By Sara Rathner
When I hear financial tips that are unrealistic or shame-inducing, I cringe. Any advice that makes complicated money moves seem like an easy path to profit is downright dangerous.
Questionable guidance is all around, oversimplifying important decisions or claiming a one-size-fits-all approach will work. Amid the black-and-white world of advice-giving, there’s a lot of gray. Don’t ignore your unique needs and circumstances when plotting out your finances.
Lack of Wealth Doesn’t Mean You Lack Discipline
There’s a subset of social media dedicated to what I call “hustle worship.” These posts will have you believe that if only you’d work harder, wake up earlier and eat the exact same breakfast as Elon Musk does, you’d be a billionaire.
This advice glosses over larger issues that prevent millions of hardworking, disciplined people from attaining financial security — like crushing student loan debt, job uncertainty and budget-busting child care costs. According to NerdWallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt study, the average U.S. household with student loan debt owes $46,459. Average annual U.S. child care costs ranged from $18,442 to $26,102 in 2019 for two children in full-time care in a child care center, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America.
>> Plus, from Robert Powell's Retirement Daily on TheStreet: How to Generate Income In Retirement During A Period of Historically Low Interest Rates
Discipline is good, but it’s also OK to recognize your limitations and obligations.
Start by writing down all of your expenses for a month so you can get a picture of where your money goes. Then, create a budget that leaves room for needs AND wants, like the 50/30/20 budget: 50% of your take-home pay covers needs like housing and groceries; 30% covers wants like dining and travel; 20% covers savings and debt repayment. This way, you don’t stress if you have a moment of weakness. You’ve built a budget that allows for fun.
Austerity Isn’t Always a Virtue
As your income grows through the years, it’s wise to funnel the extra cash into savings and investments without otherwise changing your spending habits. But it’s OK to spend money on luxuries or conveniences that will make your life better or easier.
Jonathan Howard, a former visual effects artist who is now a financial adviser, experienced his own spend-or-save decision when he and his family relocated from Los Angeles to Lexington, Kentucky. Howard’s salary decreased. But his wife rejoined the workforce, the cost of living was lower in Lexington, and they sold their L.A. home for a profit. His initial impulse was to save the entire profit from the sale, but their new home’s kitchen didn’t function well, and that’s the room where his family spends much of their time.
They opted to spend around 25% of the proceeds from their old home on a kitchen renovation. “It was a sum that, when I looked at it on paper, made me nauseous,” he said in an email. “But several months later, we could not be happier with the results.”
Melissa Lowe, who lives in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, recently left her job to blog full time. While she’s currently not earning an income from blogging, her family decided to keep their professional house cleaner and cut back in other areas.
“She even folds and puts away my laundry and if that isn’t heaven on earth, I’m not sure what is,” she said in an email. “I will eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before I give her up.”
Living below your means helps you save toward goals, but leave room in your budget for purchases that can make your life easier.
Not All Investments Are ‘Passive’
Some investments, like 401(k)s and IRAs, are often “set-it-and-forget-it.” You can automate contributions and select target-date funds that will adjust your asset allocation for you. But other investments, like real estate, require not only regular effort, but also significant investments of money and time.
I briefly considered buying a duplex until I witnessed how much work my then-landlord had to pour into my last apartment because previous tenants neglected to report some serious maintenance issues. By the second ceiling leak, my dreams of earning rental income faded. Not every landlord has a horror story, but they do acknowledge that it can take time before a property starts paying for itself.
Michaelson Buchanan owns three properties in Richmond, Virginia, and spent $130,000 on fixing up the first two. “We do a lot of the work ourselves so we can do these things economically,” he said. “I would say it’s the house that Google built.”
Buchanan has dealt with maintenance issues and problem tenants over the years, but ultimately recommends owning a rental property so long as you have the savings to afford major issues. “Don’t have unrealistic expectations about what you could get in rent,” he says. “You won’t get wildly more money because you’ve fixed a property up.”
Investing is key, but it’s a space where one old adage does ring true: To make money, be prepared to spend money.
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Sara Rathner is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @sarakrathner.