How to Prioritize Financial Goals

Here's how to prioritize your financial goals

The guys got a great listener question a few months ago – from a husband and wife team who listen to the podcast together! — and are taking it on for this episode.

The question: how much should you save and invest if you have debt?

This is a good one to cover, because it’s difficult for most people to get through life without taking on any debt at all. Most of us don’t have over a hundred thousand dollars lying around in cash to put down on a home, or that same amount again to pay for higher education costs.

So we take out mortgages and student loans. (Or we just don’t yet have good money management habits and end up overspending on the credit card.)

Whether it’s good debt or bad debt, chances are you’ve had a little bit of it — which means you’ve had to juggle multiple financial goals, too.

We need to save and invest wisely for retirement, establish an emergency fund, repay debts (be it consumer credit card debt or a car loan or a mortgage),and more.

The Basics of How to Prioritize Financial Goals

Brian and Bo go over some of the basics that we can all abide by when it comes to prioritizing financial goals:

  • Pay yourself first: That means taking care of your retirement needs first. You need to be able to take care of yourself financially (now and in the future), so this should almost always be at the top of your priority list.
  • Have an emergency fund: Again, this goes back to taking care of yourself. That emergency fund will help safeguard you against unexpected expenses that could push you into debt.
  • Get rid of debt: Once you’ve secured your savings, it’s time to look at aggressively paying down any debts you may have.

The exception to this order? When you have high-interest rate debt. Usually associated with credit cards, debts with interest rates over 8% or so are your financial emergency, and need to be addressed immediately. That doesn’t mean sacrifice savings entirely — but it does mean making room in your budget to pay down debt.

Ideally, you’ll be saving 15% to 20% of your gross income for your retirement. But that may change depending on your debt situation. Again, it all depends on that interest rate.

Avoiding Money Wasters

Prioritizing your goals will get a lot easier if you can avoid some financial pitfalls that many Americans succumb to. The guys took a look at a list republished by J. Money at Budgets Are Sexy to see what average people wasted the most money on.

One of the biggies was no surprise: credit card debt. This is a huge waste of your hard-earned money and a great reminder of the importance to live within your means and avoid spending more than you can truly afford.

Others that Brian and Bo point out are deal websites (with a great quote from another financial blogger, Frugalwoods) and fees (along with a tip on getting out of them from time to time).

Target Date Retirement Funds Pros and Cons

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Target date funds have been around for two decades now and they continue to evolve and find their place in more and more portfolios. The funds are typically inexpensive and give you a great amount of diversification while targeting an appropriate amount of risk to fit your financial timeline.

When target date funds were introduced they were designed for 401k plans as an end-all-be-all investment for participants. Now these investments seem to make their way into most portfolios, across multiple accounts, and sometimes appear as a single investment in an entire portfolio. Target date funds are actually very versatile, becuase these funds follow a “glide path.” This basically means that, as the target date approaches, the funds’ allocation tends to glide down a path to a more conservative allocation. Since their introduction, target date funds have become more efficient, more affordable, and more diverse.

To show how popular these investments have become, consider this, in 2013, 1/3 of net flows to mutual fund companies have been into target date funds. Check out the statistics for the three largest target date fund companies in the market:

Percentage of net flows that are invested in target date funds:

Fidelity:                50%
Vanguard:            16%
T. Rowe Price:     95%

Since the great recession, most target dates funds accelerated their downward glide path to a more conservative allocation. Pre-2008 equity exposure for close-to-retirement based funds have seen decreases in equity exposure from upward of 50% down to 35%. We have seen this trend of target date funds that are within 5 years of their target becoming much more conservative, with the exception of the Fidelity Freedom Funds, who have increased equity exposure from their previous norms.

Brian and Bo love target date funds when starting out, because of the ease and sophistication that comes in one holding. At some point, though, when you start adding multiple accounts, larger amounts of money, and bigger tax implications, more advanced planning is advantageous.

ConsumerReports did a great article on how to select the optimum target date fund for your situation. Most of the data in the show comes from Morningstar’s annual target date webinar and their 2014 Target Date Series Research Paper.