They were a professional couple in their 30s who aspired to a larger home and the good life. Well, they bought that big home but instead of living the good life, the couple was getting killed by big bills.
Mortgage payments and the cost of a gardener, housekeeper and pool cleaner ate up a whopping 70% of their income. They eventually couldn't handle their credit card charges and arrived at the brink of bankruptcy.
But after seeking financial advice, the couple now follows a tight budget designed to whittle down their debt and build savings. "We've got their housing expenses down to 50%, and they've started to pay off the mortgages," says financial planner Patricia Warren, who worked with the couple. "The pool man and the gardener went, too."
Warren's clients have plenty of soul mates. Many well-paid individuals have serious money problems simply because they don't know how to save and budget, financial planners say.
"Most don't have a concept of saving money," Warren says. "They have no money for retirement. They are struggling to live. They feel deprived. They say: 'Here I am. I have a good job and I don't have any money to go on vacation.' "
Financial planners say a budget can steer you away from money problems and toward your personal and financial goals. And, they say, it's never to late to learn how.
The first and most important step is determining what your goals are.
"Budgeting is a form of goal-setting," says Lewis Wallensky, a financial planner in Century City. Those goals could include such things as returning to school in three years, starting a business, sending children to college, buying a house, taking a vacation or retirement.
Wallensky suggests avoiding extremely long-term goals. "If you are 22, don't think about age 65 or you will drive yourself crazy," he says.
After setting goals, add up your income. Many people, Wallensky says, forget an important source: company benefits. Be sure to take into account company contributions to 401(k) savings plans and profit-sharing plans.
Next, determine your expenses. "That's where a lot of people go wrong," says Frances B. Smith, a consumer credit expert at the American Financial Services Assn. "They don't know where the money goes."
Smith suggests breaking expenses into four categories: fixed expenses (rent, fixed mortgages and taxes, among other things); variable expenses (utility bills); debt expenses (payments on auto loans and credit cards), and discretionary expenses (clothing and entertainment).
The list must be as detailed as possible--do not lump a large sum under "miscellaneous." Smith advises updating the budget yearly.
After coming up with a detailed financial picture, subtract all your expenses from income. What's left over should amount to at least 5% to 10% of a household's take-home pay and should be piling up as savings, Smith says.
After looking at income, expenses and savings, determine whether your finances are in synch with your goals. For example, are you saving enough money to buy a new car next year? If not, look at what you can trim from your expenses.
But be realistic. "You do not budget by changing your general living strategy," Wallensky says. "It's like going on a diet. You start with the greatest intentions in the world" before returning to your normal pattern.
Look at reducing the money you spend on taxes by saving money in tax-sheltered investments, such as an individual retirement account or a 401(k) savings plan. Besides cutting taxes, these programs help you build savings for retirement or other long-term goals.
For saving money, some people find it helpful to have a portion of their regular paycheck deposited directly in a savings account. If you can live with more risk, you might regularly put a fixed amount in a stock mutual fund, which has the potential for a greater return.
"These strategies add up to nickels and dimes," Wallensky says, "but this is how you do it."
The American Financial Services Assn., a trade group of lenders, offers a Consumer Budget Planner, a brochure that helps consumers find out their net worth and provides a budget work sheet. For a free copy, send a self-addressed, business-sized envelope with a first-class stamp to AFSA, Central Order Desk, Dept. CBP, 1101 14th St N.W., Washington D.C., 20005.