Lockdown Lesson: Live Smaller, Improve Your Finances
Employ the flexibility you’ve shown in virus-era living — you’ll be better off
The 40 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits as the coronavirus has decimated the U.S. economy are obviously the most vulnerable victims of the pandemic. And the financial fear extends into millions more households gripped with the uncertainty of the long-term impact of a crisis that is still in play.
If the instability from this crisis has jolted you into starting to rethink, well, just about everything, with an eye on building a more sustainable and safe financial foundation, you might try thinking small.
Not small in the sense of living in a 200-square-foot tiny house. Or going all-in on the abstemious spending that rules the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement. No disrespect to anyone in those camps; all are viable life choices, but they also require embracing a bit of an extreme approach.
There’s a more moderate approach to thinking small that can have a profound impact on your finances: Become more vigilant about combatting lifestyle creep.
For big-ticket purchases, the goal is to always ask yourself if a little smaller (and thus less expensive) might work out just fine. For day-to-day spending, the goal is to banish the rationalization of “it’s only” from your mindset.
This isn’t about going without, but rather about making a more conscious decision to right-size your spending to help you achieve financial goals that have become more finely focused given recent events.
Buy the smaller house. The size of U.S. homes has grown about 50% over the past 40 years, but the size of the U.S. household hasn’t. And it appears that the initial emotional high of a bigger home wears off after one year. Yet, you’re still paying the bigger mortgage and likely have higher utility bills. Forgoing an extra bedroom can boost your retirement savings by $500,000.
Ditch the off-site storage and its contents. At last count, storage facilities were making $38 billion a year off of households looking for more space to park stuff they can’t wedge into their home. Got a storage space? If you can’t right here and now do a quick and complete inventory of what you have there, that’s a yellow warning signal you’re paying to keep stuff that probably doesn’t need to be kept. Whatever your monthly fee is, evaluate it through your new set of pandemic eyes: Might you have better uses now for that money?
Check your car craziness. The average monthly payment for a new-car loan is more than $500. And the average repayment time has nearly doubled over the past 50 years; 36 months used to be the norm, not 72 or 84. Spending less on cars can add hundreds of thousands to your retirement savings. That’s your goal for the next car.
As for the current car, aim to drive it as long as possible after the loan is paid off. Those are months (years, hopefully) where you redirect what you were paying on the car loan into saving more for retirement or paying down your mortgage. In a world where some workers will find a more receptive attitude toward remote work, keeping your car longer becomes even more doable.
The payoff is eye-opening. Keep driving the paid-off car for four more years and direct the $500 into an online high-yield savings account and you will have about $25,000. That’s a mighty nice addition to an emergency fund.
Or let’s assume you save $500 a month for the four years, with the intention of keeping the money invested for a total of 20 years. Given your long-term goal, let’s use a 5% annualized rate of return (that’s actually on the conservative side, for a portfolio that mixes stocks and bonds, based on historical returns). Your four years of saving will grow to about $55,000, a nice payoff for driving your still-reliable car for a few years.
Choose the right college. Yep, a college degree is worth it. Nope, not at any cost. The thing is, many families don’t focus on financially smart schools. Those are the ones where your net price will be low enough that your family doesn’t have to go deep into debt. It’s very doable if you choose to be strategic, and start planning a few years ahead of application season.
And if borrowing is necessary, federal student loans are affordable and built to protect students from over-borrowing. Parents looking to right-size their spending need to carefully consider if any federal PLUS loan borrowing is reasonable. (Hint: Retirement saving is more important.)
Sweat the small stuff (just a little more). When faced with really big numbers staring back at us — house, college, retirement — it’s easy to look past the small stuff. We tell ourselves that in the grand scheme of things the $5 coffee and $10 cocktail aren’t a big deal. Or another streaming service for $10 or $15 is not going to make a difference. Individually, maybe not. But have you ever taken an inventory of how your small day-to-day choices add up? This is not a screed suggesting they all get tossed. But what if you managed to cut your spending on the small stuff by half?
Any chance that could free up $50 a week? If so, that’s $50 more to pay down the remaining student loan. Or $50 a week to save up for a bigger down payment on a used car. Or $50 more to tuck away for retirement. Keep it up for 30 years, and you’ve added an extra $180,000 to your retirement savings, assuming a 5% annualized return. Got 40 years to go? OK, start on that $50 a week right now and you will have more than $330,000 saved.