The annual Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households shows improvement each year in the number of Americans who could cover an unexpected $400 expense using cash (including savings or a credit card paid off by the due date.) It was 50% in 2013, increased to 63% in 2019.
The report still shows that many Americans have financial fragility, with 16% unable to pay their current month’s bills in full and an additional 12% unable to pay their current month’s bills in full if they had an unexpected $400 expense. A quarter of those surveyed skipped medical care in the prior year because they couldn’t afford it. These statistics indicate that about a third or more of us are living with financial stress and are unable to afford to take care of our health needs.
Americans who would not be able to pay for an unexpected expense would have to use debt, borrow money from loved ones, sell something, or pay another bill late. Since we can count on having unexpected or badly timed expenses, it’s important that we take charge of our financial peace of mind by creating a plan to deal with them.
Start with defining what an emergency (or badly timed) expense is or is not. Most of us would agree that an emergency visit to urgent care, the dentist, or the vet is an emergency. Broken appliances are a common emergency—some we may be able to delay fixing or purchasing, but not for very long. Air conditioners break during the summer in Phoenix, and there is little choice but to have them repaired or replaced. Depending on your mechanical ability, various car issues may be unexpected, but the repair would be an emergency expense, especially if you rely on your vehicle for employment. The same would apply to cell phones and other technology many of us use at least partially for work.
On the other hand, when you know that an appliance is going to need to be replaced soon based on its age (and maybe that weird sound), you might have time to save up for it. You know your tires will have to be replaced occasionally. If you live in the Phoenix area, you know your car battery will need to be replaced regularly, and your windshield wipers that are almost never used will be useless if you don’t replace them before monsoon season. When something you really want goes on sale, and you haven’t saved up for it yet, that is maybe unlucky, but it’s not an emergency.
An emergency fund, or rainy-day fund, is an account separate from the account you use for normal spending. The emergency fund account should be accessible enough that you can use it for an emergency, but difficult enough to access so that you don’t spend it for a non-emergency.
The standard guideline is to have enough money to cover 3 to 6 months of expenses. I would like to differentiate that type of fund—to cover the loss of income—from the emergency fund for unexpected expenses. If you have enough saved for both purposes, by all means, combine them. If you are still working on one or the other, it might be best to have a “freedom” fund (for quitting or losing your job) and an “oh-no” or “oops” fund for those emergencies and ill-timed expenses.
If you have no savings, begin with the “oh-no” fund. Start with the most you can commit to each week or pay period. While you can always add more, it’s important that you start with an amount you can consistently save so that you develop the habit and confidence that you can save for the needs of future you.
Making the savings automatic will make it easier for you to successfully fund your “oh-no” fund. Small amounts add up. If you get paid every other week (bi-weekly in the graph) and save $10 per paycheck, you will have $260; if you can increase that amount to $20, you will have $520 in one year. That is enough to cover the hypothetical unexpected expense in the Fed’s survey.
If you get paid every week, you will have that same $520 by saving $10 each pay period. By increasing the savings to $20 every week, you would have $1,040. If you wanted to save enough for both your “oh-no” and “freedom” funds, a larger savings amount could be appropriate if you can afford it and have paid off your debt. You could save $2,600 in one year by saving $50 every week.
If this is the first time you are funding an emergency fund, start small for a few months. See how that first 13 weeks looks and feels. Are you really missing that transfer to your savings account? At $10/week savings, you have $130; if you are paid every other week, you have $60 for the six pay periods.
Can you increase that weekly (or bi-weekly) amount another $10? If you can increase your $10 savings rate by $10 every quarter, you could have $660 for bi-weekly savers or $1,300 for weekly savers.
How does it feel to see how much you have saved so far? Celebrate your success by renaming your fund something fun.
What are you going to name your account? Are you team whealthiness goals or team piggy bank?
There are several effective ways to save. Saving automatically is considered one of the easiest ways to successfully save money; it is sometimes called “paying yourself first.” When money comes out of your income and goes directly into an account that is not your primary spending (checking) account, you don’t have to make a savings decision every pay period, but your savings account balance will increase.
A popular way of automatic savings is having money go directly from your paycheck to a 401(k) or other retirement plan offered by your employer. This is the most well-known way to save for retirement (or semi-retirement!) Some employers will “match” all or part of the amount you are putting into the account.
Another way to automatically save is to establish a recurring transfer. Generally, you set up a transfer from an account where your income is deposited to a savings or investment account. The savings account is usually an account that is not as easy to access; it may pay some interest on your balance. Some banks and credit unions offer a “Christmas” account option, a savings account with very low minimum balances.
Some employers and many payroll services allow employees to split their direct deposit into more than one account. A split deposit is a way to have part of your pay deposited to your spending account and part to your savings account. This is an excellent way to pay yourself first.
In addition to these automatic savings methods, you may want to consider scheduled transfers to increase your savings rate. Employees with variable pay often find this works better than an automatic savings method. Evaluate your checking account balance each pay period or monthly, being sure to account for all expected spending. Then determine how much excess you would feel comfortable transferring to your savings. For example, if your monthly expenses are usually $3,000, and you want to keep a $4,000 minimum balance, seeing a $4,200 balance means you can transfer $200 to savings or pay down a debt by $200. When you see that extra $200, are you tempted to spend it instead of transferring to savings? Review your goals before you start this process. Thinking about the high interest rate you’re paying on past purchases or the vacation you want to take before checking your financial situation can help you stay on track.
A less common method of savings today should still be considered—save your loose change or extra cash. This method is particularly effective for people who have some cash income or use a cash method for budgeting and spending, like the envelope method. Essentially, you save the loose cash you have at the end of each day, or if you have extra money in your envelopes at the end of the week or month, you save it. Every little bit adds up!
How are you saving for your whealthiness goals?
Many Americans do not have any money set aside to cover a sudden expense and many people struggle with debt and bad credit. We aren’t taught how or why to save. In fact, our society encourages consumerism at any cost. It’s much easier to spend than to save! Savings is a habit, one that we can practice, getting better and adjusting, creating a lifestyle of financial confidence.
Learning to save is crucial to pursuing our goals, finding financial peace of mind, and aligning our spending with our values. It can seem overwhelming if you have never made a savings plan. But it’s never too late to start saving; start where you are.
This week is America Saves Week. ASW is a call to action to commit to savings by making a pledge, setting a goal, and creating a plan. The top savings goals in prior years included funding or increasing an emergency fund, paying down debt, and saving for a vacation or special event. Achieving these goals reduces financial fragility.
The benefits of savings include financial stability, feeling prepared for unexpected expenses, and having more money. Yes, I said having more money! If you have debt or use debt to pay for vacations or emergencies, you are paying interest and/or fees for all those purchases. When you stop paying extra for your purchases and improve your credit, you will have more money to spend as you want! Intentional spending and saving also allows us to feel less financial stress and support our values through our spending.
What are you saving for this year?
When we examine our motivations for the financial goals we set, it often comes down to a desire for peace of mind. Peace of mind that we can take care of ourselves. Peace of mind that we can take care of our families. Peace of mind that we won’t be a burden. Peace of mind that we can take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Peace of mind that we can change our circumstances when desired.
In my yoga practice, an instructor quoted Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog. He says, “Set peace of mind as your highest goal and organize your life around it.” Much of his writing and speaking is about productivity, so it is natural to think about setting a goal for achievement, but how do you achieve peace?
In practicing with this thought during yoga, we have ongoing moments of resistance, distraction, perhaps annoyance, and so on. (Yes, annoyance is a thing during yoga practice, either at the instructor for how long she wants us to hold a balancing pose, or ourselves as we wobble out of the pose before we smile and try again!) As we bring our thoughts back to being peaceful, we practice experiencing peace by accepting things as they are in the moment. A disruption gives us the opportunity to practice becoming aware of the moments of peace.
That doesn’t mean we should accept everything in our life exactly as it is and never try to change anything. We can change circumstances in our life through setting and achieving goals. Unlike many goals we set, attaining peace of mind requires a different approach. We can’t determine what SMART goals will help us achieve peace of mind, but they can give us some control of our situation, reducing the obstacles to having peace of mind.
I think if you set “peace” as your focus, you could then create intentional thoughts and questions to nudge your actions and decisions so that you become more aware of those peaceful moments. For example, you might sit quietly for a minute as you transition between tasks, taking the chance to examine how you are. Take some deep belly breaths to see if that helps you focus on your state of being.
Sometimes, peaceful moments are brief, so we might miss them until we build our awareness. The Buddha said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” By cultivating opportunities to encounter and become conscious of peace, we can experience more peace.
What does peace of mind mean to you? How do you work towards finding peace in your whealthy life?
Have you recently been bombarded with ads and suggestions for Valentine’s Day? While the origins of Valentine’s Day may have been different, today it is primarily a commercial observance. Consumers are accosted with ideas to show their loved ones how much they care by buying things they don’t normally purchase.
If you have debt (besides a mortgage and car loan that are up to date) or no emergency savings, you have no business buying gifts for yourself or anyone else. Even if your finances are in order, I propose that we consider what we want our Valentine’s Day to be and find three words that fit which do not require us to be consumers.
The three words most of us think of are “I love you.” Valentine’s Day is a perfect opportunity to express our gratitude and love. Write a note, letter, or if you have the talent, a song or poem to express your love. As a family, you might create a play or have a talent show! Or you could design a “newspaper” to send to other loved ones.
“No, thank you” is appropriate when someone asks if you want something for Valentine’s Day. You can follow that with the suggestion that we don’t need to give each other gifts for this consumer holiday. I think this works best when we are secure in our relationships and make ongoing efforts to show each other we care in ways that matter to the other person.
When someone asks what you want, “I have everything” is suitable. If you feel they will want something anyway, this might be a good time to discuss your budget or a goal you are saving towards. Is another tie or red hand towel that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise important enough to delay something else you need or want?
I’m not suggesting that you ignore Valentine’s Day completely (unless you want to.) There are lots of things we can do without spending more money. “Let’s play UNO”, or whatever games you have, can give you some fun time together.
If you and your loved one are trying to get healthier, “let’s go walking” (or hiking, biking, skating, etc.) could be a great option to spend time together while working on another goal. You can plan your path to stop and take photos to commemorate the day.
If one person in the household typically does most of the cooking, “let’s cook together” similarly gives us time together. Try recipes you wouldn’t tackle on your own, like one with lots of steps or ingredients. While you experiment together, others can help with “clean as you go,” learn how to help, and maybe take over some of the kitchen duties.
If none of these are quite right for you, start with “let’s try…” or “how about…” to find your own idea. Be open to experimenting. Remember to have fun! Give lots of hugs and kisses. And maybe have some leftovers ready in case that recipe didn’t turn out.
What’s your favorite whealthy way to celebrate the day?
Earlier this week on Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter. In Phoenix, it was a gorgeous 80-degree day. It is hard to imagine six more weeks of winter when we’re wearing shorts. On the same day, many places in the US had snowstorms; our friends in places with blizzards this week probably expect six more weeks of winter weather. Our experiences give us such different perspective! Writer Salman Rushdie said, “Reality is a question of perspective.”
It can be hard to broaden our own perspective to see others’ views. I’ve learned by some embarrassing “foot in mouth” experiences that we can’t all make the same choices, and that “obvious” choices are not the best option for everyone. For most things, there is no one-size-fits-all.
A few months ago, I volunteered with another financial planner in a high school program where the students are assigned an occupation/salary and family situation and then make a budget. Daniel and I taught the Transportation section. He is young, married with no children, and recently moved to Phoenix from New York City. He biked or used public transportation in NYC; now he shares a car with his wife. Like many, he believes that buying a used car is better than buying new.
The purchase price and insurance tend to be less for used cars than new cars. Also, a new car depreciates in value the moment you drive it off the lot, meaning when you buy a new car, you can’t sell it for what you bought it for, even right away! Dave Ramsey, a popular finance advisor, says that the depreciation is around 10% of the purchase price and that “You’re always going to be better off buying used”.
I suggested to Daniel that buying a used car isn’t always the best option. Ramit Sethi writes that “the most important factor is how long you keep the car” and advocates calculating the total cost of ownership, and keeping a car at least 7-10 years.
I bought my first cars used, and quite cheaply. For a few years, I had a manual Toyota Corolla that leaked fluid onto the floorboard; the backs of all my shoes were black. After I was in a car accident that resulted in a fractured back, car safety was critical to me, and I bought my first new car. Later, when I commuted 30 miles each way to work (we lived close to my then-husband’s workplace), I worried about getting stuck broken down on the I-10 late at night. I bought a hybrid for the fuel efficiency to lessen the impact of my commute.
For my co-teacher, the financial value of the car is important. For me, the reliability and safety are more important. We have different perceptions of the value and role of transportation. When we could see each other’s experiences, our different perceptions make sense and help us to see that our way is not the only way.
Whether it’s how you spend your money or how you move and nourish your body, there are so many options because none is right for everyone. What’s the most recent whealthiness decision you made based on your priorities—your perspective—instead of the popular advice?
Every year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, most commonly changes to eating, exercising, and finances. Articles are published every January explaining how to achieve those resolutions. Then, more articles follow with dire statistics of how many people give up on their resolutions by the end of January. However, one of the scholars studying resolutions estimates that about 40% of resolution makers are successful halfway through the year.
I found that resolutions don’t work for me. Instead, I set an area of focus each year. The first year I committed to this, I printed this Focus sketch by Carl Richards, which shows that you should only focus on things that matter AND that you can control.
After having had some struggles with my health and wellness, I decided my focus was “health.” Below the sketch, I wrote, in part: “My health is my number one priority. I make all decisions to improve and support my health, nourish my body, and keep moving.” Throughout that year, as I made decisions, I asked myself, “does this improve or support my health?” I made several big changes that year, as well as many smaller ones. Every year’s focus is not so lifechanging as that year was, but it keeps me focused on how or who I want to be.
When we make resolutions, they tend to be focused on a change we want to make, such as losing weight or working out more. When we switch that idea to a focus on who or how we want to be, it can change our view of ourselves. For example, if you want to lose weight, determine what is appealing about that lower weight that would be part of your identity, and focus on becoming that type of person. I wanted to be the type of person who made my health a priority, and my focus shifted to making decisions that type of person would make.
I like having a one-word reminder of my focus, but it is also important to write down how you are going to achieve that focus. While many would say that you should make it very specific, like going to the gym 3 times a week, I would suggest that it could be a statement or question that you can ask yourself throughout the year. This gives you flexibility to achieve your goal, experimenting with what works best for you; your actions might change based on your situation, unforeseen obstacles, and your accomplishments. If you go to the gym 3 times a week and hate it, a more flexible focus on moving more would allow you to try many other things like swimming, hiking, biking, or skating.
It’s never too late to create your focus for the year. How do you want to live your whealthiest life this year?
Virginia Asher, MSAFP, CFP®
My whealthiness journey has taught me that there is not one single way for us to live a prosperous life. I'll share what I've learned to help you find your way.