5 Reasons Your Cash Reserve Isn’t Working

All of us know that we’re supposed to have a cash reserve right? There are always going to be emergencies that come along that we didn’t expect, and that’s when our cash reserve is the most important. So, why is it that many of us struggle to even have a comma in our cash reserve? We’ve gone through our whole lives attempting to save, but we don’t even have a thousand bucks in cash. Here are five reasons why your cash reserve might not be working.


1) It’s Too Accessible – Many of us are just trying to beef up our checking account and keeping our emergency money in with the funds we use to pay bills. When you do this, it’s just way too easy to dip into your cash reserve. Instead, you need a completely separate account that you can’t spend with a debit card. If you really need to use the money, you’ll have to make a transfer either online or at the bank. This small barrier will help keep your reserve safe.


2) Not Enough Flexibility in Your Cash Flow – One of the biggest reasons we dip into our cash reserves is because we don’t have enough cash flow from month to month. Money is so tight that the slightest unexpected expense leads us into our reserve. To ensure that your cash fund doesn’t go anywhere, you need to reduce your monthly expenses.


3) Too Much Instant Gratification – We live in a world where everyone expects to get what they want right now! I urge you not to be that person. Most of the time, what we want and what we need are two totally separate things. If you don’t need that special something and you’re going to have to dip into your reserve to get it, just don’t buy it! I know it can be tough to walk away, but there are always deals to be had elsewhere.


4) You’re Feeling Rich, Time to Spend – Everyone has their number where they start to feel wealthy. For some, this is $1,000. For others, it’s $10,000. When their cash reserve reaches “their number”, they suddenly feel like they are rich and can afford to spend some money, rather than just leave it in their account for a rainy day. My friends recently did this when looking for a car. Initially, they were only going to spend $6,000, but when their cash reserve kept growing and growing, so did their “need” to have an expensive car! All of the sudden, they spent $13k on a car rather than their initial plan of $6k. Now they’re feeling tight with money. Go figure.


5) No Incentive to Keep It There – Saving money is honestly pretty boring. When you put that money into a savings account, it probably earns 0.05% interest, which equates to a few bucks a year. Your savings don’t have to earn such a low amount though. There are some banks out there that will pay more than 1.0% for your savings, and if you have the will-power to have your reserves in your checking account, you could earn more than 3% at some credit unions. Getting $20 or more per month is way more fun than a dollar or two.

5 Simple Steps to Kick 2013 Into High Gear

Happy 2013, everyone!

It’s time to take yourself a little more seriously and step up your game. My cousin, a year younger than me, had major heart surgery a couple weeks ago and nearly lost his life on the operating table. Not to be all melodramatic, but it was another close-to-home reminder that time is a finite beast. If you’re going to leave your mark on the world (or just on your little private Idaho), 2013 is the time to make changes.

Here’s the gameplan we’d use when practicing financial planning with clients back in “the day” and it’s also what I’m using this year to shift up a gear:

1)   Write out clear, actionable goals. I like Maria at The Money Principle’s post about themes. Start with an idea generally of what you want to do, then drill down toward specific tasks.

My 2013 theme is about tying up loose ends and focusing harder on core tasks. I haven’t yet crystalized completely the theme (it should be more succinct than what I have so far), but that’s not bad news. I’ve been thinking about it constantly, and this action gets the right thoughts in my little noggin’.

My main goals are simple: I have the first draft of a book written, and I’ve let it sit for about 9 months. Why? I have no idea. Other priorities. But now’s the time to finish that project. I’ve run marathons now for two years. I’d like to run one faster than ever. I’d also like to try an ultramarathon. I need to focus on cooking healthier food at home and have a more regimented plan. On the website side, we’ve talked about creating some products. These need to be launched in 2013.

2)   Direct deposit to your savings account. Everyone direct deposits money into their checking account…and immediately drains it. Reconfigure your system so that you direct deposit to savings. Manually move money to live on over to your checking account.

While this seems like a little step, it’s a huge change. Now you’re saving automatically and having to think every time you spend money. You’re a conscious consumer, rather than an auto-spender.

3)   Protect your downside. I know this for a fact: bad stuff that you don’t expect will happen in 2013. I don’t know where it’ll come from, so the best course of action is to look for Achilles Heels and apply duct tape. Do you have an emergency fund? Is your insurance up-to-par? Is the budget tight?

I need to adjust Cheryl’s life insurance (adjusted mine in 2012). Our will is now six months from being out-of-date (my children will be 18 years old…how the hell can that be? They were just babies yesterday….). I also have to begin “landing the plane” with my kid’s investment funds, so they’re ready when and if I need them for college expenses.

It’s also time for me to get home and auto quotes again. For some, checking out Insure 4 a Day may be a good idea. They offer a variety of cheap short term car insurance options dependent on your requirements.

4)   Focus on energy, not time. I agree with Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their book The Power of Full Engagement on this one: the key to optimum performance is to manage your ability to crank stuff out. As workers, we’re like tennis players: we compete year-round. It stands to reason that we can’t be great every moment of every day. We should gear up for those times when there are “big tournaments” in our life and focus on those days.

I’m working on a model day that better uses my energy and shelters that time I need for key tasks. I generally experience great creativity in the morning and low energy around 3 pm, so I’m reconfiguring my day to take advantage of that morning time and guard against the afternoon letdown. I’m also focusing more on my diet to avoid those crashes (just as soon as I finish these chocolates….).

5)   Create surround sound. The best way to stay motivated is to surround yourself with people, books and podcasts that keep your mind on those activities that’ll help you achieve your dreams. Schedule meetings with your planning partners, spouse, and close mentors. Don’t just say “I’ll talk to people more often about my plans.” That doesn’t happen, does it? Set a time in your calendar and stick to it.

We created the podcast for this reason. I enjoy casual talk about subjects I’m interested in, not hard core discussions. I couldn’t find many chatty money podcasts (Planet Money is probably the closest I’ve found), so we created one. If you’ve listened to our show you know: it’s more about equating money with fun and less about deep drilling.

Biographies work well for me, too, to create surround sound. I don’t know why, but I particularly love books about chefs. Maybe it’s because they have to be in-the-moment so much. I loved Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bordain (don’t read this book if you don’t like foul language and discussions about illegal activities). Currently I’m polishing off Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich. Both of these are great looks into the world of business, written passionately by someone who knows their craft inside-out.

This list could be 100 points long, but if you practice those five above as you walk into 2013, you’re going to move faster, with more energy, and with fewer distractions.

ON that note, how about $100 Amazon money or cash to start your year off right! That’ll buy a bunch of groceries, books or mp3 players…..

Photo: TheBusyBrain


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Budget Nightmares: What Are You Doing At 2 A.M.?

When I left The Citadel (go Bulldogs!) to attend Michigan State (go Spartans!), I said goodbye to a lucrative track and cross country scholarship. I felt bad, but the writing was on the proverbial wall. My coach had given me “one more year” to run better at the end of year one, and I promptly pulled a quadricep muscle early into the fall campaign. I’d been a guy they thought was a (quoting the coach), “Diamond in the rough” anyway. Turns out I was pretty much just rough.

Immediately, I had money problems. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for MSU. I had this general notion that financial aid would cover everything. Imagine my bitterness  when I found out that my dad made too much money to qualify for any need-based aid.  My loan package quickly swelled as my first course of action was to get through school quickly. When I realized what a mess these loans would be, I made the tough decision to become a part time student working three jobs.

Here’s how I made that decision:

During one of my money woes, I tuned in to my favorite late night money talk show hosts on the radio: a guy named Bruce Williams. He sounded like that knowledgeable grandfather who’d give you either an arm around your shoulder or a swift kick in the butt. Maybe listening to him was the idea behind our podcast….I don’t know.

One night, drowning in my own debt and hopeless money situation, I heard a woman call in to the show. She and her husband both worked hard, but they weren’t making ends meet. Bills continually piled up and their reserves dwindled.

“What are you doing at 2 a.m.?” Bruce asked.

The woman stuttered. “What do you mean? We’re sleeping!”

“Why are you sleeping at 2 a.m. when your bills are getting further and further behind?”

The woman quickly answered, “We need all the sleep we can get so we work well at our job in the morning.”

Bruce sighed. “So you’re saying you need your job worse than your house and car? Then why don’t you sell your house or car?”

“I can’t sell my house or my car. Then I wouldn’t have any place to live!”

“My point exactly,” he said. “So, if you like your house and your car, what are you doing at 2 a.m.?”

“What are you getting at? I can’t do more than I’m doing.”

The radio host laughed. He had this chuckle that always sounded a little sad. “What I’m getting at is that you have serious money problems, but you don’t want to change anything. If you’re serious about solving your money problems, you’ll get a night job too, or you’ll find ways to make more money at your day job.”

The woman quickly interjected, “We’re both at the top of our pay scale. That’s why we need to hold on to these jobs.”

“You aren’t listening,” Bruce said. It was one of the few times I’ve ever heard him turning angry on the show. “You can’t work like you do, eat like you do and sleep like you do AND expect something to change.”

Unbelievably, she ranted at him. “I can’t believe this. I call you for serious advice and all you do is blame my job, blame my house, and blame me. We’re doing everything we can do and it isn’t getting any better.”

…and she hung up on him!

Maybe she wasn’t listening, but I sure was. I became a substitute paper boy and redoubled my efforts to advertise my disc jockey service better. I went around to fraternity houses and spoke directly with the social chairmen. I made mixed tapes with some cassettes I had laying around and brought them with me (that dates me, huh? I’m glad I didn’t say reel-to-reel tapes….). Later, I found out that my tapes were a hit around the school. More than that, extra money started to trickle into my hands, and my view of my financial situation changed.


Here’s what I learned:

  1. I’m in charge of my financial destiny.
  2. Sleep is overrated when you’re in over your head.
  3. Financial planning is easy. It’s either an income problem or an expense problem. If you can’t fix one, you have to fix the other by default or the plan won’t work.

If you’re reading this because you’re in broke week (a term coined by my friend Michelle over at See Debt Run), you can either fix it once today and have to fix it again next month, or you can change your money earning skills or spending habits. For short term needs, you could borrow cash, but remember that this isn’t the final solution: it’s duct tape until you’re able to get on your feet.

While we’re talking about duct tape on your financial situation, how about a cool $100 cash or Amazon money? Would that help you avoid your long term plan for a few more days? Ha! Maybe you can use it to buy a radio that’ll change your life, too….

Enter our gigantic giveaway below:

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Old Savings Bonds Might Be Your Most Valuable Investment

It’s Thursday. I’m grabbin’ some coffee while OG takes the driver’s seat….

Recently, a client emailed me a peculiar list of dollar amounts and dates. Each was followed by a one or two letter symbol.

What the heck?

Finally the lightbulb went off – this was a list of US Savings Bonds we’d discussed months earlier that she’d “found” in her safety deposit box. Her question: What to do with all those bonds?  Cash them in?  Keep them?


The Savings Bond Conundrum


Clients raise this question at least once every couple months – and I’ll bet as more and more baby-boomers head into retirement the frequency is only going to increase.  For some reason, people seem to think analyzing savings bond interest is a complicated financial problem that only the best advisors can solve.  Nothing could be further from the truth – let me show you exactly how I determine whether to keep or cash in each bond.

Small Numbers of Bonds

If you own only a few bonds, I’d recommend using the US Treasury’s savings bond calculator. This tool helps you  quickly estimate the value, interest accumulated, yield, next interest payment date, and final payment date.  All you’ll need is the issue type (E, EE, or I), face amount, and the month and year.  All of that information is found on the face of the bond.

Lots of Bonds?

If you’re the Donald Trump of savings bonds, or if you want to track the bond’s value over longer periods, you should download the government’s Savings Bond Wizard tool found at http://www.treasurydirect.gov/indiv/tools/tools_savingsbondwizard.htm.  The Savings Bond Wizard allows you to save the file and refresh it each month with the most updated values. Here you can store information about each of your bonds and easily compare interest rates and the total value of your savings bond empire.

Is Your Bond Still Making Money?

Here’s a tip: don’t hold on to bonds that no longer pay interest.

After thirty years, US Savings Bonds mature and the government shuts you off like a disinherited trust fund baby.  Most bonds reach their face value somewhere between 12 and 15 years after issue and continue to pay interest until year 30.

It’s foolish to keep a bond past 30 years.  Don’t do it.

One client brought in a savings bond that stopped paying interest before Kennedy was president! Imagine how much money that’s cost him.


The Moment of Truth

After you’ve used all of your fingers and toes (AND one and a half neighbors’ fingers and toes) to determined whether or not it’s still paying interest (let’s assume it is), now it’s judgment time:

Can you invest the proceeds at a better rate of return than you’re receiving from the government?  

The yield on your savings bond is risk free.  Those two words are hard to beat.  I’ve seen bonds from the 80’s paying 6%. Can’t beat that. I’d keep those.

Final Step

Set a reminder to review your bonds again a few years down the line.  If you have a bond or two that you’d like to redeem, schedule it in advance.  Don’t forfeit interest because you procrastinated.  Keep an updated bond inventory and review it periodically just as you would any other part of your portfolio.

Savings bonds are one of the best ways to lock in guaranteed interest – especially if you have some from ten or twenty years ago.  Many clients are surprised when I tell them to keep their bonds; sometimes it’s in their best interest to do so!  Many times people think savings bonds are a waste of time and money. My take:  In today’s low interest rate environment yesterday’s bonds may just be a gold mine.

Don’t Be the Emperor With No Emergency Fund

Before we start, minions: Today’s post features a word beginning with “S” AND a reference to horses and pornography. If that bothers you, it might be a good day to check out this website instead.

We all know the old story: emperor surrounds himself with yes men. His posse tells him he’s awesome. Some dude comes along to rip him off and tells him that he’s designing clothes only super brilliant people can see. Emperor is shocked he can’t see the new threads, so he pretends like he can. His homies, not wanting to look stupid, all say “great clothes, dude!” while their favorite ruler runs around buck-naked.

Don’t be that guy.

Two blogs I respect ran pieces about how emergency funds are overrated. While I can see portions of their point, you should think closely before following any advice to ditch your emergency fund.

Sure, interest rates are low and you can garner higher returns elsewhere. Big deal. My life isn’t about squeezing another $10 out of my $5k emergency fund. I’m not staying up at night thinking about how those $%#!ing nickels in my piggy bank are earning 0% when they could be cashing in on October hog futures. (that’s not an endorsement of October hog futures)

No, my life is about avoiding the worry around what the hell I’m gonna do when I’m dragging my muffler behind the car.

I know what I’m gonna do. I’ll attack my fund. I also might just float it on a credit card because it isn’t a big deal.

Then I worry about, “what if I lose my job?”


What an emergency fund accomplishes is nothing short of amazing. A few thousand dollars in the bank can:

– ensure you don’t have to worry when shit hits the fan (and it will…you KNOW it will!).

– allow you to pay off your credit card without stopping the plan (the reserve covers all your emergencies along the way).

– lets you take that hog futures flier with your investment portfolio without having to take your money out before you reach the right time to pull the trigger and giggle all the way to the bank.

The first two points won’t stop the snoring sound from non-believers. Only the last point: investing without having to take the money out, commands the attention of emergency-fund naysayers.


And now, minions, Uncle Joe’s Story Time


Let’s say Sally decides that the #5 horse in race three is the perfect investment for her money. Screw the emergency fund. Sally wants the big cash payout, not a few Abe Lincolns. Those are for suckers. The race starts and JUST THEN she gets a call from her boss.

“Hey, Sally? We found that porn on your computer. You’re fired.”

The #5 horse is in the middle of the pack. It might win or it might lose. But Sally doesn’t have time to care. She has a mortgage, utility bills, groceries to buy, and it’s all now riding on the #5 horse. She needs that money out of the race NOW!

Oh boy. Sally’s got a problem, and not just with horses and porn…she’s got severe money issues.

Now, if Sally had an emergency reserve, she could have bet the farm on the #5 horse and watched the race in harmony. Sure, she still has some social problems and maybe a gambling habit, but her reserve will carry the day.

Now, you aren’t Sally, you don’t have those issues, and your #5 horse is called a Roth IRA. I hope you understand my parable: where are you going to go for money if you lose your job?

Probably breaking the Roth.

An emergency fund isn’t about the little bit of money in the fund. It’s about the HUGE gains you can make on the money outside the fund if you DON’T HAVE TO TAKE IT OUT AT THE WRONG TIME. Do you want to be a great investor? IF so, here’s your ticket to greatness: Don’t need your money early.


Why “No Emergency Fund” Won’t Fly


Sometimes things sound like a great idea. Clothing that only smart people can see. However, in practice, when you meet hundreds of families, you begin to see all the outliers that might happen out there.

“Oh, Joe, that’ll never happen to me!”

Maybe not. But that’s why people paid me good money…and thanked me when life happened to their goals. People did lose their jobs. Because they had an emergency fund they were able to:

– Eat

– Sleep

– Start a new business

– Build contacts by going to lunch and networking events

– Keep a car to go to interviews

Call me crazy, but when bad stuff happens, I don’t want to have to touch my investments AND I want to be able to do those things.

Worse yet, on one of the two sites (of course, the uber-popular one), the author points to having good credit as a way of avoiding the need for a large emergency fund.

Huh? Let’s think this through:

Let’s say I lost my job. How much does good credit help me? How am I going to make the payments on my debt while I look for another job?

I’ve written before about having nearly no income for twelve months. My good credit at the beginning was shot. If I’d had a six month reserve, I might have been able to squeeze through….I’m not buying the “good credit” argument.


I’m Not Ripping Other Bloggers


This isn’t meant to rip the two bloggers who wrote on the other side of this topic. Both of those guys know that I have huge respect for their blogs and love their work. I’ll keep reading their advice, because they’re real people with knowledgeable and well researched opinions. If you know who I’m referring to in this post, you should keep reading their blogs, too.

On this issue, though, I think that my public needs to hear my point of view on this subject, and it definitely is on the other side of the fence.

Really, its just that I don’t want you running around naked.

Not for you….for me. Thank you ahead of time.


Photos: Horse Race: You As a Machine, Starving Piggy Bank: Nieve44/Luz

Emergency Fund? You’re Closer Than You Think

Start a six month emergency fund? Are you crazy? How can I save that much money before I start investing? I’ll never make it! – most common reaction to my advice to create an emergency fund.

Personal finance is fun, but maybe the most boring part is creating an emergency fund. Yawn.

Building an emergency fund should be exciting. Sure, it’s the bland foundation of the house, but once this baby’s built, you’ll be able to rock ‘n roll on the fun stuff:

– Work without worry. You’ll know that even in an uncertain economy, you can focus on career instead of your next paycheck.

– Invest with confidence. We’re all worried about the market collapsing, but the best strategy is often to ride out downturns. With a reserve, you won’t have to decide whether to sell or not: you don’t need the money today.

– Weather financial storms. Is the muffler dragging behind your car? It’s covered! Did your dishwasher break down? You can fix it. Sure, you’ll have to slow your investing plan for a bit to rebuild the reserve, but you won’t be sweating the small personal finance stuff in life anymore.

In short, the reserve is the lynchpin of your personal finance plan. Doesn’t that fire you up?

Whether you’re excited or not, saving toward a reserve is a painful part of personal finance. That’s why gurus such as Dave Ramsey set the bar lower, like $1,000. Once you can weather the small storms, then you can focus on bigger fish.

At some point, you’ll need to adequately fund the reserve. There’s good news here. A six month cash reserve isn’t as large as you think it is.

First, people focus on three to six months of income, not expenses, when it should be the other way around. You don’t need six months worth of income. Your gross income from a job includes:

– federal taxes

– FICA taxes

– state taxes (in many places)

– savings

– insurance deductions (you’ll need to keep insurances in place, but the cost of workplace life or disability insurance will be removed). Unfortunately, you may have to self-purchase health insurance.

In a pinch, you don’t need to cover many of these costs. Instead, you’ll need only the basics: groceries, gasoline, clothing costs, utilities, and mortgage or rent payments. Add in any other debt payments you’ll have, and that’s your emergency fund amount.

This is a much, much smaller number than you may have realized.

Everyone wants to get their personal finance plan moving in the right direction. Building the foundation of your plan isn’t nearly as fun as what comes after. By focusing on the right number, you’ll have it built more quickly than you first imagined and be on your way to more entertaining goals.

(photo credit: martinak15, Flickr: frustrated; R Berteig, Flickr: foundation)

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