That Rebate Check Could Ruin Your Retirement Part 2

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Last week’s article explained the wrong-headed decisions behind the current tax-stimulus package, its deleterious effects on an already fragile economy, and how consumers delude themselves in the ways they spend the money. This week I explain the effects of the rebate checks on the savings for retirement. Anyone who spends more than 4% of their rebate will actually lose ground saving toward their retirement.

Retirement is the ability to continue your current standard of living solely through the growth of your investment assets. Raising your standard of living is the fastest way to fall behind your retirement goals. Every time you increase your spending by $1, you need $23 more in your investments when you retire.

So if you spend even half of your $1,800 rebate check and put the other half in savings, you fall $19,800 further behind in your retirement. Spending the extra $900 means you are expecting to continue living a lifestyle $900 greater than the lifestyle you have been living. To support that lifestyle, you will need 23 times that amount, or $20,700 more, in the bank at your retirement. But because you are only putting $900 more in your retirement, you fall $19,800 behind.

The problem worsens with every dollar of rebate you spend. Spend the entire $1,800 and you fall $41,400 behind on your retirement savings. Get tricked by the windfall effect I discussed last week, and you will increase several smaller purchases and spend 2.5 times your rebate check. Spending $4,500 more means you have fallen $103,500 behind in saving for your retirement.

Even back at only spending half of your check, you’ve spent $900 and only saved enough to do that again next year. You’ve saved like there’s only one tomorrow. To support a constant lifestyle increase and not simply a two-year binge, you can only spend about 4% of the $1,800, or $72.

At this point, I can hear your objections: “But I’d just be spending the $900 this year. I’m not really increasing my lifestyle.”

Unfortunately, lifestyle is tricky to calculate. It is easy to ratchet up but nearly impossible to trim down. Just try cutting your spending by $900 this month and adding that amount to your investments if you think it’s easy to economize. Whatever your standard of living, there are people living $900 below you who are considering using their rebate check to add the one thing they believe they are missing from your lifestyle.

You can’t spend money apart from your lifestyle because that’s the definition of lifestyle. If you add an additional $900 to your lifestyle, you will have to cut back by the same amount next year just to get back on track toward your retirement.

Most people spend money they will only receive once and are more cautious about spending additional salary. However, the exact opposite should be true. Money you are given once cannot support an increase in your lifestyle. You have to amortize the money over your entire lifetime and spend only about 4% in any one year. But additional salary can be counted on every year. Therefore you can spend between 70% and 80% of salary increases and still stay on track by always saving between 15% and 30% of your income each year.

A much better idea is to think of the rebate check as a matching contribution. Imagine the government is making you the following deal: “We will give you a check only if you put it in savings and match it with your own money, cutting your lifestyle this year by that amount.”

If you take the government’s deal and cut your lifestyle by $1,800 and add that plus the rebate check to your retirement savings, then you really grow rich. First, you have added $3,600 more toward your retirement. But more importantly, by cutting your lifestyle by $1,800, you now need $41,400 less to make retirement a possibility! With one small matching funds incentive by the government, you are a total of $45,000 closer to financial independence.

Staying on course toward retirement is as much about moderating your lifestyle as it is about saving and investing. If you need 23 times your standard of living at age 65, you need about 10 times at age 50, 5 times at age 40, and 1.7 times at age 30. Investments can double quickly, but you must have something saved while you are young to get the process started. Delay saving for several years and you will cut in half your lifestyle in retirement.

Compare what you spend with what you have saved to see if you are on the money toward meeting your retirement goals. And consider that tax rebate gimmick for what it is: another cheap attempt at stopping you from achieving financial independence.

Here’s a program I could support as president: Offer to pay people matching funds toward their retirement in accounts they would own and control. We wouldn’t even have to call it “privatized Social Security.”

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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.