I recently examined how our current lifestyle standards have increased discretionary spending. What we consider the norm for housing, leisure, transportation and media have added to financial pressures, and it is unrealistic to think we can turn back the clock and live as we did forty years ago. That doesn’t mean, however, that we must forfeit our ability to control our financial lives. Here are three local examples of how making conscious decisions and bucking the trend can accomplish long-term goals.
Let’s call the first couple the Debt Managers. Married fifteen years ago, they pooled their resources and purchased their first, small home for cash. Although “trading up” was never their explicit goal, through the years they made prudent improvements to their houses and did move several times. Any debt they assumed was short-term, related to a specific project and promptly paid off. Granted, they have no children and did not have those significant expenses, but they also resisted the temptation to live beyond their means.
Now in their mid-fifties, they are effectively retired, still debt-free and living comfortably in a spacious home in the Foothills. They work if, how and when they want and take full advantage of the outdoor Tucson lifestyle. Most remarkably, their annual expenses are around $40,000, leaving them little cause to worry about the costs of a long retirement.
Our second example could be called the Career Manager. He did have the cost of raising a family and was divorced, and when his two children were on their own he had the chance to pursue his dream of traveling and hiking all over the world.
The key was setting specific goals for income and flexibility, and he spent five years structuring his business to meet those goals. He stayed in his comfortable townhouse, although he could easily afford a larger house, because it was easy to maintain with an active travel schedule. Likewise, he kept his cars for many years because he put very few miles on them. At the same time, he did not abandon other long-term goals, and he eliminated all non-mortgage debt, began to pre-pay his mortgage principal and always made the maximum retirement plan contribution.
His travels, over the course of ten years, were not luxurious but took him to many exotic and remote locations. Needless to say, he has stories, photographs and memories that are priceless.
For a very comprehensive model, consider the Life Managers. Married young professionals, they were well on their way to living the American “dream”, with two nice cars and already moving up to a second, larger home. Then they took a step back, decided how they wanted to live and how to get there, and changed everything.
They downsized to a smaller house, making a nice profit in the process (which, they’ll be the first to admit, was the luck of the market). She completed a higher career certification, then he took the few courses he needed to complete his degree. They had their first child and juggled their schedules to minimize the need for child care. They consolidated into one vehicle, and rode a bicycle when necessary. Ultimately, they sold their smaller home, again at a nice profit thanks to the strong real estate market. They are now deciding on where to relocate to establish residency so he can pursue his graduate degree and eventually teach and consult. Advanced education and raising a family, all with less debt and more savings than when they began making changes.
The common factor in these three examples is that they made difficult decisions about how to spend their money, rather than blindly aping their peers and having their finances follow. In simple terms, they lived well within their means.
The beauty of this approach is that it yields benefits from either direction. You can set specific goals and priorities first and use them as a guide to structure your finances. Or you can begin by simply practicing conservative financial management to create financial freedom and flexibility that will ultimately make more life choices available. Either way the stress and anxiety of worrying about money will be reduced, allowing you to focus on and better enjoy the more important things in life.