Many people find their 40s to be the best decade yet. You’re in your peak earning years, and the kids, if not nearly launched or even out on their own, will soon be past the pricey preschool stage. And if you made smart money choices in your 20s and 30s, you’re beginning to reap the rewards: cars bought for cash, a nearly paid-off mortgage, the chance to travel, a well-funded retirement.
Life isn’t always ideal, of course. Perhaps you live in an economically depressed region, or were left jobless during the recession and have struggled to restart your career. Maybe your household was hit with chronic or acute illness. Could be you had your kids in your late 30s and are stunned by the costs of raising them. Or perhaps you simply put off a lot of financially responsible actions for “later.” Well, later’s here, folks.
All sorts of issues can derail your finances – and even those who are doing well financially may find it easy to ignore long-term goals. But regardless of how much or how little you earn, it’s essential to make certain moves in your 40s.
Again, if you made savvy choices back in your 20s and 30s, you may be all set. Even so, give the following seven goals a look-see. Even the most-prepared person might find himself thinking, “Holy cow, I never thought about my parents’ living arrangements!” And if you got off to a late start financially, now’s the time to buckle down.
Goal No. 1: Fund your retirement.
Emily Guy Birken, author of “The Five Years Before You Retire,” has some scary stats to share:
- One-third of Americans have saved $0 for retirement
- Of those who have saved, 23% have set aside less than $10,000
- Almost 30% of Gen Xers (who are currently in their 40s and early 50s) have no retirement savings, and another 21.9% have saved less than $10,000.
Parents may already feel squeezed, especially if they’re helping their aging parents and/or feel compelled to put money in their children’s college plans. But it’s essential to put on your own financial oxygen mask first.
“If you are funding your family’s needs ahead of your own, you are simply kicking a financial problem down the line,” Birken says.
While paying for an elder’s nursing home seems like the right thing to do, you’re depleting your own assets. Having a college plan may let the kids graduate debt-free, but a few decades from now they may have to support you because you can’t survive on Social Security alone.
Maybe you already feel that you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and it seems there’s nothing left to save for retirement. Look at it this way: If you can’t save now, what makes you think you’ll be able to save later? Trying to catch up in your 50s and 60s will be difficult, and maybe impossible – especially since you don’t know how long you’ll be able to work.
Fail to save enough and you might end up with a so-called “cliff retirement” – when you stop working, your lifestyle will fall off a cliff. The average monthly Social Security check was $1,341 in 2016. Sure, you might earn more. You also might earn less, and you might need to spend it on things you can’t picture right now, such as putting a wheelchair ramp on your home or having to pay workers to do cleaning and yard chores you can no longer manage.
If you haven’t already signed up for a company retirement plan and employer match (if available), then do it right now. Money experts estimate that U.S. workers miss out on anywhere from $750 to $1,336 per year in employer matching funds. By retirement age that translates into as much as $370,339 in lost retirement revenue.
Can’t do the full match? Start with as much as you can and inch it up as quickly as you can. Whenever you get a raise, increase the percentage of your paycheck that goes into the fund. If you routinely get an income tax refund, adjust your withholding and have the difference deposited into your retirement account.
(And if there’s no employer retirement plan at your workplace? Start your own. Google-X has lots of archived articles on the subject. For starters, see “The Hows and Whys of a Target Retirement Fund.”)
An excellent way to beef up retirement saving is to…
Goal 2: Get control of your spending.
Specifically, get intentional about your spending. This will help you fund retirement, stay out of debt (more on that in a minute) and build savings. Here’s how to master your money:
Tracking your money. Until you know where your cash goes now, you won’t be able to send it in directions that do you the most good. Use a pencil and paper or a free budgeting software like Mint. (You might be surprised, or horrified, to see how much money you’re spending on things like fast food or music downloads.) Read your bank statement and credit card and utility bills closely, too, for errors in billing (hey, I never ordered ringtones!) or other indicators that your finances need some work. For example, even a single NSF fee means you need to give your finances a hard look – which you can do by….
Building a realistic budget. Address the needs first: food, shelter, utilities, and debt service. Be sure to make “retirement fund” a line item. Allow a certain number of wants, looking always to get the best deal (see “Get creative,” below). Since every household has its own special circumstances, see this article by Trent for five simple but effective budgeting strategies.
Interrogating each purchase. Is it a need or a want? Do you already have something that will do almost as well? If you really do need an item, what are some ways to get it cheaper (e.g., a price comparison website) or free (borrowing or renting, say, or putting your need out via social media). Very quickly it will become second nature to say to yourself (or to others), “The monster truck rally sounds like fun, but right now my money is more important,” or “That looks cool but we’ve already got enough Legos –put it on your birthday and Christmas gift list.”
Getting creative. You can meet both needs and wants without breaking the bank. When something pops up, brainstorm ways to fix the issue without throwing money at it. For example, shopping for the kids’ clothes could be done at thrift shops, consignment stores and Facebook buying pages. That every-Friday family night out at the pizzeria and movies could turn into “make pizza at home and get free movies from the library/attend a cheaper Saturday matinee instead.” You might not need to spend at all, thanks to options like clothing swaps, Freecycle, and barter.
You probably won’t have to give up everything, but you should give up some things. We’re talking about your future security and comfort here.
Best-case scenario: Once you’ve figured out where your money is going, you’ll find “extra” cash to put toward retirement, debt paydown, and savings. On that note is…
Goal 3: Build an emergency fund.
Only the truly blessed among us are never hit with unanticipated expenses, or slammed with crises like layoff or serious illness. It’s essential to have a stash of money set aside just for emergencies. If you don’t have one, build one.
Some personal finance experts say you need three to six months’ worth of expenses, and that a year’s worth would be even better. That’s a nice thought, but it can also make people feel hopeless: I could never save a year’s worth of living expenses, or even three months’ worth, so what’s the use…
Don’t go there. Instead, make an achievable goal – say, $500 – and set out to find ways to fund it. As noted above, getting control of your spending and creating a budget should free up at least some money. Send it into the EF.
Goal 4: Pay down any consumer debt.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total household debt reached $784 billion in the second quarter of 2017. That’s the highest level since 2009.
Debt sometimes represents an opportunity, e.g., the car that will get the new graduate to his job. Ideally he’d pay cash, but that’s not always possible.
More often, it represents opportunity cost. All the money you pay in interest is money that could have gone toward your financial goals.
If you’re having trouble figuring things out, contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which offers free consultation and referral to a credit counselor in your area. The initial consultation is enough to get some people going. And if you need more sessions, they’re offered on a sliding scale basis; depending on how much you earn, you may pay nothing at all.
Credit expert Beverly Harzog, author of “The Debt Escape Plan,” suggests two other options:
- Consolidate your debt in a personal loan with a lower annual percentage rate than your cards.
- Get a balance transfer card with a 0% introductory APR.
Do whatever works for you. But do something. Don’t keep paying interest.
Goal No. 5: Have ‘the talk’ with your parents.
Your folks may already be retired. But even if they’re still working, you need to have one of the most potentially awkward conversations you’ll ever have with your parents.
Imagine this kitchen-table chat:
“Hey, Mom and Dad, thanks for coming by for coffee. I need to talk to you about a few important things. How’s your retirement fund – think it’ll last the rest of your life? Have you thought about where you want to live if you can’t keep up the house? What about a health care directive? Would you consider giving me power of attorney at some point? And hey, who wants more snickerdoodles?”
Your parents might be embarrassed, or indignant. They might want never to speak of such things again. You might feel that way yourself, but it’s necessary. Trying to determine what your parents would have wanted once they’ve become sick or indebted is no way to ensure the best outcome.
Find out about the plans (if any) that they have in place. If they won’t let you look at the books, it might be because they’re private people – but it could also be that they haven’t saved enough or are spending too much of what they did save.
Ask specifically how they plan to pay for their house, or assisted living, or a nursing home should it become necessary. If they won’t answer, then it’s time for the most difficult talk of all, with statements like:
“Right now we’re raising our own family, and we can’t afford to support you.”
“We’re behind on saving for own retirement, so we can’t help you financially.”
“I know that Grandma lived with us until she died, but I have a one-bedroom condo and I work at home. You can’t live here, so you need to make other plans.”
Goal No. 6: Write a will.
You should already have one. If you don’t, write one out yourself right now – even though only 26 states accept such “holographic” wills, it’s a start.
Tomorrow, start looking for a lawyer to create a more binding document. It should cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on how complex your situation is. If you truly can’t afford a lawyer, check into services like Nolo, LegalZoom, and Rocket Lawyer to create a will that works.
If you have minor children you’ll need to appoint legal guardians. Decide who you’d want to do that and ask that person/couple if you can designate them in your will. Never assume they’ll be happy to do this. Always ask. Be sure to let potential guardians know of any financial provisions (insurance, trusts) available to help them meet your children’s needs.
On that note…
Goal No. 7: Eyeball your insurance.
If you had children later in life, if you’re raising grandchildren, or have a partner who would struggle financially if you died, take a look at the protection you have in place.
Ideally you bought term life insurance back when you were young and hale and locked it in for 20 or even 30 years. If so, check to see if the policy needs tweaking; if not, talk to your insurance agent about coverage options.
And if you really are living paycheck to paycheck? Those who earn less than $40,000 a year may qualify for free coverage under MassMutual’s “LifeBridge” program. The policy pays $50,000 toward your children’s education if you die before they finish school.
You might need insurance of your own, too, since we’re living longer than we once did. Long-term care is a complicated topic. Some people believe it’s essential to have insurance and others are willing to roll the dice that things turn out the way they hope.
This is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly. Learn about the pros and cons and how they apply to your own situation before you decide one way or the other. Start out at “Long-Term Care Insurance: What You Need to Know.”
Securing Your Future
Making some or all of these smart money moves may feel costly, especially if you’re playing catch-up. But ultimately they improve your life – both later and now.
For starters, imagine how much better you’ll sleep once your consumer debt is gone. Having a sustainable budget and a handle on your spending means that you won’t owe money again – especially since your emergency fund will let you meet unexpected expenses with cash.
Knowing your parents’ financial situation is secure means you don’t have to worry about how they’ll manage. Having taken steps to secure your own golden years means you don’t have to worry about going without basic comforts, or being a burden on your children.
Having a will = peace of mind. Even if your heirs don’t like the way you’ve divvied things up, your wishes will have been made known. If you die prematurely, mechanisms will be in place to help the survivors manage.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the issues and needs of the present day. Sometimes it’s all you can do to keep the books balanced and that day’s fires put out. It’s so easy to think about aging and retirement as issues for another day.
But the future is closer than you think. Now is the time to “kick your (preparation) into high gear,” Harzog says.
- Eight Money Mistakes the Middle Class Keeps Making
- Six Fresh Ways to Think About Retirement Savings
- The Painful Truth About Your Emergency Fund
Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”