A Development Director Making $100K In DC Envisions A Debt-Free Future
How one person can balance paying off credit card debt, preparing for the unexpected, and becoming more financially literate.
How I Money is a series featuring real people who have real questions about money, and real advice from Betterment’s experts. Follow along as our financial planners help folks just like you think through saving, investing, debt, retirement, and more.
Let’s dive into Raven’s financial goals and concerns:
Talk me through your short-term financial goals. What do you hope to achieve within the next 5 years?
- Pay off credit card debt.
- Become more financially literate, especially when it comes to investing.
- Increase savings.
Let's talk long-term. What do you hope to accomplish financially 5 years or more from now?
Raven: I’m honestly not sure. I’ve gone through some big life changes and need to adjust my plans accordingly.
What impact has COVID-19 had on either your short or long-term financial goals?
Raven: I have a good job but there is so much uncertainty in the world. Losing my job is in the back of my mind. Not sure what I should be saving or planning for at this point.
If you could ask a financial expert for advice on one money question, what would it be?
Raven: Do I need a financial manager? Or do I start small with some of these DIY programs?
What the financial experts say:
We asked Corbin to comment on Raven’s financial goals. Here are her thoughts.
Raven has a lot of competing financial goals: does she need a financial manager, or can she start with an automated investing and savings product?
Corbin: What a lot of folks don’t realize is that many financial tools are already financial managers. Automated investing providers, like Betterment, offer automated advice and technology that build a unique investment portfolio for each type of investment goal.
When you open an investment goal with us, its customized stock-to-bond allocation recommendation is designed to automatically adjust (in most cases) to help you reach your goal without taking on unnecessary risk.
But since you also mentioned that she’s interested in financial literacy, working with a CFP® professional to answer her in-depth questions could be beneficial to getting her on the right track. A CFP® professional can work with Raven to review her debt, goals, and retirement planning, as well as her current financial situation and investment portfolio.
In either case, an automated financial manager or financial planning professional can help her manage her financial goals.
What should Raven do first: pay off credit card debt or increase her savings?
Corbin: First, it’s always smart to have a cash buffer. We typically recommend having at least three to five weeks’ worth of expenses in your checking account to cover your expenses.
Think about it: If Raven worked to pay off her debt as aggressively as possible but had no extra cash on hand, she’s only one unexpected expense away from potentially being in debt again.
Next, she should think about tackling her high-interest debt.
For example, credit cards tend to have high interest rates of more than 16.5% on average. If Raven’s debt has higher interest rates than her potential returns through investing or saving, then she’s better off paying off her debt first or paying off her debt and saving simultaneously.
How can Raven financially prepare for a potential job loss?
Corbin: It’s completely understandable, given the pandemic, that Raven is worried about losing her job. The first thing Raven should do is find out what she’s spending her money on. By creating a list of expenses and minimum payments, she’ll know the minimum she needs to financially get by.
While she’s still employed and financially stable, she could also use this time to build her emergency savings. It’s not the most optimal solution mathematically since she still has high-interest debt, but financial decisions aren’t always made solely based on math.
Finances are emotional and personal, and they should always reflect the circumstances we’re going through. Since Raven is worried about financial security and her ability to pay bills in the future, building her emergency fund is one way to help her feel better about an uncertain future. She shouldn't ignore high-interest debt, but if making minimum debt payments while building a robust emergency fund for a few months makes her feel more financially prepared, this may be the right path for right now.
How should Raven be thinking about long-term financial goals?
Corbin: Retirement isn’t always a choice depending on industry and health—given Raven’s age, it’s important that she revisit her retirement plan and find out if she is on track to save enough for what she wants to spend during her golden years, especially if she plans to retire around 64, which is the average retirement age.
If Raven’s employer offers a matching plan on their retirement account, it’s most important that she contributes enough to receive the full match: that’s basically free money!
After that, I’d recommend not falling into the trap of thinking she can only contribute to an employer plan—using multiple accounts like a Traditional or Roth IRA, an HSA, or an investment account can help her meet her retirement goals, and can also help with taxes.
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