Ignore Most Financial Planning Rules

General rules of thumb for financial planning rarely work. Here are some with my critiques:

“Stocks minus your age should equal 100” – Bad rule – your investment allocation depends on your risk tolerance, the rate of return required to achieve your goals, when you add to investments from annual savings or stock option exercises and when you remove investments to fund lifestyle needs.

“Life insurance must equal six times compensation” – Bad rule – your spouse or partner would use all of your resources, including insurance, to fund lifestyle needs after you die. If you review this and determine a short-fall, that is the amount to be funded by insurance. It could be more or less than the six-fold multiple but ensures that your survivors have adequate resources to be protected.

“Save 10% of income annually” – Decent rule – however, some may need to save even more and others may have no savings need. As with life insurance, the question is whether the return from assets plus annual savings over your life expectancy will fund your lifestyle.  

“You only need 70% of income in retirement” – Bad rule – in fact, many people spend more in the first years of retirement as they travel more while spending far less in their 70’s and 80’s as their needs become fewer. This can be further complicated by estate planning goals of gifting to children or charities.

“Hold six months after-tax income for a rainy day” – Decent rule – however, this depends on liquidity, borrowing ability (e.g., home equity line) and cash flow. If annual income permits substantial savings, such that you could pay for a new roof without affecting lifestyle, your “rainy day” reserve can be much less.

“Monthly payments on debt should not exceed 20% of income” – Decent rule – in fact, the rule is somewhat irrelevant in that most lenders apply rules to limit mortgage payments plus home insurance and property taxes to a percentage of income. As with the savings rule, your level of debt may be more or less depending on assets available, risk tolerance and lifestyle costs.

“Do not refinance until rates drop 2%”– Bad rule – the test is simple: how soon will the cost of refinancing be recouped by lower payments? With no points/no closing cost loans, this can a year or less. Buying down a rate by paying points will make sense if the pay-off is in 12 to 24 months and if you plan to stay in the residence for seven years or more.

“Delete collision coverage on a car more than 7 years old” – Decent rule – as with the “rainy day” reserve, this depends on cash flow and other resources. It also depends on whether the car is your “antique.”

“Do not spend more than 7% of income on long-term care insurance”– Uncertain rule – some people may have sufficient assets to self-insure. Some people will not risk nursing care due to bad family health history; they will want to pay for full insurance.  

Are you going to break the rules?

While breaking rules may or may not work for you, creating and sticking to a financial plan will!

Budgets? “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Budget”

Budgets rarely work. It takes tremendous effort to accurately record all transactions so that you have a valid budget. Then, frequently, after all this effort, you rarely come back to the budget. That means that the work had no payoff. Furthermore, people often claim that they had nonrecurring expenses. Doing so, they artificially understate their expenses, not realizing each year has some nonrecurring event.

A much easier way to test savings is to take a twelve-month period, look at cash and credit card balances at the beginning and end, check for any inflows from gifts or other non-salary items, and then measure the change. Did the cash accounts go up or did the credit cards go up? That is your savings/dis-savings for that year.

Rather than doing a budget to adjust behavior, force a change. You can do that by removing money from your discretionary spending by contributing the maximum to a 401(k) plan, by an auto debit that put funds into an investment account, and other auto payments. If your credit card balances go up, then you have to make a decision to alter behavior, such as cutting entertainment, or decide to delay goals (retire later, no new car now, etc.)

How does cash flow relate to debts? Managing your debt means getting the lowest after-tax interest rate so that you pay as much principle with each payment to pay off the loan as quickly as possible. You can deduct the interest paid on a mortgage and an equity line of credit debt. You can deduct up to $2,500 of student loan debt. But you cannot deduct the interest on most other debt, unless used for your business (watch for a post on side hussles).