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 – Creating 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.  Next week, I’ll talk about things you can do so the value is close to zero.

 

How to Budget Step 6 – Reviewing your Expenses

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 about things to review 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

You Have Some Savings. What’s Next? Part 3: Pre-paying Student Loans

This week, I’ll conclude the case study about Mary and her savings.  Her last question focused on whether to pre-pay the principal on 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.

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.  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. 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.

You Have Some Savings. What’s Next? Part 2: Large Purchases and Retirement Savings

Last week, I presented the first part of a case study that introduced Mary and her questions about what to do with her savings.  

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?

Last week, I talked about a framework for thinking about her savings and setting aside money for expenses she doesn’t pay monthly and emergency savings.  This week, I’ll focus on the rest of her savings.  Next week, I’ll talk about her student loans. 

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.  Last week, we discussed that 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.

Last week, we discussed that 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.  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.  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]

Long-Term 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].  

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. 

You Have Some Savings. What’s Next? Part 1: 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.   The first part of this post will focus on a very high-level structure for your investable asset portfolio.  The rest of this post and the next post present a case study addressing the savings and investing components of that structure.  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 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 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.

Emergency 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 and will dedicate at least one future post to the topic.)

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.

  1. Make a budget.Starting in January, I’ll have a series of posts with a step-by-step plan for building a budget.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Set an emergency savings target.
  5. 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.

Balancing a Checkbook: The Nitty Gritty Details

In my previous post, I discussed several different options for balancing your checkbook, ranging from completely ignoring it to maintaining a forward-looking transaction record and balancing it every month.  In this post, I’ll give the nitty gritty details of:

  • How to balance your checkbook for a single month.
  • How to get started if you’ve had your account for a while and have never balanced your checkbook.

What You Need

To balance your checkbook, you’ll need four things:

  • Your bank statement.  Figure 1 provides an example.
  • Your reconciliation from last month.  Figure 2 provides an example.
  • Your check register or transaction record. Figure 3 provides an example.
  • A blank reconciliation template.  Figure 4 shows the template after I’ve completed it as described below for this month.

Getting Started

At the top of your blank reconciliation form (see Figure 4 below) in the row labeled with the letter A , I copy the bank balance as shown on this month’s bank statement.  I’ve put a red A next to that value on Figure 1. In this example, the value is $4,994.16.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Bank Statement

Last Month’s Outstanding Deposits

I then compare the transactions I wrote on last month’s reconciliation with this month’s bank statement.  In our example, I compare Figure 2 with Figure 1. The second section in Figure 2 is a list of all of the deposits that I made before I balanced my checkbook last month that cleared the bank after last month’s bank statement was prepared.  There is one such deposit for $751.64 in Row 2.1.  That same amount can be found as the first transaction on this month’s bank statement (Row 1.1 in Figure 1).  When I find a transaction in both places, I put check marks next to both of them.

Because deposits are recorded by the bank fairly quickly after you make them, all deposits on last month’s reconciliation should appear on this month’s bank statement.  If they do not, you need to make sure you have a confirmation of the deposit and talk to your bank. To make your transaction register balance while you resolve the issue, you’ll need to copy any deposits that haven’t cleared the bank from Section B of last month’s reconciliation to Section B of this month’s reconciliation.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Last Month’s Reconciliation

Last Month’s Outstanding Payments

The next step is to go through the same process with the withdrawals (checks, ATM withdrawals, debit card transactions or any type of automatic or electronic bill pay).  This process will use the third section of last month’s reconciliation (Figure 2) and this month’s bank statement (Figure 1). In Figure 2, I can see that I made payments using Check 1022 and an automatic payment to Allstate (Rows 2.2 and 2.3) before I balanced my checkbook that did not appear on last month’s bank statement.  These items both appear on this month’s bank statement, identified as Rows 1.5 and 1.2 on Figure 1, respectively. As with the deposits, I put a check mark next to each amount on both the bank statement and last month’s reconciliation.

If any of the transactions that were outstanding at the end of last month still do not appear on my bank statement, I copy them to the same place on this month’s reconciliation.  Every once in a while, someone will not deposit a check. I usually assume that any checks that haven’t been deposited after six months won’t be deposited unless there are special circumstances.  When I decide a check isn’t going to be deposited, I don’t transfer the check to this month’s reconciliation. Instead, I put a transaction in my checkbook that shows a deposit for the amount of the check.

This Month’s Outstanding Deposits

I now do the same thing with the transactions I recorded after I balanced my checkbook last month.  In my check register (Figure 3), I see three deposits (Rows 3.5, 3.6 and 3.10). On my bank statement (Figure 1), only the first two deposits appear.  They are shown in Rows 1.6 and 1.8 of Figure 1 and correspond to Rows 3.5 and 3.6 of my check register. I put a check mark next to Rows 1.6 and 1.8 on the bank statement and Rows 3.5 and 3.6 in my check register to indicate that I have found the amounts in both places.

At the same time that I enter the check marks, I also compare that the amounts are the same.  If the amounts don’t match, it could be one of two problems:

  • The bank used the wrong amount for that transaction.  I then need to find any documentation I have (check stubs, copies of deposits, confirmations of electronic deposits) so I can demonstrate to the bank that there is an error.  If that is the case, I treat any difference as an outstanding deposit as explained below.
  • I entered the wrong amount in my check register (the more likely problem).  In this case, I add another entry at the bottom of my check register that adds or subtracts the difference.  I illustrate corrections of arithmetic mistakes below. Correcting entry errors uses the same process.

You’ll recall that the deposit in Row 3.10 of my check register did not appear on my bank statement.  I take some piece of identifying information about the deposit (I always use the date) along with the amount and enter it in Section B of this month’s reconciliation (Figure 4).  You’ll see I entered $751.64 in Row 4.1 of Figure 4.

I then calculate the total of the values in this section of Figure 4.  I enter that amount in the Total row of the little table and on the blank line just to the right.  As indicated on the reconciliation form, I then add the ending balance from my bank statement to the total amount of outstanding deposits in C.  That total is $5,745.80.

If there are any deposits on my bank statement that do not appear on my check register, I add them.  I find those deposits by looking on my bank statement for any values in the “Paid In” column that don’t have a check mark next to them.  My bank pays a very small amount of interest on my checking account every month. I never remember to record the interest as a deposit on the day it goes into my account, so have to add a line my check register for that deposit.

So far, I have adjusted the amount the bank recorded as my balance on the date the statement was prepared for deposits I made subsequently.  Remember the goal of this process is to make sure the bank statement balance equals my checkbook balance after adjustment for any transactions that don’t appear in both places.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Check Register

This Month’s Outstanding Payments

I next focus on the payments I made this month.  There are seven of them shown in the Withdrawal column of my check register (Figure 3).  The transactions to Safeway, Petsmart and Amazon were made by debit card. The payments for my mortgage and insurance (Allstate) are automatic payments.  I recorded that I wrote one check, as shown in Row 3.9, and transferred $800 to savings (Row 3.8).

I look for each of these transaction on my bank statement in Figure 1.  As with the deposits, I put a check mark on both the bank statement and check register next to all of the amounts that appear in both places.  I also check to make sure that the amounts are the same. If they are not, I need to figure out who made the mistake and take the same types of corrective actions as I did for deposits.

You’ll see that all of the transactions except the check to Jane Doe (Row 3.9) and the auto-pay transaction to Allstate (Row 3.11) appear on my bank statement.  I copy the information and amounts of these two transactions (Rows 3.9 and 3.11) into the table in Section D of my reconciliation. You can see those amounts in Rows 4.2 and 4.3 of Figure 4.  I calculate the total amount of outstanding payments and put it in the bottom row of the table in Section D and the line next to it. This value is $656.89.

Figure 4
Figure 4: This Month’s Reconciliation

I look to see if there are any payments on my bank statement that weren’t in my check register.  These payments won’t have a check mark next to them. As is often the case, I didn’t record the cash I withdrew on 9/22 of $300.  Figure 5 has a corrected copy of my check register. You can see in Row 5.1 where I’ve added the cash withdrawal I forgot to record.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Corrected Check Register

Making It Balance

The last step for completing the reconciliation is to subtract the total amount of outstanding payments shown in the Section D Total from the amount in C in Figure 4.   The difference ($5,745.80 – $656.89 = $5,088.91) goes in the line next to E of Figure 4.

If I’ve done everything right, the total from E equals the balance in the last line of my check register.  Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t work for me and didn’t in this example. The adjusted bank balance from the reconciliation is $5,088.91 as compared my checkbook balance (after adding the missing ATM withdrawal) of $5,092.91.  There are several different things that can cause the values to differ. Here are the things I check:

  • Make sure all transactions on my bank statement have a check mark next to them.  If not, I need to add them my check register. For me, this error is a common one, as it is easy to forget to record an ATM withdrawal or a check my husband wrote.
  • Confirm that all of the amounts on the bank statement are exactly equal to the amounts on either last month’s reconciliation or my check register.  
  • Confirm that all of the outstanding amounts (the ones that are not checked) in my check register and from last month’s reconciliation are recorded correctly on this month’s reconciliation.
  • Check that my arithmetic is correct on this month’s reconciliation.  I start by doing the arithmetic in my head, so often find mistakes here.  This problem is common if I have a long list of outstanding payments because I didn’t balance my bank statement right after it arrived.  If I’m really stuck, I’ll open a spreadsheet to do the math for me.
  • Check that the arithmetic is correct in my check register.  Because I often update the balance in my check register while I am at the check-out counter of a store, I’m somewhat distracted so this error is my most common one.

In this case, I found that I made two arithmetic errors when calculating the balance in my check register.  When I deducted my mortgage payment from my balance in Row 3.4, I incorrectly calculated the value that goes in the $1 column.  The correct balance for that row should have been $4,826.86. Rather than write over the errant 5 and carry that correction all the way down the rest of the column, I create a new line item.  This line item is shown in Row 5.2 of Figure 5. I also made a $5 subtraction error related to my Amazon charge. In this case, I subtracted $5 too little, so I added Row 5.3 on Figure 5 subtracting that $5.

With these changes, the balance at the bottom of my corrected check register (Figure 5) equals the adjusted bank statement balance (Figure 4) and I am done for this month.

How Do I Get Started

It is never too late to start!  It will just be a bit challenging at first because you don’t have a “Last Month’s Reconciliation.”  Here’s how I suggest you get started if you’ve never kept a check register or balanced your checkbook.

  • Start a check register or transaction record.  Initially, you won’t have to keep track of the balance – just record all of your transactions.  You can keep your transaction record in any format that works for you. I still carry a check book, so I use a check register from the bank as my transaction record.  You’ll want to create a process that allows you to (a) make a note of all transactions as soon as you make them and (b) allows you to track your balance.   I see there are some apps for this purpose, so one of them might work well for those of you who always have your phone with you.
  • After you have at least one month’s transactions, compare the transactions on your bank statement with those on your transaction record.  Mark all of the ones in your transaction record that are also on your bank statement. If there are a lot of transaction on your bank statement that didn’t appear in your transaction record, wait for another month.  You’ll want to track the number of transactions on your bank statement that come from transactions you made before you started your transaction record. Once that number is pretty small, you are ready for the next step.
  • Go through the process of calculating your adjusted balance described above.  In the first month, you will have to look back in prior months in your transaction record for transactions that cleared this month but you recorded previously because you won’t have the list of outstanding transactions from last month.
  • Check your adjusted bank balance carefully, as you are going to use this as the balance in your transaction record.  Put the adjusted balance amount in the balance column of your transaction record next to the most recent transaction you have entered.
  • Unless you have made an arithmetic error in calculating your adjusted bank balance or you have a transaction outstanding from before your started your transaction record, you will be able to balance your checkbook in future months.

Closing

The above explanations have lots of steps!  If you have any questions or need help when you try to apply them to your own situation, feel free to either post questions below or drop me a note via the Contact Me form or at susieq@financialiqbysusieq.com.  As always, though, please, please, please do not include any personally identifiable or personally sensitive financial information.

 

Balancing a Checkbook: Options, Benefits and Risks

I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of my readers are interested in balancing their checkbooks to their bank statements!  I would have guessed that, although I balance my checkbook to the penny every month, there wouldn’t be much interest. In response to this request, I will talk about the following aspects of balancing your checkbook in this post:

  • The benefits of balancing your checkbook.
  • Different levels of effort you can put into the process.
  • How to decide how much effort is “best” for you.

In my next post, I’ll give the nitty gritty details of:

  • How to balance your checkbook for a single month.
  • How to get started if you’ve had your account for a while and have never balanced your checkbook.

Benefits

The primary reason to balance your checkbook is to make sure that you always have an accurate picture of your financial position.  By maintaining a list of all of your bank account transactions, often called a checkbook, check register or transaction record, you can keep track of your current account balance to monitor whether you are staying on track with your budget or whether you can afford a particular purchase.  When you balance your checkbook, you are confirming that you have included all transactions and performed all of the calculations correctly.

A secondary reason to balance your checkbook is to ensure that none of the bank, you or any vendors has made a mistake.  Although it has been many years since it has happened, I am aware of a few mistakes with my account. In one case, the bank transferred money from my checking account to my savings account instead of the other way around.  In another case, the bank put the money from a large deposit into someone else’s account. I also had a utility that I paid by automatic transfer take too much out of my account one month. My mother had a deposit she had mailed to a brokerage firm get burned up in a plane crash on its way to the bank.  So, you never know!

Basic Steps

When I think of balancing my checkbook, I envision the key steps as:

  • Compare the deposits and withdrawals on my statement with the ones that were outstanding when I balanced to my statement last month.
  • Compare the deposits and withdrawals on my statement with the ones I entered in my transaction register since I balanced to my statement last month.
  • Adjust the balance on my bank statement for any transactions that are in my checkbook that aren’t on my bank statement.
  • Make sure that the adjusted bank statement balance equals the value in my checkbook, finding any missing transactions or arithmetic mistakes if they aren’t the same.

Six Variations

In practice, I’m aware of at least six different ways you can use your bank statement, in order from riskiest and least effort to lowest risk and most effort.  These approaches are:

  • Ignore the whole thing and assume that whatever the banks says is your current balance is right and up-to-date.
  • Review your bank statement every so often to make sure all of the transactions look accurate.  Trust that the bank balance you see on your phone or online is right and up-to-date.
  • Keep a checkbook without keeping track of your balance.  Use it to compare with your bank statement to make sure all of the transactions on your statement are right.  Or, some bank apps can send you an e-mail or text for every transaction on your account as it happens so you can check them.  In either case, you trust that the balance reported by the bank is right and up-to-date.
  • Keep a checkbook and keep track of your balance.  Use it to compare your transactions to your bank statement.  Do a partial reconciliation with your bank statement, but adjust your checkbook balance to the adjusted bank statement balance (see below) once you get close.
  • Keep a checkbook, keep track of your balance, and balance your checkbook to the penny every month.
  • Keep a checkbook but include not only transactions you have already made, but also record any amounts you know you need to pay at the same time you record your paycheck or other deposit.  Also, calculate your balance and reconcile your checkbook every month.

What Do You Mean – Up-to-Date?

Many people look at the balance reported by the bank at a particular moment and assume that it represents their available funds.  That assumption is closer to being true today than it was 20 years ago, but it is not always a good assumption to make. The factors that cause there to be differences between the balance reported by the bank and your available funds include:

  • Banks sometimes put a hold on part or all of certain deposits, especially ones that are large relative to your balance or come from other banks.  That is, the bank will not let you spend the amount that has been put on hold until it “clears.” I have had deposits take up to ten business days to clear, though three business days seems to be more typical.  The total amount of your deposit will show in your balance, but it may not be available. In many cases, I’ve seen the bank report two balances – the total and the available balance. The available balance excludes the portion of any deposits that have been held.  If you see only one balance, make sure you know whether it is the total or the available balance so you don’t overdraw your account.
  • Checks always take at least a bit of time to be reflected in your balance.  If you pay a bill and mail a check, it won’t clear the bank until the payee has received and deposited it.  I find this lag can be as long as ten days. Even if you give a check to a vendor or service provider in person, it can take a few days for it to be deposited.   Until the check has been deposited by the payee and your bank has been notified, the amount of the check will be included as part of the balance reported by your bank.
  • If you schedule a bill payment directly from your account, some banks and platforms do not be deduct the amount from your balance until the vendor accepts the payment.  For example, if it is the 5th of the month, you schedule a payment for Saturday the 8th and the vendor doesn’t accept the payment until Monday the 10th, your balance will not reflect that payment for the five days after you committed to making the payment.  One exception is an Interact e-transfer which is deducted from your account balance immediately.
  • Most debit charges clear almost instantly, but there are situations in which they don’t.  One example is tips. Many vendors process the amount of your bill immediately, but then give you the receipt on which you add the tip and then sign.  In some cases, it can take a day or two before the vendor processes the tips. This situation isn’t as common in places like Canada where the tip is entered directly into the card reader at the same time the transaction is approved.
  • Almost all ATM withdrawals are processed instantly, as well, though there is sometimes a small lag if you withdraw money outside your own country or with the fees charged for using another bank’s ATM.

Your checkbook, if you are diligent about recording transactions immediately, will reflect all of these charges so you will have an up-to-date balance.

Which Approach is Better for You

The table compares how each of these approaches addresses the two primary risks of not balancing your checkbook – identification of mistakes and an up-to-date view of your balance.

Approach/Level of Effort Error Identification Account Balance Accuracy
Ignore the whole thing None Rely on bank for your current balance.  Ignores any transactions that you have made but haven’t cleared or that need to come out of your current funds
Review statement Will find bigger mistakes and those from locations where you weren’t or vendors you’ve never used Same as above
Keep a checkbook and compare with statement Will find most mistakes, as long as your checkbook is complete Same as above
Keep a checkbook, calculate your balance and compare with statement Same as above As long as you haven’t made any math errors in calculating your adjusted balance, you have an accurate view of your current financial position including transactions that haven’t cleared
Balance your checkbook Same as above with additional confirmation that you have caught all errors from the balancing process You have an accurate view of your current financial position including transactions that haven’t cleared
Include  expenses that need to be covered by this paycheck Same as above You know how much money you have available for discretionary purchases until your next paycheck or other income arrives

If you are on a very tight budget or if you know yourself well enough to know that you are an impulse shopper, the “include expenses that need to be covered by this paycheck” approach is likely best for you from a risk perspective.  If you have a bit of cushion or know you can stay on your budget without going the extra step of anticipating expenses, you are likely safe using the “balance your checkbook” approach. I have always used that approach and still do.

Key Risks

There are two key risks of not knowing your up-to-date bank balance – not having money to pay a critical bill and overdrawing your account. Most importantly, you don’t want to find that you can’t afford to pay your rent, mortgage, utilities or insurance because you didn’t keep track of your bank balance. Almost as importantly, you don’t want to “bounce” any of your transactions. If you have a check, delayed debit card or ATM transaction or electronic payment that demands more funds from your account than your current balance, you can incur a lot of fees. Normally, your bank will charge you a fee for every transaction that arrives when your balance is less than zero. In addition, the store, restaurant of vendor is likely to charge you a pretty hefty fee. I recall one time when my bank made a mistake and thought I had overdrawn my account. I had several small checks clear the bank before I discovered the error. I had a $20 charge from the bank for every one of those charges, plus fees from some of the vendors. The charges were more than the total amount of those checks! (The bank refunded the fees and covered the vendors’ charges, so I ended up not paying anything fortunately.) Many banks offer overdraft protection. If you have that protection, it can save you fees if you do overdraw your account, but you’ll want to consider that a temporary solution and re-pay the bank as quickly as you can.

The more money you have in your checking account, the more you are able to take on the risks of the other approaches.  I know lots of people who have used them for years and haven’t gotten into financial trouble. Unfortunately, I also know some people who have encountered significant financial issues due to a lack of budgeting, keeping track of money or unexpected large expenses.  And, to be clear, even the rich can struggle with budgeting and tracking money, as illustrated by some large lottery winners who splurge their winnings and actors whose earnings have been mismanaged. These situations are awful for them and for the people who care for them.

I get it, though!  Remembering to write your transactions in a record, doing the mental math to keep the balance and balancing your checkbook every month are somewhere between a nuisance and a pain.  So, pick the approach that is going to work best for your willingness to put in the effort and your tolerance for risk.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to my contacts at Security Bank in Helena for helping me understand when different types of transactions will be reflected in your bank balance.