Seven Financial Resolutions for the New Year – 2011

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New Years 2011Financial resolutions usually don’t even last until the end of January. Making a permanent change in our behavior requires both time and a steely resolve. We can only develop financial character one action at a time. Here are seven practices to take you from pauper to prince or princess if you add one each year.

Read through the list. If you already practice the resolution, move on to the next one. Adding one behavioral change is labor enough for the next 12 months. Keep it long enough for practice to become habit, and you are on your way to developing a millionaire mindset.

Share your resolution with everyone you meet. You are 10 times more likely to act on a goal that you have articulated to someone else. Don’t wait until you have everything perfect to take ownership verbally.

First, and most critical, resolve to be and stay debt free. You may have a fixed-rate fixed-year traditional mortgage on your house but nothing else. No equity line of credit on your house. No car payments. Certainly no credit card debt. You have to learn to live within your income, which sometimes means going without. Millionaires are frugal. Learn to enjoy it.

Second, automate saving enough to get the entire match that your company’s 401(k) plan offers. Usually this translates to saving 5% of your salary while the company contributes a 4% match, the fastest way to get an 80% return on your money. Most Americans forgo this match, believing they need to spend 100% of their salary. But you can learn to think like a millionaire and live well on 95% of what you make.

Next, fully fund your Roth IRA ($5,000 in 2011). If you can’t manage the entire amount in January, put in $416 monthly.

Automating deposits in an employer-defined contribution plan is easy. Fortunately, automating saving in a Roth IRA or a taxable savings plan is equally painless. Most brokers offer an automatic money link between your checking account and an investment account. Set your savings on autopilot.

Fourth, save an additional 5% of your salary in a taxable account. Again, set up an automated transfer. You need taxable savings for a host of financial planning opportunities as well as for a plethora of life’s challenges.

By now you are saving 15% to 20% of your salary and living off the remainder. Learning to live deferring many of your wants until later is a crucial habit that millionaires have cultivated. Money makes money. And the money you need to make money is called “capital,” defined in textbooks as “deferred consumption.” Money spent is gone forever. Money saved and invested works for you, adding income every year.

Seven Financial Resolutions

  1. Be and stay debt free.
  2. Automate your 401(k) match.
  3. Fully fund your $5,000 Roth IRA.
  4. Invest 5% in a taxable account.
  5. Gift 10% in appreciated investments.
  6. Save 10% for unknown unknowns.
  7. Push saving and investing to 50%.

Fifth, save an additional 10% for charitable giving. Many millionaires might suggest being generous should be number one on your list. But until you have your own financial security on track, it is difficult to help others don their own oxygen masks.

No matter where you think charity belongs in your priorities, a sensitivity to the truly needy will change your perspective about distinguishing needs and wants. Many millionaires live simply in order that others may simply live.

Save this additional 10% in your taxable account. By now you are saving 15% in a taxable account. For your charitable giving, gift the investments from the account that has appreciated the most.

No matter which worthy organizations you support, you can donate up to 20% more if you give appreciated stock instead of cash. If you sell $1,000 worth of appreciated stock, you will have to pay the capital gains tax of 20%. If most of the stock’s value is appreciation, the tax owed approaches $200, leaving only $800 for charitable giving. But if you give the stock directly to the charitable organization, you can take the full $1,000 tax deduction, and the organization will not have to pay any taxes when it sells the stock.

Up until now you may have been giving cash to charities. Now that you are developing some taxable savings, run your giving through your taxable investments. For every $1,000 of appreciated investments donated, use the $1,000 in cash you would have gifted to buy additional investments. Think of this as planting the saplings you will harvest later for future gifting.

After several years, your $1,000 worth of cash should have grown to $2,000 worth of investments. Gifting a $1,000 worth of appreciated investments leaves the original $1,000 to keep increasing in value and fund future giving. This is one reason why frugal supersavers can be much more generous than those whose rich lifestyles preclude saving and investing.

Sixth, save an additional 10% in your taxable account for unknown unknowns. If your response is to ask, “Like what?” remember that you can’t plan for everything. But you can save cash for the unexpected.

Families inevitably encounter cash flow problems because of unanticipated expenses. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, your budget cannot handle large unplanned outlays such as the car breaking down, the roof leaking or emergency medical bills.

When a financial crisis strikes, you will be glad to have an emergency fund. Afterward, see if you could have predicted the expense, and adjust your plan accordingly. Budget each month for the inevitable expense of buying your next car. Budget for replacing your roof. The more you can foresee these expenses, the more this category can fund discretional big purchases instead of financial emergencies.

At this point you are saving more than 35% of your salary and living on less than 65%. This is the benchmark for a millionaire mindset. As you save and invest, the appreciation on your investments can provide income that replaces your salary, bringing you closer to financial freedom. When you can replace all of your income, you are free to retire or tackle challenges that do not make you any money.

Every 25% of your salary you save replaces over 1% of your regular income in retirement. Money makes money, which then gives you the gift of financial freedom.

The seventh and final challenge is to expand this financial engine beyond 35% toward 50%. Living off half your income requires a frugal lifestyle in comparison to your income. Impossible, you say? Unless you are among the truly needy, there are families out there living comfortably on less than half of what you earn.

And if you are among the genuinely wealthy, the only obstacle standing in your way is being accustomed to an affluent lifestyle. Learn to value financial freedom over opulence. Developing an engine of wealth production takes foresight and self-restraint in addition to time and patience. But the reward is financial peace and contentment.

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.