debt during this stage and be sure to stay within your means.

CYCLE 3 (40s): These are the real building years. You should be well-established in your field of work and hopefully you have built strong and stable social connections, too. It’s time to start thinking about giving back to the community that supports you. You can volunteer, start making larger cash donations to charities, attend some charity balls or even run for office (or get active in the campaign of a candidate you support). Some of these social and charitable contacts will be helpful to you in business and some will just be the kind that makes living in a community more pleasant. Your focus now is to set achievable life-goals. Whatever your ambition was in your 20s, by now you will have a clear vision of what you can realistically attain. With that idea in mind, set goals for your career, your finances, when you want to retire from work, etc. Make them realistic for now, based on what you know. You’ll get a chance to adjust them only once more in your lifetime.

CYCLE 4 (50s): Now’s the time to begin planning for the culmination of your work life. It could be another 20 years off, but you need to think through how you will sustain that longer career, or to plan to stop working altogether. If you wait till the next cycle, when you are in your 60’s, it may be too late to make any changes that will be necessary for you to achieve your goal. Your earnings will peak in this decade so if you haven’t saved enough along the way, this is the last chance to start to bring your savings in line with your goals.

CYCLE 5: (60s): By now, if you’ve followed through with planning and budgeting, you should be able to take it easier. A lot easier (retire from working) or a little easier (work part-time or in your own business). If you’ve been able to get some education, you may be able to support yourself fully as a knowledge-worker. Knowledge workers have longer work lives because they won’t have limitations on endurance or other physical job requirements. Even if your job was physically demanding, it is possible that an employer will need your advice as a manager or consultant on a project that will benefit from your years of experience.

CYCLE 6 (70s): Average life expectancy in the US is in the low- to mid-80s for both men and women. That means that, on average, this will be the penultimate decade of your life. Depending on your early choices, you may find yourself now at the pinnacle of your profession. Try to pass along as much of your knowledge as you can to the next generation, both what you learned in your career and what you learned from your life experiences.

If it seems they aren’t listening, keep talking. Maybe something will sink in and when they read in the news that “most people” spend more than they make, they will be able to count themselves among the unusual. Have a safe and prosperous 2015!

Source: New Geography Blog

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