It never fails.
Every time I tell someone that my wife and I are buying a house,
we get bombarded with blatantly false financial tropes. “Real
estate is a great investment,” someone will say, or “home equity
is a great savings vehicle.” Those are both objectively false —
real estate has barely beaten inflation historically, and your
house is an incredibly illiquid asset, so it’s hard to get access
to all that home equity when you need it. (That’s usually the
point of a savings account.)
But the one that really gets me going is. “It’s the most
important financial decision you’ll ever make.”
That one’s way off base.
Let’s break it down for a minute. According to research from the
St. Louis Federal Reserve, the median price for a home sold in
August 2017 was $300,200, which means the actual cost of your
down payment plus mortgage is more like $463,000 over the course
of the loan based on current interest rates. So it’s easy to see
why many Americans think it’s their biggest financial
It’s certainly your largest individual outlay of money unless you
buy a bigger house, develop a taste for private jets, or
experience the sort of disaster that makes you glad your lender
forced you to get home insurance.
I’m not saying buying a home isn’t important — it is. It’s a big
But it’s not nearly your biggest one. Off the top of my head, I
can name five that matter far more — so make sure you’re focusing
as much time and energy on them as on stressing about buying that
Everyone loves the idea of retiring with enough money — golf in
the morning, bridge at 4:00, seeing the grandkids, growing old in
comfort. But until you put specific dollars and cents to what all
that will cost, it’s just a nice dream. A full 81% of Americans don’t know what they need to
save for retirement, so it’s no wonder we’re in a savings crisis.
Start by estimating your annual retirement expenses.
Don’t forget to factor in healthcare; the average 65-year-old couple
retiring today will spend a whopping $404,000 over the course of
their retirement on healthcare, according to one study. Once you
have that number, subtract your expected annual Social Security benefits, and
you now know the amount you’ll have to pay out from savings each
Multiply that by 25. You have the total amount you’ll have to
have in savings before you retire, using the common 4% retirement
rule of thumb. Odds are, it’s more than a million dollars — and,
unlike buying a house, achieving that number will have an
enormous impact on your quality of life for your final 30-plus
According to a recent Bankrate
study, American households on average carry $16,000 of credit
Seems a lot smaller than that $300,200 home purchase, doesn’t it?
But it’s actually quite a bit bigger, because the interest rate
on that credit card debt is probably 15% or higher.The average
right now is over 16%. Let’s assume for the moment that you’re a
“revolver” — that’s the term the credit card companies use to
identify people who don’t pay off their credit card balance each
month, and it applies to 44% of credit card accounts.
If you’re making minimum payments on a $16,000 credit card debt
at 15% annual interest — which credit card companies usually
calculate as 1% of principal plus accrued interest, or $25,
whichever is more — paying off that $16,000 will take just over
27 years and cost $19,000 in interest plus the $16,000 principle.
And that’s assuming you don’t take out any additional credit card
debt over those 27 years. That’s entirely unrealistic, because if
you’re paying out the minimums on your credit cards, chances are
good that you’re stretched to your financial limit and are
therefore highly likely to take out more credit card debt. If you
do, that amount goes up by several multiples. (And if you
are maxed out on your credit cards, chances are good the
interest rate charged will increase — I’ve seen 25%-plus interest
rates, which turn your payment plan into over 29 years and
$32,000 in interest.) That’s money going straight into the credit
card company’s wallet, leaving you poorer and probably with a
worse credit score too — which makes buying a home a lot more
Commit instead to paying down your credit card debt quickly —
taking this month’s minimum payment and then paying that same
amount each month, even as your actual required minimum declines,
would enable you to pay everything off in five years and six
months, at a cost of $7,500 in interest.
Once you’ve paid down credit card debt, an emergency fund with
three to six months of expenses in it should be your next
priority. Unlike the other decisions on this list, I cannot prove
an emergency fund’s importance with numbers. I can’t show you how
interest payments or returns will be enough to make the lack of
an emergency fund cost more than a house.
What I can tell you is that half of Americans can’t come up with $400 in
an emergency without selling something or taking on debt. Half of
Americans are one bad visit to the dentist, HVAC replacement,
lost job, or failed state inspection away from financial
Perhaps not surprisingly, about half of middle-class Americans
report that they’re stressed about money. I can’t quantify
what that stress looks like. I can’t predict exactly what will
happen if you don’t have any money for a repair and have to put
it all on a credit card or take out a payday loan.
But I know that for me, the peace of mind that came from having
enough money locked away that I never needed to worry about
making rent was a necessary prerequisite for me to endure the
stress of buying a house. And the budgeting my wife and I had to
do to build that emergency fund and save for a house will leave
us in a good place when the HVAC inevitably breaks.
About 40% of Americans employed in the private sector lack access
to a 401(k)-style workplace retirement plan. The 401(k) plan
comes with a host of benefits, not least of which is that you
don’t have to pay taxes on the money you contribute to a
Traditional 401(k). The 2018 401(k) contribution limit is $18,500,
meaning that you can get a sizable tax break for adding to your
savings. Plus, that money grows tax-free until withdrawal.
What’s more, the employer offering a 401(k) usually offers some
matching funds to entice you to commit to saving toward your
retirement (see decision No. 1). It’s pretty common for employers
to offer a 3% match if you contribute 6% of your paycheck.
Let’s take a hypothetical example. The median U.S. household
income in 2016 was $59,039, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Let’s assume you’re making that amount, plan to retire in 30
years, contribute 6% of your paycheck each year (and get a 3%
match from your employer), never get a raise or contribute more,
and achieve 6% annual returns in the funds offered by your plan.
At the end of those 30 years, you’d have $445,258.42. That’s
probably not quite the retirement number amount you calculated in
the first section, but it’s not a bad chunk of change. If instead
you maxed out your 401(k) at next year’s rate of $18,500 (plus
your employer match) and achieved the same returns, that’d be a
cool $1.7 million sitting in your retirement account.
I already railed against real estate being a great investment in
general earlier. Fact is, real estate has historically only
returned about 1 percentage point more than inflation annually,
while stocks have beaten inflation by more than 6 percentage points annually.
You don’t have to be some genius stock picker to achieve those
returns, either. Just be average! Index funds are a great way to
get broad, low-cost exposure to the stock market without all the
stress and hassle of picking individual stocks.
The 401(k) example I used assumed you were invested in stocks —
hence the 6% annual returns — so you already know what a powerful
multiplier those kinds of returns can provide for your savings.
Every dollar you save today will be worth about $6.50 in 30 years
if those returns hold true.
So whether it’s in a 401(k) or an IRA, or a traditional brokerage
account, put that cash to work in the stock market. That’s how
you get the million-dollar-plus retirement.
The funny thing about the five decisions I just laid out is that
they appear much smaller on first glance than that house
purchase. What’s $18,000 in credit card debt when you’re buying a
$300,000 house and putting sixty grand into a down payment? Why
does saving a few bucks in a 401(k) matter against something that
And the answer is simple: It’s all about the time value of money. Given time, decisions
with few ramifications today can affect your wealth in massive
ways. Interest rates and inflation either work for or against
you. Remember that all kinds of money decisions can be much
bigger than your choice of house — so it’s good to give those
decisions the time and attention they deserve.
Read the original article on The Motley Fool. Copyright 2017. Follow The Motley Fool on Twitter.