6 Financial Rules of Thumb

I wonder how many of you are big-time readers. You know the kind, the ones who can read a book a week or sift through endless reams of data and advice to help them develop a financial plan that will lead them down the path to prosperity.

However, if you’re like most people and don’t have the time to read through a mountain of books, magazines and web-sites (or have the inclination to do so), then this article is for you. It will list out the main “rules of thumb” for financial planning.

1. The Savings/Investing Rule of Thumb:

Pay Yourself First: Aim to set aside at least 10% of your take-home pay
I’m sure you’ve seen this rule of thumb before. I first read it in The Richest Man in Babylon. As you will learn, paying yourself first is the most important bill you will pay each month.

The best way to implement this rule is to make it automatic. Have 10% of your take-home pay pulled from your paycheck and deposited into a separate bank account. If your employer doesn’t allow you to do this, simply set up a transfer between your main account and your “ten percent” account equal to ten percent of your paycheck.

If you already have a well-funded emergency fund and your short-term goals have been funded, you might funnel all of the ten percent into a retirement plan. Of course if you set aside 10% in your retirement plan, you’ll be contributing pre-tax which works out to be more than 10% after-tax.

2. The Short-Term Debt Rule of Thumb:

So-called “Bad” Debt should not equal more than 20% of your income
Short-term debt includes your car and student loans, as well as your credit cards and other forms of debt. Essentially everything except for your mortgage. You need to list all your outstanding liabilities and their respective minimum/monthly payments. Now add up the minimum/monthly payment amounts and you come up with a figure.

Take this number and divide it into your monthly take-home pay.

If the result is more than 20%, you’re carrying too much revolving debt. New entrants to the workforce or recent graduates often have a higher debt-to-income ratio because of their student loans and entry-level jobs that pay low salaries.

Compulsive spenders also have a problem because they spend every dollar they make.

You should aim to put at least 20% of your net pay toward paying down your outstanding debts. If you cease to add to your short-term debts today, you will find that you can pay off most of your short-term debt anywhere from 3-7 years.

3. The Housing Cost Rule of Thumb:

You should spend less than 36% of your monthly pay on housing
This rule of thumb is mainly for homeowners, but if you’re renting and spending more than 36% of your monthly pay in rent, you’re either living in NYC or San Francisco and it’s time to find a new place. Either that or find another roommate.

Why 36%?

Well, banks like to see that the cost of your monthly mortgage payment, taxes, insurance, and utilities will not place an undue burden on your finances.

In short, they calculate the cost of living in your home and know that if you’re exceeding 36% for your housing costs, you’ve probably bitten off more than you can chew.

Regardless of what your current percentages are, aim to reduce these percentages over time. Just because a bank is willing to lend you up to 28 percent of your gross monthly income, it doesn’t mean that you should borrow that much money to buy a house.

The less money you borrow, the faster you can pay it back and the higher your monthly cash flow will be (because you’re spending less on your mortgage). The less you spend monthly, the more you’ll have to invest for your future.

4. The Retirement Rule of Thumb:

You need to save about 20 Times your annual gross income to retire
There are a whole bunch of calculators and spreadsheets on the Internet (I have one as well) that you can use to figure out how much you’ll need to retire. I’ve never come across anyone who has the patience to fill one of these out and they only take two minutes to complete! The solution is what author Robert Sheard calls the Twenty Factor Model.

Essentially the formula is:

Financial Independence = annual income requirement X 20

The formula is based on two centuries worth of returns in the stock market and the real rate of return (5% annually) you can expect to earn after taxes, expenses and inflation.

If you have 20 times your annual income requirement, it means that with the prescribed withdrawal rate of 5% yearly from your nest egg and the annual expected net return on your investments of 5%, you’ll never run out of money.

Now isn’t it much easier to multiply your gross income by 20 than to fill out one of those online calculators? I thought so. Let’s move on.

5. The Insurance Rule of Thumb:

You should have a policy equal to at least five to eight times your annual income as a minimum.
Some planners suggest even more than five to eight times your annual income as the level of coverage you should carry. My suggestion is that you get your financial house in order, which means getting your net worth and cash flow statement together, and go talk to a good insurance agent about your needs.

He or she will be able to walk you through the various options. As with a financial planner, ask them how they’re compensated to keep them honest with the advice they’re giving you.

Please note that this factor or rule of thumb could be much higher, depending on the number of years of income you will have to replace. The highest “factor” I’ve seen is to multiply your annual after-tax income by 20.

Interesting that it’s the same as the above rule of thumb. No coincidence here. If you were to die and wanted to make sure your dependents would continue to receive exactly what you brought home each month, they would need to completely replace your income forever. According to the Twenty Factor Model, having an insurance policy with at least 20 times your annual income will do.

6. The Charity Rule of Thumb:

Give away at least 10% of your net pay every month.

Most of us think that there isn’t enough money to go around. We live in a state of scarcity instead of a state of abundance. We think that if we give away ten percent of our income each year, we can’t possibly make ends meet or be able to afford a decent retirement.

I understand the fears, but if you put the previous five rules of thumb in place, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about making ends meet. Let me explain.

Journalist Scott Burns, in his article titled, “Take a Look at Returns” did an analysis of the amount of money you would need to save in order to not run out of money by the time we die, assuming we retired at age 65. The conclusion was that we would have to save 34 percent of our income if we planned on living another 20 years after we retired. The analysis assumed that we would earn no return on our investments.

But you’ll earn something on your investments, right? Of course you will. Burns goes on to show that the higher the return on investment, the less you have to save.

The 34 percent of income that young people need to save today if they earn no return falls to 25 percent if they earn the historical 2 percent real return of bonds.

It falls to 15 percent if they earn the 5 percent real return that a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio is likely to earn.

It plummets to 9 percent of income if they earn the 7 percent real return of common stocks.

You’re already putting aside 10% of your money (Pay Yourself First Rule of Thumb) and once you pay down your short-term debts, you’ll have an extra 20% of your pay freed up to invest wisely. Actually, if you’re setting money aside tax-deferred, you’re putting more than 10% of your net pay aside each pay period, but why split hairs.

In short, you have more than you think.

Give a little away and see how little an impact it will have on your standard of living. Of course you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll be helping others in the process. No wonder it’s my favorite rule of thumb.