Getting to that point in your career where you’re finally making real money is a reason for celebration. Whether from getting the job you went to school all those years for, working your way up to more responsibility, or getting a significant annual bonus, having more income is a great feeling.
Besides more income for the day-to-day, what you’ve accomplished is finally putting yourself firmly on the first stage of a financial journey that could result in long-term wealth. Retiring early, taking time out from a career, accomplishing goals like buying a house, buying into a practice, or starting your own business, all of these are now within reach. But how you handle the first stage of higher income makes a huge difference in how soon your goals become a reality.
It’s a lot to take in, but there are some easy steps you can take to keep more of the income you’re making, relieve your debt burden more quickly, and get your new assets working for you.
Maximize Your Employee Benefits
Your salary isn’t the only source of income from your work. Your employee benefits are worth real money if you deploy them thoughtfully. These can include employer-paid health insurance, additional forms of insurance coverage, pre-tax contributions to flexible spending accounts for health and commuter expenses, paid time off, health and wellness perks, and more. Time spent reviewing your employee handbook and signing up for benefits can keep more money in your pocket and lower your taxable income.
The most valuable benefit is usually an employer-sponsored retirement plan, either a 401(k) or IRA. Contributions to traditional retirement plans are tax-deductible, so it’s generally recommended to contribute as much as possible (up to the annual contribution limits) to maximize tax savings. A rule of thumb is that 15% of your salary should be earmarked for your 401(k) contributions.
However, if your employer matches your contribution, make sure you contribute enough to get the employer matching funds. Not taking advantage of this benefit is leaving money on the table. Instead of getting a raise, it’s like volunteering to take a pay cut.
It’s Called “Cash Flow Planning” Because You’re Meant to Do it in Advance
The ability to make purchases and know you can cover them at the end of the month is a great feeling. But it can quickly get out of control and sabotage your long-term goals. If you’re using credit cards and then covering expenses with the next paycheck – guess what? You’re still living paycheck to paycheck; it’s just that the paychecks got bigger.
With increasing income often comes “lifestyle inflation.” The temptation to increase your expenses along with a rising income is understandable, and you should reward yourself, but excess spending can leave you in a tough spot.
You can avoid it by having a cash flow plan. Your cash flow is simply the money coming in and going out each month. But don’t confuse it with your budget. Budgets are about regulating spending. Cash flow planning is about tying your income to goals to see where you need to make changes. These can include limiting spending but may also minimize debt costs or increase investment risk. Cash flow planning helps with big-picture planning across your financial picture.
Start With Your Income
After taxes, this means monthly net income across all sources, including salary and bonus, side gigs, everything.
Identify Your Expenses
These usually break down as follows:
- Debt including credit cards, leases, and loans (personal, education, etc.)
- Taxes except for salary taxes, which is covered in net income
- Basic monthly expenses: Rent, food, gas, cable, phone, etc.
- Discretionary expenses: Dinners, trips, purchases
- Savings: Cash reserve, retirement, big purchase
- Insurance costs: Homeowners, health, professional liability, auto
- Extraordinary expenses: Vet bill, car repair, etc. To get a realistic annual figure, average the last three years
By knowing where you’re at, you can begin planning for what’s possible. This means identifying short-term and long-term goals.
- A vacation trip
- A new luxury car or other big consumer purchase
- Buying your first home
- Buying into a practice or starting a business
Creating a timeline for when you want to accomplish your goals and then tying it to your cash flow planning can help you identify areas where you want to make changes to hit your goals.
Setting aside money creates flexibility so that even if your goals change, you can reallocate those dollars towards whatever the new plans are.
Knowing your goals and values allows you to begin making the right financial decisions for your situation and makes it easier to say no to things that distract from your primary purpose. As life unfolds, your goals will evolve, so it’s essential to revisit and evaluate your current cash flow plan to ensure it aligns with your current way of life.
Creating a Cash Reserve
Also known as an emergency fund, your cash reserve should consist of 3-6 months of your living expenses (or more if you have variable income). Having a cash reserve is an essential piece of your financial foundation. It could help you avoid high-interest credit card debt if an unexpected expense were to come up. It’s generally recommended to keep your emergency fund in a high-yield savings account so that it can earn slightly higher interest than it would at a traditional bank.
Getting Out from Under Debt
Even with relatively low interest rates, debt can get expensive. And the less debt you have, the higher your credit rating will be. This matters when you want to move forward with goals like buying a house, but even lease rates on cars or credit cards are sensitive to your credit rating.
How can you go about minimizing debt?
- The refinancing decision is first up. If your credit score is good and your debt-to-income ratio is below 50%, you may want to explore options, such as a lower interest rate or a shorter loan term. If you are eligible for the federal student loan repayment program, you shouldn’t refinance.
- Set up auto-pay. Very often, you’ll get a tiny discount for having autopay in place, but mostly you don’t ever want to miss a payment, and autopay avoids that.
- Bump up your payments. Adding extra money every month to your original payment schedule can help you pay down debt faster. You’ll need to contact your servicer to ensure they put extra money toward your balance and not your next monthly payment.
If you have credit card debt, you’ll want to pay that off as quickly as possible, so prioritize that in your cash flow planning.
Enjoy Your Money
What’s the point of a financial plan if you never get to enjoy your money? Building a solid foundation around the basics and creating good habits is essential, but it’s just as important to make flexibility and fun part of your plan. This portion of your money should be for things that bring you joy, whether travel, nice dinners, shopping, etc. Your overall situation will determine how much you can spend in this area, but don’t forget to build it into your cash flow plan.
The goal of financial planning is two-fold: to help you enjoy your money now and to ensure that you are setting yourself up to achieve your life goals in the future. By thinking through your financial goals and values, you can then begin using tactics and strategies to align your money with those defined goals.
Money is nothing more than a tool to get you where you want to be, and a financial advisor can help you think through your options and ultimately help you make the best decisions for yourself, your family, and your money.
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