Coming into a big sum of money might seem like the perfect problem to have. But at the risk of throwing cold water at you, it's also a big responsibility. It's also perfectly O.K. to be nervous or maybe even scared that you'll do exactly the wrong thing with your big bonus, inheritance, or tax refund.
But take a deep breath. It's actually not that complicated.
We talked to two Certified Financial Planners™ to find out just how they advise clients who are suddenly in the money — and then we distilled their insight into a short and sweet step-by-step windfall guide.
1. Get grounded
"My first recommendation would be not to actually look at it as a life-changing event — regardless of the magnitude of the windfall," says David Blaylock, a Certified Financial Planner™ with LearnVest Planning Services. "Lottery winners receive millions of dollars, and they can still go through a bankruptcy. And you hear about sports stars who blow through their money all of the time. So approach a windfall as something that can remove pressure from your current situation instead."
Wendy Weaver, a Certified Financial Planner™ at FBB Capital Partners, agrees. "Getting an inheritance or any kind of a windfall doesn't change you," she says. "If you didn't manage your money carefully in the past, just because you come into a windfall doesn't mean that you'll be good at managing money going forward."
In short: Your windfall won't solve all of your problems automatically — no matter how big it is. But if you have the right attitude, it can certainly help solve a few! "Look at the windfall as a part-time job or business that you're running and need to handle responsibly," Weaver says.
Now, on to your new part-time job responsibilities.
2. Put it in a safe place
"Above all else, you should never leave that money in your checking account," says Blaylock. "Because eventually it will probably get spent, and you may not have made any progress on your financial goals. I see that very, very often." Indeed, it can be hard to say no to a second cocktail — or even a trip to Vegas — if every time that you take out cash you see a hefty balance at your fingertips.
While Weaver admits that you typically won't make a big return on a savings account, with interest rates being so low, "it may be worthwhile to sacrifice a little bit of return to take the time to make thoughtful decisions about the windfall," she says, "rather than put it at any sort of risk."
3. Put together a plan
When Blaylock's clients email him about getting a windfall, the first thing he does is pull up their financial plan and say, "Here's what we decided are your goals. Which one are we going to work on?"
And it doesn't matter whether you saw the windfall coming or it was a fantastic surprise — the amount of thought and planning you put into handling it should be the same. You have a couple of options: You can do the research yourself on how to prioritize your various financial goals. Or you can take this opportunity to get professional help.
"Depending on the magnitude of the windfall, it may be worthwhile to hire an attorney, an accountant and a CFP® who can help you decide what to do with the money," Weaver says. "And for people who don't feel comfortable hiring someone, they should at least take the time to research how this money is going to impact their life. This is not to say that you can't do fun things with the money, but at least have a plan in place."
4. Have a little fun
This is the part you've been waiting for. At LearnVest, we recommend that you take 10 percent of your windfall and earmark it for a treat. So if you got a big tax refund, make a dinner reservation. If an inheritance landed in your lap, book a trip. With the 10 percent rule, you actually allow yourself to celebrate — and you won't regret spending it all in one place.
5. Prioritize savings and credit card debt
All right, back to the responsible stuff. You've taken 10 percent out of your windfall for a splurge, leaving you with 90 percent to be divvied up across your various financial goals. But which one is the most important, and how much should go toward each goal? Everything depends on your unique situation, of course, but there are some rules of thumb that Weaver and Blaylock agree upon.
First, take a look at your emergency savings fund. You need something in there as a basic foundation. "If you don't have a slush fund, and another emergency comes up, then you may just circle back into credit card debt because you probably can't pay for the car repair or the health insurance bill you weren't expecting," Weaver says.
When it comes to an emergency fund, Blaylocksays that you should have one month of your income saved up at a minimum — but your goal should be at least six months. So put a couple paychecks' worth of money from your windfall into that fund if it isn't already in there.
The next step is your debt. "Look at high-interest credit card debt first," Blaylock says. "It obviously varies, but if you have a credit card that is at 28 percent, I'd probably recommend that you put the bulk of the portion of your windfall earmarked for paying off debt toward that credit card. But if you've got reasonable interest rates on your credit cards — 12 percent or 14 percent — and not much in emergency savings, then you can allocate more of your windfall toward further building up your savings."
Another option? Split the money evenly between paying off consumer debt and savings. "I know that seems counterintuitive, and many people want to pay off the debt immediately," Weaver says. But tackling both problems at the same time is usually wise.
Let's say you have a credit card with rolling debt at an interest rate of around 18 percent, and you have less than the recommended six months' (if you have a salaried job) to a year's worth (if you're self-employed) of emergency savings. In this case, you could consider allocating the remaining 90 percent of your windfall evenly toward both financial priorities.
6. Think about retirement
It's never too early to start saving for retirement. So once you've put some windfall money toward paying down credit card debt and building up your emergency savings, you can consider allocating some remaining funds toward long-term goals — specfically, your retirement.
"Very rarely will I recommend that someone put a windfall into retirement savings because the money becomes inaccessible," Blaylock says. "Retirement is a longer-term goal, and this money is best suited for shorter — and medium-term goals (more on that below!) — and I rarely meet a client who has enough in emergency savings and has no debt."
However, if you really are on top of the ball, you could take this opportunity to put $5,500 into an IRA for yourself. Another option is to up your retirement savings by taking the money you were spending on credit card payments and using it to increase your retirement contributions.
7. Tackle medium-term goals
If you're one of those admirable souls who doesn't have credit card debt and has a robust savings account — as well as a healthy retirement nest egg — what else can you consider doing with your windfall? For one, Blaylock doesn't recommend paying off your mortgage or student loans.
"Student loans and mortgage debt are really low on the priority list because, in many cases, those debts are going to be below 5 percent in interest," he says. "They're also usually going to have higher balances, and your temporary windfall likely won't make a huge dent. So if you have goals like saving for a down payment on a house, this could be a great way to get started — but only if you have no credit card debt and good emergency savings."
You could also consider opening a brokerage account and investing in low-cost index mutual funds if you don't need the money for five years or more. Over the long-term, the market may give you a return of about 7 percent, while your mortgage or student loan debt is probably costing you less than that. See? You could be making money on that money.
However, if your student loans are at an interest rate of 6 percent or higher — as they often can be these days — you may want to go ahead and make a dent. And remember to focus on one loan at a time.
Feeling a little more confident now? If you follow these tips, you may be able to avoid the fate of sports stars, lottery winners and spendthrift heirs everywhere.
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