According to the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for emergencies. Rising health-care costs have put added pressure on consumers. LIMRA’s Secure Retirement Institute notes just 44 percent of Americans believe their Social Security check, pension and retirement savings will cover their expenses in retirement.
Why are so many people struggling in what is arguably the best economy in a decade? Part of the answer is incomes haven’t gone up that much over the past 20 years. In 2016, the U.S. median income was just over $59,000, or a few dollars over the median income in 2000, on an inflation-adjusted basis.
Wage increases and lower tax rates haven’t come close to making up for increases in living expenses, health-care cost increases and education expenses. Financial illiteracy runs rampant.
Employers are finally recognizing the cost of having employees who are financially stressed, and they are providing financial wellness assistance above and beyond having a 401(k) plan. Ilyce has seen tremendous growth and maturity in the financial wellness benefits space, with employers adding sophisticated platforms with artificial intelligence, financial education, student loan debt repayment, microloans and even ways to get an advance on pay (which, while far from ideal, is still better than using a payday lender or borrowing against 401(k) savings).
The good news is there is new research showing people in Gen Z are aware of what they don’t know and are making saving a priority. Millennials, despite having the most student loan and credit card debt, are starting to buy homes.
The bottom line is every little bit of saving helps. So, as we move further into 2020 and everyone heads back to the gym and goes back on their diets, here are some personal financial resolutions you might want to make, especially if we enter an economic downturn:
1. Spend less — and track it. Do you know how much you spend each month? Write down every cent you spend. You can keep track online, in an Excel spreadsheet or in a little notebook. Don’t forget to factor in all those recurring expenses, like your online accounts, and things you may pay only annually, like insurance premiums. We guarantee you’re spending more than you think and wasting dollars (not just cents) on items that don’t matter in the long or short run. If you have a coffee habit, know that your $5 per day habit translates into more than $1,800 per year. Cigarettes and marijuana (where legal) might cost you double that.
2. Save more — and track this, too. No matter how much you’ve socked away, you should plan to save more. We’ve made a habit of saving an average of 20 percent of our salaries for the past 20 years. How did we do it? A few simple tricks: Do more yourself instead of hiring others (including yard work and, where possible, home repairs). Eat in instead of going out. And shop around. Whether you’re buying a home in 2020, saving for your children’s college tuition or bolstering your retirement savings, having more cash on hand gives you options. Whenever the next recession hits, you’ll be grateful for every penny.
3. Pay down as much debt as you can. If you’re buying a home, you’ll want to eliminate as much debt as possible. Mortgage lenders require borrowers to follow strict rules regarding debt-to-income ratios; you’ll need to focus on your debt repayment strategy. Be smart about the debt you carry; try to “snowball” your debts by paying off the smallest debt first and then adding that amount to the next smallest debt once it’s gone.
If you already own a home, try prepaying your mortgage. Nothing feels as good as knowing your home is all paid off and you can redirect those payments somewhere else. (And you’ll be amazed how much better you’ll sleep at night once your debt is paid down.)
Remember: Financial wellness is all about building a foundation of financial stability, with good money habits, that will last you a lifetime.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.