Hindsight Is 2020: What Will You Do Differently This Year?
According to a recent survey, 76% of Americans reported having at least one financial regret. Over half of this group said it had to do with savings: 27% didn't start saving for retirement soon enough, 19% didn't contribute enough to an emergency fund, and 10% wish they had saved more for college.1
The saving conundrum
What's preventing Americans from saving more? It's a confluence of factors: stagnant wages over many years; the high cost of housing and college; meeting everyday expenses for food, utilities, and child care; and squeezing in unpredictable expenses for things like health care, car maintenance, and home repairs. When expenses are too high, people can't save, and they often must borrow to buy what they need or want, which can lead to a never-ending cycle of debt.
People make financial decisions all the time, and sometimes these decisions don't pan out as intended. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Looking back, would you change anything?
Paying too much for housing
Are housing costs straining your budget? A standard lender guideline is to allocate no more than 28% of your income toward housing expenses, including your monthly mortgage payment, real estate taxes, homeowners insurance, and association dues (the "front-end" ratio), and no more than 36% of your income to cover all your monthly debt obligations, including housing expenses plus credit card bills, student loans, car loans, child support, and any other debt that shows on your credit report and requires monthly payments (the "back-end" ratio).
But just because a lender determines how much you can afford to borrow doesn't mean you should. Why not set your ratios lower? Many things can throw off your ability to pay your monthly mortgage bill down the road — a job loss, one spouse giving up a job to take care of children, an unexpected medical expense, tuition bills for you or your child.
Potential solutions: To lower your housing costs, consider downsizing to a smaller home (or apartment) in the same area, researching and moving to a less expensive town or state, or renting out a portion of your current home. In addition, watch interest rates and refinance when the numbers make sense.
Paying too much for college
Outstanding student debt levels in the United States are off the charts, and it's not just students who are borrowing. Approximately 15 million student loan borrowers are age 40 and older, and this demographic accounts for almost 40% of all student loan debt.2
Potential solutions: If you have a child in college now, ask the financial aid office about the availability of college-sponsored scholarships for current students, or consider having your child transfer to a less expensive school. If you have a child who is about to go to college, run the net price calculator that's available on every college's website to get an estimate of what your out-of-pocket costs will be at that school. Look at state universities or community colleges, which tend to be the most affordable. For any school, understand exactly how much you and/or your child will need to borrow — and what the monthly loan payment will be after graduation — before signing any loan documents.
Paying too much for your car
Automobile prices have grown rapidly in the last decade, and most drivers borrow to pay for their cars, with seven-year loans becoming more common.3 As a result, a growing number of buyers won't pay off their auto loans before they trade in their cars for a new one, creating a cycle of debt.
Potential solutions: Consider buying a used car instead of a new one, be proactive with maintenance and tuneups, and try to use public transportation when possible to prolong the life of your car. As with your home, watch interest rates and refinance when the numbers make sense.
Keeping up with the Joneses
It's easy to want what your friends, colleagues, or neighbors have — nice cars, trips, home amenities, memberships — and spend money (and possibly go into debt) to get them. That's a mistake. Live within your means, not someone else's.
Potential solutions: Aim to save at least 10% of your current income for retirement and try to set aside a few thousand dollars for an emergency fund (three to six months' worth of monthly expenses is a common guideline). If you can't do that, cut back on discretionary items, look for ways to lower your fixed costs, or explore ways to increase your current income.
1Bankrate's Financial Security Index, May 2019
2Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Student Loan Data and Demographics, September 2018
3The Wall Street Journal, The Seven-Year Auto Loan: America's Middle Class Can't Afford Their Cars, October 1, 2019