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PF Notecard #3: Live Below Your Means

Advice on a card 2On the index card that lists everything you need to know about personal finance, point #3 is “Live Below Your Means.” But what the heck does that mean?

In my notecard stack, it means more than live “within” your means, which suggests you live up to the limit of what your income will support. Living below your means is spending significantly less than you earn, and doing so in a meaningful, strategized way.

The primary way to accomplish this is to automatically set aside a portion of your income for savings. Most employers that direct deposit can deposit portions of a paycheck to different accounts. If yours will do that, arrange to have, say, 10 percent of your take-home pay deposited to a savings account. Alternatively, you can set up your bank account to do an automatic transfer from checking to savings on a certain day of the month. If you have a side gig, you may be able to put the most or all of that net paycheck into savings and live on the income from your main job.

That’s after you’ve had a specific amount withheld for a 401(k) or 403(b). If your employer doesn’t provide a savings plan, then set up an investment savings fund and have 15% of your pay deposited to that, right off the top. IMHO the preferred device for this is probably an index fund with a low-overhead mutual fund company such as Vanguard or Fidelity. At least part of this amount should go into a Roth IRA, which will protect you from the onerous and tax-heavy Required Minimum Distribution rule after you retire. Keep the rest of it in regular funds, if you think there’s any chance at all that your income after retirement is likely to be close to what you get while working.

So: 15% of your pay should go to an employer retirement plan or, if contributions are not matched, to your own long-term investment savings. THEN at least another 10% (up to 20%) of the remainder goes into savings in a bank.

What’s left is what you live on. That’s living below your means.

And how do you accomplish this frugal lifestyle on the few pennies you have left? Any number of ways…

  • Buy a smaller house than you can actually afford.
  • Buy in a lesser neighborhood than you could in theory afford.
  • Buy less expensive cars than you can afford.
  • Eat in most of the time. Learning to cook is one of the biggest moneysavers out there.
  • Never charge more than you can afford to pay out of pocket in a given billing cycle.
  • Stay out of debt. If you can’t pay for something in cash, don’t buy it.
  • Never pay full price for anything. Buy clothing on sale, at outlet stores, or in thrift stores.
  • Vacation frugally. Consider a camping trip instead of a flight across the globe.
  • Break the “Stuff” habit: don’t buy things you don’t need. Pass on a clothing purchase if you already have something that will do.  And refrain from collecting bric-a-brac and useless items, be it piggy banks, comic books, computer games, or old CDs. Think minimalist.
  • Choose a hobby that doesn’t break the bank. If it requires pricey equipment or supplies, find another way to pass the time.
  • Learn to do things yourself.

None of these is very hard.

What about that 10% you put into the bank? Before long enough will accrue to provide a decent emergency savings stash. If you’re lucky and two or three years pass without a really big unplanned bill, you may have enough to skim off some to contribute to your retirement savings.

I have three sets of savings: short-term emergency savings (enough to cover a routine plumbing or car repair, for example); long-term emergency savings (major repairs, non-routine dental bills), and retirement savings. A bank account will do for the first two; retirement savings, of course, should go into some kind of investment. Back in the day when CDs paid a little interest, I used to have long-term emergency savings in a credit-union CD. Now it’s all in the same savings account. My retirement savings are professionally managed; most of it is with Fidelity.

All You Need to Know about Personal Finance Fits on a Notecard
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#2 Get a Job