Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Ramsey Plan vs. The Nerd-ey Plan

A reader commented on a previous post (thanks!) about my general financial strategy and how similar it is to Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. This post is a result of that comment. Also, before reading the details of my family’s strategy, please understand that I am not a financial planner. I don't have a degree in finance or even economics. I don't work in finance for a living (directly, anyway). I’m just a regular Joe that’s lucky enough to have a decent finance understanding and is willing to share my family’s long-term strategy!

I’m big fan of goal-setting, both short-term and long-term. I write them down, check on them regularly, revise them if necessary, and celebrate my successes when I reach them. I truly believe that once you set a clearly defined goal for yourself and write it down, you’re well on your way to achieving that goal. Just merely having a plan to follow makes decisions easier and keeps you focused on what’s really important to you.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve got financial goals...lots of them. I keep monthly, yearly and lifetime financial goals and they’re all meticulously documented, revisited, and revised regularly. They all help me make day-to-day decisions, and keep me moving the direction I want to go. One of the most important is my overall financial strategy.

Dave Ramsey's plan is a great starting point for the majority of Joe Q. Public. It's simple, easy to understand, and effective. But, I certainly don't think it's optimum, at least for us. The plan my wife and I follow to manage our finances and investments is more sophisticated than Dave Ramsey's plan, but I think it's a better fit for us. Yours may be totally different!

For comparison's sake, here's Dave's plan:

1) $1000 for a starter emergency fund.
2) Pay off all consumer debt using the debt snowball.
3) Accumulate 3 to 6 months worth of living expenses for an emergency fund.
4) Invest 15% of gross income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement.
5) Fund college.
6) Pay off home early.
7) Build wealth with mutual funds and real estate.

My family's strategy varies in the steps themselves and in the amounts dictated by each step. Hopefully, I'm able to fully explain my reasoning for the changes I've made. Here are my steps:

1) Save $1000 per member of your family for a starter emergency fund. Personally, I don't think $1000 is quite enough, especially if you have children. It's a great goal for a single person, but if you've got a family, you've got more folks to cover and emergencies have the potential to hit a little harder. I realize for people with large families, this goal becomes significantly more difficult, so good judgment needs to be used when determining your personal amount.

2) If your company offers a match on your 401(k), take it. Invest only up to the amount required to get the entire match. If you don't do this step, you have the potential to leave a HUGE amount of free money on the table. Think of it this way: If on every payday, a man at the exit of your office's building would hand you a stack of 20-dollar bills ($100, $200, or $500) just for investing 5% of your income, wouldn't you take it? That's what your company match is: free money. Even better, it's free money that'll compound as your 401(k) balance grows over the years.

3) Pay off all consumer debt, starting with the smallest amount, using a debt snowball. In this instance I agree with Dave. Even though starting with the balance with the highest interest rate would result in a mathematically better result (minimally in most cases); I think the smallest balance should be tackled first, for a couple of reasons. First, if you go after the smallest balance first, you knock a minimum payment off your books quickly. This could be a big help if your family does get hit with some sort of financial hardship; it's one less minimum payment to make, which means your overall minimum monthly outlay is smaller. Second, there is a significant psychological boost over dropping a debt entirely, which does help to motivate you to keep moving.

4) Accumulate 4-6 months of living expenses for an emergency fund in a high-interest savings or money-market account. . I've written about the virtues of a solid emergency fund in the past, so this shouldn't be a surprise. Once you've got your debt paid off, accumulating this money shouldn't be too difficult. If you've only got one bread-winner, I think a six-month cash cushion is pretty darned important.

5) Invest 15-20% of gross income in Roth IRAs and tax-advantaged retirement accounts, up to federal maximums. I think that you can never have too much retirement income. Dave suggests 15%, but for us, 20% works up to the federal maximums. If you're fully funding two people's Roth IRAs (currently $5000 each), it doesn't take very much additional investment to reach that 20%! If you can make it automatic, so much the better. Fully funding a Roth IRA for one person is only $96 a week!

6) Fund 80-95% of college costs for your children. While you can certainly do 100% funding if you so choose, I like the 80-95% number a bit better. I firmly believe that when someone has a monetary stake in something, they take it more seriously, and in my mind, college is no exception. I fully expect my future son to contribute something to his college education (which is a long way off!).

7) Put 10% of your net paychecks into a mutual fund as a "freedom account". This is your "retire early" account, or your "travel around the world" account, or whatever-big-dream-you-may-have account. For us, it's retire early!

8) Pay off your home mortgage. Obviously, we'd all love to own our homes outright. Since a home mortgage is typically lower interest and tax-advantaged, I think this is the proper step to do it.

9) Build wealth with mutual funds, real estate, and businesses. When you get to this last step, you're living the good life. You'll have plenty of cash on hand, solid retirement accounts, a paid-for house, and fantastic cash flow. It's time to build it up even more through investing. If you choose real estate (rentals) or a business, that’s great. Mutual funds are great, too.

As I said before, this likely isn't the path that's right for you. Each individual needs something just a little different. Right now, this path is perfect for us. As things change in the future, our goals and needs may change, too. So, we're going to keep our strategy flexible.

So, what does your financial strategy look like?


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