Life is a constant stream of decisions, most of which come and go with little impact or fanfare. Then there are the big ones, the decisions of the life-changing variety. You know the ones: whether or not to marry and to who, to have children and how many, to quit your safe, comfortable corporate job to start your own business.

Given how far-reaching the impact, it’s critical we get these life-changing decisions right. We inherently understand this when it comes to marriage or having children but it’s a foreign concept when it comes to our money.

As in our personal lives, some financial decisions have a disproportionate impact on our financial lives. We’ve identified the “Big 3” spending decisions that have a disproportionate impact on our financial lives. These decisions are capable of restricting our financial flexibility, and with it, our ability to live the lives we dream of.

The Big 3 – Home, Car, College

Let’s talk about why home ownership, car ownership, and an expensive degree can be such a drag on our ability to live life.

Buying a house

Society tells us that to be a successful adult, we must buy a house. That’s what responsible grown-ups do, they become homeowners.

While I am a big proponent of homeownership, it’s not the right choice for everyone. Buying a house is the largest financial decision most people ever make. And, while it can be a good investment, it’s not guaranteed.

 

 

Before diving into homeownership, here are two questions to consider:

  1. At this point in time, is buying a home the right financial and lifestyle decision for you and your family?
  2. If you choose to buy, how much house can you afford?

The answer to question number one can be as simple as comparing the cost of renting versus buying. However, it’s also worth assessing the impact on your lifestyle. Do you value flexibility or consistency? Do you like to move around or change jobs frequently? Are you interested in taking on the responsibilities required when owning a home?

Buying inherently restricts your flexibility – financial and otherwise. This doesn’t make it a deal-breaker, you just need to understand how far-reaching the trade-offs go.

How much house can you really afford?

There’s a difference between how big a mortgage you qualify for and what you can afford.

Mortgage lenders look at factors like your credit history, salary, and debt. However, they don’t consider how many kids you have to put through college, what your retirement dreams are, or the cost of health insurance.

When determining how much mortgage you can afford, think about the lifestyle you want to maintain. The intention is to avoid being house rich and cash poor.

“House rich, cash poor,” is when a substantial part of your paycheck goes towards your “house.” It’s not just your mortgage, but also includes home insurance, property taxes, utilities, and home maintenance.

While we all want a home we love, a house that’s too expensive will quickly lose its luster when it impedes your ability to travel or even go out for dinner.

There’s also the risk purchasing too much home will push you into debt. All too often people don’t cut back their spending. Instead, they go into massive credit card debt trying to live a lifestyle that matches the big, new house.

This isn’t to scare you away from homeownership. Again, I’m a huge proponent of home ownership. Rather, it’s to encourage greater awareness before you commit to that big payment.

Homeownership can be great, but having a house that eats up all your income means you’ll little money left to do anything else.

Buying a car

I always shake my head when someone purchases a new car and calls it an investment.

When you invest in something, like the stock market, you expect it will be worth more in the future. That’s an investment. A car is not an investment because, unless it becomes a collector’s item, it will never be worth more than when you purchased it. Just because it retains some of its value doesn’t mean it’s an investment.

 

 

Buying brand new vs. new to you

According to Carfax.com, as soon as you drive your new car off the lot it depreciates by 10%. By the end of the first year, it drops by 20% and after five years, 60%.

Such massive losses in value over a short period of time makes buying “brand new” a less than ideal financial move. It’s also what makes buying a slightly used car, say 2-3 years old with low miles, such a good deal. You get a quality car, in great condition, for a fraction of the cost.

The primary objection I hear for not buying used centers around higher repair costs. But if you buy slightly used with low miles, this concern is more imaginary than real. Today’s cars are built better than ever before and require less maintenance to boot.

Now, there are a lot of personal reasons for buying a brand new car and they matter. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking “having more money” or “it’s a good investment” is one of them.

The bottom line: it costs you more to buy brand new. Which is perfectly fine if you can afford it.

If you can’t, the same lack of financial flexibility issues you run into with buying too much home apply to buying too much car. What good is it to have a shiny, new ride but you can’t afford to drive it anywhere?

Going to college

If you’re reading this, chances are it’s already too late for you, personally. You’re out of college and there’s no way to turn back the clock and unwind things. Hopefully, you’re not behind the eight-ball with student loans.

But, it’s not too late for your children. Or your grandchildren, nieces, or nephews.

I know there’s a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about student loan forgiveness and the like. Who knows where that will go, but it doesn’t change anything for those who don’t already have student loans on the books.

If we don’t make different choices for our children and grandchildren, we’re going to have the same problems we face today. And the real problem is far too many people are buying too much college.

 

 

Future student loan crises can be avoided if we did one simple thing: bought as much college as we could reasonably afford. Granted, determining what you can “afford” is a bit trickier than with a house or car, but the governing principles still apply.

Which begs the question, why do so many buy more college than they should?

To answer this question fully is beyond the scope of this blog, but it revolves around three themes:

  • Equating a high priced education with a quality education (quality being defined as the ability to get a job once graduated)
  • Forgetting the primary purpose of going to college (to be a higher quality job candidate, not to “find yourself”)
  • Poor financial planning (failing to put pen to paper on the real financial impact once payments begin)

The problem with buying too much college is the same as with buying too much home or car. You have a high, fixed payment over an extended payback timeframe which severely limits your spending options.

The big three

 

I often hear people say they can’t save for retirement, travel more, or reduce the number of hours they work.

And they’re right.

They can’t because they’ve failed to understand the debilitating impact of buying too much house, car, or college.

In the moment, they all thought they could make their payments and still enjoy a comfortable life. They were half right. They’re able to make the payments, but it’s severely dampened their ability to have a comfortable life.

“Save for retirement, take a two-week vacation, work less? How can I do those things and still pay my debts?” With a big mortgage, new car payment, and high student loan debt, “How?” indeed.

This is the real impact of not getting the Big 3 right. Years and years of grinding away and feeling like you have no way out. It’s a real problem. A problem best avoided than taken head-on.

 

 

If there’s ever been a year to take advantage of online shopping, 2020 has been that year!

Whether you’ve been on lockdown status due to Covid-19 or you just want to avoid going to the mall, online shopping offers a quick, easy, and safe alternative.

Another great feature of online shopping…the savings. Using a combination of money-saving tools and savvy saving techniques, you can score some amazing deals online. And of course, the best part, you can shop in your jammies from the comfort of your home.

Here are three simple ways you can save big when shopping online.

 

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links at no additional cost to you. We understand being a trusted resource means being able to stand behind the products and services we affiliate with. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced in order to help you make the best choice for you. All opinions expressed here are our own.

1. Install a browser extension

A browser extension is a piece of software that is used to modify or add a service to your browser. The browser extensions on this list are all used to help you find the best deals online.

All you have to do is sign up for an account, install the extension, and start saving. Some of the top browser extensions include:

Ibotta

Ibotta is a free browser extension and app that allows you to earn cash back on your everyday purchases when you shop and pay through Ibotta online. Ibotta allows you to earn cash back on everything from groceries to pet supplies, pharmacy purchases, clothing, and more.

Rakuten

Rakuten, formerly known as Ebates, is a shopping rewards company that offers cash back, deals, and rewards on a huge selection of products and services worldwide. Once you’ve installed the Rakuten extension, cash back is added to your account as soon as you make an online purchase.

Honey

Honey works by searching the web for the best coupon codes available across over 30,000 popular sites and then it automatically applies the coupon to your purchase.

Once you’ve installed the extension all you have to do is shop! If a deal is available a pop-up will appear on your screen with the deal. If you’ve already found the best deal online, Honey will also let you know that so you don’t feel like you’re missing out!

Honey also offers an option called Honey Gold which allows you to earn rewards even if there isn’t a specific deal available. Honey Gold is available when you shop at over 5,000 participating stores. You earn Gold that you can then use to redeem gift cards for some of your favorite stores.

Camel camel camel

It’s a strange name but a useful savings tool!

Camel camel camel is a tool for tracking item prices on Amazon. Camel camel camel was founded in 2008 and since this time online shoppers have been using it for price drop alerts as well as for searching price history charts for products sold on Amazon.

All you have to do is log on to the camel camel camel website to sign up for a free account. Once you have an account there’s a number of benefits you can access like their wishlist importer which allows you to track all of the products you have listed in your Amazon wishlist automatically. It also allows you to manage all of your watched Amazon products in one place.

 

2. Buy used

If you can’t afford, or you simply can’t justify, spending a small fortune on a beautiful pair of jeans or handbag, buying used can be a great way to get what you want for a fraction of the price.

In addition to saving money, there are many environmental benefits associated with buying used. No additional energy or resources are needed to create a used product and they don’t come with a ton of unnecessary packaging, unlike their new counterparts. Buying used also prevents products from ending up in a landfill.

Thanks to some great online resources, it’s easy to shop for all sorts of gently used items.

eBay

eBay is an e-commerce giant. If you haven’t heard of it by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been for the past two decades!

Whether it’s fashion, electronics, art, or sporting goods you seek, you can find it on eBay. All you have to do is browse the site, or search for your item of interest, and when you find it you can you can look up the time details. If you’re interested in purchasing the item, you make a bid and cross your fingers that you will win the auction.

ThreadUp

ThreadUp is the largest online consignment and thrift shop. So, it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing when it comes to used goods. Unlike eBay, which sells virtually everything, ThreadUp specializes in the buying and selling of gently used clothing.

You can search and shop by choosing a department (kids, women, maternity, or plus), by brand, or you can use the Goody Box feature to shop by theme (work from home, colour coordinated). ThreadUp makes it easy to shop for beautiful, reasonably priced clothes.

Poshmark

Poshmark is another online marketplace that sells new and used clothing as well as shoes and accessories for up to 70% off. They sell items for men, women, and kids and list their products based on brand and popular collections.

Simply browse the site and when you’re ready to make a purchase, you can also get recommendations from millions of stylists who are part of the Poshmark virtual community.

Discover Books

If it’s used books that you’re after, you can check out Discover Books online. Discover books was founded with the goal of sustainability and literacy. Keeping books out of landfills and encouraging literacy around the world.

You can easily search for books by category (kids, non-fiction, sports), popularity, or by author or title. While their prices are already low they also offer a number of additional ways to save including buying in bundles, joining their online rewards program, or subscribing for additional coupon offers. In addition, they offer free shipping on all orders to the contiguous 48 states.

 

3. Sell your unused gift cards

In 2020, over $3 billion in gift cards will go unused. This is a staggering amount of money. If you’ve received gift cards that you won’t use, don’t just forgo the money. There are some great sites you can use to trade or sell your unused gift cards.

Cardcash

With Cardcash.com you can purchase gift cards to your favorite store, restaurant, or online retailer at a discounted price. You can also sell your unused gift cards to Cardcash.com. While you will have to sell them at a discounted rate, at least you can get some money back instead of sitting on a bunch of unused cards.

Raise

Raise is similar to Cardcash.com in that you can save money by purchasing gift cards to a variety of stores at a discounted rate. Whether it’s a gift card for you or a present for someone else, there is no longer a reason to pay full price for a gift card.

If you are looking for a way to put cash back in your pocket, you can sell your unused gift cards and store credits to Raise. The best part, you set the price! And, it’s easy to get paid. When you make a sale Raise will deposit the funds through Direct Deposit, Paypal, or check.

 

How do you save online?

With these easy ways to save online, there’s no reason to be paying full price for your purchases.

We want to hear from you. Do you have any strategies that you use to save money online? Do you have a “go to” for saving money while letting your fingers do the shopping?

 

 

These are interesting times we live in.

One day we’ll be able to tell our grandkids about the “Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020” and the life lessons learned from having lived through it.

We realize there are a lot of people who are hurting.  Physically, emotionally, psychologically, and financially.  There are few places unaffected by these trying times. It’s a lot to take in.

While bad news abounds from every corner, it’s not all bad news.  Even in the worst of times, opportunities present themselves if we look for them.  This time is no different.

Here are 4 steps you can take today to strengthen your financial position and build towards a better tomorrow.

 

Refinance Your Student Loans

 

woman thinking about student debt

 

Interest rates are at all-time lows, which represents an opportunity for those with student loans.  This is true if you have loans for yourself or if you are a parent and have PLUS loans.

I’ve seen variable rates under 3% and fixed rates as low as 3.45%.

And, unlike refinancing a mortgage, there is far less red tape to work through.

Further, if you’ve looked at refinancing in the past and have been disappointed, I have good news.  There are a plethora of new players in the student loan space who have made the refinancing experience far more consumer-friendly.  A few to consider are:

** Note: The new CARES Act includes several provisions that apply to certain federal student loan borrowers. Before moving forward with refinancing your federal loans, determine how refinancing would affect these benefits.**

Additionally, if you’re having difficulty making your student loan payment, DO NOT avoid the problem.  Call your lender immediately and let them know of your hardship. They will work with you to find the best possible way to address your issue.

The worst thing to do is to do nothing and hope the problem will go away.  It won’t.

 

Refinance Your Mortgage and Home Equity Line of Credit

 

 

Just as with student loans, mortgage interest rates are at historically low levels.  Consider refinancing your first mortgage or even consolidating your home equity line of credit and having one mortgage payment.

The general rule of thumb is if the new rate is at least 1% less than your current rate, consider refinancing.

With that said, this is just a rule of thumb.  If you’re not sure, run the numbers. There’s no harm in doing so, and you could actually save some money.

Further, the 1% rule only applies if you’re doing a straight refinance.  Meaning, if you’re looking to consolidate other debt into the mortgage, you can throw the 1% rule out the window.  The rate differential could be a lot less than 1% and still make sense. Again, run the numbers.

Your mortgage is often your largest expense.  It’s worth it to inspect your mortgage further to ensure you’re not paying more than you have to.

 

Reflect on Your Financial Goals and Engage in Values-Based Spending

 

 

Many of us have a lot more time on our hands due to the US going into lockdown mode.  Why not take advantage of this time to reflect on your financial goals and put a plan in place to achieve them?

True fact: people spend more time planning their annual family vacation than planning for retirement.

Another true fact: having written goals, you regularly review, dramatically increases your chances of success.

Use this pause in the action to spend time on yourself.  Write down your top three financial goals and don’t be afraid to dream a little.

You can further increase your chances of success by following the SMART methodology for goal setting:

      • Specific
      • Measurable
      • Achievable
      • Realistic
      • Timely

Here’s an example:

Goal: Provide 100% of in-state school tuition and room and board at a four-year institution.  The cost is $25,000 per year in today’s dollars. The money should be available by July 1, 2030, which is the summer before college.

This goal hits all of the SMART criteria. It is specific ($25k per year for four years). Is measurable. We will assume the goal is achievable. It is certainly relevant. And it’s time-bound (by July 1, 2030).

Once you have a clear goal, you can find the right resources or professionals to help design a plan for reaching the goal. And you can confirm any assumptions (i.e., it’s achievable).

Imagine how your life might change if you identified your 3 most important financial goals, put them front and center, and developed a plan for reaching them.

 

Review Your Credit Card and Bank Statements for Spending 

 

 

 

Another good use of time is to inspect where your hard-earned dollars are going.  People are often shocked at where they’re spending their money.

“$110 this month for coffee?  $83 at the local gas station that wasn’t for gas?  There’s no way we spent that much on dining out.” And the drum beats on…

Chances are you are spending in ways that aren’t always consistent with your values or what you’d deem as “worth it.”  There’s no reason to guess when you can review your numbers and know for sure.

It’s a simple process.  Grab your most recent bank and credit card statements and review them line by line.  If you look closely enough, patterns will emerge. Sometimes it’s spending at a single location. You may find you have a Target or Amazon addiction. Or, you could be frequenting the same type of stores, such as fast-food restaurants, far more than you realized.

If you pull statements for several months, you may notice you’re consistently making several larger purchases each month or every few months.

Add it all together, and you can see why it feels like you never have enough money.

 

Crisis Creates Movement

Change is hard.  It often takes a crisis to get people to change their behaviors even when they know those behaviors are bad for them.

I’m not a fan of the dogma “never let a crisis go to waste,” but if we can walk away from the current crisis with one or two steps that can positively affect our lives, then at least some good will have come from this.  As they say, when life gives you lemons …

 

Last week, I wrote about the importance of talking to our kids about money and making it a normal part of our everyday lives.  Today I want to share a story that captures some of the power and nuance money can bring to your family if deployed properly.

I am the father of five daughters between the ages of 14 and 21.  Three are in high school and two are in college. My wife doesn’t work outside the home and I have been a financial professional for the last 20+ years.  Needless to say, I’ve had my hands full juggling a career and a house full of lovely women.

Like most people, I was making less money in my early working years and, with five kids 6-years-old and under, I had to get clear with my money.  In fact, clarity often finds you. Buy a big house? Nope. Buy a fancy new car? Not a chance. Bespoke suits? I didn’t even know what bespoke meant.  So, when I say “clarity finds you,” it does. Because so many decisions are already made for you, it’s “clear” as to what you can or cannot do.

As the kids got older and we started to make more money, the waters got a little cloudier.  It wasn’t obvious we couldn’t afford a bigger house, a fancy car, or take beachfront vacations.  We couldn’t do all of these things but, perhaps, some. This lead to some in-depth discussions about what my wife and I valued and what kind of environment we wanted our girls to grow up in.

Digging deep into your soul to find what is truly important to you isn’t an easy thing.  Living in accordance with those values is even harder. And at the heart of all this is … money.

Really?  Money? Sounds a bit superficial.

Yes, money and it’s far from superficial.  Here’s why:

How we spend our money is a manifestation of what we value.  

If we value taking care of others, we will be generous with our money and provide for them.  If we value personal development, we will invest in ourselves. If we value living for today, we will spend on the things that make us happy right now and let tomorrow fend for itself.

For my wife and I, this was a turning point in our lives.  We had real choices to make.

 

 

How were we going to deploy one of our most valuable and limited resources – our money – to make a better life for us and our girls?  What values were we teaching our girls by how we talked about money, how we spent money, how we let money affect our lives? When they looked at us, what did they see?  Spending behaviors that were in alignment with our values? Or, something less?

After many, many discussions we came up with a few guiding principles for us and our girls to follow.  Not “rules” because life is too uncertain and the waters too murky to live in a black and white rules-based world.  Guidelines provide the right balance between guidance and flexibility.

Here are our guiding principles:

    • People before money
    • Experiences versus things*
    • Quality versus quantity
    • Spend unabashedly on the things you love, spend nothing on things you don’t
    • Protect things that are too important to lose
    • Prevention is the best medicine
    • You can always get more money
    • Time is more valuable than money
    • No birthday gifts
    • Just say no to the latest and greatest trends
    • Work hard enough in my job to pay others to do the work
    • Invest in yourself

There’s a lot to unpack here and I can’t go through all of them so I’ve picked one to dig deeper on.

 

Experiences Versus Things

A new family tradition began when my oldest daughter graduated from high school in 2017.  Upon graduation, each girl gets to go on a trip with just her and dear old dad to a location of her choosing (within reason, of course).

Yep, just the two of us off gallivanting together and getting into adventures and stuff.

The experiences are designed to serve as a right of passage of sorts for my girls and a special way for me to connect with them in a unique and meaningful way.

In 2017, Maddy and I went to Iceland.  Last August, Mia and I went on a jaunt through Switzerland and Northern Italy.

 

 

 

Both trips were beyond amazing and I couldn’t be happier with the memories we created and will share for the rest of our lives.

Which all sounds great. But, these experiences come with a cost.

In my case, it cost me a new car.

 

A Decision Years in the Making

As a subset of the “experience versus things mindset,” we decided fairly early on that we wouldn’t let big-ticket items control our lives.  These are things like homes, cars, boats, college, or weddings.

Big-ticket items like homes and cars can be particularly damaging to your lifestyle choices as they are extremely difficult to unwind them once you’re under their thumb.  Their impact is so great because you make a decision one time and have to live with the consequences years or even decades later.

 

Don’t overspend on big-ticket items such as a home or cars

Currently, I drive a 2007 Jeep Commander with 191,000 miles on it.  I bought it used (approx 24k miles) and haven’t had a car payment for many years.  My plan is to hold on to until it hits 200,000 miles, or it craps out, and re-evaluate from there.

The average new car payment is $530/month and the average used car payment is $381/month. If you average the two, it equates to $450/month or $5,400 a year. If you have $5,400 per year wrapped up in a car payment, that means you can’t spend that money on other things in your life.

For me, not having a car payment means I have an extra $5,400 per year I can put toward things I truly value – like a father-daughter trip to Iceland or Switzerland.

This is what I meant when I said these experiences come with a “cost.”  In my case, they cost me a new car.

For someone else, it may cost them season tickets to their favorite sports team.  Or, it may mean delaying retirement for a year.  Or, not taking a big family vacation and doing a less expensive staycation.

The point is ONE significant financial decision can directly affect many other decisions in your life. If you decide to take on a new car payment or buy a more expensive home, you are concurrently deciding to limit your ability to spend on other things.

The two things to take away from this piece are:

  • Be clear about who you are and what you value and spend your money in accordance with those values
  • Be extra careful when spending on big-ticket items particularly so if you are financing them. You don’t want one decision to control how you live your life years or even decades into the future.

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