Updated: Jul 14
Last updated July 14, 2020.
For the last couple of weeks, I was getting myself prepared for an awesome annual women's brunch that I am super proud to have spoken at again. Last year, I chatted with the women all about controlling their money, their behavior and their fear. It was pretty awesome! Maybe I'll turn it into a podcast episode one day...
Anywho, the more I thought about what I wanted to speak on this year, I decided to create a guide to go with my presentation. Then, as I was building the guide, I realized I had the makings of a pretty epic blog post.
So here we are ladies.... and I bet you're wondering what we're talking about.
My topic for this year is saving and investing, but I am pretty knowledgeable about the ladies that are attending the event and even though everyone CAN save and invest, that should not necessarily be everyone's area of focus. So yes, I can have my 401k going and growing, but if I'm barely paying the bills, my 401k is something that shouldn't be getting the full blast of my financial focus.
Which is when I started thinking: what are the primary areas of financial focus?
The more I pondered the question, I realized the each of the areas of financial activity that deserves serious financial focus falls into one of four major realms. They are:
Now, these areas kind of go in order, but not really. You can move between the realms depending on where you are in life and what kind of goals you have. A reduction in hours at work can pull you out of the Regular Investing realm and throw you right smack in the middle of focusing on Income Growth overnight. So while they somewhat have an order, these realms of financial focus can be really fluid.
What we're going to do today is talk about how to quickly identify which realm you're in so that you know what you should be getting laser-focused on to make the biggest impact on our financial life.
Before we get started, I'm going to strongly advise that you download my free guide Discover Your Financial Realm (and What to Do There) to serve as a special accompaniment to this blog post. Let's just say you're going to get hit with a lot of greatness and you may want an easy to access reference guide to help you.
To get access to this guide, join the Dreamers Financial Sanctuary, a Facebook community for women entrepreneurs who are ready to use their hard-earned cash to dump debt, save money and build a life they love...without sacrificing all of the fun. You can download the free guide from there!
With that, let's get started.
In this realm the number one focus is growing your income as quickly as possible so that there is more money available for the family to use.
Income Growth is the realm that probably 95% of families find themselves focused on, but fewer than 30% really need to in. To be fair, the stagnant wages across the United States combined with steady inflation is steadily pushing more and more people into this realm, but it is still not where most people should be focused.
Families that really need to be in this realm typically fall into 2 scenarios:
Their income is not enough or barely sufficient to pay for the bare minimum necessities, leaving no room for other activities such as saving or investing. Note: this only applies to people who are debt-free.
Their current income is not or is barely sufficient to cover the bare minimum necessities plus their minimum debt payments. Again, this leaves no room for saving or investing, but more importantly, it leaves no room to accelerate your debt repayment by paying above and beyond the minimum debt payments. You'll soon see that this kind of puts you in two realms of focus.
Here is the reason why most people THINK they should be in Income Growth when they really should be focused elsewhere: they don't know how to truly define a bare minimum necessity!
Bare minimum necessities are about survival! Keeping the family alive and healthy, which requires four basic things:
shelter and utilities (lights, water, sewage)
transportation to and from work
That's it. There's no cable or even Netflix. Your kids school activities and college fund do not count. Not even your investment account applies, even though many financial gurus try to act like it does. All you're trying to do is stay alive and continue to make moves so that eventually you can overcome this struggle and shift into prosperity.
The only exception to that rule is childcare. If you have small children, many jobs are not going to allow them to run around the building while you're trying to make some money. That means you have to chose between caring for your kids or paying for childcare so that you can make money to survive. In this situation, childcare is a bare minimum necessity.
Notice that I also said bare minimum!
Bare minimum shelter does not mean a 2,700 square foot house with a three car garage and HOA for you, your husband and 2 kids. It means a 2 or 3 bedroom apartment (depending on the kids' ages and genders).
Bare minimum food does not include eating out...ever! Cooking at home is not fun, especially if you are like me and did not inherent a great deal of culinary skill. However, the free recipes from sites like allrecipes.com, meal planning and meal prep can make it almost enjoyable!
Bare minimum transportation does not include a brand new Denali with heated seats, a sunroof and built-in televisions in the headrests. Bare minimum transportation means that 5 - 10 year old Toyota with the manual windows that will get you from the house, to the daycare and to work in one piece.
Bare minimum (basic) clothing does not include regular trips to Nordstroms, The Gap or even New York & Co (even though I love them). It means shopping when things are too small for just enough clothes to got to work, go to school, sleep and stay warm in the winter.
Now, don't freak out at this bare minimum talk. You don't have to live bare minimum forever! I certainly don't live bare minimum now, but at one point, I did (I have some of the lingering frugal habits to prove it). The point is to identify whether you really have an income problem and therefore need to focus on income growth, or if you have a spending problem.
To figure out if this is the realm that you truly need to be in, simply add up all of your bare minimum expenses for a typical month and subtract it from your monthly income. When looking at transportation, don't forget to include things such as car insurance, gas and maintenance. If this results in a negative number or leaves less than $100, then your income is insufficient or barely sufficient to pay your bare minimum necessities.
If you are debt free, you can stop at this calculation. If you have debt (like most people, so don't beat yourself up), you need to subtract the sum of all your minimum debt payments from the number you just calculated. If this results in a negative number or leaves less than $100, then your income is insufficient or barely sufficient to pay your bare minimum necessities plus minimum debt payments.
Once you're done with your calculations, see if you fell into one of the two scenarios I described earlier.
If you're debt-free and your income is not enough or barely sufficient to pay for the bare minimum necessities, then welcome home. 100% of your focus should be on increasing your income so that you can have enough money to start saving or investing. You can create permanent increases by pursing a raise, changing employers or careers for a higher paying job, or starting your dream business which you will run in tandem with your job or will grow to replace the income from your job.
If your income is insufficient or barely sufficient to pay your bare minimum necessities plus minimum debt payments, then you are about to straddle a fun fence. You really are going to be focusing on Debt Destruction, but your #1 tool for destroying that debt will be increasing your income so that you can pay more than just the minimum payments. This means you can add short-term income growth options such as taking on a second job or running a new business just long enough to pay off the debts.
If you didn't fit in either scenario, you have more reading to do. So let's go!
The focus of Debt Destruction is all about pursuing that debt free life by destroying every debt that you have, except maybe the mortgage. If you have debt, any debt at all, then you have found your home (no calculations required).
This particular realm of focus is my most and my least favorite realm. It comes with a lot of mixed emotions, some serious temptation and requires a level of sustained tenacity that can make anyone want to shout “Never mind!”
But all of it is worthwhile.
You see, debt is stealing from you. Every single time you make a debt payment, you are taking money that you could be saving or investing and giving it to a bank or company for something you already have and may not even use! The debt is eating away at your ability to pay for emergencies that pop up and can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road!
Imagine that you're a 35 year old woman with no retirement fund and $450 in minimum monthly debt payments. Let's also say that you do what most people do, which means when you get rid of one debt payment, you often take on another of a similar amount (i.e. that $450 never goes away). If you invested that same $450 each month in a retirement account with a typical investment mix (earning anywhere from 8-12% in annual returns), you would have over $670,000 in investments by age 65.
That is a LOT of money to lose out on because you're still paying on cars, credit cards and those dreaded student loans every month! So let's ditch that debt.
To get rid of your debt quickly, you can leverage a popular and effective method called the debt snowball. You can read the step-by-step instructions here, but essentially you will list all of your debt by the smallest balance to the largest balance. Then you will pay the minimum payment on all debts except the first, which you're going to attack with as much money as you can possibly pull together. Once debt #1 is gone, the money you paid on debt #1 rolls over to debt #2, throwing all the money you can there until it's gone too. You'll continue this system until the very last debt is gone.
Now, the debt snowball is really tough to do if our income is not or is barely sufficient to pay your bare minimum necessities plus your minimum debt payments. That is why you may find yourself needing to operate in the realm of Income Growth to raise enough money each month to attack this focus. That's okay. You can touch on these two realms at once.
If you're not straddling the Income Growth fence, there are other ways to have more money to throw at these debts! You can:
Reduce your expenses (we've already proven that you have room)
Sell some stuff
Get a second job on a short-term basis
Now there are a couple of important notes here.
First, while you are paying off the debt, you have to STOP MAKING MORE DEBT! I feel like it's obvious, but I've seen it happen so many times that I have to make sure I say it. You cannot pay off your credit cards if you keep using them to buy stuff. It kind of defeats the purpose of making a big monthly payment only to return the card balance to the same level with new purchases. So stop using the debt!
Second, if you don't have at least $1,000 in savings, you need to pop over to Saving for a bit until you get that $1,000 set aside. We will explain what this is for in a moment.
BTW - If you do have a mortgage, you can always refocus here to get that paid off too. In fact, I highly recommend it!
If you're reading ahead for when you hit this focus, I hope you've already downloaded my free guide to serve as an easy to access reference. Simply join the Dreamers Financial Sanctuary Facebook community to grab your copy.
What if I make enough money to pay for my bare minimum necessities and I'm debt free?
Don't worry, I have more realms of focus for you!
Saving is all about setting aside money for something, anything really! It may be for a new house, another car, a vacation, an investment opportunity, Christmas gifts, or, my favorite, to protect your family from those moments when life goes awry.
Now, this realm is a tricky one in that sometimes it should be your total focus and sometimes it's just something you're doing on the side. For example, saving some money each month to ensure that you can pay for Christmas in cash is a side thing, while saving for a new car because yours is on it's deathbed is more of a time to focus.
How do you know when Saving is your correct realm of focus? You have enough money to pay your bare minimum expenses, but:
You have debt and don't have a $1,000 mini-emergency fund
You're debt-free and don't have 3-6 months of expenses saved in your emergency fund
You need to pay for or purchase something that could result in a significant negative impact on your ability to survive: surgery, transportation issues, lawsuit, etc.
If you have been around me and Selah for a while, you know why you want a $1,000 mini-emergency fund and eventually a full emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses. If you haven't been around here, these are the highlights:
Most financial emergencies encountered by families are less than $1,000 and those emergencies can easily send a great debt repayment plan off the rails. With the $1,000 emergency fund in place, you protect your family from most emergencies as you focus on your debt destruction game plan. Just make sure you replenish it before returning to destroying that debt for the next emergency.
Research also shows that most families will experience at least one major financial blow, like a job loss or a serious illness, at least once a decade. If you have 3 - 6 months of expenses saved up, you usually have enough money available to cover most (or even all) of the expenses or enough money to buy you time until you can address the situation (like find a new job). By doing this after the debt is gone, you reduce the amount of money you need to save to cover 3-6 months of bills and you accelerate when the debt gets paid off, saving you money on interest.
When saving is our realm of focus, I recommend keeping your budgeted spending reasonably close to the bare minimum so that you have more money available to set aside. Once you know what you want to save, make sure the money you've committed to saving each month is clearly marked in the budget. Then, as income flows into the household, put that money in a savings or money market account after you pay for the necessities.
If you've read through all this and still haven't found your realm, this last one is just right for you.
You're making enough money to handle your expenses, there is no debt in your life and you're fully stacked with 3-6 months of expenses in the bank. That means you belong in the realm of Regular Investing.
Because there is nothing left to do but grow your money! This focus is all about investing your money on an ongoing basis to generate more money for your family and your life, especially that life after retirement.
Now, I'm not talking about saving money to make a one-time payment or short-term payments towards an investment opportunity. I'm really talking about putting your money aside every paycheck, every week, every month into an actual investment account so that it can grow with the financial markets.
I'm not going to go into a ton of detail here because I talked about investing extensively on the Dreamers Financial Playbook podcast earlier this month. In fact, you can click here to check out the "Are You Ready to Invest?" episode, then go here for even more insight in the episode "Investing in Retirement with Confident."
If you're in a rush, here are the highlights of the investing game plan:
Figure out what your purpose is behind investing - in this case, probably retirement.
Figure out how much money you need to have in the end to make this happen (i.e. a goal).
Look at your budget to calculate how much you can afford to invest now and over time.
Research some options for investing to get you started.
Find a professional to help you on your journey.
The Recommended Game Plan
Pay off you debt.
Commit to investing 15% of your income.
Check out what your company has to offer. If there is a Roth option, invest the full 15%. If there is NOT a Roth option, but there is a company match, invest up to the company match. If your company offers neither, move on to step 4.
Open up a Roth IRA and invest up to the max.
If youʼre still not at 15%, go back to the company program for the rest. If your company does not offer a plan, consult with your financial advisor for the rest.
WHEW! That was a lot! I know this stuff and my brain is spinning right now, so I can only image what is going on in your head.
So one more time, I'm going to encourage you to can download an easy reference guide entitled Discover Your Financial Realm (and What to Do There) by joining the Dreamers Financial Sanctuary Facebook community.
Then I want you to take all of this great information, find your realm and start conquering that thing!
You got this!
Tiana B. Clewis
Looking to get more financial insights just like this, but in video form? Come hang out with me on the Tiana B. Clewis YouTube channel, where I drop brand new money tips and insights every single Wednesday!