Simple Formula For Financial Sobriety

by | Aug 27, 2012 | Healthy Money Relationships, Life Aspiration Planning, Weekly Column

From time to time I offer financial courses through Community Education of the Black Hills. Classes on the fundamentals of making good investments and how to do your own financial planning usually fill quickly. A class on “financial sobriety”—how to change your behaviors around money and begin making wiser money decisions—had one person sign up. Based on my 30 years of financial advising, this wasn’t a big surprise.

Research tells us 70% of US citizens have no savings and live month to month or are insolvent. Only 9% have saved over $100,000 and just 3% over $500,000. Why is this? The simple answer is Americans have a significant resistance to saving.

Mathematically, the solution to this is very simple. Out of every dollar earned, do this: First, pay taxes. Second, save and invest 20% or more. Third, live on the rest. This formula has a high probability of successfully creating financial independence.

Why do fewer than one in 10 Americans follow this simple formula? The answer to that isn’t so simple.

The first response to these options is often, “I can’t.” Non-savers tell themselves there is nowhere to cut. When put in context of maintaining their current lifestyle, this is true—and therein lies the problem. When you’re living month to month, becoming a saver inherently means either reducing your lifestyle or increasing your income.

Unfortunately, too many people vaguely intend to start saving when their income goes up. This is backwards. Focusing instead on reducing your lifestyle is what creates the habit of saving.

For some people, downsizing a lifestyle can mean switching kids from private to public schools or selling expensive cars and homes. For others, downsizing can mean getting rid of cable TV, buying generic brands, and shopping at garage sales instead of Walmart. Most budgets have room for at least a few small cuts. We just can’t see the options, because our brains tell us that reducing our lifestyle will be a fate worse than death.

It may seem that a lifestyle reduction would be a lot easier for high income earners. Yet I’ve seen those earning $750,000 have as much trouble saving $10,000 a year as those earning $50,000. The self-talk and reasons why it’s impossible to cut spending are exactly the same.

It’s not about the money. It’s never about the money. It’s not that most non-savers don’t know the solution to saving more; it’s that they don’t like the solution. We cannot change what we refuse to confront.

It takes a lot of courage to admit you have to change and then take action to actually put a plan into motion. It can feel overwhelming, embarrassing, and fearful. It’s hard saying goodbye to the old lifestyle and the trappings we come to enjoy.

Fortunately, the difficult times are temporary. Humans are very adaptable. Before long you will settle into the new “normal.” You will discover you can be just as happy with your new lifestyle as you were in the old. The anxiety of losing that lifestyle will be replaced with the satisfaction of watching your savings and investments grow, knowing you will someday be able to support yourself without working.

Eventually, you will experience much less anxiety than you did when you were living in denial. Knowing you have enough savings to see you through a job loss or other financial calamity is a real anxiety buster.

You may even choose not to increase your lifestyle as your income increases. You’ll be too busy enjoying the financial serenity, satisfaction, and joy that comes with living on less than you earn and building financial independence.

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