The most difficult financial challenge for young adults: Buying their first home

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

We can save and invest, eliminate all our debt – especially those nasty and unproductive credit card payments – and engage in activities to increase our income.

But when and how do we go about buying a house?

That’s pretty much what many young adults and families are asking these days. As personal finance education continues to be more and more commonplace, the one major component that is often missing is information about how – and when – to secure that elusive first abode.

Signing a rental agreement is easy.  Loan and escrow documents? Not so much.

I’d love to be able to write in this space that the process for buying a home doesn’t have to be challenging or complicated.  But in fact, it usually is because there are so many variables, from qualifying for a mortgage to saving for a down payment, to covering closing costs, and more.

It can be intimidating.

Still, millions buy their first homes every year, so it is certainly doable.  Here, then, is a summary of steps that can allow you to get from your apartment or parents’ basement to a residence you can legitimately call your own:

1) Commit to the process. You can’t buy a home “half-way,” or realistically just give it a try.  You have to want it, and even more importantly, understand what has to be done and sacrificed to get it.

While there are numerous first-time buyer programs that really do open barriers which otherwise might be nearly impossible to overcome (try being in your 20’s and having to save up 10% or even 20% for a down payment on a $150,000 home), it’s never going to be free to get into a home purchase.  The most common avenue, via the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) first-time buyer program, generally requires a 3% down payment and escrow closing costs.  On the aforementioned $150K house, you’re still looking at about $8,000 out of pocket before you pack a single box.

Hey, Mom and Dad… got a question for ya.  Oh, and have I said ‘I love you’ yet today?  I sure do!

Realistically, even if your parents are willing to help, you’re going to have come up with some scratch.  Let’s say you need $5K on your own.  At $300-400 a month saved, a lot for most people in this category, it will be well more than a year from when you first decide to go for it that you will be able to come up with enough.  Are you TRULY willing to be disciplined and save on that level in order to make this happen?  If not, keep on writin’ those rent checks.

2) Learn and understand what’s involved in owning versus renting, benefits and pitfalls. Sure, when you own you’re buying something that is yours, that typically appreciates in value, and that you can eventually sell.  You can also write off the mortgage interest on your income taxes (unless proposed tax code changes eliminate that – a step that is unlikely except perhaps for the largest jumbo mortgages). Rent money is, by most accounts, squandered money.

On the other hand… and there’s always an other hand… renting doesn’t require you to buy homeowners insurance or pay property taxes, the two of which often cost an additional 15-20% on top of the principal and interest on your mortgage.  And while it’s true that you can do almost anything to a home you’re buying in terms of improvements, if something breaks it’s up to you pay for the repairs.  When you rent, you can generally just call the landlord and the problem will (should) get resolved without any cost to you.

3) Avoid setting your sights too high on your first home.  Oh, but how it would be cool to have an extra bedroom for my man-cave, a pool and hot tub in back, and wrought iron fencing all around with gated entry.  Our palace!

Truth is, you’re probably looking initially at a cookie-cutter, tract 3-bedroom with few luxuries.  You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run, etc. I’m fascinated by the advice I read in nationally-recognized publications and websites that suggests finding a suitable home first, then locating the financing to make it happen.  That’s exactly backwards.

As a first-time buyer, you need to determine the maximum monthly payment that you can afford on your current budget, including principal and interest, taxes and insurance (PITI in real estate lingo), AND THEN SUBTRACT AT LEAST 10% FROM THAT FIGURE.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  If you feel like your budget allows for a $1,600 payment (on a traditional 30-year mortgage), limit yourself to a max of $1,440.  There are numerous unforeseen issues that can quickly drain your housing budget.

And make sure you’re realistic as you establish that initial budget.  If your current rent is $1,000 a month, for instance, and you’re unable to save more than $100 or so monthly, where the heck are you going to get that extra $340 every month when you buy?

(By the way, be sure you don’t attempt to qualify for a 15-year mortgage on this first home purchase, even if you can afford the big payment.  Yes, the interest rate for such a loan would be slightly lower, but you’d be backing yourself into the corner of a much larger minimum payment.  Get the 30-year loan, and if you wish and can swing it, pad your payments (check with the lender for the proper way to assure your extra money goes toward the principal balance and that there no pre-payment penalties) or make a half-payment every other week as a strategy to accelerate payoff.  This latter method results in the equivalent of 13 monthly payments in a year, not 12, and cut a 30-year term to less than 23 years.)

After… and only AFTER you determine what you can truly afford to pay monthly, do you set out to find a home.  Determine with your real estate agent (always use one to help you buy – the seller generally will cover his or her commission at the close of the sale) how much you can finance to wind up at the payment you seek.  Work backwards, remembering to factor in your initial up-front costs.  Ultimately, if done correctly, you’ll conclude that the most you can offer is, for example, $165,000.  STICK TO THIS MAX. DO NOT EXCEED.

4) Interview real estate agents and select one to represent you. Don’t just go with the first person you talk to.  Some buying agents really hustle and seek out the best home for your particular situation, while others will focus only on their own listings or those from another agent in the same office, trying to maximize their commission.

In fact, instruct your agent that you do not want to consider any homes which are listings from that agent or that office. If they agree without hesitation, you may very well have a keeper.  Otherwise, move on.  You can always relax that requirement a week or two later if you’re convinced the agent is truly working to represent your best interests.

If you can, try to avoid a buyer representatative agreement.  If you sign one, the agent will be eligible to receive a full share of the commission even if you end up finding the desired home on your own.  Understand, though, that if you find the home but utilize the agent to help you navigate the buying process, have the agent put in your offer, etc., that the agent is entitled to be paid if you, indeed, buy the home and close escrow.

When working with the agent, be specific (and realistic) about what you’re looking for, and stick to your guns.  Be open-minded, but direct.  If you inform your agent that the home must have three bedrooms, and he or she tries to steer you to a 2-bedroom because “it’s a steal,” inform the agent that you have set your parameters and you expect them to be met.

5) If you feel confident about the situation, go for it.  Otherwise, don’t.  Buying a home is, obviously, a major commitment.  If you have reservations about the home you’ve picked, or your agent, or any other variable in the process, take a step back and re-evaluate.  There’s no pressure here.  You’re in charge.

Once you’ve satisfied every facet, and you find yourself excited about the prospect of buying and moving into the home you’ve chosen, have your agent make the offer – ideally, 5-10% below the asking price or your pre-determined maximum price, whichever is lower – and, to repeat, stick to your game-plan.  NEVER let emotions affect your strategy, or be visible to sellers.

Follow these fundamental steps, and the result will be a truly satisfying process.  And if you have to soak in a blow-up kiddie pool in your new backyard until you can reasonably afford to move up in house enough to have a legit party pad with spa tub, accept that… and set your new goals for the upgraded digs, when the timing makes sense.

Once again, I thank you for reading.

***

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

In money management, there’s a difference between automation and auto-pilot

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

My son is the worst about it of anyone I know.  You’d think that, being his old man writes about smart money management on a regular basis, he would be averse to such bad habits.  Nope.  Instead, he swipes or inserts his debit card to pay for things… and whatever balance his bank shows in his account at any given time – if and when he bothers to check – must be correct.

This folks, is referred to as money management on auto-pilot.  It’s not recommended.

In a neo-technical society, automation can be a great thing.  Banking apps are all the rage – just snap a photo of the check you want to deposit, complete a couple of clicks, and just like that you have made a deposit.  No need to venture out and walk up to an ATM, deal with a drive-thru, or (perish the very thought of it!) stand in line inside a branch.

But often, people confuse utilizing modern-day tools to assist noble efforts with a hands-off approach that, quite honestly, is just begging for problems.

You need to be on top of your money, gang.

So here is a quick breakdown of how you can utilize automation to your benefit, and what you should be willing to take the extra time required to do just to make sure you really are engaging in intelligent money management.

Use on-line banking…

Why wouldn’t you?  Like the trash-talking big guy proclaimed in the film, White Men Can’t Jump, to explain his sudden departure from the basketball court in the middle of a 2-on-2 tournament game he and his partner were dominating, “This is too easy!”

On-line banking allows you to quickly check your balance, see transactions, and the Bill-Paying feature lets you set up recurring payments on bills which are the same amount every month, such as your mortgage and car payments. You can also sign up directly with the vendor to get regular alerts for how much your bill is and when it’s due (ideal for utilities, for instance), go to your bill-pay page, and authorize payment in less than 30 seconds.

… But monitor it regularly

I go to my bank’s on-line site at least 3-4 times per week.  No, it isn’t because I’m obsessed with seeing a large balance.  Trust me, that isn’t applicable… not because my wife and I are poor – we’re doing fine – but because my regular bank account is used for paying bills and everyday expenses.  The bulk of our assets are located elsewhere, where they can earn a respectable rate of return.

I go there because I want to safeguard against two things – errors and oversights.  Errors are when someone charges you erroneously, or there is an error on the bank’s end (very rare, I have found).  Oversights are when it’s my fault – a charge I didn’t remember to account for, or perhaps a subscription auto-renew that I forgot about or didn’t want.

Simply put, I want to make sure the amount of money shown in our account is what should be shown.  Typically, the quicker mistakes are discovered, the easier they are to remedy.

Have your paychecks direct-deposited…

Many banks offer small incentives for agreeing to have your paychecks directly deposited regularly.  The perks can be fee-free basic accounts, discounts on loan rates, small cash-back considerations, even tangible gifts.  Nothing cozier than watching TV draped in a blanket with “Bank of Cucamonga” emblazoned.

Yeah, I’m kidding about the blanket.  Still, it is more convenient not to have to worry about physically possessing your check, getting to the bank to deposit it or cash it, etc.

…But know what’s being withheld from your net pay and why.

Don’t trust your employer with getting it right.  Be sure you concur with what is being withheld, how many hours you were credited with working, even the pay rate itself.  My other son recently took a new job, only to find out that he was being paid 75 cents an hour less than he thought he was promised.  And of course, he didn’t notice this until about a month in, making a correction (and retroactive reimbursement) more difficult to request and obtain.

Pay Yourself First:  Have money from your check sent directly to an investment account…

One of the oldest adages in personal finance, discussed numerous times on this site. “Pay yourself first” means that you set aside funds for savings before you pay any bills or cover any other expenses.  It assures you save, regardless of circumstances, which is especially critical when you are first starting out and have the maximum time to take advantage of the amazing principle of compound interest.

…And monitor your  balance to assure full credit and growth

Again, don’t trust that the powers that be will get everything right.  I once had a life insurance policy, for which I sent in a contribution toward what is referred to as a “payed-up additions rider,” which allows for growing your cash value more quickly provided you stay within certain parameters.  The insurance company mistakenly credited the payment toward a small policy loan balance I had, that I had just taken and wasn’t yet willing to pay on.

The error wasn’t a big deal, and was easily corrected by the company, but had I not caught it, it would have ultimately cost me money in the form of lost compounding on the funds which never would have reached my desired destination.

By all means, utilize the great modern technology available to us whenever you can, and it makes sense to you.  But whether you go old-school or new-tool, be “accountable” every step of the way.  Pun intended.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

***

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Ultimately, it’s all about retirement

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

On this website, and hundreds of others like it that I read and monitor, we talk about practically anything that has to do with money/personal finance.  And we should… there’s a helluva lot to cover about the subject.

But what it all boils down to, whether you’re in your 50s or half of that, is preparing for the “Big R.”  What proactive steps are you taking, now and in the near future, to properly prepare for retirement?

So let me ask you, is that what we should really focus on ad nauseum?

While planning for the long-term future is certainly important, I contend that excelling in the short-term, including the ‘now,’ is at least equally vital.  In fact, one often facilitates the other.

Maximizing your efficiency in saving and investing now, logically, will result in you having more money to work with later.

Let’s take a quick look at why planning for retirement has become such big business, cliff notes version.  You ready?  It’s because virtually all private companies have deserted the traditional pension system in favor of a 401K/IRA-led way of saving for one’s own career conclusion.  And, many public and government agencies appear headed in the same direction.

Sure… just save some money with your company in its 401K, or do it on your own with an Individual Retirement Account, combine those with the scraps that are our social security payouts – assuming those rates stay where they are now – and you’ll be set.  Who needs a big, fat monthly pension check when the S&P 500 historically averages a 10% annual return?

I’m tellin’ ya, it’s bananas.  And yet our society has fully accepted this monumental shift in monetary focus.  But what people fail to properly gauge is that, while $500,000 in a retirement account may sound like a butt-load of money, it is in fact barely enough to keep a retired couple above the poverty line.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard that experts traditionally recommend drawing down your nest-egg at about 4% per year, so that you can live while retaining the full balance of your primary account.  In other words, if you start with $500,000, and want to leave a legacy, you should take annual withdrawals from that account of no more than 4%.

Really?  Hmmm… let’s see how that might play out.

Let’s say you’re an average wage-earner in the U.S., about to retire.  Your household income, says Betterment.com, is about $68,000 a year gross.  That’s roughly $50,000 net spendable money after taxes.

If you expect to maintain the same standard of living you’ve become accustomed to, you would have to have about $1.25 million saved.  And that’s not even considering the erosion caused by inflation.  At a 3 percent inflation rate, $50,000 of net spending power becomes just $25,000 in about 24 years, which is roughly the average length of retirement nowadays.

Of course, you can always sacrifice your kids’ inheritance and spend down your money – in fact, I think you should because it’s your money.  But try making $500,000 last 24 years when you’re taking $68,000 withdrawals on a taxable account.  According to calculators on the BankRate.com website, do that and you will be out of money in less than 15 years.

Your retirement account is a Roth IRA?  Cool.  No taxation on the withdrawals.  But with $50,000 annual withdrawals and inflation, your investments had better return more than 14% each and every year if you expect to continue paying the bills 24 years later.

Also, we didn’t enter increased medical expenses or anything else into the equation.  Scared yet?  Ya should be at least nervous.

So what do we do?  If we’re smart, we utilize specific strategies that take the guesswork out of money, and we start doing them now… to benefit us now, a little later, AND into retirement.  We do things that allow us to live a better, smarter life RIGHT NOW and over the ensuing years, and not just obsess about what we’re going to do when we actually get old.

And I have a strategy that makes all of this relatively simple and definitively painless.  Beginning in 2018, this website will be dedicated to detailing this approach and its various advantages on a regular basis.  Yep… I’m going to make you wait for it.

But, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know what I’m talking about.  DPWLI… to know what this acronym stands for, refer to earlier posts, and let me know your reaction to the suspense.

Yes, admittedly, I’m messing with my audience a little here.  But teasers are good, and it won’t be long now before the info will be at your fingertips.

In the meantime…  thanks, as always, for reading.

***

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Do you have to take risks to make a return on your money? Emphatically… No!

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Greetings, all.  I’m tapping out this post from the Rio Hotel & Suites in Las Vegas.  I’m here to attend a convention – so it seems appropriate to discuss what some call the “Wall Street Casino.”

Essentially, what we’re talking about is the subject of risk.  More specifically, we want to ascertain why it has become common “knowledge,” that in order to get good returns, you have to be willing to take some risk.

There is some truth to that notion when you look at it from the risk perspective.  There are investments out there that are highly speculative. No one knows what’s going to happen, and folks don’t even have a decent idea of what’s going to happen even if they pretend they do.

And I’m not talking about investments that have a reputation as being risky, such as options trading, day trading, commodities, or even collectibles.  No, sir, I’m referring to that mainstream investment called the S&P 500 Index.

You may have heard of it.

Obnoxiousness aside, financial experts of all kinds will have you believe that investing in the stock market is the only legitimate way to earn good returns, and that if you do it right by conducting proper due diligence, diversify your portfolio, consult a professional, etc., you will most certainly be fine in the long run.

These know-it-alls love to cite that the S&P, which stands for Standard & Poor, has returned an average of about 10% annually since The Great Depression.  I’ve read multiple articles on-line and in print magazines, of late, suggesting you shouldn’t be wary of the potential for a sharp decline in the market such as what we experienced in 2008 and 2009 – even though we’re nearing a record-duration bull market as I write this – because even if it does drop sharply at some point, the market inevitably comes back and then some…

Pish posh.

Folks who saw their investment account balances drop 40% or more nearly a decade ago are just now catching up.  A few are showing a slight gain from pre-2008 levels, but projected as an annual return most would have been better off keeping their money under their Serta Perfect Sleeper.

And with retired people who are counting on taking an income from their investment assets, a volatile market can literally make them queasy because they’re not sure if they’re going to have enough money to do the things they want to do in their golden years.

By the way, that aforementioned 10 percent annual S&P growth is before taxes and fees, and your actual return isn’t 10% because you can only earn that if the market were to return exactly that percentage every year.  We’ve demonstrated multiple times on this site how average returns are a far cry from actual returns.  Here’s another quick example:

(Start with $1,000 account balance.  Earn 60% the first year, lose 50% the second. Your average annual return would be 5% (60 – 50 = 10, divided by 2 years), but your actual return is a 10% annual LOSS ($600 gain first year = $1,600 in account, 50% loss the second year = $800 loss – net result is $1,000 + $600 – $800 = $800 balance in account after the second year.  $1,000 – $800 = $200 loss is 20%, divided by 2 years = 10% loss per year).

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a financial instrument in which you could store money safely, and still earn a respectable annual rate of return with virtually zero risk?  How sweet to fund it and forget it, knowing that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning – twice – than of losing with that account!

Dividend-paying whole life insurance.  Yes, we have introduced this product on this site, and I’ve written on it numerous times.  And in the coming weeks and months, this blog will adjust its focus from a general personal finance educational approach to a site dedicated to teach as many folks as will take the time to learn, the numerous benefits of utilizing life insurance “living benefits.”

It has to be the right kind of insurance, set up by properly trained agents representing carriers who have been established for more than a century.  But when you use this tool to hold your nest-egg, you will get the following:  Safety of principal and gains, a guaranteed rate of return that can be even higher depending on annual dividends, a structure that legally allows you to access your funds tax-free whenever you want, and a system available by some companies (but not all) that allows you to borrow funds from your cash value – without qualifying – and yet your full cash value continues to earn returns and grow as if you never took a loan at all.

It’s all about educating people.  Our public school system falls far short of any legitimate teaching about money or investments or retirement savings, so it’s up to citizens like myself who are passionate about people of all ages succeeding financially, for the short- and long-term.

Keep reading this space every week, friends.  We will continue to shed light on what is not only a desirable alternative to the gambling that investing in Wall Street and the money markets is, but also a critical undertaking we need to be aware of… NOW.

Thanks for reading.

***

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Small savings here and there can add up to surprisingly significant amounts

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

My family and friends often give me a hard time about being frugal.  When I first revealed to them that I had a personal finance blog, they asked if I had written a post yet on cheap eats or the wonderful world of coupon clipping.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy spending money, or that I’m not willing to splurge on occasion.  I am, and my wife and I do.  What I don’t like is feeling as if I have wasted money.  Spending $500 or more on the latest cellphone, for instance, just seems like a bad investment when I can go out and obtain a perfectly functional phone – for talking, texting, and taking basic photos – for less than $100.

My adult kids, ages 27 and 24, want the fancy phones.  Like the old fart in those Consumer Cellular ads, I’m happy with my basic phone.

Either way, there are numerous ways to save small amounts of money on a consistent basis… and when you do these consistently, I believe you will be genuinely surprised by how the little discounts, rebates, and cash back add up.

I do clip coupons, but I’m not obsessed.  Mainly, I look for discounts on grocery brands I buy, and restaurants we frequent.  I also constantly am asking for discounts.  When I recently had the oil changed in my car, I requested “the best deal you can give me. Been a customer here a long time,” and got a discount for a coupon I didn’t have and was afforded an additional  10% senior discount despite being ‘only’ age 53.  If I hadn’t asked, I’d have never received either courtesy,

Also, I’m a big believer in taking advantage of cash-back credit cards.  The process is really quite simple – apply for and (hopefully) get approved for a credit card that offers either a flat cash-back rate for all purchases, or quarterly “specials” with as high as 5% back on certain categories, or both.  The categories, usually featured for three months at a time, include restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, or department stores among others.

The idea is to use the card each and every time you shop – for virtually all of your weekly purchases.  Concentrate solely on what you would spend anyway.  Don’t spend more just to utilize the card.  Defeats the purpose.

Then at the end of the month, you use your checking account funds to pay off the card.  You never want to carry a balance on the credit card, because you will then be wickedly guilty of stepping over dollars for dimes.  After all, how much sense does it make to get 5% back on groceries, but pay 20% or more interest monthly to carry a balance for those very same trips to the store.

None, of course.

Do this right, by using credit cards as the point-of-sale tool and your bank account to pay the credit card balance in full each and every month, and those 5% purchases here, and 1.5% there (and elsewhere) start to add up nicely.

Although it certainly isn’t recommended for younger adults who are trying to establish themselves as financially healthy long-term, my wife and I like to eat out.  We rarely do fancy dining, but we like Applebee’s, El Torito, Panera Bread, and the like several times a month.  Currently, our Chase credit card pays 3% cash back on all our restaurant purchases (including fast food, although we don’t do much of that).  Generally, in two months we have accrued enough cash that we get a dinner on Chase courtesy of a gift card to most any chain eatery we choose.

Over time, you can acquire a few cards, each of which might be dedicated to a different part of your overall budget – one for dining, one for groceries, one for gas, and one for miscellaneous.  The common denominator among all of them remains paying the balances in full each month, thereby NEVER paying interest on these purchases.

It’s like earning a rate of return on your expenditures, rather than just your investments.  Best of both worlds.

Thanks for reading.

***

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

‘Budgeting’ has negative connotations for some, but it doesn’t have to be that way

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

In personal finance parlance, it is known as “the B word.” And not in any sort of positive way.

Budgeting, defined as the excruciating act of creating a personal or family summary of income and expenses for the purposes of determining what can be spent and (hopefully) saved, carries such a negative vibe that some alleged PF gurus claim you can effectively manage your money without it.

Not likely…

Look, it’s really a matter of what you want to accomplish, in life and specifically when it comes to your money.  Are you truly satisfied to wing it from week to week, month to month and hope you have enough to get by?  Or are you willing to put in a little effort, in the boring form of crunching numbers, to improve your circumstances?

If you are among the vast majority of folks who want to make financial progress ongoing, there’s no way around some version of monetary accountability.

Still, that doesn’t mean it has to be painful… or a pain in the posterior. Budgeting is actually relatively simple, if you decide to keep it that way. Here’s how:

Know as accurately as possible your monthly take-home pay

True, determining what you make isn’t always that simple.  Sales professionals who work on commission, for instance, can have a wide variation in what they make from month to month. But there are ways around this.  First, determine an average income.  Go back three months, six months, or whatever time-frame you believe can most accurately reflect your net pay, and come up with a “common” figure.

Obviously, if you are on salary, you simply need to take a peek at your paycheck, or observe the associated direct deposit in your bank account.

Now reduce that number by 20% for budgeting purposes.  For instance, if you’ve determined that your average monthly net income is about $3,000, reduce it by 20% ($600) and work with $2,400 as you figure your budget. The 20-percent fudge factor allows for errors and anomalies while also demonstrating to you (eventually) that you can get by with less than you think. What if you only make $1,500 in a particular month… are you going to have to move back in with your parents?  You may be nodding your head after reading this, but we both know you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that scenario.

Make savings an integral part of any “spending” plan

Next take at least 5% of the $2,400 (10% is reommended), and mark it down as your monthly savings goal.  Yep, do it now… this resulting $120 for socking away in our example is important – commit to it, even before you figure out what your bills are.  That comes next.

Once you have your typical monthly income established, and your associated monthly commitment for savings, the next step is to mark down your fixed expenses.  These are the monthly bills that are the same every month – rent or mortgage payment, car payment, TV/internet bills, cellphone bill (in most cases), loan payment to Mom and Dad, etc.  It doesn’t matter what they’re for, if you pay them and they are constant, they should be included here.

Determine your expenses in two broad categories first

Now add up the total of your fixed expenses, tack on the aforementioned $120 savings figure, and come up with a total.  Then, take that total and subtract it from the $2,400.  The result is what you have available to spend monthly on what is referred to as discretionary spending – the costs that change every month, such as groceries, gasoline, and entertainment.

Guess what? You’re more than half finished.  Not exactly bamboo under the fingernails, correct?

OK, sure, I’m not claiming this is as fun as Space Mountain on Halloween. But it’s a lot less costly.

Be willing to go back through previous spending history

Now comes a little bit of effort, because you need to go back through your on-line banking or credit card receipts, and determine how much you’ve been spending on those discretionary costs.  My suggestion is that you separate them into the following categories:  groceries, eating out, gasoline, entertainment, and miscellaneous.

After you have those figures determined for the last month (ideally, figure out three months’ worth of each category and average for a more accurate monthly reference), take the monthly figures and add them up.  Compare to what your new budget “allows” you to spend.  Analyze what you’ve been overspending on, and what you’ve been more reasonable about. Adjust accordingly. Let logic and common sense be your guide.

For instance, let’s say your discretionary spending amount that you determined from your income/fixed expenses/savings portion of the budget is $600 per month. And you’ve determined you’ve been spending closer to $900 per month.  That means we need to find $300 to cut, but remember that we took your initial average take-home pay and cut it by 20 percent.  That was $600 lopped off the $3,000 average monthly pay, yes?

Decide on spending cuts if needed, but you don’t have to go overboard

So whatever we determine needs to be cut, it probably doesn’t truly need to be as drastic because we padded the initial income figure by using only 80 percent of it.  Are you with me?

In other words, you have some leeway… as long as you’re prepared to make some needed cuts when it’s obvious.  Are you going out to the movies a lot, or do you mostly stay in and watch Netflix? How ’bout fast-food?  That is the young adults’ most significant bug-a-boo, bar none.  Are you on a first-name basis with the folks at Carl’s Jr.?  If so, that has to change.  Cooking at home typically costs a fifth of fast-food, and a tenth or less compared to eating at sit-down restaurants.  How about at the grocery store?  Do you buy a lot of processed and/or name-brand foods, or do you focus on produce, dairy, and generic stuff?

After you have determined all your adjustments, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of each month is put the savings away. “Pay Yourself First” is a universally accepted personal finance adage for assuring you save regularly regardless of your budget.

Ultimately, as long as you’re willing to do a little self-analysis with what you spend, and make some common-sense alterations, it can be pretty simple and only a little painful.

If nothing else, make a commitment to avoid high-interest debt

Last item:  I could easily write 10,000 words about sensible budget decisions, cutting spending, etc.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  Instead, focus on the idea that getting basic organization in your financial life doesn’t have to be difficult and it truly doesn’t have to suck.

A huge take-away is this:  Whatever path you go, do your utmost to stay out of debt… specifically, credit cards that – speaking of sucking – will suck the life out of any possibility of you getting ahead with your money and ultimately being able to reasonably afford many of the things and experiences you desire.

As always, thank you for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Buying a home is a valuable step, but don’t do so until your financial house is in order

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

As my wife and I enjoy a brief vacation here in beautiful Big Bear, Calif., about 90 minutes northeast of L.A., the vast view speckled with wonderful homes got me to thinking about my next blog post.

One of the most prominent among the numerous dilemmas that face young adults as they attempt to successfully establish positive financial momentum is when to pull the trigger on the purchase of a house… and thereby cease building someone else’s net worth.   Put another way, there are giant advantages to buying a home versus renting for the people who are reasonably in a position to make that leap.

With renting, you are squandering money monthly.  Okay, I don’t mean that in the literal sense – your rent gives you a place to live for 30 days or so.  But once the month elapses, you have absolutely nothing to show for the rent you paid.  Also with renting, you can’t make any improvements without permission from the owner, must trust the owner to make needed repairs in a timely manner, and are restricted by the owner on whom you can have living at the home, whether you can sub-lease… a host of potential restrictions.

Sounds almost like the government, eh?

When you own the home, it is YOURS even though you don’t get sole ownership until after the mortgage is paid off.  And who cares about that technicality as long as you don’t have the bank manager claiming dibs on the master bedroom?

Seriously, as long as you continue to pay the bank as promised when you signed the loan documents, you can do pretty much whatever you want with the home, and have anyone live with you as you please,   More importantly, every payment you make builds equity (wealth) for you in at least one of two ways – by paying down what you owe, and by possessing a commodity that appreciates in value more often than not.

And believe it or not, it is often better to owe money to the bank on your home than having it paid off free and clear.  I will explain in detail why that is in a future post.

Back to the benefits of owning.  Did I mention a very huge tax benefit?  Interest paid on a mortgage loan is (virtually) always deductible as a write-off.  On a new loan, of which much of the payment is interest, that can add up to $10,000 or more in a year.   And you can write off the property taxes, too.

Conversely, rent is not tax deductible.  And don’t even think about the paltry renter’s credit.  There’s no comparison.

But wait!  In your adult life up to now, the money talk has likely been about saving more, spending less, and eliminating debt. Doesn’t buying a home go against the grain in that it represents spending and most certainly is NOT eliminating debt but is instead creating it?

Well, as usual, that depends on your specific circumstances.

Of course, I should clarify that I am referring to a young couple or family’s first home, not a vacation castle in the mountains such as those we’re surrounded by up here.  With that in mind, let’s skip past the how’s of buying a home – entire books have been written on that subject – and focus here on the more crucial “when?”

Many folks fall into two broad categories when it comes to making this decision, and neither are ideal.  The first group is intimidated by the idea of such a massive commitment as buying a home – the process of finding the right place, determining what they can afford, qualifying for financing, having enough for a down payment… it can be overwhelming the first time around.  They’re scared to death to make the wrong move.

The second group jumps into the fray before it can really afford to.  A pay raise of 50 cents an hour with a promotion to assistant to the assistant manager, and a proclamation is made that it’s time to ditch the studio apartment in the low-income district and go get a two-story with a pool in the suburbs.

Hold on there, Trump!  Somewhere in the middle, with a lean toward the overly conservative first group, is where you ideally need to be.

There are essentially four factors that should be in your favor before even considering the decision to buy a home:

1) Gainful, secure employment.  If you’re not solidly employed, you won’t qualify for financing anyway… but nevertheless new home-buyers need to have a steady income stream that can be reasonably counted on (note, however, that there’s no such thing as absolute job security or a slam dunk success in business). In short, you should be working at a stable job that you like enough to make a mental commitment to it indefinitely.

2) Little or no other debt.  A car payment is OK, or absent that, a SMALL amount of other debt.  But if you’re into credit cards and other unsecured commitments more than a few hundred dollars, it is wise to get that taken care of first. And if you have undesirable debt yet have saved what you believe to be enough for a down payment on a house, you should likely use all or most of those funds to pay off the debt instead.

3) Appropriately frugal spending habits.   You’re living below your means, putting money away monthly and are comfortable sticking with “staples” like a cellphone which isn’t the absolute latest, greatest model and technology.  And you’re cool with eating Tuna Helper or Swanson dinners more often than not even during LobsterFest.

4) You’ve got at least a few months of savings built up already.  Stuff happens, so you certainly don’t want to be in a position to get behind on your mortgage if your transmission goes out.

Did you notice that I didn’t specifically make having the money for a down payment a requirement?   Let me explain:  Many, many folks get caught up in the idea that they can’t or shouldn’t attempt to buy a home unless they’ve saved enough cash for a legitimate down payment – 10%, 20% or even more.  It simply isn’t true.  First-time buyer programs today are… well, first-rate.  Some even require as little as a 1% down payment, and FHA’s basic first-time buyer program requires only 3% down.  Closing costs must be accounted for, too, but some programs roll those costs into the loan.

There is a negative to a lower down payment – Private Mortgage Insurance.  PMI is charged by the lender whenever a loan is made on more than 80% of the appraised value of the home (in other words, you put down less than 20%).  It is expensive – as much as 1% of the outstanding balance on the loan annually) – and undesirable, but not so costly that it should prevent wanna-be homeowners from going forward assuming they otherwise have the means.  The numerous benefits of owning your abode outweigh the temporary nuisance of PMI in most cases, and as soon as you have established equity of more than 20%, you can contact the lender (they will not do so automatically) and request the PMI be cancelled.

THE KEY FACTOR HERE ISN’T HAVING A BIG DOWN PAYMENT, IT IS AVOIDING TRYING TO BUY TOO MUCH HOUSE.  Banks have their own rules about “how much home” you can afford.  My recommendation is to see what they will approve, and reduce that amount by 20-25%.  Why?  Because it will virtually assure that you won’t buy more home than you can swing.

Simply put, be willing to dictate the terms, or be willing to walk away and try again in a few months.  Believe me… the latter is grossly preferable to getting in over your head, assuming the lender guidelines would even permit such a circumstance.

Good common sense (hmmm… is there such a thing as bad common sense?) will usually be accurate in determining when you can and should move forward with the big step of buying a residence.  Don’t get eager and foolishly proceed before you’re ready…

But you should also avoid standing pat just for the sake of it.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Results are NEVER guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, invest at your own risk.