Recovery from Financial Disaster

Ever wonder how you’d handle a complete reversal of your finances? I have a friend who had a lifestyle most people would envy and lost everything, including her marriage. I didn’t meet her until after her recovery from her financial disaster. She is one of the most resilient, generous people I know and was kind enough to let me interview her about the changes in her life, the financial lessons she learned and her advice to you on how to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation.

The High Life

“My life was very plentiful with many material objects.

  • 6,000+ square foot custom designed home – 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms and two full kitchens
  • Photography and recording studios
  • In ground swimming pool
  • Custom designed furniture
  • Six cars
  • Trips
  • Private education for both kids
  • Entertainment

I never priced groceries, just grab and dash.  We belonged to a private country club as well.  We also had an investment property that we rented to a family member.”

Tell Me about Your Finances

“I did not think of my financial future.  I was in my mid to late 40s and I thought the gravy train would never stop.  We had many investments, 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts for us as well as the children.  My husband was a very successful stock broker, financial planner and money management specialist. We had a dual income, and mine paid for the cream on the top.”

What Happened?

“The stock market along with the real estate market became very soft in 2007.  When I began to notice that these change were imminent, I suggested that we liquidate assets into a strong cash position.  My husband dismissed my thoughts on this topic because I had never been persistent in being a co-manager of our funds.  The economy was showing its ugly powerful head and so was our 40-year marriage.

Things went from bad to worse.  We lost our home. Instead of getting money from the buyer when we sold our house, we had to come to closing with a six-figure check to pay off the mortgage balance (because we owed more than we got for the house). Otherwise, we would have had to negotiate a short sale with the holders of the loan on the house to try to get them to accept only the amount for which we sold it, but chose to close in a traditional manner due to a prideful attitude that made no sense at all.

We divorced.  The money, the investments and the lifestyle were gone.  I was 59 years old. Our children were grown and gone.  Thank God they had their educations!”

What Did You Do?

“I moved into a house with five other people to secure a reasonable rent of $600 a month.  I rolled up my sleeves and decided to re-invent myself as a strong salesperson with a steady stream of income.  As part of creating a fiscally responsible lifestyle, I consolidated my debt and made a conscious effort to understand my taxes and my expenses.  These changes allowed me to pay off the tax liability for which I was half responsible after the divorce.”

What is Your Life like Now?

“My lifestyle now is very simple.

  • I use one credit card.
  • If I can’t afford something, I don’t buy it.
  • I shop at thrift stores, make curtains, paint, have learned some electrical skills and can do just about anything.

Having made the financial changes, I now have the opportunity to travel. I have investments and simple monthly debt. My credit score is very high and I am able to contribute to my savings account and an IRA on a regular basis.”

What Advice Do You Have?

“I learned these financial lessons that might help your readers:

  • Always know your cash position whether or not you are wealthy.
  • Have a good grasp on your finances.  Knowledge is power.
  • Cash is king.
  • Know your financial position at all times.
  • Stay away from credit cards and their incredible interest rates.
  • Save and keep adding to your retirement.”

Closing Thoughts from Susie Q

You’ll notice that my friend’s financial lessons learned are similar to themes you’ve seen in posts I’ve written, especially in the post on advice we gave our kids.

Her story, though, provides real-life insights into why these actions are so important.

You’d never know if you met my friend now that she had to make such a long recovery from financial disaster. She is always upbeat, willing to lend a hand and a great motivator. In fact, she contributed to the initial costs of this blog because she was so thrilled that I am willing to share my knowledge with others to help them be financially literate. I hope I am as resilient as she is if I ever face an equally daunting challenge.

How to Budget Step 9 – Monitoring your Budget

You may have thought you were done when you created and balanced your budget.  However, there is one very important step left in the budgeting process – making sure you are living within the guidelines set by your budget, i.e., monitoring your budget.  That is, are you earning as much income as you planned? Are you limiting your expenses to the amounts in your budget?  Did you put aside the savings you included in your budget, whether for expenses you pay infrequently, for retirement or something in between?

In this post, I’ll tell you how to use a new, budget-monitoring worksheet to compare your budget with your actual income and expenses.

Entering Your Budget

Since the purpose of the spreadsheet is to compare your actual expenses with your budget, the first thing to do is to enter your budget.  Most people find it easiest to monitor their budget on a monthly basis, even if they created an annual budget.  If you created an annual budget, you’ll want to divide all of the values in your budget by 12.

Once you have your monthly budget, you’ll enter it on the Budget Monitoring tab of the budget-monitoring spreadsheet at the link below.  Note that this spreadsheet is different from the one you used to track your expenses and create your budget, though many aspects of it will work the same as the budget creation spreadsheet (named Budget Template).

Enter Your Category Names

To enter your budget, enter the names of the categories from your budget in Column A starting in Row 8. Here are three different ways you can input your category names:

  1. Type the names directly into Column A.
  2. Use Excel’s copy and paste features to copy them from your Budget Template spreadsheet.
    1. On the Budget tab in your Budget Template spreadsheet, highlight all of your category names by putting your cursor on cell A11, holding down the shift key and moving the down arrow until all of them are highlighted. Let go of the shift key.
    2. Hold down the Ctrl key while you hit C or hit the copy button if you have one.
    3. Go to the Budget Comparison tab of the monitoring spreadsheet.
    4. Put your cursor in A8.
    5. Hold down the Alt key while you hit E, S and V or hit the paste-values button if you have one. If you just use a regular paste button, you will get errors because the cells from which you are copying have formulas in them.
  3. Link your monitoring spreadsheet to your Budget Template spreadsheet.
    1. Put your cursor in A8 of the Budget Comparison tab of your Budget Monitoring spreadsheet.
    2. Hit the equal sign on your keyboard.
    3. Go to the Budget Template spreadsheet.
    4. Go to the Budget tab.
    5. Put your cursor in A11.
    6. Hit Enter.
    7. Excel should return you to cell A8 of your Budget Monitoring spreadsheet.
    8. Hit the F2 (edit) key.
    9. Hit the F4 key 3 times. Hit Enter. There should now be no $ in the cell reference.
    10. Copy the formula in A8 and paste it in as many cells in Column A as needed until all of your category names appear.

When you enter the category names, make sure that the row with the total amount of income is called “Total Income,” the row with the expense total is called “Total Expenses,” and the difference between those two values is called “Grand Total.”

Enter Your Budget Amounts

Next, enter the monthly budget amounts in Column B next to each of the category names in Column A. You can use any of the three approaches described above for the category names. If you have an annual budget, you’ll need to divided the values by 12 before copying them if you use the second approach or add “/12” (without the quotes) in step (i) before you hit enter if you use the third approach.

Entering Your Actual Income and Expenses

You can enter your actual income and expenses using the same instructions as were used for entering them in the Budget Template spreadsheet.  See my posts on tracking expenses and paychecks and income for more details or review the instructions at the top of each tab.  Be sure to use the same category names as you used in your budget so all of your income and expenses will be included in the Actual column on the Budget Comparison tab.

For monitoring your actual income and expenses, you don’t need to enter the number of times per year you receive each type of income or pay each bill since your goal is compare what you actually received and paid with your budget.

Options for Expenses You Don’t Pay Monthly

Here are three different ways to monitor expenses that you don’t pay monthly:

  1. Enter them in the Monitoring Spreadsheet as you pay them and keep them in mind as known variances from your budget each month. This approach is the easiest to implement but also the least helpful for comparing your actual expenses to your budget.
  2. Adjust the budget amounts to reflect the amount of those expenses you expect to pay in each month. For example, if you pay your car insurance bill four times a year in March, June, September and December, you would
    • take your budget amount
    • adjust it to a full year if you budgeted on a monthly basis by multiplying by 12
    • divide the annual amount by 4
    • include the result in your budget for March, June, September and December
    • put 0 in your budget column in all other months

This approach is a little more complicated to implement, but will make comparing actual expenses with your budget much easier.

  1. Add an expense transaction every month equal to 1/12thof your annual expense on the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions or Credit Card Transactions tab. In the months in which you actually make the payment, you’ll enter 1/12th of your actual annual expense.  If the total of the amounts you set aside in previous months differs from the amount you actually pay, you’ll need to include this difference in the actual payment amount in the month you make the payment. This approach is equivalent to moving money from your checking account to your savings account in every month you don’t have this expense and moving it back to your checking account in the month in which you pay the expense.

You can also use any one of the above approaches for income you don’t receive monthly.  If you use the third approach, you’ll put 1/12th of your actual annual income on the Income tab.

Monitoring Your Budget – What Happens When Your Actual Isn’t as Good as Your Budget

There are many reasons why your actual income and expenses might look worse than your budget.  You may have been planning to work overtime or get a second job to increase your income.  Those lifestyle changes can be challenging, so you might not have done them.

More likely, you spent more than you budgeted, either due to an emergency, an impulse purchase or difficulty in breaking long-standing habits.  Emergencies happen to everyone.  If possible, you’ll want to include building or re-building your emergency savings (see this post for more on that topic) in your budget. While overspending your budget can be problematic, especially if you do it continuously, don’t be too hard on yourself. Changing your spending habits is really hard.

A Few More Words about Budget

Congratulations!  You made it through the entire budgeting process. As I said in my first post on budgeting, staying on a budget is like being on a diet.  Just as every calorie counts, so does every dollar spent.  Sticking to your budget will increase the likelihood you will meet your financial goals, so do your best!

Download Budgeting Monitoring Spreadsheet Here

How to Budget Step 8 – Refining your Budget

Very few people have a balanced budget on the first try.  This week, I’ll talk about how to refine your preliminary budget if it isn’t in balance.  I have been very fortunate in that it has been a long time since I found it challenging to meet my financial goals.  Also, I don’t know the specifics of any of your budgets, life-styles or financial goals. So, in this post, I will identify the changes you can make to refine your budget at a high level and provide links to articles by other financial literacy bloggers that provide a whole host of ideas on the specifics.  I hope that one or more of those articles will provide you with the ideas you need to successfully balance your budget.

The Bottom Line

The number on which you’ll want to focus is the Grand Total on the Budget tab.  If it is close to zero (i.e., within a percent or two of your total income) and you have incorporated all of your financial goals, you are done.  Otherwise, you’ll want to look at the section below that reflects your situation, i.e., whether the Grand Total is positive or negative, to learn how to refine your budget.

Your Budget Shows a Large Positive Balance

Congratulations!  If the value in the Grand Total line of the Budget tab shows a large positive number, you have more income than you are spending and saving.  You are among the fortunate few.

Before spending your excess income, you might want to review your financial goals.   Questions you could ask yourself include:

  • Do I have emergency savings of three to six months of expenses?
  • Are there other large purchases I’d like to make in the future?
  • Do I have enough savings to take maternity/paternity leave?
  • If you have children, am I saving for their education?
  • Have I studied the full costs of retirement and am I saving enough?
  • Have I contributed the maximum amounts to all of my tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts (IRAs and 401(k)s in the US, RRSPs and TFSAs in Canada)?
  • Do I want to retire sooner (which would require more savings now)?

If you still have a positive balance after your review, you can consider increasing your discretionary expenses (possibly a newer car or a nice vacation or the addition of a regular treat).  Of course, there is never any harm in increasing your savings.

Your Budget Shows a Large Negative Balance

A large negative balance is much more common than a large positive balance.  I wish I could give you a magic answer to resolve this situation, but there are really only three options.

  • Increase your income.
  • Decrease your expenses.
  • Borrow money either from a third party or by drawing down your savings.

Unless absolutely necessary, I suggest avoiding the third option.  If your expenses exceed your income and you make up the difference by borrowing either from your savings or a third party, you are likely to have a worse problem next year.  Unless either your income or expenses change, it can lead to a downward spiral.

Increase Your Income

Increasing your income can be a more effective way to balance your budget.  However, it has its own challenges and often requires a significant investment of your time and/or money.   Examples of ways to increase your income include:

  • Get a part time job, but make sure it won’t jeopardize your primary job.
  • Work overtime if you are eligible.
  • Make sure you are earning a competitive wage by looking at relevant salary surveys. If you aren’t, ask your boss for a raise, such as described in this post, or look for another job in your field that pays more or offers more benefits.
  • Consider getting more education that will provide you with the opportunity to make more money in the future. Some employers will pay for some or all of your tuition if the additional education is related to your job.  This choice is likely to cause more pain in the short term, but can produce large benefits.  As an example, check out this post.
  • Sell things that you don’t need. Here is a  post on this topic.
  • Start your own business. This option is one that I suggest you pursue only very cautiously if you already have a tight budget.  Starting a business can be very expensive, which of course will put further pressure on your budget.  Also, a large percentage of new businesses fail which means the owners lose money. According to Investopedia, 30% of business fail within two years of opening and 50% fail within five years.  Of those that survive, one source indicates that many business don’t make money until the third year.  If you want to start a side business, turning a hobby into a business is one of the most fun ways to do so.  Here is an article with some suggestions on how to do so.
  • There are hundreds of articles about “side hustles.” I’ve provided a few examples. There are lots of pitfalls with side hustles, including many that might end up costing you money rather than making it. So, as with starting your own business, I suggest exercising caution if you decide to proceed with one or more of them.

Decrease Your Expenses

To be blunt, it is hard to decrease your expenses.  Here are some tips on things to consider:

  • Separate your discretionary expenses from your required expenses. Required expenses include the cost of basic housing, a basic car, gas, groceries, medical care, insurance and the like.  Discretionary expenses are things you could live without, even if you don’t want to.  Here are several posts I’ve seen that provide ideas on how to cut back on discretionary expenses.
  • Review the amount you pay for your necessities to see if you can reduce any of these costs. Here are several posts that provide some ideas.
    • 40 Smart Ways to Reduce Your Monthly Bills
    • 5 Ways To Save $532.30 On A Tight Budget
    • This post focuses specifically on your cell phone bill.
    • This post discusses your energy costs.
    • I really like this post as it covers one of my biggest areas of savings – cooking at home instead of in restaurants. Here is another variation on the same theme.
    • Figure out how much you are spending to pay off your debts, particularly if you have a lot of credit card debt. Research ways to re-finance your debt to reduce interest rate or, if necessary, lengthen time to payment.  For example, if you have something you can use as collateral, a collateralized loan will have a much lower interest rate than your credit cards. See my post on loans to understand the factors that affect the interest rate on a loan and the sensitivity of your monthly payments to changes in interest rates and term.  This post has a lot of great information on re-paying student loans. I also like this post which talks about refinancing student loans – are you ready for it and some options.
    • There are dozens (hunderds?) of blogs on FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). These bloggers tend to post their personal stories about how they are living very frugally so they can retire very early.  Although many of their approaches seem almost draconian, reading one of more of their posts might give you some ideas how you can cut back on your expenses.

There are a few other expenses you can adjust to balance your budget, but I suggest you do them only after you have fine-tuned your budget and looked into re-financing your debt.

  • Reduce the amount you set aside for savings. Clearly, covering the basics, such as food and shelter, take priority over meeting your longer-term financial goals.   Once you have covered those expenses, you’ll need to balance your short-term wants with your long-term goals.  For example, you’ll need to decide whether you want to spend more today on entertainment or put more into your savings so you can have the retirement you desire. The idea of foregoing things today to the benefit of something you will get in the future is called delay of gratification.  It is a difficult concept to implement in practice but is often a key to long-term financial success.
  • Avoid taking on too much more risk. For example, one way to save money on insurance (cars, homeowners/renters or health) is to increase your deductible, lower your limit of liability or, in the case of car insurance, not purchase physical damage coverage.  As I discussed in my post on making financial decisions, these choices reduce your upfront cost, but can have serious consequences in an adverse situation.  If your budget is tight, you may not be able to afford to pay your full share of costs in the case of a serious accident, damage to your home or serious illness.

Closing Thoughts

Working to refine your budget to bring it in balance can be a real challenge. If you can’t do it on the second or third try, be patient with yourself. Learning to be financially responsible is often a long, challenging process.

How to Budget Step 7 – Create your Budget

You made it!  This week your only task will be to create a first draft of your budget.  

Budgeting can be challenging as you try to balance your long-term goals with your short-term needs and wants.  As such, I suggest creating it in two steps. This week I’ll provide guidance on creating the first draft of your budget.  Next week’s post will talk about how to refine it.

Practical Steps

To create your budget, you will enter values in Column D of the Budget tab of your spreadsheet.  As long as you don’t enter values in Column D of any of the “Total” rows, the formulas will automatically calculate those values.

While the spreadsheet was built to be fairly flexible, one of its weaknesses is that it is not easy to add or delete income or expense categories once you have started entering your budget amounts.  So, before you get started, I suggest making a final review of the line items on the Budget tab. If you need to make changes, you can look back at last week’s post for the instructions.

If you find you need to add or delete a line after you have entered budget amounts, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Make a note of the budgeted amounts of all of the line items you’ve entered.  
  2. Add or delete the line item name according the instructions in the last week’s post.
  3. Copy the formula from cell D110 to all of the cells into which you previously typed values.  You can copy a formula by:
    1. Going to cell D110.
    2. Holding down the Ctrl key and hitting C.
    3. Moving your cursor to cell D11.
    4. Holding down the shift key and then hitting the down arrow until all of the cells into which you entered values are highlighted.
    5. Holding down the Ctrl key and hitting V.
  4. Re-enter the budget amounts that you noted.

If you don’t take this approach, some or all of your category names in Column A will change rows, but your budgeted amounts in Column D will stay in the same rows.  You’ll end up with a mismatch between category names and budget amounts.

Budget Amounts

For each line item in your budget, you’ll need to select a budget amount.  These selections will require your informed judgment. Things to consider in making your selection include:

  • How much you’ve recorded in each category over the past several weeks, as shown in Column B.
  • Any changes in your income or expenses you anticipate in the next several months.  
    • Some of these changes might result from life changes – a new job, moving, getting a roommate, getting married, having children or the like.
    • Other changes might result from intentional changes in your habits – fewer meals in restaurants, hiring a cleaning service, newly carpooling, among others.
    • You’ll also have changes from prior expenses if you change your spending or income to better align with your financial goals.
  • If you’ve used the tax approximation, the amounts in Column C for Federal and State/Provincial income taxes.
  • The goals you set as described in my post on setting financial goals.  You might want to increase one or more of your emergency savings, savings for a designated purchase (vacation, house, new car) or long-term or retirement savings.

Final Steps for This Week

Once you have completed your first draft, take a look at the value in Column D of the Grand Total row.  If that value is positive, it means you have more income than expenses and additions to savings. If it is negative, your expenses and savings goals are higher than your income.  In this href=”https://financialiqbysusieq.com/how-to-budget-step-8/”>post, I’ll talk about things you can do so the value is close to zero.

 

Review the Expenses for your Budget

You’re almost there!  Only one more week until I describe how to create your budget.  Before you can do that, you’ll want to make sure that the income and expenses you’ve entered don’t have too many mistakes.  In this post, I’ll talk hot to review the expenses and income you’ve entered in the spreadsheet to make sure you have an accurate starting point for your budget.

Before getting to that topic, here are your budgeting tasks for this week:

  1. Continue using and refining your expense tracking system.
  2. Continue to enter your income and expenses into the spreadsheet.
  3. Make sure to update the number of months you have been entering information on the Basic Inputs tab.
  4. Review the first two columns of the Budget tab, as described in the rest of this post.

Make Sure Categories are Right

Over the past several weeks, you’ve been entering the category name with each income and expense line item.  Mistakes I’ve made include using more than one variation on some of my category names, such as household expense and household supplies.  I also sometimes misspell one or more of category names.

If you’ve made similar mistakes, you’ll want to correct these mistakes so you have exactly one line in your budget for each type of income and expense.  Here are the steps to find and correct these mistakes:

  1. Go to the Budget tab.
  2. Review the category names to see if there is more than one row in Column A that corresponds to the same category.
  3. If there is, figure out which category name you want to use.
  4. Make note of all of the incorrect names.
  5. Go to each of the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions, Credit Card Transactions, Less-Than-Monthly Expenses, and Income tabs.
  6. Hold down the Alt Key and hit E.
  7. Hold down the Alt Key and hit F.
  8. Enter one of the incorrect names in the box next to “Find What.”
  9. Hit the Find Next button.
  10. Any time Excel finds the incorrect category name, replace it with the correct name.
  11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 on each of the tabs listed in Step 5 until the incorrect label no longer appears on the Budget tab.
  12. Then repeat steps 6 through 11 for any other incorrect names.

You’ll know you are done when each category name appears exactly once on the Budget tab.

Make Sure Amounts Look Reasonable

Once all of the category names appear only once and have the names you want, you’ll want to make sure that the values in Column B look reasonable.  These values are the totals of the values you entered on the various tabs, adjusted to either an annual or monthly basis depending on the choice you made in Cell B5 on the Basic Inputs tab.  Two reasons these amounts could look wrong are (1) you entered the wrong amount for a transaction or (2) you entered an incorrect value in the “How Many Times a Year” column.

If a number looks too high or too low, you can use the following steps to help find the problematic input:

  1. Identify the category name in Column A of any value in Column B that looks too high or too low.
  2. Go to each of the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions, Credit Card Transactions, Less-Than-Monthly Expenses, and Income tabs.
  3. Hold down the Alt Key and hit E.
  4. Hold down the Alt Key and hit F.
  5. Enter a category name that has an unexpected value in the box next to “Find What.”
  6. Hit the Find Next button.
  7. Look in the Amount column of any row in which Excel finds your category name.
  8. Does the amount look right? Common entry errors are to transpose digits (i.e., enter them in the wrong order) and put the decimal point in the wrong place.
  9. Fix any errors in the amount.
  10. Look in the “How Many Times a Year” column.
  11. This column can be blank for any row that contains an expense you pay every month.
  12. For payments made less than once a month, the entries in this column should be the numbers of times per year you make payments of the amount shown. For example, if you pay your auto insurance bill twice a year, the semi-annual amount should be in the Amount column and 2 should be in the “How Many Times a Year” column.
  13. Repeat steps 7 through 12 on each of the tabs listed in Step 2 until the amount on the Budget tab for this category looks reasonable.

Next Steps

Next week, I will talk about how you can create your budget using the income and expense information you have tabulated so far and corrected.

Download Budgeting Spreadsheet Here

How to Budget Step 5 – Paychecks and Income

Your budget includes your income in addition to money you spend.  In my previous posts on the budgeting process, I talked about setting your goals and tracking and recording your expenses.  This week, I’ll focus on your paycheck and other sources of income.

Before getting to that topic, here are your budgeting tasks for this week:

  1. Continue using and refining your expense tracking system.
  2. Continue to enter your expenses into the spreadsheet.
  3. Record the details from your pay stubs and any other sources of income.

Pay Checks

Your pay stubs include both your wages and some expenses and taxes that are deducted by your employer.  This information can be entered on the Income tab.  You’ll need your pay stub as it lists all of the items that flow into and out of your paycheck to get the net amount of your check or automatic deposit. Put information from each line on your pay stub in a different row on the Income tab of the spreadsheet.

The date of each paycheck goes in Column A.

Record the amount of each line item in Column B.  Your income, such as your wages, should be entered with positive numbers. Deductions, such as taxes, your share of employee benefit charges and retirement savings, should be entered using negative numbers.  Use one row in the spreadsheet for your wages and another for each of your deductions.

You can record the category for each line in Column C.  If you want to use the tax approximation included in the spreadsheet, you’ll need use the labels “Wages”, “Retirement Savings” “Federal Income Taxes” and “State Income Taxes” for each of those categories.  Otherwise, you can use whatever labels you want.

If you get paid less often than once a month, enter the number of paychecks you get each year in Column D of each row.  Otherwise, leave this column blank.

Other Sources of Income

If you have other sources of income you receive on a regular basis, such as returns on investments, disability income or support from your parents, you’ll want to include those in your budget.  Unless you are on a leave from work or retired, you might leave any investment returns in your savings and not use them for spending. It is important to be aware of all sources of income in your budget including increases in your savings, so I suggest including them in your budget explicitly.

Interest, dividends and appreciation are the three most common types of returns from investments. If you have any such returns, enter their amounts in Column A, their category in Column B and how often you receive the amount from Column A in Column C.  The three types of returns are taxed differently in the US.  If you live outside the US or don’t want to use the very rough tax approximation in the spreadsheet, you can enter a single line item for total investment returns and call it whatever you would like.  Otherwise, enter “Interest” in Column B for interest payments, “Dividends” for dividends received and “Appreciation” for changes in the market value of your investments.  Appreciation can be either positive (market value has gone up) or negative (market value has gone down).

For any other sources of income, enter the amount, category (with a name of your choosing) and how often you receive that amount in Columns A through C, respectively.  Sources of income other than investment returns and wages will be ignored in the income tax approximation.

Download Budgeting Spreadsheet Here

When Is It Good to Pay Off Student Loans

 This week, I’ll conclude the case study about Mary and her savings.  Her last question focused on whether to pay off her student loans.  The considerations include:

  • The interest rate on her loans.
  • How many more payments she has.
  • What she can earn if she doesn’t pay off her loans.
  • Her risk tolerance and other cost-benefit trade-offs.  

To help set the stage, I created a fictitious person, Mary, whose finances I use for illustration.

  • Mary is single with no dependents.
  • She lives alone in an apartment she rents.
  • She makes $62,000 per year.
  • Mary has $25,000 in a savings account at her bank and $10,000 in her Roth 401(k).
  • Her annual budget shows:
    • Basic living expenses of $40,000
    • $5,000 for fun and discretionary items
    • $10,000 for social security, Federal and state income taxes
    • $4,000 for 401(k) contributions
    • $3,000 for non-retirement savings
  • Mary has $15,000 in student loans which have a 5% interest rate.
  • She owns her seven-year-old car outright. She plans to replace her car with a used vehicle in three years and would like to have $10,000 in cash to pay for it.
  • She has no plans to buy a house in the near future.

Mary's-Savings-Infographic

I’ll explain how she decides what to do and then will conclude with a summary of the benefits of all of her decisions. As a reminder, Mary has $10,000 of student loans outstanding at a 5% interest rate.  She has 5 years of payments remaining, so her monthly payment is $189.  She has $25,000 in total savings and has already decided to set aside $13,000 for emergency savings and $5,500 for her car.  These decisions leave her with $6,500 for long-term savings and paying off her loan. There are several different approaches Mary could take to pre-pay her student loans. In her case, she could pre-pay up to $6,500 with her savings. Alternatively, she could pre-pay her students loans more slowly using one of the methods in this post.

Should I Pay Off the Principal on my Loans?

Simple Answer

Instead of investing her long-term savings, Mary could use some of her savings to pre-pay her loans.   When you pre-pay a loan, it is the equivalent to earning a return equal to the interest rate on the loan.  I’m sure that analogy sounds weird.  To help make more sense of that statement, consider the following thought process:

  • You don’t pre-pay your student loan.
  • You loan the money you have available to make pre-payments to someone else at the interest rate on your student loan. The loan to the other person also returns your principal at the same rate you are paying principal on your student loan.  The return on the loan that you made to the other person is the same as the interest rate on your student loan because that is what you are charging the other person.
  • When you combine your student loan payments and the payments you get from the loan you made to the other person they offset and you have no net cash flows.
  • If you pre-pay your student loan, you also have no net cash flows.

As you can see, pre-paying your student loan puts in you the same situation as if you didn’t pre-pay your student loan and you loaned that money to someone else at the same interest rate.  Therefore, the return on the money you use to pre-pay your student loans is equal to the interest rate on the loans. In Mary’s case, she has student loans on which she pays 5% per year on the outstanding balance.  The simple approach to answering Mary’s question is that it makes sense for her to pre-pay her loans if the after-tax interest cost on the loans is higher than the after-tax return she could earn on the money if she invests the money in financial instruments with the same level of risk.

What is Risk?

Risk is the volatility in the returns on a particular financial instrument, as discussed in more detail in this post.  If you buy a Treasury bond[1]and hold it to maturity, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will earn the yield to maturity[2]at the time you buy it.  If you buy an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchange traded fund or ETF), the long-term average return is around 9%, but the returns can vary widely from one year to the next.  In fact, the S&P 500 return was outside the range of 0% to 18% in half of the years from 1951 to 2017.[3]

Risk of Pre-paying a Loan

There is no volatility in the return Mary gets from paying off her loan.  In all scenarios, it will be the interest rate on the loan.   As such, the simple approach will tell Mary she should pre-pay her loan if her interest rate is higher than she can earn on a Treasury bond with the same time to maturity as her loan, after adjusting for the difference in the tax rates.

Complex Answer

There are several benefits to Mary if she pays off the loan, including:

  • The sense of relief that she no longer has to make the payments.
  • Extra cash in the future she can either save or spend.
  • Improvement in her credit score.

On the other hand, Mary is so eager to start investing in something other than risk-free instruments which she can do if she doesn’t use all of her available savings to pre-pay her loan.  That is, Mary has the choice between taking the risk that she will lose money (if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans) and not having the opportunity to start investing (if she does pre-pay her loans).  Her view on this choice is called her risk toleranceRisk tolerance is an individual decision. To make this comparison, Mary needs to know or decide:

  • At what return can she invest the money if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans?
  • What is the tax rate applicable to the investment returns she would earn?
  • Is the interest on her loans tax-deductible?
  • If she can deduct the interest on her loans, what is her marginal tax rate?

After-tax Return by Paying Off Loan

In the US, you can deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest as long as your income (measured using a value calculated on your tax return called modified adjusted gross income which, for Mary, is essentially her wages) is less than $65,000 for an individual.[4]  Mary’s state uses the same rules as the Internal Revenue Service.   Her total interest is below $2,500 and her income is below $65,000, so the entire 5% interest is tax-deductible.  Mary’s marginal tax rate (the percentage she will pay on the next dollar of income) is 25% including state income taxes.  We can calculate the after-tax cost of the loan as the interest rate times the portion she keeps after she pays taxes (= 100% – the tax rate of 25%): 5% times (100% – 25%) = 3.75%

After-tax Return of Treasuries

Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate on a Treasury bond is the same as her marginal Federal tax rate (20%) as Treasury bond interest is exempt from state tax.  As I write this post, the yields on US Treasuries of between one and five years are all right around 2.7%.[5]  She can calculate the after-tax return on a Treasury bond as: 2.7% times (100% – 20%) = 2.2% Because the after-tax interest rate on her loans of 3.75% is higher than the after-tax return on a risk-free US Treasury bond (2.2%), the simple approach would tell use she should pay off her loan.

Expected After-tax Return of S&P 500 Index Fund

Mary will consider an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchanged-traded fund that is intended to track S&P 500 returns fairly closely) as a risky asset in which to invest any money she doesn’t use to pre-pay her loan.  Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate on the S&P 500 index fund is 20%.[6]  She can calculate her expected[7]after-tax return on the S&P 500 index fund as: 8.9% times (100% – 20%) = 7.1%

Cash Flow Comparison

Mary isn’t quite sure she knows what the differences in the returns mean to her.  She therefore calculated the total amount of interest she will pay in the future if she pays off her loan immediately ($0) and if she pays it off as scheduled ($1,323).[8]  She then calculates the total expected return she would get if she invests in her savings account, Treasuries and the S&P 500 index fund between today and the time each loan payment is due.  She also adjusts those returns for the tax payments she will make and the reduction in her taxes she will get if she makes the interest payments on her loan.  She summarizes her findings in the table below.   As a reminder, these values are the total amounts she would pay or earn between now and the time she has made all of her loan payments.

Option

Future Interest Payments

Average Future Investment Returns

Average Future Taxes

Average Cash from $10,000 in 5 Years

No Pre-Payments, Leave in Savings

1,323

0

-331

-992

No Pre-Payments, Invest in Treasuries

1,323

676

-195

-451

No Pre-Payments, Invest in S&P 500

1,323

2,383

146

914

Pre-Pay 100%

0

0

0

0

As you can see, on average, she will earn $2,383 if she invests in the S&P 500, leaving her with $914 at the end of five years once all her loan payments have been made and after consideration of interest payments on the loan and taxes.[9] If she pays off her loan immediately, she has no future interest payments or investment returns, so she has no cash from investments in five years.  If she puts the $10,000 in savings or Treasuries, she is worse off than pre-paying her loan because the average cash she will have in five years (the fourth column) is less under these two options than if she pre-pays the loan.  These findings are consistent with the calculations presented earlier about the expected yields – she is better off if she doesn’t pre-pay her loans and earns the expected return on the S&P 500 and worse off using the returns on a savings account or Treasuries.

How to Think About Risk

Looking at the table above in isolation, Mary might conclude that she should not pre-pay her loan and, instead, invest in the S&P 500.  However, as noted above, the S&P 500 returns are volatile or risky. That is, she will not earn the average return in every single year.  To try to get a view on how much risk she will take if she takes this approach, Mary asked me for some help.[10]  Because modeling future stock returns is very difficult, I chose to use historical returns to provide Mary some insights.  I downloaded the monthly prices of the S&P 500 from January 1951 to August 2018 from Yahoo finance.  I then created all of the possible five-year time series of S&P 500 prices to use as returns over the time Mary will make loan payments.  I explained to Mary that there are many flaws in this approach, but that it can help inform her decision nonetheless. The first risk metric I calculated is how much money would she lose if the stock market had the worst returns of any five-year period in the historical data.  I calculated that she could lose $3,592. The second and third metrics I calculated were the percentages of the time would she be better off investing in the index fund than if she (a) didn’t pre-pay her loan and invested the $10,000 in Treasuries or (b) pre-paid her loan today.  That is, out of all of the possible five-year periods, would the cash she had after she paid off her loan be greater than (a) $-451 or (b) 0[11]?  Using the historical returns on the S&P 500, she was better off investing in the S&P 500 than Treasuries 73% of the time and better of than pre-paying her loan 65% of the time.

Other Options

Mary decided that $3,592 was too much to lose in the worst-case scenario.  She then considered pre-paying only a portion of her loan and investing the rest in the S&P 500 index fund.  To help her understand how much she might want to pre-pay, I repeated my analysis assuming she pre-paid of each of 25%, 50% and 75% of her balance. To put these results in perspective, I created a graph that showed the average amount of money that she would have (the x or horizonal axis) as compared to the least amount of money she would have, using the historical returns on the S&P 500 (the y or vertical axis).  Here’s my graph.

There is a lot of information in this graph, as follows.

  • First, let’s figure out the axes.
    • The horizontal axis is the average cash Mary will have after she pays off her loan. Higher numbers are better so anything to the right is better than anything to the left.
    • The vertical axis is the cash she will have after she pays off her loan in the worst-case scenario from the historical data.Again, higher numbers are better so, in this case, anything that is higher on the graph is better than anything lower on the graph.
    • These concepts are illustrated by the arrow pointing to the upper right and the words next to it.
  • Next, we’ll look at the dots. I plotted a dot for each of the options she is considering.  The first part of the label for each dot tells in what she will invest with the money she doesn’t use to pre-pay her loan.  The second part of each label shows what percentage of the loan she pre-pays.
  • I added lines connecting the dots in which she invests in the S&P 500.
    • All of the dots corresponding to investing in the S&P 500 have average cash after she pays off her loan that is positive (to the right of the y-axis). The less of her loan she pre-pays, the higher that average (further to the right on the graph).
    • These same dots all have negative values for the worst scenario (the one with the least cash after she pays off her loan).The more of her loan she pre-pays, the less she loses in the worst-case scenario (further up on the graph).
    • These lines form something called an efficient frontier. For each of the values of the average cash at the end of five years, the efficient frontier identifies the least bad result in the worst-case scenario.   That is, there are no points to the right of or above the efficient frontier in this chart.
    • When making a choice among the options, Mary will want to pick an option on the efficient frontier. If she picks one of the other options, the average cash will be higher for some other option with approximately the same worst-case scenario result.  For example, let’s look at putting her money in a savings account.  The average and worst-case results are both $-992.  If she pre-pays 75% of her loan and invests the rest in the S&P 500, the average result is $58 (to the right on the graph – the good direction) and the worst-case result is $-1,083.  So, she can have a slightly worse worst-case result and a somewhat higher average cash after she pre-pays 75% of her loan.
    • The choice of option along the efficient frontier is one of personal preference as defined by your risk tolerance. Mary needs to decide how much risk (in this case measured by the worst-case result) she is willing to take in order to get the higher return (in this case measured by the average result).

Mary’s Decision

The last consideration in Mary’s decision is how much cash she has available to pre-pay her loan.  While she has decided she really likes the characteristics of the option in which she pre-pays of 75% of her loan, she has only $6,500 in savings available and would very much like to start investing.  She decides to pre-pay 50% of her loan or $5,000. She will put the remaining $1,500 in a Roth IRA.[12] The historical data indicate that 64% of the time, she will be have most cash in five years than if she was able to fully pre-pay her loan today and an 84% chance of having more cash in five years than if she doesn’t pre-pay the loan at all and invests in Treasuries.  These two options are the risk-free options, the riskier option she has chosen has a high probability of putting her in a better position (based on historical S&P 500 returns) and she gets the benefit of starting to invest.

Summary

To recap, here are the answers Mary selected to her questions.

  • Should I start investing the $25,000 in my savings account? ANSWER:  Mary decided to move all of her money out of her savings account.  Mary set aside $13,000 for emergency savings.  She put half of her emergency savings in a high-yield checking account so she is sure to have instant access to it and half in a money market account.  This decision gives her an average return of 1.275%, as compared to the 0.06%[13]she was earning on her bank’s savings account.
  • Should I have a separate account to save the $10,000 for the car? ANSWER:  She allocated $1,500 a year from the money identified for savings in her budget over the next three years for her car.  To meet her $10,000 goal, she had to designate $5,500 of her current savings for the car.  Rather than create a separate account for the car savings, Mary bought a certificate of deposit earning 3.4% to distinguish those savings from her other savings.
  • Should I pre-pay some or all of the principal on my student loans? ANSWER:  Mary considered how much of her savings was available after allocating money for her emergency and designated savings and the risks and rewards of different options. She decided to pre-pay $5,000 of the principal on her student loans.  This decision saved her 5% interest on the portion she pre-paid.
  • What are good choices for my first investments for anything I don’t set aside for my car or use to pre-pay my loans? ANSWER: Mary chose to invest her long-term savings ($1,500) in an S&P 500 index fund.  She sees the benefits of this choice as (a) easily attained diversification and (b) less time needed for research relative to owning individual stocks. Over the long-term, the average return on the S&P 500 is about 8.9%.

The pie chart below illustrates how Mary will use her savings. 

In summary, Mary has increased the long-term average pre-tax return (excluding her 401(k) investments) from the 0.06% return on her savings account to a weighted average return of 2.9%.

Key Points

The key takeaways from this portion of the case study are:

  • Pre-paying your student loans is equivalent to earning a pre-tax return on your money equal to the interest rate on your student loans.
  • If you live in the US, the full amount of your student loan interest reduces your taxable income unless you have a high income (more than $65,000 a year) or high interest payments (above $2,500 a year). The tax benefit will be the highest tax rate applicable to your income.
  • Other risk-free alternatives to pre-paying your loan include leaving the money in a savings account or investing in risk-free instruments, such as government (Treasury) bonds with the same maturity as the term of your loan.
  • If you are willing to take more risk, you could invest some of the money in a riskier instrument, such as an S&P 500 index fund. If you make that choice, your average or expected cash when you are finished paying off you loan will usually be higher, but there is a chance you could end up with less money.

Suggested Next Steps

This post talks about Mary’s situation.  Here are some questions you can be asking yourself and things you can do to apply these concepts to your situation.

  • Determine if you have any savings left after setting aside emergency and designated savings and, if so, how much.
  • Compare the interest rate on your student loans with the values that Mary calculated. If your interest rate is similar to the 5% Mary paid, you can review her analysis. If it is higher, pre-paying the loan will be more attractive than it was for Mary.  If it is lower, pre-paying the loan will be less attractive.
  • Consider your own risk tolerance. You can think in terms of making bets.  At the extremes, think about how much would you pay to have a 1% chance of winning $1,000. Then use numbers that are closer to the question you are evaluating.  What is the most amount of money you are willing to use to have a 70% chance of being better off than the risk-free alternative?  How much for a 90% chance of being in a better position?

[1]As a reminder, a Treasury bond is issued by the US government.  The term Treasury bond is used broadly to include bills (maturities less than one year), notes (maturities of one to ten year) and bonds (maturities of more than ten years).  The term Treasury bond can be confusing because it can mean two different things. You’ll need to figure out which is being used based on the context. [2]When you buy a bond, your brokerage firm will provide the yield to maturity.  It is different from the coupon rate on the bond if the bond price is different from $100 when you buy it.  More on yields to maturity and bond prices in a future post. [3]All statistics about the S&P 500 were calculated based on data downloaded from https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/%5EGSPC/history?p=%5EGSPC. [4]https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970#en_US_2017_publink1000178280, December 10, 2018.  For the definition of modified adjusted gross income, see Worksheet 4-1 in https://www.irs.gov/publications/p970#en_US_2017_publink1000178298.  Modified adjusted gross income includes your wages and any investment returns, reduced by contributions to your health savings account, some moving and education expenses, among other things, and adjusted for some items related to foreign income and income from Puerto Rico and American Samoa. [5]https://home.treasury.gov/, December 10, 2018. [6]This rate is lower than the marginal rate on her wages because dividends and capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than wages and interest by the Internal Revenue Service. [7]Expected is a statistical term referring to the expected value or average over all possible results. [8]To keep the math a little simpler, Mary does the calculations assuming she has $10,000 available to fully pre-pay her loan. She will take into consideration the fact that she has only $6,500 available to pre-pay her loan later when she is making her final decision. [9]The fourth column is calculated as the second column minus the first and third columns.  Negative numbers in the third column mean that the tax savings from the interest deduction from her loans is more than the taxes on her investment income. The positive number for the S&P 500 option indicates that the taxes on the dividends and capital gains is more than the tax savings from her interest deduction. [10]I’ll provide details of how to do this type of analysis for yourself in a future post.  For now, I suggest focusing on the logic of the analysis and not thinking about the nitty gritty details. [11]See the fourth column in the table above. [12]Because Mary chose to put her money in a Roth IRA, she won’t pay taxes on any investment returns and won’t get a tax benefit in years in which the S&P 500 index fund loses money.  She’ll want to consider this additional volatility in her decision-making process. [13]https://www.wellsfargo.com/savings-cds/rates, November 17, 2018.

Retirement Savings/Saving for Large Purchases

In my previous post, I presented the first part of a case study that introduced Mary and her questions about what to do with her savings. In this post, I will continue the case study focusing on retirement savings and saving for large purchases. 

Case Study

To help set the stage, I created a fictitious person, Mary, whose finances I use for illustration.

  • Mary is single with no dependents.
  • She lives alone in an apartment she rents.
  • She makes $62,000 per year.
  • Mary has $25,000 in a savings account at her bank and $10,000 in her Roth 401(k).
  • Her annual budget shows:
    • Basic living expenses of $40,000
    • $5,000 for fun and discretionary items
    • $10,000 for social security, Federal and state income taxes
    • $4,000 for 401(k) contributions
    • $3,000 for non-retirement savings
  • Mary has $15,000 in student loans which have a 5% interest rate.
  • She owns her seven-year-old car outright. She plans to replace her car with a used vehicle in three years and would like to have $10,000 in cash to pay for it.
  • She has no plans to buy a house in the near future.
Mary's-Savings-Infographic

Her questions are:

  • Should I start investing the $25,000 in my savings account?
  • Should I have a separate account to save the $10,000 for the car?  
  • What choices do I have for my first investments for any money I don’t set aside for my car?
  • Should I pay off some or all of the principal on my student loans?

I talked about a framework for thinking about her savings and setting aside money for expenses she doesn’t pay monthly and emergency savings here.  In this post, I’ll focus on the rest of her savings.  I answer her questions about student loans here

Designated Savings

Designated savings is the portion of your investable asset portfolio that you set aside for a specific purchase, such as a car or home. Mary would like to buy a car for $10,000 in three years.  She needs to designate a portion of her savings for her car.

As part of her savings framework, Mary

  • Will set aside $13,000 for emergency savings.
  • Has $12,000 in her savings account after setting aside the $13,000 for emergency savings.
  • Included $3,000 a year for non-retirement savings in her budget, some of which she can use for her car.

Mary has decided she will use $5,500 as the start of her designated savings to replace her car. After reading this post, she has decided to pay cash for a car, rather than borrow or lease,  She will add half of her $3,000 of non-retirement savings each year to bring the total available balance to $10,000 in three years.  If Mary’s car becomes unrepairable sooner, she can use some of the money in her emergency savings, but will want to replenish that account as soon as she can.

Considerations for Investment Choices

When I’m saving money for a large purchase, such as a car or a down payment on a house, I’m willing to invest in something less liquid than a savings account or a money market account. That is, I don’t have to be able to access the money on a moment’s notice.  

I do, however, want a similar level of security.  It is very important to me that the market value of my investment not go down as I don’t want to risk my principal.  Because I tend to have time frames that are less than one year for these types of purchases, I tend to put my designated savings in certificates of deposit. 

Certificates of Deposit and Treasury Bills

In Mary’s case, she has three years.  She might consider longer-term certificates of deposit (CDs) or short-term government bonds. (Click here to learn more about bonds.) A CD is a savings certificate, usually issued by a commercial bank, with a stated maturity and a fixed interest rate.  

A treasury note is a form of a bond issued by the US government with a fixed interest rate and a maturity of one to 10 years.  A treasury bill is the same as a treasury note, except the maturity is less than one year.  When the government issues notes, bills and bonds (which have maturities of more than 10 years), it is borrowing money from the person or entity that buys them.  The table below shows the current interest rates on CDs and treasury bills and notes with different maturities.

Maturity CD[1] Treasury[2]
1-3 Months 2.32% 2.3%
4-6 Months 2.42% 2.5%
7-9 Months 2.56% N/A
10-18 Months 2.8% 2.7%
1.5–2.5 Years 3.4% 2.8%
3 Years N/A 2.85%
5 Years N/A 2.9%

When thinking about whether to buy CDs or Treasury bonds, Mary will want to consider not only the differences in returns, but also the differences in risk.  

Risks of Owning a Bond

Bonds have two key inherent risks – default risk and market risk

  • Default risk is the chance that the issuer will default on its obligations (i.e., not pay you some or all of your interest or principal).  Treasury notes, bills and bond issued by the US are considered some of the safest bonds from a default perspective.  I’m not aware that the US government (or Canadian government for that matter) has ever not paid the interest or repaid the principal on any of its debt. 
  • Market risk emanates from changes in interest rates that cause changes in the market values of bonds.  As interest rates go up, the market values of bonds go down.  All bonds come with a maturity date that is almost always stated in the name of the bond.[3]   If you buy a bonddon’t sell it until it matures and the issuer doesn’t default, you will get the face amount (i.e., the principal) of the bond no matter how interest rates change.  Thus, if you hold a bond to maturity, you eliminate the market risk

In summary, using certificates of deposit or Treasuries held to maturity can increase your investment return relative to a savings account without significantly increasing the risk that you’ll lose the money you’ve saved.  

Mary’s Decision

Because she can buy them easily at her bank or brokerage firm and they are currently yielding more the Treasuries with the same maturity, Mary has decided to buy 2.5-year CDs, earning 3.4%, with the $5,500 she has set aside to buy her car.

Long-term Savings – What to Buy

Mary has $6,500 in her savings account that isn’t needed for her emergency savings or her replacement car. She wants to start investing it or use it to pay down some of her student loans.  I’ll talk about her student loans next week.

Mary doesn’t want to spend a lot of time doing research, so is not going to invest in individual securities.[4]  Instead, she is looking at mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).  A benefit of these funds over individual securities is that they own positions in a lot of companies so it is easier for Mary to diversify[5]her portfolio than if she bought positions in individual companies.

Mutual Fund and ETF Considerations

Briefly, here are some of the features to consider in selecting a mutual fund or an ETF.  I note that you may not have answers to a lot of these questions, but they should help you get started in your thinking[6].

  • The types of positions it holds and whether they are consistent with your investment objectives. Is the fund concentrated in a few industries or is the fund intended to produce the same returns as the overall market (such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average)?  Does it invest in larger or smaller companies?  Does the fund focus on growth or dividend-yielding positions?  Is it an index fund or actively-traded?
  • The expense load.  All mutual fund and ETF managers take a portion of the money in their funds to cover their expenses.  The managers make their money from these fees.  Funds are required to report their expenses, as these reduce your overall return on investment.  There are two types of expense load – front-end loads and annual expenses.  If you buy a fund with a front-end load, it will reduce your investment by the percentage corresponding to the front-end load when you buy it.  Almost all funds have annual expenses which reduce the value of your holdings every year.  Although funds with lower expense loads generally have better performance than those with higher loads, there may be some funds that outperform even after consideration of a higher expense load.
  • Historical performance.  Although historical performance is never a predictor of future performance, a fund that has a good track record might be preferred to one that has a poor track record or is new.  As you review returns, look not only at average returns but also volatility (such as the standard deviation).  A fund with higher volatility should have a higher return.

Mutual Funds and ETFs – How to Buy

You can buy mutual funds directly from the fund management company.  You can also buy mutual funds and ETFs through a brokerage company.  If you buy them through a brokerage company, you will pay a small transaction fee but it is often easier to buy and sell the funds, if needed.  Holding these assets in a brokerage account also lets you see more of your investments in one place.

Mary’s Decision

Mary decides to invest in an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchanged-traded fund that is intended to track S&P 500 returns fairly closely).  Since 1950, the total return on the S&P 500 corresponds to 8.9% compounded annually.  It is important to understand that the returns are very volatile from month-to-month and even year-to-year, so she might not earn as much as 8.9% return over any specific time period.[7]

Retirement Savings – What Type of Account?

As Mary thinks about her long-term savings, she not only wants to decide how to invest it, but also in what type of account to put it – a tax-sheltered retirement savings account or a taxable account she can access at any time[8].  In addition, she needs to think about how much she needs in total to retire and how much she will need to set aside each year.

Retirement Account Contribution Limits

In the US for 2018, she is allowed to contribute $18,500 ($24,500 after age 50) to a 401(k) plus $5,500 ($6,500 after age 50) to an Individual Retirement Account.  

In Canada, the 2018 maximum contribution to group and individual Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) combined is the lesser of 18% of earned income or $26,230.  The 2018 maximum contribution to group and individual Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) is $5,500.  If you didn’t make contributions up to the limit last year, you can carry over the unused portion to increase your maximum contribution for this year.

In Canada, there are no penalties for early withdrawal from a RRSP or TFSA as long as the withdrawal is not made in the year you make the contribution, so it is easy to take advantage of the tax savings.  If you make the withdrawal from an RRSP, you need to pay taxes on the withdrawal.  In the US, there is a 10% penalty for withdrawing money from a 401(k) or IRA before the year in which you turn 59.5. As such, the choice of putting your money in a 401(k) or IRA needs to consider the likelihood that you’ll want to spend your long-term savings before then.

Returns: Taxable Account vs. Roth IRA/TFSA

Mary has decided she won’t need the money for a long time.  She will decide how much to put in her retirement account and taxable accounts after she looks at her student loans.  Mary’s savings is considered after-tax money.  As such, she can put it in a Roth IRA or TFSA.  She will not pay taxes on the money when she withdraws it.  If she didn’t put the money in a Roth IRA or TFSA, she would have to pay income taxes on the investment returns.[9]  If she puts it in a Traditional IRA or RRSP, the amount of her contribution will reduce her taxable income but she will pay taxes on the money when she withdraws it. This graph compares how Mary’s money will grow[10]over the next 30 years if she invests it in a Roth IRA or TFSA as compared to a taxable account.  

Savings comparison, Roth vs Taxable savings

As you can see, $4,000 grows to just over $30,000 over 30 years in a taxable account and just over $50,000 in a Roth account assuming a constant 8.9% return and a 20% tax rate.

Key Points

The key takeaways from this case study are:

  • You may need to save for large purchases over several years.  The amount you need to set aside today as designated savings for those purchases depends on how much they will cost, when you need to buy them and how much of your future budget you can add to those savings.
  • Certificates of deposit are very low-risk investment instruments that can be used for designated savings.  
  • Treasuries with maturity dates that line up with your target purchase date can also be used for designated savings.  By holding bonds to maturity, you eliminate the market risk.
  • Mutual funds and ETFs require less research and more diversification than owning individual companies (unless you own positions in a very large number of companies).  These instruments are an easy way to get started with investing.

Your Next Steps

This post talks about Mary’s situation.  Here are some questions you can be asking yourself and things you can do to apply these concepts to your situation.

  1. Identify the large purchases you want to make.  These purchases can include a car, an extravagant vacation or a house, among other things.  For each purchase, estimate when you will want to spend the money and how much they will cost. 
  2. Determine how much of your savings you can set aside for these large purchases.  Look at your budget to make sure you can set aside enough money to cover the rest of the cost.  If you can’t, you’ll need to either make changes to your aspirations or your budget.  In my budgeting series starting in a few weeks, I’ll dedicate an entire post to what to do when your expenses are more than your income.  
  3. Decide whether to start a relationship with a brokerage firm.  Last week, I provided a list of questions to help you get started if you do.
  4. Look into options for your designated savings.
    • What are the returns offered by your bank or, if you have one, brokerage firm, on certificates of deposit with terms corresponding to when you need your designated savings? 
    • How do Treasury returns compare to certificates of deposit?
  5. Decide how much of your long-term savings you want to put into retirement accounts and how much will be left for other savings.  I put as much as I could into retirement accounts, but always made sure I had enough other savings for large purchases that I hadn’t identified in enough detail to include in designated savings.  If you want to retire before the year you turn 59.5, you’ll also want to keep enough long-term savings out of your retirement accounts to cover all of your expenses until that year. 
  6. Decide whether you want to start investing your long-term savings in mutual or exchange traded funds or in individual stocks.  If mutual or exchange traded funds, take a look at the list of questions above.

[1]https://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/investing/accounts_products/investment/bonds/certificates_of_deposit, November 17, 2018.

[2]www.treasury.gov, November 17, 2018.

[3]Some bonds have features that allow the issuer to re-pay the principal before the maturity date.  For this discussion, we will focus on bonds that do not give the issuer that option.  These bonds are referred to as “non-callable.”  Bonds that can be re-paid before the maturity date are referred to as callable bonds.

[4]For those of you interested in investing in individual equities, a guest blogger, Riley of Young and The Invested (www.youngandtheinvested.com), will write about how to get started with looking at individual companies right after the first of the year.

[5]Portfolio diversification is an important concept in investing.  I’ll have a few posts on this topic in the coming months.

[6]If you are interested in more information on selecting mutual funds, I found a nice article at https://www.kiplinger.com/article/investing/T041-C007-S001-my-9-rules-for-picking-mutual-funds.html

[7]This volatility is often referred to as the risk of a financial instrument and is another important concept in investing. Look for insights into the trade-off between risk and reward coming soon.

[8]I’ll cover retirement savings more in a future post.

[9]Income taxes on investments are somewhat complicated.  For the illustrations here, I’ll assume that Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate applicable to investment returns is 20% and that all returns are taxable in the year she earns them.  There are some types of assets for which that isn’t the case, but identifying them is beyond the scope of this post.

[10]For illustration, this graph shows a constant 8.9% return.  Over long periods of time, the S&P 500 has returned very roughly 8.9% per year on average.  The returns vary widely from year-to-year, but for making long-term comparisons a constant annual return is informative even though it isn’t accurate. 

Savings Framework and Emergency Savings

You may be thinking you’d like to get started with investing.  Before doing that, you’ll want to look at how much savings you have and how much you can invest.  In this three-part post, I’ll illustrate a framework to guide savings and investing decisions.   This post will focus on a very high-level structure for your investable asset portfolio and, specifically, emergency savings.  My next post presenst a case study addressing saving for large purchases and retirement.  The third post will continue with the case study, focusing on when to accelerate your debt payments.

Case Study

To help set the stage, I’ll create a fictitious person, Mary, whose finances I’ll use for illustration.

Mary’s Situation

  • Mary is single with no dependents.
  • She lives alone in an apartment she rents.
  • She makes $62,000 per year.
  • Mary has $25,000 in a savings account at her bank and $10,000 in her Roth 401(k).
  • Her annual budget shows:
    • Basic living expenses of $40,000
    • $5,000 for fun and discretionary items
    • $10,000 for social security, Federal and state income taxes
    • $4,000 for 401(k) contributions
    • $3,000 for non-retirement savings
  • Mary has $15,000 in student loans which have a 5% interest rate.
  • She owns her seven-year-old car outright. She plans to replace her car with a used vehicle in three years and would like to have $10,000 in cash to pay for it.
  • She has no plans to buy a house in the near future.

Mary's-Savings-Infographic

Mary’s Questions

Mary’s questions are:

  • Should I start investing the $25,000 in my savings account?
  • Should I have a separate account to save the $10,000 for the car?
  • What choices do I have for my first investments for any money I don’t set aside for my car?
  • Should I pay off some or all of the principal on my student loans?

Investable Asset Portfolio

Investable asset portfolio? Isn’t that something for companies and for the rich?  Actually, no. I think about any savings and other invested assets as a portfolio.  My husband and I own many other assets, such as our home, our cars and our household goods.  Because those are not assets that we can invest, we include them when we are evaluating our net worth but don’t consider them part of our investable asset portfolio.   Mary’s investable asset portfolio consists of her savings account and her Roth 401(k).

Within my portfolio, I strive to keep a target amount in very liquid (i.e., easily converted to cash), low risk assets for emergency savings.  If I have a large purchase that I want to make soon, such as when we sold our house but knew we were going to buy a new one, I invest that money in slightly less liquid, slightly more risky assets with slightly higher returns.  I’ll call these designated savings and talk about the investment I chose in the next post in this series.  I then look at the rest of my portfolio in terms of how long until I will need the money, how much return do I want and how much risk I can tolerate, as well as how much time I’m willing to spend researching and monitoring it.

Expenses Paid Less than Monthly

There are some expenses that you pay less often than once a month.  Examples include presents (most of us have a relatively large expenditure in December, but also don’t forget birthdays), property taxes if you own a house and insurance.  In the months that you don’t have these expenses, you’ll want to set aside enough money so you make these payments when they are due.

Mary has made a list of these expenses from her budget.  Specifically, she has budgeted $400 for presents, $1,000 for a vacation and $1,000 for car and renters insurance which she pays once a year.   She puts $200 a month into her bank savings account to cover these expenses. When she pays for her insurance or vacation, she transfers the money back to checking.

Emergency Savings

How Much?

Three to six months of basic expenses is considered a good target for emergency savings.  To help me estimate how much I need in emergency savings, I imagine what would happen if I couldn’t work for that time period. There are many expenses that will be eliminated, such as income taxes, commute expenses and some others. However, there are also additional expenses, possibly including the full cost of health insurance.[1]

In addition to not being able to work, other uses of emergency savings include unexpected medical expenses, serious illness or death in your close family that requires travel and major repairs to your car or house.  It is important to recognize what is an emergency and what is not.  For example, a funeral is an emergency, while a wedding is a luxury.  Your furnace needing replacement is an emergency.  Routine maintenance and even medium-sized repairs to your car or house are not emergencies as they are budget items.  An important component of using emergency savings is to modify your budget immediately to start re-building it.

Mary has decided to start with a target of four months of expenses for her emergency savings and plans to build it up using $1,500 a year from her non-retirement savings budget until it reaches six months of expenses.  As a first approximation of how much emergency savings Mary needs, she could take a third (four months divided by twelve months in a year) of her salary or just over $20,000.  Because Mary has a budget, she can identify those expenses that absolutely necessary. Her budget shows $40,000 of basic living expenses so a third of that would be $13,333.  She will use $13,000 as her target for her emergency savings, leaving her with $12,000 for designated and long-term savings.

Where to Invest?

Mary considers only a few choices for her emergency savings – including her bank savings accounts, a high-yield checking or savings account at a brokerage firm and a money market account.

A Bit about Money Market Accounts

Money market accounts tend to return a slightly higher yield than savings accounts.  They are like other securities in that you have to buy and sell them, but you can often have access to your money in 24 hours (as compared to instantly for a savings account).

Money market accounts also have slightly more risk than savings accounts. Many money market funds buy very safe securities, such as certificates of deposit and US government bonds so have very little risk.  Others take more risk by investing in commercial paper which is essentially a short-term loan for a company.  In 2008, the value of a few money market funds backed by commercial paper fell below $1.00.  When the value of a money market fund falls below $1.00, it is called “breaking the dollar,” For emergency savings, you’ll want to focus on funds backed by US government debt securities.

Money market accounts from a bank are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, while those at brokerage firms are not.  Money market funds at brokerage houses are insured by the US Treasury if the brokerage firm fails but not if the fund breaks the dollar.  If the value of the investments purchased by the money market fund fall in value, the value of your principal might decrease.  I am not aware of any money market funds that have lost value.  There are some money market funds that invest in higher risk instruments.  For emergency savings, Mary will consider only money market funds that buy low-risk instruments.

You might be thinking I’m kidding.  Keep some money in a savings account!  You might be excited to participate in the seemingly glamourous world of trading stocks and other financial instruments.  Unfortunately, those financial instruments are risky.  That is, you might lose some of the money you invest in those instruments if their value goes down.  (I have a lot to say about risk and reward in this post.)

Back to Mary’s Emergency Savings

Because emergency savings are meant to be available on a moment’s notice at their full value, Mary will keep hers in those two very boring places – a savings account and a money market account.

At one brokerage firm, high-yield checking and savings accounts are earning 0.35% to 0.45% as I write this post.  US government-backed money market accounts are earning as much as 1.9%[2]or about 1.5 percentage points higher than the checking and savings accounts.  (The money market rate at one bank is 1.87%[3]or essentially the same as the brokerage firm.) Mary decides to put half of her emergency savings in a high-yield checking account so she is sure to have instant access to it and half in a money market account.  This decision gives her an average return of 1.275%, as compared to the 0.06%[4]she was earning on her bank’s savings account. So, while the savings account and a money market account are not as exciting as buying stocks, she can improve her return as compared to her bank’s savings account.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about how Mary plans to invest her designated savings and long-term savings.  I promise – the choices get a bit less boring.

Key Points

The key takeaways from this case study are:

  • There are different purposes for savings – expenses you don’t pay every month, emergencies, large future purchases and long-term.
  • Expenses paid less than monthly can be budgeted and set aside in a very safe, easily accessed place, such as a savings account, until needed.
  • Emergency savings of three to six months of basic living expenses is a good target.If you have lots of back-up options – financially supportive parents or relatives, another place nearby you could live for a few months in an emergency or the like, your target can be at the low end of the range.   On the other hand, if you are like one friend of mine whose family lives in Europe while he lives in the US so an emergency trip home would be very expensive or you don’t have many back-up options, you might want to set the high end of the range as your ultimate target.
  • It is important to replace emergency savings as quickly as possible after using them.
  • A portion of emergency savings (the greater of one month’s expenses or travel expenses to immediate family) should be available at any time; while a portion can be invested in something that takes a day or two to access.

Your Next Steps

This post talks about Mary’s situation.  Here are some questions you can be asking yourself and things you can do to apply these concepts to your situation.

  • Make a budget. A budget will help you understand your financial situations. For help with budgeting, check out my series of posts with a step-by-step plan for building a budget, starting with this one<//li>.
  • Identify the expenses in your budget that you pay less than once a month. Determine how much you need to set aside each month to cover them.  In each month, you will increase this component of your savings by 1/12thof the total amount of less-than-monthly expense.  You will also reduce it by any of these expenses that need to be paid in the month.
  • Do you want to start a relationship with a brokerage firm? If so, here are some questions to consider:
    • What types of accounts does it offer?
    • What are the fees and limitations associated with those accounts?
    • What are the returns it is offering on those accounts?
    • Can you access those accounts using an ATM card, electronic banking or checks? What are the fees associated with them?  My brokerage firm waives all ATM card fees which is great in an emergency because I can get cash anywhere in the world.
    • Do you want to be able to meet with someone in person? This question was critical for me.  While I probably use e-mail more than I should, I need to be able to go into the office for big transactions and, to a lesser extent, advice.  If you are like me in that regard, particularly if you are looking for advice, you’ll want a brokerage firm with a conveniently-located office and a team you can trust.
  • Set an emergency savings target.
  • Look into options for your emergency savings.
    • Does your bank or, if you have one, brokerage firm, offer high-yield checking or savings accounts? What are the fees and limitations on those accounts? An account with a large minimum balance isn’t attractive for emergency savings because you might need to empty it on short notice.
    • Do you want to consider a money market account for some of your emergency savings? If so, what options are offered by your bank and brokerage firm? What returns are being offered? How long will it take to access your money? How easy is it to access the money, such as by transferring it to your checking account? In an emergency, you probably won’t want to feel overwhelmed by the process of accessing your emergency funds.

  • [1]For a longer discussion of emergency savings, check out http://brokewallet.com/emergency-fund/.

    [2]https://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/investing/accounts_products/investment/money_markets_funds/purchased_money_funds#government_treasury, December 2, 2018.

    [3]https://www.wellsfargo.com/investing/cash-sweep/rates-and-yields/, November 29, 2018.

    [4]https://www.wellsfargo.com/savings-cds/rates, November 17, 2018.

Car Insurance Coverage

If you own a car, you buy car insurance coverage.  In the process, you have to make lots of decisions.  Do you want to buy Comprehensive? Collision? What limit for Bodily Injury?  For Medical Payments? For Uninsured Motorist? What deductible? As with other insurance products, auto insurance is full of its own unique terminology.  In this post, I’ll explain all these terms and provide some insights on how to make some of the decisions that determine your car insurance coverage.

As I told my kids (see Advice I Gave My Kids post), I recommend that you read every contract before you sign it.  Auto insurance policies don’t change all that much from year to year. If you use the same insurer and live in the same state, you can probably read the policy every few years to refresh your memory.  In the meantime, this post will help you understanding the basics.

Before going into the coverages, though, I need to provide some background about liability and different types of laws governing the liability for car accidents.

No-Fault vs. Tort Jurisdictions

When you cause an accident in which someone else is hurt or their property is damaged, you have created a liability for yourself to reimburse them for their economic loss.  That is, you are liable for paying their medical costs and lost wages, among other things, and repairing or replacing their property. In some 12 states (see the chart at the end of this article for a list) and most or all of Canada, though, the laws make the driver of each car involved responsible for their own and their passengers’ costs in certain accidents.

In the 1970s, car insurance costs escalated very rapidly.  No-fault coverage was introduced in some jurisdictions to slow auto insurance inflation.  In theory, under a no-fault system, every driver is responsible for the costs of themselves and their passengers regardless of who was at fault for the accident.  In practice, no-fault is applied to only “small” accidents. The definition of “small” varies widely across jurisdictions, with some defining it based on the total cost of injuries and damage and others based on the nature of the injury.  Jurisdictions that don’t have a no-fault system are often called tort jurisdictions.

Tort Liability

In a tort jurisdiction, you are required to buy Bodily Injury liability coverage.  In these jurisdictions, this coverage protects you against the cost of all injuries to others.  You will also be offered Medical Payments coverage which reimburses you for your and your passengers’ medical costs in accidents you cause.

No-Fault

Under a no-fault system, you are also required to buy Bodily Injury liability coverage to protect yourself against the cost of injuries to others, but only for accidents that aren’t “small.”  In addition, you will be offered Personal Injury Protection which covers injuries to you and your passengers in accidents you cause and in all “small” accidents caused by others.

Coverage Overview

The table below shows which of your coverages will protect you against costs from the people injured and property damaged or destroyed in an accident you cause.  I’ll describe these insurance coverages in a bit more detail below.

Affected Party in an Accident You Cause Injuries – Tort Injuries – No Fault Damaged Property (cars, etc.)
You and your family Medical Payments Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Collision
Other passengers Medical Payments Medical Payments Collision
People and things in other cars Bodily Injury (BI) Their PIP if small, your BI otherwise Property Damage Liability
Pedestrians Bodily Injury Medical Payments Property Damage Liability

 

Your insurance coverage is available to you regardless of whether you are driving your car or someone else’s car, including rental cars.  If you purchase Collision coverage, it will be cover the full amount of damage for any other vehicle you drive even if the other vehicle is worth more than any of your cars.

Your coverage is also available to anyone else who is driving your car with your permission.  That is, unless someone steals your car, all of the coverages that you buy are available to another driver.  Loss or damage to your car due to theft is covered under Comprehensive.

Bodily Injury Liability (BI)

Bodily Injury liability coverage pays costs related to injury or death for which you become legally responsible because of a car accident.  Interestingly, passengers are not insured under Bodily Injury liability coverage but rather are covered under your Personal Injury Protection, Medical Payments or Uninsured Motorist coverage.  In no-fault states, the insurer pays only when the accident is severe enough to not be considered small.

Property Damage Liability

Property damage liability coverage pays the cost of damage to other people’s cars and property for which you become legally liable.  Most of the time, the damage is to other people’s cars and their contents. I know one person, though, who fell asleep while driving in a rural area.  She crossed the median, the lanes in the other direction and ran into the front of a store. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the store and its contents were damaged.  In this accident, her car insurer repaired the store and replaced its contents under her Property Damage liability coverage.

Liability Limits

You will have the option to select the limit of liability for your Bodily Injury and Property Damage liability coverages.  Coverage can be offered with split limits or a combined single limit (CSL).

Split Limits

When there are split limits, you will see three numbers, e.g., $100K/$300K/$50K.  The first number ($100,000 in the example) refers to the amount the insurer will pay for each injured person. The second number ($300,000 in this example) is the total amount the insurer will pay for Bodily Injury coverage for each accident.  The third number ($50,000) is the total amount it will pay per accident for Property Damage liability. When there is a combined single limit, the limit will be described using a single number. That number is the maximum amount the insurer will pay for each accident for all injuries and Property Damage liability combined.

Combined Single Limit

I usually buy a combined single limit, but recommend looking at different options to compare the pricing.  For example, if you can find $100K/$300K/$50K coverage for significantly less than a $300,000 combined single limit, you might want to buy the split limits.  I buy the combined single limit because there is more coverage if a single person is severely injured. For example, if only one person is injured in an accident I cause but that person has $250,000 of medical costs and lost wages, a $100K/$300K/$50K limit would cover only $100,000 of the $250,000.  A $300,000 combined single limit policy would cover all of it. Another reason I buy a combined single limit is that I buy an umbrella policy (which I’ll cover in a future post). My umbrella policy requires a combined single limit on my underlying auto policy.

What Limit

I always buy as much limit as I can afford (and, as I indicated above, started buying umbrella insurance when I could afford it).  If you injure someone severely in an accident, you are liable for the full amount of their medical costs and lost wages regardless of whether they are covered by insurance.  If someone has $250,000 of medical expenses and lost wages and the applicable limit on your policy is $100,000, they can demand that you pay the remaining $150,000 from your personal assets.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

Personal Injury Protection coverage (PIP) pays benefits to you and members of your immediate family when involved in an auto accident, regardless of who is at fault, in a no-fault jurisdiction.  You can be reimbursed for medical expenses, loss of income and funeral expenses.

When I lived in a no-fault state, I bought a much lower limit for Personal Injury Protection than for Bodily Injury liability.  Most importantly, my family and I have always had health insurance and I had disability coverage. If you are severely injured in a car accident, your auto insurer pays first.  My health and disability insurance also provided coverage after my auto insurance coverage was exhausted. I suggest confirming with your human resources contact or health and disability insurers that you would be covered if injured in a car accident before making the same choice I did.  If not, you might want to consider buying as high a limit as you can afford.

Medical Payments

Medical Payments coverage reimburses medical expenses in an accident.  In all states, coverage is provided for passengers who are not family members and pedestrians.  In tort states, you and your family members are also covered.

I probably don’t buy a high enough Medical Payments limit.  Until I wrote this post, I always focused primarily on my situation and selected my limit in the same way I did my Personal Injury Protection limit.  Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize that I should also be considering my passengers and any pedestrians I might injure. They might not have as much health and disability insurance as I do, so I wouldn’t have a back-up if my Medical Payments limit was less than the cost of their medical care and lost wages.  If you have a lot of non-family-member passengers and especially if you drive other people’s children to school or activities, you might want to consider buying as much Medical Payments limit as you can afford.

Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) Coverage

If you, your family members or your passengers are injured in an accident caused by someone else, that person is liable for your medical costs and lost wages.  Unfortunately, there are many accidents in which the other driver’s Bodily Injury limit is less than your medical costs and lost wages or sometimes the other driver has no insurance at all (which is illegal in all US states and Canadian provinces, but still happens).  In those situations, your insurer will reimburse you for any costs you can’t recover from the other driver or its insurance under your Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. The maximum amount you can receive from your insurer is your UM/UIM limit.  Your insurer then has the right to try to recover any amounts it pays to you from the other driver directly.

The selection of a UM/UIM limit is very similar to that of a Medical Payments limit in that you are buying protection for not only you and your family members, but also your passengers.

Physical Damage Coverages

Damage to your car from accidents you cause can be insured under Collision and Comprehensive coverages.

Collision and Comprehensive

Collision reimburses you for damage to your car when it impacts another vehicle or object or rolls over.  Comprehensive reimburses you for damage to or loss of your car from perils than a collision. Perils explicitly covered by Comprehensive are:

  • Missiles or falling objects
  • Fire
  • Theft
  • Explosion or earthquake
  • Windstorm
  • Hail, water or flood
  • Malicious mischief or vandalism
  • Riot or civil commotion
  • Contact with bird or animal
  • Breakage of glass (also covered under Collision if from an accident)

In addition, many policies will also reimburse you for a temporary replacement for your vehicle until it is repaired.  My policy provides only $20 a day up to a maximum of $600, so the coverage would help cover the cost of renting a car but is not likely to be enough.

A quick tip – Property Damage liability coverage is easily confused with physical damage coverage.  Property damage liability covers other people’s cars.  Physical damage coverage includes Collision and Comprehensive so protects your car.  I don’t recall all the details, but have an example to illustrate the difference.  One of my daughter’s friends was driving back to college late at night after Thanksgiving on an interstate.  She hit a deer and totaled her car. She had not purchased Comprehensive, so was afraid she was going to have to figure out how to replace her car on a very limited budget.  It turns out the deer had a hunter’s tag on it and had fallen off the roof of the hunter’s car. Because the hunter was responsible for the deer being in the road, she was fully reimbursed for the value of her car under his Property Damage liability coverage.

Physical Damage – What to Buy

Collision and Comprehensive coverages can be quite expensive.  On one of my recent policies, my Comprehensive coverage cost more than my liability coverages, while my Collision coverage cost is 2/3 of the cost of my liability coverages.  I note that I have selected a high deductible and drive moderately old cars. These coverages would be even more expensive if I drove newer cars or selected a lower deductible.  As such, it is very important to balance the benefits of these coverages with their cost.

Physical Damage – Rules of Thumb

I have a few rules of thumb I use in making my decision about whether to buy Comprehensive and Collision coverage and at what deductibles.  They are:

  • Never buy insurance on something you can afford to lose or replace.  For example, you might have an old beater car you drive only in the winter.  If you can afford to replace the car or have another car you can drive in the winter, you might not buy Collision or Comprehensive on that car at all.
  • Select the highest deductible you can afford.  If you can’t afford to replace your car, especially if it is new or your only vehicle, you’ll want to buy Comprehensive and Collision if it fits in your budget.  You can reduce the cost of these coverages by selecting a higher deductible. You can review your budget and your savings to see how much you can afford to repair or replace a vehicle if it is damaged or stolen.  This review can inform your selection of a deductible.
  • Always put Comprehensive and Collision on at least one car if you rent cars for personal use with any frequency.  As mentioned below, your car insurance will cover you when you rent a car up to the maximum coverage you have on any one vehicle.  If you rent cars for only a few days a year, the cost of the rental car company’s insurance will be less than the cost to cover one of your cars for physical damage.  My experience, though, is that rental-car companies’ insurance is very expensive and I can afford to put Comprehensive and Collision coverage on one of my cars for my annual cost of buying coverage on rental cars.

Towing and Labor

Some insurers offer to insure you against the costs of towing and labor if your car breaks down.  Examples of the labor costs that are insured under this coverage include unlocking your car, changing a tire, gas, oil or water delivery, and jump-starting your car.  To be clear, your car insurer will not pay for any repairs to your car once it has been towed. It just covers costs to get you off the side of the road.

This coverage is very similar to what is available from such entities as the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).  If you are interested in this coverage, you’ll want to compare the coverage and cost from your insurer with that from other entities. For example, depending on what level of service you buy, AAA will tow your car for either five or 100 miles.  By comparison, towing coverage under a personal auto policy is capped at the dollar amount of the limit you purchase. As you make the cost comparison, you’ll want to consider whether you use any “free” services from the other entities.  Also, if you buy this coverage, remember to use it if you find yourself stranded. I was so rattled by being forced off the road and onto the median by a truck in a couple feet of snow that I forgot I had this coverage. I ended up paying the tow bill myself.  Oops!

Exclusions

There are lots of exclusions in an auto policy.  Some important exclusions I have seen include:

  • You are not covered for intentional acts.  For example, if you are mad at another driver and intentionally run your car into the other driver’s car, your insurance company won’t pay for any damage or injuries.
  • You are generally not covered if you are using your car in a business related to cars.  Driving your car for Uber or Lyft or similar is almost always excluded. Also, if you park, sell or repair cars, any damage to or caused by those vehicles will not be covered.
  • You are usually not covered if you are driving a vehicle other than a car, pickup or van for any type of work.
  • You are not covered for injury to anyone who is your employee, unless it is a domestic employee.  We always added our nannies on our insurance policies as drivers to make sure there was no question that they were covered.

Tips about Renting Cars

Your auto policy will cover you and a rental car in the same way as it covers the vehicle on your policy that has the greatest coverage.  For example, let’s say you own two cars – a new one with $500-deductible Comprehensive and Collision coverage and an old one with no physical damage coverage.  Your insurer will provide $500-deductible Comprehensive and Collision on any cars you rent.

The one exception is that many insurers won’t cover the charges from the rental company for the loss of use of its vehicle.   That is, the rental company charges the renter for the costs it incurs and the profits it loses because the car is being repaired and not available for rent.  These charges are known as loss-of-use charges. These charges can be very expensive, even more than the costs to repair the car. In all our years of renting cars, we have only had one claim.  One of our nannies left her purse in plain sight in a locked rental car when she took the kids to the beach. Someone broke the back passenger window to grab her purse. In that case, our insurer paid for the damage to the car under our Comprehensive coverage after we paid the deductible.  It also argued with the rental car company about the loss-of-use charges. In the end, we did not have to pay anything other than our deductible.

When renting cars, I decline all of the insurance coverage offered, taking my risk that I might have to pay for loss of use.  But, I also make sure I always have Comprehensive and Collision on at least one car so that coverage and, even more importantly, the insurer’s leverage in negotiating with the car rental company are available when I rent cars.