Tag Archives: wealth

My downsized goals: chasing the miniature American Dream

The baby (singular or plural) may – or may not – happen. But, I’m turning 34 NEXT FUCKING WEEK and I feel like I need to have some new goals in my life. Some new goals that involve not living like a just-graduated-from-college person for the rest of my life.

I was absolutely fine living my 20s in shared living situations to save money, and my early 30s were completely acceptable sharing a 1 bedroom apartment with my husband. But – as I’ve taken home $160k+ per year, minus taxes, for the last 3 years – I wonder what on earth am I doing this for if I can’t have some semblance of the adult life I want.

All the east coast dreams of the grande house with the huge backyard are gone. I’ve downsized my objectives – but I still have them. I’d like to own a house on not-the-crappiest street. I’d like to be able to take time off in the future (in health or in sickness) and not worrying about running out of money. I’ve made progress, but I still have a long way to go.

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The plan (with flat stocks):

2017 – close the year with ~$525k networth
2018 – savings = $45k investments + $30k after-tax bonus = $600k
2019 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $685k
2020 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $770k
2021 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $885k

OR

The plan (with ~5% growth):

2017 – close the year with ~$525k networth
2018 – savings = $45k investments + $30k after-tax bonus = $625k
2019 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $740k
2020 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $862k
2021 – savings = $45k investments + $40k after-tax bonus = $990k

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This all assumes I can perform well in my current job for the next four years, age 34-38, and not take significant time off, all while (hopefully) having two children.

My goal has always been to have $500k in the bank before having children. I have obtained that goal. My next goal is to have $1M in the bank before 40. Ideally well before 40. I’d like $1M in the back as my emergency fund and retirement fund and the fund which I do not touch. Over this same time, my husband will be doing what he does and not investing his money because he’s very risk averse. This is fine, because he will be saving up for the down payment on our (not in this part of the country) house.

Assuming I have one child in 2018/19 (age 34-35); and one in 2020/21 (36-37); by the time I have achieved this plan, I have one child who is ~3 and one who is ~1. This will enable us to, before we have to think about putting the kids into school, move to a part of the country where housing is more affordable. My husband can continue his career as a teacher in a region it is more cost effective, and I can perhaps pursue an entirely new career – or take time to spend at home with the kids.

I realize $1M is NOT “early retirement.” This is step two in my… however many step, not very well thought out plan…

Step 1: $500k before having children (age 30-35)
Step 2: $1M before 40 / + $200k cash downpayment (husband)
Step 3: $2M before 50 / + home 33% paid off (or more)
Step 4: $3M before 60 / + home 66% paid off
Step 5: $4M before 70 / + home 100% paid off / retirement

I’m not sure if any of that makes sense. So far steps 1 was achieved (woohoo) and step 2 seems like it might be achievable, if I can hold on to this job for the full four years. I am going to hold on to it with all my might. The having kids things definitely may throw a wrench in this plan regardless, but I’m hopeful I can take minimal time off for my kids when they’re really young (and/or work remote and still do my job, which might be possible)… then, after four years, we leave. We have to leave. We will never be able to afford a house here. I don’t know why that’s so important to me – I realize homeownership is a horrible financial decision – but it is. I can’t shake it. I want to design my own bathroom and kitchen… I’d like a backyard I can sit in and enjoy the sun without feeling the prying eyes of others all over me. I want a place for my children to grow up and a home to know.

So, that’s the plan. It suddenly seems all so very short term. I feel quite old. 34 is no joke. 34 is just a few years away from 40. And 40 is no longer fake adulthood. It’s serious, full-on, you’re an adult – and you’re only going to get MORE adult until you’re PAST that… and, I’m trying not to freak out about that, because I know life is so very short, and I need to just enjoy the moments and try to achieve some semblance of both freedom and control before I’m too old to enjoy it.

 

What amount of money makes you feel free?

Wealth does not = happiness, but at some point one obtains enough money that unless it’s frivolously spent, there are many doors open for the remainder of her life. Perhaps she loves her current career and decides too stay in it today and long past retirement. Or, she is set free of the confines of taking jobs that pay well and instead tries sometimes entirely new, without concern that the investment in education may not “pay off.” Or, she decides to create art or travel the world or just sit and study the sunset over the same ocean every day while doing half-assed yoga on a beach.

In reality, my goal in life is to generate enough wealth to feel this sense of freedom. Yes, that likely means I would be in the 1%, and it is not necessary to be happy at all. Most people will never achieve anywhere close to this. I don’t know what the number is, exactly, but it’s certainly more than I’ll ever be able to obtain, especially given my proclivity for purchasing too many shoes. Yet, it’s what keeps me going – that hope that one day I’ll not only be able to afford a house, but also to decorate it, and to invite friends over for reasonably-lavish dinner parties featuring fine wines and whiskies that my husband and I have prepared in our gourmet kitchen.

When I look at my net worth, now a touch over $500k, I feel both thrilled and disheartened. I realize that most people in the US retire with a networth much lower than that – that most people in the world would be ecstatic to have this amount in savings and stocks. But, then I also spend too much time exploring housing options on Zillow.com and see that 2 bedroom, 1 bath houses in the area are now selling for $1.3M or more, and my dream of purchasing a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home with a private backyard goes poof in the night. I look around at my decent 1 bedroom apartment with its sterile white walls — my bicycle parked so elegantly in the living room filled with a Craiglisted, 10-year-old couch, broken IKEA coffee table, and two Target bookshelves that are about to crumble, and I know even at this stage of my mid-30s life I can do better.

I wish I was at a point where spending $100k on IVF wouldn’t put a dent in my savings, or that I felt I could have children and provide for them a life that is comparable to my own middle class upbringing in the suburbs of an east coast city, where housing is much more affordable. I keep wondering what that number is… even as I obtain jobs which provide greater potential for income growth, there is a giant gap between my life today and this concept of wealth I have in my head, that I haven’t fully quantified yet.

Wealth.

What is it?

  • $2M per adult in retirement (so, $4M for a married couple)
  • Ownership of 4br, 3ba home outright (additional $2M – or $1.5M for 3br)
  • 50 years of $50k / year for house fixing as needed, taxes, other fees ($2.5M)
  • 50 years of $100k /  year for eating/travel/shopping ($5M)
  • College tuition for 2-3 kids ($500k)

This is, of course, well exaggerating what is needed for financial freedom, but to put a number on the amount I’d want in the bank account to feel financially free (for family), that would be….

$14,000,000

Now, even if I get more realistic here and half that…

  • $1.5M per adult in retirement ($3M)
  • $1.5M house (can’t reduce this / basic house cost here)
  • 50 years of $20k / year for house fixes (~$1M)
  • $50k / year of food and fun ($2.5M)
  • College Tuition (assuming some scholarships) – $200k

$7,000,000 is the minimum amount of wealth for financial freedom if we continue to live in this area.

Is $7M obtainable?

Maybe. But only via compound interest, and with that one wouldn’t know if she met her goals until she was in her 80s… plenty time past when purchasing a home would make sense. So she must have blind faith in the stock market OR figure out a way to expedite the growth of her portfolio. In short, how fast can I get to $7M from $500k?

My goal at this point is to have $1M by the time I turn 40. That will only be obtainable if I maintain my current job for the next four years, perform extremely well (no pressure), and we keep our cost of living low for this time.

Contributing $50k per year for the next 6 years, if my portfolio grows at an average of 5% per year, I will have a net worth of $1M by 40. This requires maintaining my job and living in a 1 bedroom apartment for the next six years, living rather frugally, all during the time in my life when – if I’m going to have kids – I will be having children (hopefully, two, within the next six years.)

If I don’t end up having children, the numbers change significantly – but I definitely want kids and I definitely want to pay for infertility treatments as needed to have them. Which, ultimately means that I won’t likely get to $1M by 40. But I’ll be close, as long as I keep this job for 6 years (or keep this job for 4 and obtain a similar one with equal or greater salary for the remaining 2).

At that point, if I have $1M by 40, I will have 20-ish more years of prime earning, if I work full time for those 20 years. BUT I am convinced that I want to go back to school at 40 to change careers to a lower-paid job such as counseling, not to maintain my position in a role that I’m fighting day and night to pretend to be good at. So, the $1M mark is my first taste of freedom…

This is truly a recognizable moment of freedom because if I invest $1M for 20 years at 5% rate of return, I will have $2.6M by 60, and $3.38M by 65. My husband doesn’t need as much as I do in retirement, so The $3.38M by 65 is basically my half of the $7M goal. What I would be focused on then, at 40, after the $1M is hit, is obtaining a position that I can maintain for 25 years that I enjoy which enables paying annual costs, so we don’t touch the $1M in the bank.

I’d like to own a 3br, 2ba home by the time my first child is 4. At this point, I should know if I’m having 2 children or just one (or none at all.) So – some of my net worth will have to be put into the down payment of a house. I go back and forth on buying a house but I think at this point I’m diversified enough in stocks that I can afford to own real estate, even if its growth does not keep up with the stock market (and I have the liquidity in stocks to pay for mortgage should we have any bad years in the job market.) So, I’d need $300,000 for a downpayment on a $1.5M starter home, in ~5 years.

But – I need to invest for the next 5 years to hit the $1M goal… and then in 5 years, at age 39, I’d have to take $300M out of my stocks (well $366M with 20% tax) for the downpayment. My husband may be able to contribute to this a bit – probably $100k of it in 5 years, but for simplicity (and explaining to husband) we both need to provide $150k in 5 years for our down payment.  That’s a more reasonable $180k stock sale in 5 years, leaving $748k to grow in stocks…

Annually, for the $1.5M house, costs would be…

  • $90k mortgage (approx)
  • $20k taxes (approx)
  • $1k insurance
  • $15k maintenance
  • = $126k / year ($63k per person per year for 30 years …
    $5.25k / month or $10.5k per month for 30 years)
  • Which means, for our $1.5M house, all in 30 years later, it will cost $4.08M. (Is my math right?)

Ok, so, if the numbers above are right, we cannot afford a $1.5M house in 5 years. Which, basically means we cannot afford a house, unless we can put down a much larger down payment.

In 5 years, unless there’s a housing bubble burst, I doubt there will be any real estate around here that’s less than $1.5M. My take home income is $7,000 per month and my husband’s will be about $3,000…. so, even if I keep my job and he keeps his, we can’t pay $10.5k/month when we’re only taking home $10k per month.

Really, the only potential route to wealth for us is to rent. So, maybe I’ll never own a house. Even if that’s one of our financial goals. But, it’s just so much cheaper to rent an apartment than to own a house.

Maybe, one day when we can afford to put down a 50% down payment buying a house will be worth it. But by then, a basic home will cost $2M… so… I don’t think we’ll ever have enough money to own a home.

This is why I feel so hopeless… even if we have so much more than so many people right now… I just don’t know how to have the life I want, or anything close to it. I don’t need a home today, but I want to feel like I’m making progress towards not living in a 1 bedroom apartment (and a condo won’t help much, if we were to buy one since it’s slightly more affordable, because we’d still have shared walls and annoying neighbors… might as well just rent!)

I am hoping my math is wrong…

 

 

Waking Up from The American Dream

Today, we received notice for our annual lease renewal. Our rent will be increasing $170 a month to a total steal of $2465 for a one bedroom apartment, not including any utilities. If we lived in the city the same apartment would be at least $1000 more. That’s life in the most expensive area in the country — no matter how much you make, you’re still not making enough to afford the life you thought you’d have at this point. You just have to wake up from the American Dream and realize it’s just that – a dream.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be one of the few who is making a high salary — more than I could ever had imagined making and more than I believe I deserve. At the same time, I acknowledge that in order to afford a house here you pretty much need to be taking home $400k (as a couple) which isn’t in the cards for our future, despite my relatively very high income – even if I manage to find success and stability in my job. I realize that many others will never even make as much as I do, and I feel I make too much, but it’s a loop of relativity when I try to comprehend how much I’d really need to make in order to purchase a 3 bedroom house with a tiny backyard.

Do I need a 3 bedroom house with a tiny backyard? Even if I don’t, soon our rent, for a one bedroom apartment, will creep up to $3000 a month, even in the suburbs. We won’t exactly be priced out but we’ll be able to save less and less each year. At some point, I think we’ll have to accept that it’s time to leave. And with a total income of about $250k, we’re doing much better off than a lot of people who live here. It’s just not enough and it will only get worse as we attempt to start our lives together.

If kids end up not in the cards, maybe it’s doable. We can stay in a one bedroom apartment, no need to pay for extra space when it’s just us. We can live in a one bedroom for the rest of our lives. This isn’t at all the life I had imagined, but we can survive easily without that much space. If we do have children that changes the story quite a bit. I don’t see how we can have children and remain here, especially if I need to take time off for any reason. The pressure of being the breadwinner, especially suffering from severe anxiety, is too much. If I am responsible for me, myself and I — that’s no big deal, I can roll with the punches, live cheaply when needed, and just weather any storm that comes my way. With children, we need a much bigger security net. We’ll have to move. We will have no choice.

I write this at a time when many entry-level workers here are seriously struggling, unable to feed themselves or pay rent on minimum wage. I feel embarrassed to look at my quite high income and still feel so hopeless, because if I feel hopeless, how on earth is the rest of everyone supposed to feel?

I’ve come to accept that if I’m going to have children we can’t stay here. I don’t have a solution yet or an answer to “where to do we go,” but sooner than later we have to get out. I’ll very much miss the beautiful scenery and sunshine. I’ll look back on my 20s and be glad I had the opportunity to live in such a glorious part of the world. But it’s time to grow up and move out. Or, at least it will be soon.

People say to not worry about the future and to just live in the moment. I find it very hard to do that. We now face the choice of staying in our current apartment and paying an extra $2000 to do so next year (and continuing my 3 hour a day commute) or finding a place closer to work that will either be more expensive or less livable or both. We’ll probably just stay here for another year – neither of us wants to deal with moving, and $2000 doesn’t seem like that much compared with the inconvenience of finding a new apartment and lugging our stuff to it… moving isn’t free either. So we’ll probably give it on more year here and hopefully by the end of the next lease I’ll be pregnant and we can then figure out where on earth we’re going to live in the future (aka not California.)

I had hoped that I’d be at a point in my career where I’d feel so distraught over losing my job / career in order to have a family… but while I appreciate my job for what it is now, and really admire my colleagues and am so grateful for this opportunity… I have no personal investment in this career. I feel no sense of pride in my progress or role. In five years, to continue on this path, I end up in a leadership role were I will never fit. I acknowledge it’s soon time to leave. Right now, the best I can do is hold on for dear life, do the best I can, and try to save money by living relatively frugally and bringing in a good income where most of it goes straight into the stock market / my savings accounts. This may be my last significant savings opportunity in my life, given I plan to move to an area with a lower cost of living and obtain a job which pays significantly less in my next career move. My goal is still to get to $500k in savings before I make this move, and the goal is becoming much more dire given that I’m rounding the corner of my mid 30s and I know I can’t handle this life for much longer. If I can just hold out until $500k — I can completely shift my lifestyle to one of lower income and greater flexibility in another part of the country. We can live off of, say, $100k total across both of our incomes and still live a decent life. If we make more than that, great, but we don’t have to (or, in the case of staying here, I’d likely have to earn over $300k in order for us to hit the $400k mark and afford a small home.)

What was once kind of this running silent joke in my head about how one day I couldn’t afford to live here and that I’d move away is proving true. I guess what has changed is that I’m more ok with that than I was before. I used to think that I didn’t want to trade my career for a simpler life. I didn’t want to be one of those women who had kids and no longer had her own identity, especially a professional identity. But now, I don’t know, my professional identity is not who I am. Despite not making it to Hollywood or Broadway I’m an actress nonetheless, everyday portraying someone who I’ll never be. I’m over this obsession with what I thought was success. I have nothing to prove, no one to impress, no game to win. I have maybe 60 good years left on this earth if I’m lucky, and many fewer with all of my loved ones in good health. I hope to make the most of them, and it doesn’t matter if that occurs within a tiny apartment or a giant house. It feels good to finally accept that… to embrace the loss of this embedded classism my parents have taught me, to stop feeling like if I can’t maintain the level of comfort and luxury from my childhood that I am a failure. The only true way to fail is to lock myself into a life where I no longer have any reasonable options for escape.

Is Income Inequality Necessary?

As we get into the thick of election season, it becomes apparent we have two Americas — the Trump ‘merica, and the Sanders America. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. Trump’s success stems from his “I don’t give a shit” mentality, offering solace to those angry over years of political correctness getting them nowhere – he wants to “make America great again.” Sanders offers a voice to those who see corruption – legal or not – causing greater inequality and the downfall of our country.

Who’s right?

I’m bi-economical. I’m a socialist and a capitalist – but neither at the same time. Socialism sounds great, until you realize how that limits the opportunity to work hard and get ahead. Capitalism, however, requires inequality. It provides the opportunity to get rich, but that opportunity is light years away for those who didn’t inherit wealth, or work hard and due to a mix of luck and tenacity and good timing make enough money to catapult them into the upper echelons of society. Old money versus new money.

There is no right, persay, but we can look at which countries are happier than others, and how that relates to inequality across their residents. In this Gallup Poll and the World Top Incomes Database, the point is made that in countries with the biggest income gaps between rich and poor, the middle class find themselves unable to afford some simple luxuries like private schools and a house in a good neighborhood.

 

Obama decried income inequality this week in his final State of the Union address. The standard Democrat message — support a thriving middle class  — was front-and-center in the speech.

“Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top,” he said. These trends have “made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start on their careers, and tougher for workers to retire when they want to.”

Many blame Silicon Valley as a leading source of furthering income inequality. A 330-page report by the World Bank released on January 14 notes that “the economics of the internet favor natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms. Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits – circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.”

I know that income inequality is at play in America because I’m in the top 5th of income earners and am in the fourth quintile (of five) of all U.S. households in terms of my networth, and still I am unable to afford a home in a good neighborhood or to send my “future” children to private school, should I want to. If I feel this way, I can only imagine how the rest of America feels, outside of the .01%.

Paul Graham, a prominent super-rich Venture Capitalist went on recently about how we need income inequality. “You can’t prevent great variations in wealth without preventing people from getting rich,” he wrote in an essay that went viral online last week, “and you can’t do that without preventing them from starting startups.”

Starting in the 1980s, a gap has been widening between what the best-paid Americans earn and what everyone else in the country earns. Economists Barry Z. Cynamon and Steven M. Fazzari shared in a new paper that “Rising income inequality is now a significant barrier to economic growth and full employment.”

I’m worried. I’m worried about the future of America. History has proven that income inequality, when let go for a long time, causes big problems, even civil wars. And in 2016, lower pay for the poor is causing an even wider income gap.

Since the late ‘70s, most of the growth in workers’ earnings has gone to the people who have made the most money. To be precise, the wages of the top 1 percent of workers have grown 138 percent since 1979, while the wages for the bottom 90 percent grew only 15 percent during that period. Yikes. This especially hurts our social security system, which underestimated income inequality, making higher income earners pay a much smaller percentage of their income in social security tax than lower income earners.

This is a huge problem since the number of seniors will double by 2060. If we think income inequality is bad now, it will only continue to get worse.

I find my idealistic side wishing we could get rid of money altogether, but my realistic side worried about creating a decent life for my future family. Where I live, it certainly feels like the only way to do this is to have a household income in the 1% ($400k+) per year, and even that is really just “upper middle class” here. Achieving that is very challenging. It’s much more likely that I’ll be priced out of Silicon Valley as I decide to have a family, and I’ll drop into a lower household income level to be able to afford a middle class lifestyle somewhere else.

 

The Secret to Happiness: Value Time Over Money

Money. We need it to pay for our basis needs and all the other things we want. But can money buy happiness? It can’t, at least according to a recent survey of 4600 participants.

New research that was collected over a year and a half and published by the Society of Personality and Social Psychology suggests valuing your time rather than pursuing money may be linked to greater happiness.

Time is highly valuable, yet hard to put a figure on. Adults who are employed full time work on average 47 hours per week, according to Gallup. That’s an hour and a half more than a decade ago. Americans also tended to take fewer vacation days than their international peers, according to a 2014 Expedia.com survey.

In fact, American’s work more hours than anyone in the industrialized world. And we take less vacation, work longer days and retire later.Like any American child who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I was told that America was the best country in the world. I just accepted that. Sure, Europe had some really exciting history and culture, and other countries had some beautiful untouched landscapes, but America was far and beyond the best place to live. I won the lottery in terms of being born in the land of the free and home of the brave. I lived in the greatest place on earth, likely during the greatest time on earth. How lucky I was!

Many economics and futurists had dreamed up a world when, filled with wealth and technology, we wouldn’t have to work so much. Meanwhile, some studies claim the typical modern workday should start around 7am and end at 7pm — a 12 hour workday.

Of course, these are American companies — Sweden, on the other hand, just introduced the concept of a 6 hour workday.We’ve become such a work-focused culture that we leave little time to actually live our lives. For those earning minimum wage, this isn’t at all a choice. In many parts of the country, it’s necessary to work an 86-Hour work week to afford basic rent for a one-bedroom apartment. And for those earning higher salaries, working less hours means risking those jobs. Workers are expected to be on call at all times, many cases including weekends, holidays and evenings, and have golden handcuffs where they’re worked to poor health in order to maintain their jobs and support their families.

What if we were able to opt for time as part of pay, and this was acceptable. To ask for three months off a year as part of a compensation package, to be spread across the year, to be able to experience life — to take three-week vacations to see the world — to spend time with our families and loved ones before it’s too late. What if we were able to negotiate time just as we negotiate money, and not be seen as lazy or a poor worker. If time has a dollar value, what would that be?

He’ll Teach Himself How to Be Rich…

Ramit Sethi and James Altucher frequently spam me with email content that I actually want to read. Both are brilliant marketers, having built their own brand around taking a strong stance in the world of finance (if you don’t know them — that’s Sethi, with his make more vs save more philosophy, and Altucher with his whole shtick of I’ve been rich and broke and rich and broke and rich again, all while being depressive and charmingly neurotic.)

Both write LONG emails. Both are anti-establishment yet pro money. They clearly each have a lot to say. And, of course, both have written books and maintain a sizable following of their personal brands. If I were a more productive and focused and confident person I could maybe do that as well, but still after all these years I hide behind anonymity because I’ve yet to decide to quit my job for good and become some sort of motivational personality. Cue that annoying cheerleader song.

Every so often one of the emails sent by Ramit or James sparks a little flame in my mind that twirls around until I put it out with a blog post. Today, Ramit’s pitch was on “invest in yourself.” This isn’t anything new from him, but he did detail out how in his childhood he grew up in a lower class family and his parents found $800 to send him to an SAT class because they believed strongly in investing in what matters. He extends that philosophy to now investing $50k in “luxury items” per year (which he can do because I’m sure he’s making well over $1M per year with all his speaking and writing and workshops and such) – but underneath the clever marketing ploy to convince readers to invest in his programs for their personal growth (and fund his next $50k worth of luxury purchases) lies a good point — we have one life, invest in the things that make us better.

This year, I’ve decided to invest in a personal trainer. She comes to my apartment complex three days a week in the morning and calls me up if I’m not out of bed yet. I hate working out and I hate waking up even more, but that $50 a session / $600 a month is completely worth it. Health is everything. As the stock market starts to tank this year (and my portfolio appears to have paper losses of about $25k year-to-date (uhh, that’s just 9 days of $25k “losses”), it’s a good reminder that investing isn’t everything. Or, sometimes investing in yourself is just as valuable as investing in some hot growth stock with a miraculously low P/E despite an overvalued market.

I’m still going to try to sock away at least $30k this year of net new savings, and for all I know this year may end up being a wash. But really, at this point, I’m letting go a bit when it comes to aggressive savings. It’s time to live a little. I’ve got one or two years left before I have kids (hopefully), so it feels like as good a time as any to spend a little more than I normally would on things like health, education, hobbies, travel and other experiences (i.e. upcoming wedding.)

While I may never sign up for one of Ramit’s super expensive classes, I do agree with his general sentiment – invest in yourself first. It’s like oxygen masks on an airplane – make sure you can breathe first before helping others. Soon I hope to do nothing but help others. For now, I’m figuring out how to breathe.

Middle Class? Not So Fast. A Tale of a Downwardly Mobile Society

With election season starting to heat up, so is reporting on the so-called “middle class.” Apparently, 9 in 10 Americans consider themselves “middle class” (I’m no math genius but something tells me medians and averages don’t work that way.) Given most Americans are middle class in their minds, and middle class today isn’t what it used to be, in short, everyone is freaking out.

Ok middle-class math, why does America hate you so much?

“The middle-class label is as much about aspirations among Americans as it is about economics. But a perspective that was once characterized by comfort and optimism has increasingly been overlaid with stress and anxiety.” — Telegram

I see. So most Americans aspire to be middle class, as everyone has been sold this dream of working hard to get the basics in American life — a decent house, backyard, education, healthcare, maybe vacation once a year. No one is expecting to afford regular Gucci on a middle class income. We were just all told work hard and you too can be middle class, and quite frankly upwardly mobile from your parents lifestyles. Yet, even if you’re doing exactly the same thing your parents did, you’re actually worse off today. No wonder we’re all anxious.

“A recent report from economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded that “families that are neither rich nor poor may be under more downward economic and financial pressure than common but simplistic rank-based measures of income or wealth would suggest. The study, conducted by William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth, found that one reason many Americans viewed themselves as struggling was that their real incomes had not advanced significantly beyond their parents’ even when they reached higher educational levels, while those who matched their parents’ achievements were actually worse off.”

The New York Times published an article this week titled “Middle Class, But Feeling Economically Insecure.” That headline, brilliant, sums the middle class anxiety up to a T.

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How to Give Financial Advice to People Who Ask But Won’t Listen

Recently a friend of mine from childhood, who now lives in a different part of the state, was in town on a road trip and stopped to have dinner with me. While we grew up in the same middle class neighborhood, her family was definitely more “middle class” versus mine which was “upper middle class.” So when she asked me for some financial advice due to a potential windfall from a recent family death, I paused before sharing my typical spiel.

Said friend currently owns property with a mortgage (her parents helped her with the downpayment), but otherwise lives paycheck to paycheck. She makes $60k a year and to her that’s a lot (I did not mention that my income is north of $150k right now, but that’s neither here nor there because that’s a short-lived situation anyway.) She mentioned that she was considering investing in Primerica Financial Services, which I hadn’t heard of before, but sounded a bit like a god-awful pyramid scheme. She acknowledged that it sort of a pyramid scheme, but she was interested in it anyway. If you tell me that and ask for financial advice, I’m going to give it to you.

My advice was fairly simple. I asked her if she had any retirement savings and she said yes, she had invested in 401ks at other jobs before, up to the match (great) but then went on to tell me that she had no idea where any of these accounts were. “Is there one 401k account somewhere that I can just call up?” She asked. I tried to explain to her that she should call her old employers, locate where her accounts are, and ideally roll these over into a Vanguard IRA. In the meantime, if she were to get the small windfall, to invest this in a Roth IRA in order to continue saving for retirement. She wanted access to the money sooner than that, so I recommended a taxable Vanguard STAR fund, but to consider putting it into a Roth anyway and forgetting it ever happened.

When she was asking me about stocks, it became apparent that she understood practically nothing about personal finance. It also became apparent to me that I’ve learned quite a bit in the last 10 years of my life since starting this blog – not enough to be a CFP but enough to hold my own in advising on basic money moves. I enjoyed providing advice and helping her, but I have a feeling she isn’t going to take a bit of my advice. Oh well. At least I tried.

What is the American Dream?

The American Dream for my parents was to be able to achieve a lifestyle for their family and children better than the ones they grew up in, in the lower middle class. And they both achieved that dream — with upward mobility and college education they were able to obtain a comfortable upper middle class life with my mother staying at home to take care of the kids – my father worked long hours during the week as a consultant and traveled to maintain that lifestyle but he was still home on the weekends and, given there was no Internet, when he was home he was focused on the family. We ate dinner together. He tried to help me with my homework. Our family had plenty of issues, but on paper, and in front of our suburban house sitting on 3/4 acre, we were the American Dream realized.

On the train earlier today my mind drifted to the concept of the American Dream today. My Dream is to be able to afford a house, have a family, not work 10 hour days, have time to actually enjoy life, but still have a fulfilling career. I’m asking for too much because that’s not a realistic dream. To be successful at my current job I need to work 10+ hour days and often on the weekends, and forget about vacation. I’m not complaining, that’s just the reality of the situation. This sort of lifestyle is challenging but do-able without kids, I just can’t imagine being able to maintain this if I am to have a family in a few years. And then what?

I like working. I know I go crazy trying to be perfect at it and struggle to prioritize tasks and get the meaningful stuff done, but ultimately I’d prefer to work than not to work. And, if I’m going to work a job for income beyond paying the basic bills, I want to work a job that is interesting, challenging, and offers the opportunity to learn on a regular basis. However, that seems to be synonymous with working long hours and getting home after 8pm, passing out an hour or so later, and waking up at the crack of dawn to do it all over again.

First world problems, I know. I should be so thankful that I have such a great job – and I am. I’m not even talking about “today,” more so – where this is getting me to in the next 10… 20 years of my life. From 30 to 50, who will I be? Will the next 20 years blur before my eyes as every second of my life is dedicated to work? That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s just the reality of the American Dream. Work hard and you can have it all, yes, have it all, except the time to enjoy it all. If you’re lucky you’ll have saved up enough to have some sort of reasonable couple of years of retirement before your body gives up on you.

Is the new American Dream five or ten good years of retirement in between working yourself ragged and being stuck in a nursing home? I’m sure that’s not how everyone looks at things. I just think I’ve actually advanced into a role today where I’m now seeing what it’s like to be a senior leader – and all of the responsibility that really goes into that – and the fact that you’re expected to be available 24/7 – and again, I think that’s ok now, but how would I do that when I’m a mother? I’m exhausted now and I have no other responsibilities. So how do people actually do this?

Maybe it’s just the lifestyle of working for a small company that I’d find challenging for the long term… or maybe it’s all executive roles… if you’re not fighting fires to save customers or get our the latest release you’re out mingling and networking. I never thought I’d have that kind of life… then again, I never thought I’d be in any sort of “business” to begin with. Business was for the boring people who followed the rules. But now, I’m just one of those boring people who attempts to follow the rules… and I want to somehow picture what my life will be for the next 20 years and prepare myself for this while focusing on helping my company win today, and doing whatever it takes.

But I’m scared… because I don’t want this to be my entire 30s and 40s. And either I’m going to get really good at it so I’ll never be able to step down from the opportunities on the table / or I’m not, and, well, it’s even scarier to think that I still have to figure out what I am actually good at… and know that it might be too late to pivot so drastically. For now, I’m focused on winning. But I wish I understood what my American Dream is.

How to Get Rich Long

Good luck on getting rich quick. I gave up on that dream long ago. But getting rich (not super duper rich, but relatively compared to the rest of the U.S. population rich) is within reach for everyone. It really comes down to making more than you spend, spending less than you earn, earnings as much as possible when you’re as young as possible and investing that as quickly as possible into index funds.

Yes, it’s that simple.

If I could do it all over again, I’d get a job at the youngest age I legally could and start contributing as much as I could to a ROTH IRA each year. The best time to contribute to a ROTH IRA is when you’re making next to nothing. Why? ROTH IRAs are taxed up front, meaning if you’re making $10k a year you are not paying a whole lot in taxes but you’re still eligible to max out the ROTH IRA. Even the NY Times agrees with me.

Unfortunately, when I was 14 I had no idea what a ROTH IRA was, nor did I understand the magic of compound interest in terms of how it applies to personal finance over the years.

Let’s say a 14 year old contributes the maximum to her ROTH IRA (just $5500 a year) from age 14 through retirement. This smart gal wants to retire at 75. If she begins investing $5500 a year at 14 for 50 years, she will have $1,272,055 in retirement. That’s a lot, and should be enough to inspire kids to start saving young. But that’s with 5% ROI compounding annually. What if the stock market performs even better? Say, over 50 years the stock market is up 10% YoY on average? That same investment will be worth $7,687,296 at retirement.

Forget about inheritances, there is nothing more helpful for your children then to support them in maxing out their Roth IRA from the youngest possible legal age.

While it’s not possible for every family, offering your teenager a match on their earnings as long as they commit to putting what they actually earned into a Roth IRA, up to $5500, is a good way to start. If not possible to do a full match, think about what you can afford to match (50%?) to encourage them to save. Also, create charts which show them how much their dollar today will be worth in 50 years. While teens want to spend now more than later and aren’t thinking about their golden years yet, letting them know that your help could turn them into a millionaire in retirement by saving just $5500 a year will go a long way.

I wish the government would offer this program for youth — you earn $5500 and we’ll match it by putting $5500 into your retirement account. I guess that’s social security, but it’s not a 1 for 1 match. This should be a program for people under the age of 21 to teach them about the value of savings and give everyone a head start for retirement. I don’t know how that would work, but it would certainly help out families that cannot afford to match their children’s contributions.

Even if your kids can put away just $1000 per year in a Vanguard STAR fund, this will go a long way in retirement (though I recommend maxing out the Roth IRA every year from age 14 on.)

So you didn’t start a Roth IRA at 14?

Investing ASAP, whenever that is, will help you get to wealth. For better or worse our economy is set up where riches only come with some risk. If you don’t take risks, you may very well lead a comfortable life, but it’s unlikely you’ll be rich (unless you have a trust fund.)

If you give yourself 40 years until retirement at a 5% YoY return rate, you’ll have $736k when you retire at 65 (and start investing at 25.) A 10% YoY return rate will give you a nice $2.9M in retirement. Given that today people should try to reach $2M before retiring, starting investing at 25 at the latest is an ideal move.

Ultimately, if you wait longer to invest, you have to invest more per year in order to catch up. That can be very hard when you’re not earning a lot in your 20s and then if/when you have kids and find it harder to save in your 30s. Starting early when you are supported by your parents but can still earn and invest the best way to prepare for retirement, so you don’t even have to think about it beyond the $5.5k annual contribution throughout your life. You can also start to max out your 401k if you have access to one ($17.5k) at some point, but there will be less pressure on doing this and you can enjoy your money when you’re still young enough to travel and have a very active life.

Rich, IMO, is not about the $ amount you have in the bank, but about the financial security you have so you feel comfortable spending money NOW to enjoy life. This is not the same as wasting money on frivolous luxury items (though if this makes you happy and you have saved for retirement and your other basic needs, then go for it) but this means being able to afford a house, a car, family vacations, dining out every once in a while, and the lifestyle YOU want. That’s what “rich” is. Working towards reasonably hitting $2M in retirement (which again, is very possible if you start at age 14 – 20), will make you rich.