The busy tax season is a good time for client introspection. Put another way, many seem to run in place, barely keeping up with bills and expenses. What are they doing wrong? It’s an opportunity to teach some practical financial planning skills. These can be conversations, webinars or an ongoing series of articles in your newsletter. Let’s get started.
Here’s the scenario: Your client earns a salary or is paid hourly. Their taxes are conventional, and they usually get a refund. They have children, owe money on credit cards and have a mortgage. They are a typical middle-class American family.
Here’s the problem: Their revolving charge card balances grow. They pay late fees on their bills. They take expensive vacations, which keeps their credit card balances high. They are impulsive shoppers. Their retirement savings are their 401(k) plans at work. They have minimal savings. According to CNBC, 63 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck during the pandemic, despite government measures like the American Rescue Plan.
What can they do to get ahead?
1. Pay bills on arrival. This eliminates anxiety and should help them avoid late fee charges.
Action: Ask your client to review a year’s bills. How much have they paid in late fees? It’s easy to save that money.
2. Address credit card debt. Lay out those credit card statements. How much have they paid throughout the year? This interest is not tax deductible. What are the interest rates? They will be surprised. Consider balance transfers, bearing in mind the losing bank will probably charge a fee. Consider paying off the credit card debt from savings if possible. If not, look at what your home equity loan is charging (much less) and pay off those outstanding balances in order of highest interest rates to lowest.
Action: Your client should carry two credit cards, maximum. The others are locked away. The home equity checkbook is locked away too.
3. Immediate vs. important. As Americans, we are hardwired to appreciate good deals. If designer jeans are on sale at 70 percent off, we buy them, despite having ten pairs at home already. A good strategy is to give yourself a weekly allowance in cash. This covers drinks, meals out and impulse shopping. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Action: Start by looking at what your client spends on credit cards in an average month. Add in cash advances from ATMs. They will be surprised. Ask if they remember how they spent the money. The allowance strategy should sound logical. This should free up more money for savings.
4. Put your vendors on notice. Your client has a wireless provider, cable bill, insurance bill and plenty of other bills. They often gradually increase prices over time. Shop around.
Action: Your client should have an annual cost for each service. Call competitors and get their pricing. Call your current provider indicating you intend to leave. Share your price quotes. In many cases they will come down. I learned about a provider with a “Client Retention Department.” When you call and tell the voice prompt “Terminate my service.” That’s where they send your call.
5. Pay yourself first. Your client has now reduced their monthly bills, lowered their credit card interest rates, eliminated late fees and significantly slowed credit card spending. It’s time to start saving this money.
Action: Choose an amount for personal savings. It goes somewhere it cannot be easily touched. Good uses are paying down credit cards (if not done already), paying down then home equity line, retirement savings or their emergency fund. This is the first check they write.
6. Learn to say no. People will ask for money. It might be for worthy charities, speculative investments or expensive dinners out. These are sudden, yet controllable expenses. The default answer needs to be “no.”
Action: You need a compromise. “No, I won’t buy tickets to the black tie gala, but I will send in a contribution instead.” “I can’t join you at that Michelin starred restaurant on Saturday, but why don’t you come over for dinner next weekend?” You’ll need a plausible reason for your denial, of course.
7. Compete on savings. Regardless of wealth, everyone likes a good deal. Do grocery shopping from a list. Review the supermarket circulars that arrive in the mail. Brag to friends about the good deals you got on essentials. Everyone wants to know where to buy the cheapest gas.
Action: Your client moves from bragging about discretionary spending to bragging about savings on essentials. This is contagious.
8. Hold yourself accountable. Weight reduction programs work because people attend meetings and step on scales. You don’t need to be as drastic, but be accountable to yourself.
Action: At the end of each day, your client should write in a journal the money they spent that day. Review it at the end of each week and month. Self-discipline should kick in.
9. Save those receipts. Check your credit card receipts vs. the monthly statements when they come through. Fraudsters stealing your information often try passing through tiny charges to see if they are detected. If not, they increase the amounts.
Action: Your client uses the logic that they are committed to pay for their own expenses, but not someone else’s.
Your client is often behind because their expenses are out of control. Solving this problem will give them breathing room and make savings and debt reduction practical.