In the quest for financial freedom—the search for a way off the day-job treadmill—it’s important to build the habit of living not just within your means but below your means.
When you live within your means, you spend no more than you earn. In living below your means, however, you spend less than you earn. This allows you to put money aside for future use; to wit, early retirement. The scheme is pretty simple:
• Live below your means;
• Save a specific amount each month;
• Also set aside whatever else you don’t spend;
• Stash your savings in investments and leave it there.
Saving is a strategy you can start at quite a young age, from the moment you begin to earn. My first full-time job paid a grandiose $300 a month. After paying the rent, I had $200 to live on. From that I budgeted $15 to buy myself some clothes or shoes and $20 to put into savings. Following the old adage, I always paid myself first. We didn’t have automatic electronic funds transfers in those days; I had to physically go into the bank to deposit my paycheck, and while I was there I had a share of it deposited to a savings account. If I hadn’t spent the previous month’s clothing budget, I transferred that or the amount remaining from it to savings, too. I still do the same today, only instead of $20 I put aside $200 plus anything else that doesn’t get spent.
It doesn’t sound like much, but over time it adds up. And when you’re young, your greatest financial asset is time. Twenty dollars a month invested at 8 percent starting in, say, 1967, when I began working, today would amount to $89,498.86. If you began investing $200 a month today and worked for twenty years, in 2030 you’d have $117,804. That’s a respectable amount, especially if you’re saving from after-tax income so that this is on top of your 401(k) or 403(b).
Yes. That’s what I’m talking about here: not only investing before-tax income in whatever savings plan your employer offers, but also setting aside something from take-home pay.
For most people, $200 a month is minimal. In fact, while I was still working I was setting aside about $370 a month, plus whatever was left over from my general operating expenses. Over 20 years at 8 percent, $370 a month would add up to $217,937.55—about as much as my 403(b) accrued in 15 years with matching contributions from my employer. In other words, the habit of saving and investing on your own can double your retirement savings…and at least some of it will be in instruments that you can access before age 59½, a crucial factor for those of us who do not intend to stay in the traces until we drop.
Even if your earnings are modest, it’s surprising how many ways you can find to unearth cash for savings and investment.
If you’ve recently succeeded in paying off debt, then you know that you can break loose a certain number of dollars from your income for purposes other than mere survival and indulgence. If that’s your case, instead of diddling away the newly freed-up income that you were having to use to service debt, put it into savings.
If you’re using the “snowball” approach to debt payoff, once you’re out from under the debt, put the snowballs into savings. If you’ve “snowflaked” debt away, keep on putting every little windfall aside, only put it into savings and investments.
Similarly, when you get a raise or move to a better-paying job, don’t change your standard of living. Put the increase into savings.
More proactively, start a side income stream and invest all the after-tax proceeds for the future. My freelance endeavors, for example, have earned around $8,000 to $10,000 a year. Eight grand amounts to about $666 a month; invested at 8 percent over our 20-year period, it would add up to $392,288.
Living below your means entails downsizing before you upsize. Instead of buying the biggest, most grandiose house you can afford, for example, buy a more modest but comfortable house. Or rent instead of buying and save the difference between the rent payment and mortgage payments for comparable digs. Refrain from buying the largest, fanciest vehicle your paycheck will support; get a car you can pay off quickly and use the amount you’d have to put into payments to build your Bumhood stash. Find better ways to entertain yourself than sitting in front of the boob tube, and then ditch the cable TV. Get rid of the land line. Learn to cook, and eat better for less by eating in instead of haunting restaurants.
If you never develop the habit of buying more than you need, you’ll never miss what you don’t have. Obviously you don’t have to live like an anchorite. But too many apparently middle-class Americans fail to distinguish between indulging their wants and providing for their needs. As a result, they’re really not in the financial middle class: they’re actually poor folks who are in way over their heads.
By April of 2009, the average household saving rate was only about 4 percent of disposable income. Let’s say you have $48,000 left after taxes from a $60,000 household income: that would give you an annual savings rate of $1,920—significantly less than the rather modest $200/month we started with in this discussion. If your 4 percent includes your required contribution to an employer’s deferred saving plan, then you’re not even putting $160 a month ($1,920 ÷ 12) aside from take-home pay.
Meanwhile, economists at the Federal Reserve estimated (also in 2009) that despite the slight increase in U.S. households’ savings rate, most savings were going to pay off debt, which had accrued at a staggering rate during the recent boom, when consumption far exceeded income. To eliminate this household debt, the Fed observes,
Assuming an effective nominal interest rate on existing household debt of 7%, a future nominal growth rate of disposable income of 5%, and that 80% of future saving is used for debt repayment, the household saving rate would need to rise from around 4% currently to 10% by the end of 2018.
Clearly, if you start out with little or no debt and never accumulate debt, instead of pouring your savings into some already spectacularly wealthy banker’s pockets you can put your money to work for you. Living below your means is, then, the first stage of building your Bumhood bankroll.
The Financial Freedom Series